Trigger Warning: Child Sexual Abuse
In June, 2014, the daughter of fantasy writer Marion Zimmer Bradley reported that her mother abused her physically and sexually, from the time she was three until she was twelve. There has been a lot of discussion about the revelation on various SF blogs and on Twitter.
I’m left feeling confused and sad, although not angry and confused the way some are. The responses range from “She (the daughter) is lying just to get attention,” to “I’m burning all my MZB books — who’s with me?” to the occasional, “Everyone knew about this, they just didn’t talk about it.”
I don’t think everyone knew about allegation that Bradley herself was an abuser. Certainly it was pretty hard to miss the fact that in the 1970s and 1980s, Bradley turned a blind eye to her husband Walter Breen’s sexual acts with teenaged boys, some as young as 13. Breen served time for child molesting, and before her death in 1999, Bradley was a defendant in a lawsuit that charged she enabled and abetted her husband. The depositions for that suit paint a painful picture of a woman who was sick and frail, clinging to denial and rationalization. (A thirteen year old, she opined, was old enough to say “No,”). In the depositions, Bradley talks about rumors and a cartoon that seem to imply she was engaging in sex acts with her children, but these are dismissed as unsavory gossip.
In the 1970s and 80s, Marion Zimmer Bradley was writing fantasy fiction that featured strong, magically powerful women who were usually fighting patriarchal villains. Some of her non-villain male characters were gay, almost always depicted in a way that was positive. (Some of her male villains were gay, too.) Her books, set on a planet called Darkover, followed a “lost “colony of humans who had, over generations, developed and honed magical and psychic talents. They had chosen to return to a pre-industrial technology. In one swoop, she bridged science fiction and fantasy. She was the editor of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine and later a series of anthologies called Sword and Sorceress. She was well known, revered even, for the help she gave many young writers… young women writers, certainly, but male writers too.
The Darkover books melded magical fantasy, culture-clash SF, (hapless Terrans frequently got sent to Darkover for some reason, and struggled with the cultural mores and customs before getting into some major trouble on the planet and having to be rescued), and steamy, juicy romance-novel-style sex. And there were a lot of Darkover novels, 23 according to Wikipedia.
Her breakout novel though, published in 1979, was Mists of Avalon, a feminist retelling of the King Arthur myth cycle through the eyes of Morgaine, Arthur’s half-sister. The book resonated with a lot of women, women who had never read one of her SF or fantasy novels. It was made into a TV mini-series. Many of those women love the book to this day.
While she was writing about women who were sexually empowered, who confronted rapists and the partiarchy, spoke truth to power and so on, Bradley was managing not to think about the 13-year-old boy who routinely slept in her husband’s bed with her husband. She once asked her son, when he was about 15, if Walter had ever approached him sexually. Her son said that Walter never bothered him because he, the son, was too old. In the depositions, Bradley said that she never worried about her son being sexually propositioned by her husband or by another family friend because, at 13, her son was about six feet tall and could “pick [adult] up and tie him in a knot.”
According to her daughter, around this time Bradley was abusing her sexually and physically.
Bradley has been dead for fifteen years, and the daughter never made a claim or filed a complaint during her lifetime. There isn’t “hard” evidence except for Bradley’s own depositions in which she acknowledges doing nothing about her husband’s behavior. There is evidence, though, but it’s anecdotal. In the 1980s an acquaintance of mine went to a fantasy convention in the San Francisco Bay Area. “MZB’s daughter and her cadre were there,” he said.
He nodded. “She and her friends. They dress like leather Amazons and wear buttons that say ‘Nuke Darkover.'”
“Why?” I was guessing envy of her mother’s career, adolescent rebellion, the usual.
“Oh, she hates her mother,” he said. “Hates her. Everybody knows it.”
What if you loved her books, and they were lifeline for you, at a time that your life was awful and you felt powerless? And now you have to wonder if the high priestess who guided you out of the dark valley of despair was someone who hurt her own children.
(You think I’m exaggerating. I’ve had women tell me that just how they felt about Mists of Avalon, and one gay man told me the Darkover series kept him alive during high school.)
What do you? Do you burn her books? Do you tell yourself that art is not the artist, and when you reread her books, you won’t allow this allegation to change your reaction to them? I bet you can’t do that second one.
Well, sometimes it seems as if everyone, no matter how good, unselfish, fearless or spiritual, how uplifting, how inspiring, has a dark side they don’t control. It’s hard to name a single religious sect that hasn’t has a sex scandal, a money scandal or a sex-and-money scandal. And artists, historically, are often depicted as being amazingly talented, and total jerks.
Maybe the problem is our need to make people our idols, to put them up on the pedastel. Maybe we should think long and hard before we do that.
Maybe we should consider taking some kind of a pledge — like pledging that if we see someone being pressured sexually, or abused or neglected physically, we will step up and offer help. We will offer protection. Because the truly weird thing about the whole Bradley scandal is that it took place in a house in Berkeley, California, that was kind of a communal living situation, with lots of adults in and out; educated, creative, thoughtful adults… and yet these children were not given help. Bradley’s daughter states that she “got Walter put in jail” for his molesting of one boy; she told her mother about another one but all her mom did was give Walter his own apartment. Bradley’s deposition confirms that interpretation. Plainly, there was no one in that house the daughter could talk to. Other people were clinging to Bradley’s books as a lifeline through a private hell of discrimination and cruelty; there was no lifeline for her.
Maybe instead of deciding what to do about the alleged abuser, we should wonder what we can offer the survivor of this devastating experience. Maybe we can each find some way, some small way, to help stop these things from happening.
I understand, too, that hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach, the sadness, the disappointment, that someone who seemed so bright and shining… wasn’t.