‘I knew this day was going to come’: Alice Munro associates say they knew of abuse

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Robert Thacker, a Canadian academic and author of “Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives,” a biography of the late Nobel Prize-winning writer, said that he expected it to happen: Eventually, the public would learn the story of how Munro’s husband, Gerald Fremlin, had sexually abused one of her daughters, Andrea Robin Skinner, starting when Skinner was 9 years old.

“I knew this day was going to come,” Thacker told The Washington Post on Monday, later adding, “I knew that it was going to come out, and I knew that I would be having conversations like this.”

In an op-ed published Sunday in the Toronto Star, Skinner described her experience and Munro’s unsympathetic reaction when Skinner informed her of the abuse in 1992. A story by two reporters at the paper described how Fremlin had written letters admitting to the abuse and pleaded guilty to indecent assault in 2005. Munro remained married to Fremlin, who died in 2013.

The story has shocked much of the literary world, which widely mourned Munro with glowing tributes after her death in May at 92.

“I did not learn the details of this until everyone else did, though I’d had hints not long before this past weekend. Horrifying,” Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood said in an email to The Post.

Some, though, were unsurprised by the revelations.

“As Alice’s Canadian editor and publisher, I was aware that Alice and Andrea were estranged for a number of years,” Douglas Gibson wrote in an email responding to an interview request from The Post. “In 2005, it became clear what the issue was, with Gerry Fremlin’s full shameful role revealed, but I have nothing to add to this tragic family story and have no further comment to make.”

Thacker said that Skinner wrote to him about her experience in 2005, after she had contacted police about Fremlin and as Thacker’s book was going to press. He decided not to act on the information.

“Clearly she hoped — or she hoped at that time, anyway — that I would make it public,” he told The Post on Monday. “I wasn’t prepared to do that. And the reason I wasn’t prepared to do that is that, it wasn’t that kind of book. I wasn’t writing a tell-all biography. And I’ve lived long enough to know that stuff happens in families that they don’t want to talk about and that they want to keep in families.”

Thacker said that he and Munro spoke about the matter in 2008, when they met in a restaurant for an interview. Munro asked him to turn off his recorder. He declined to describe the conversation in detail, but said that Munro informed him that, in 1992, when Skinner was 25, she told Munro about the abuse. Munro said that she had left Fremlin for a time and that she ultimately decided to return.

“In a case like this, I wasn’t prepared to be probing,” Thacker said, later adding: “The term she used was, she was ‘devastated.’ And she was devastated. It wasn’t anything she did. It was something he did.”

According to Thacker, it was broadly understood that she drew from events in her life for her 1993 story “Vandals,” about a woman who represses the knowledge that her partner sexually abused children: “Those of us who [study] Alice, or have [studied] Alice, have always thought that this story directly connected to this whole issue.”

Skinner, who did not return The Post’s request for comment, wrote in her op-ed that her mother’s fame meant that the silence about her abuse extended beyond her family: “Many influential people came to know something of my story yet continued to support, and add to, a narrative they knew was false.”

Others who worked closely with Munro knew about Skinner’s experience, Thacker said: “Certainly people knew there was a burden she was dealing with.” He declined to name specific individuals, but said that he had spoken with a colleague about their anticipation that Munro’s family secret would be shared with the world, and that both had resolved to confirm that they had known earlier.

Penguin Random House Canada did not return a request for comment. When contacted by The Post, Deborah Treisman, the New Yorker’s fiction editor since 2003, declined to comment.

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