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Alice Munro’s alma mater, hometown reconsidering legacy

Literary icon’s daughter says mom kept silent when stepfather sexually abused her
A monument to Alice Munro’s 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature sits in front of the Library in Clinton, Ont., on July 8, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Robins

Alice Munro’s alma mater says it’s considering how to move forward after the Nobel laureate’s daughter revealed she was sexually abused by her stepfather and Munro chose to stay with him.

Western University has long touted its ties to the short story writer and since 2018 has employed an Alice Munro Chair in Creativity to “lead the creative culture” of the arts and humanities faculty.

Acting dean Ileana Paul says in a statement the faculty is now considering how the revelations from Andrea Robin Skinner, Munro’s youngest daughter, will affect the way the London, Ont., school celebrates the author’s legacy.

In a first-person piece published Sunday in the Toronto Star, Skinner wrote that she was sexually abused by Munro’s second husband Gerald Fremlin, starting when she was nine years old.

When Munro learned of the abuse years later, Skinner wrote, she focused more on herself than her daughter and ultimately chose to stay with Fremlin.

Fremlin was convicted of indecent assault in 2005, at age 80, and even still, Munro stayed.

Skinner wrote in the piece that she wanted her experience to be a part of the story people told about Munro when they reflect on her legacy, rather than the hero worship that had become common.

The revelation has left many fans, writers and academics grappling with their feelings about Munro, with some saying it would fundamentally shift how — and whether — they read her work.

Munro died in May at age 92.

For the mayor of the municipality where Munro spent much of her adult life, the monument honouring her outside the local library should be left unchanged – an affirmation that for Clinton, Ont., the Nobel laureate will always be considered a cherished member of the community.

But Jim Ginn, the mayor of Central Huron, conceded that he would consider amending the installation if public outcry mounted following recent stunning revelations that Munro chose to remain married to her second husband after learning he had sexually abused her daughter.

“It was shocking,” said Ginn.

Munro and Fremlin lived together in Clinton until Fremlin’s death in 2013, the same year Munro won the Nobel Prize in literature, the only Canadian writer to ever earn the award.

“I think her legacy is always going to be her unique ability to write stories,” Ginn said, adding that “in the end that is how we will remember her.”

The two-piece monument outside the library in Clinton includes a metal bench acknowledging Munro’s Nobel win and a coffee table with four of her book titles stacked on top.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Ginn said he couldn’t foresee making changes to the structure in light of the recent revelations, because Munro will always remain “a Nobel Prize winner.”

But if faced with growing calls for a change after what has now been made public, “then we would consider it,” he said.

The mayor also praised Skinner for speaking out but hoped the revelations would not tarnish Munro’s literary achievements.

“I hope she is able to heal from those wounds of the past,” he said of Skinner. “And I hope Alice maintains her legacy and her high esteem in the literary world.”

Munro spent her final years away from Clinton. Ginn said there were times, before her departure, that passing her on the street could stir excitement.

“Disbelief, you know, that someone from a small town of 3,000 people could be a Nobel Prize winner, and walk the street and say hi to you,” he said.

Days after Skinner’s story became public, few people in Clinton were prepared to discuss Munro. Some said they had read the revelations made public by Skinner, but declined to comment on them.

That included Jim Wallace, the blacksmith who made the monument honouring Munro in Clinton.

He described himself as a friend of the family and was not comfortable speaking about the abuse detailed by Skinner, out of respect for Munro.

“I remember Alice as being a very creative person, a very loving person, so I can’t talk about those allegations,” he said in an interview, while noting that his monument to her “should last for quite a while,” as it consists of galvanized, coated steel.

Karen Philips, a longtime Clinton resident, said she would often see Munro walking on the street but that she rarely interacted with others.

“She was a very nice lady, very well dressed, very confident in herself, and you see her going in the stores, and not acting like she is somebody special, just a normal person,” she said.

For Philips, Munro’s legacy remains intact.

“It must have been awful for (Skinner) but that is all I can say,” she said. “I don’t think anything less of (Munro).”

Munro was born 35 km away from Clinton in Wingham, Ont., where a memorial garden honouring her opened in 2002. The tiled garden includes the sculpture of a girl, her nose buried in a book.

Passing by on Tuesday, Brenda Johnston-Hanna recalled reading Munro’s stories while attending high school in Wingham.

She said the abuse revelations “will have an effect with Alice’s reputation,” but she did not support any changes to the town’s monument.

“They put up the memorial mostly because of her writing,” she said.

READ ALSO: Alice Munro’s daughter says mom kept silent when stepfather sexually abused her