The Science Fiction community is reeling as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s daughter has come forward with allegations that she was sexually abused by her mother. MZB was a prolific writer, writing dozens of books in the Darkover series alone. She ran a science fiction/fantasy magazine that bore her name and helped an entire generation of writers get started down the road to publication.
The book she was best known for was The Mists of Avalon, a feminist retelling of the Arthurian saga. It earned her a strong following in feminist circles and a cult like following of fans who are now struggling to cope with this news.
I would l like say I was shocked by the revelation. But just a few months ago I stumbled across this thread, now sadly prophetic.
This was not the first time that I have seen someone question that one line in particular. Defenders of MZB say she is describing a primitive world where these things did, in fact, happen. She’s doing so with a stark honesty that is rare in any literature. They say this is one line in a book that runs over three hundred pages. How much can we read into one line?
This is not the first such revelation to come out of the Bradley household. Her second husband Walter Breen was a serial pedophile. He spent the final years of his life in jail on eight counts of felony child molestation and MZB faced a civil trial over her enabling behavior. While there are still those who will defend MZB’s literary achievements, almost no one is doubting these new allegations.
The new defense of MZB is that she’s been dead for fifteen years. Hundreds of fans have grown up loving and cherishing her work. She inspired a generation of new writers and helped them start their careers. Should we tarnish that with the details of her personal failings?
I have written before and about good books by bad authors. Much of that blog would seem to apply to MZB. She’s dead. Unlike Orson Scott Card’s homophobia, buying her books no longer puts money in her pocket or indirectly supports her cause. With the exception of that one line in The Mists of Avalon, her personal failings, as heinous as they were, don’t seem to have any obvious connection to her writing. It would be easy to join those voices and say, what she did was wrong but it doesn’t change her books.
There are two flaws in the argument. The first is that while MZB may be dead, her daughter and victim is not. History may be able to separate MZB crimes from her writing, but I can not. To dismiss what she did is to dismiss the very real damage done to real people who are still alive. Moira Greyland, MZB’s daughter, stayed silent about her abuse because she felt her mother’s life and reputation was somehow more important than her own. She deserves to be heard, because her life is every bit as important. If a writer or fan has a positive memory of MZB, that’s wonderful, but let’s not use those memories to silence or dismiss the pain of her victims.
The other problem with separating MZB writing and public reputation from her abuse is that silence is a big part of the problem. The Catholic church shunted pedophiles from one parish to another because their superiors didn’t want to confront the problem head on and in many cases the men had served the church well in other ways. All too often abusers are allowed to resign, quit or retire, rather than face prosecution. For those in charge it offered a quick easy solution to a messy problem, but for society it creates an even bigger problem, where pedophiles escape prosecution again and again.
Shades of the same language crop up in defense of MZB. She was a good writer, a good editor and to some, a good friend. So? Pedophiles can be nice to people who aren’t their victims. Pointing these things out does little but dismiss the victim. When we dismiss the victim, we create an environment where the next victim doesn’t feel safe coming forward. And the abuse continues.
I am raising a son with one foot in science fiction fandom and the other in the neo-pagan community. MZB’s writing has been incredibly influential in both communities and likely will remain so, despite these revelations.
We have a choice. We can use this revelation as an opportunity to discuss abuse openly. We can let other victims come forward, share their stories. We can talk about how to spot signs of abuse, ask what needs to be done to make Sci-fi cons and pagan festivals safer. Or we can dismiss the allegations and wonder later how our communities became havens for abusers.