At this point in my life, I’ve realized that everything I say might offend *somebody*. Silence is the only way to avoid that. Sometimes, silence is the worst possible answer.
Author’s note: No matter what I might write about fictional 18+ adults doing to or with each other, I don’t like to write about young children as sexual beings, especially when they are portrayed involved with adults. In the few cases when I will show or hint at child abuse in fiction, I want to frame it as the dangerous crime it really is: life-wreaking and poisonous. And I damn sure don’t tolerate child sexual abuse in real life. I have too many friends whose lives are still being shattered, over and over, by the horrible physical and mental abuse they received as children and teens. I know of at least one, a gentle artist, who committed suicide in 2008 partly because of abuse she’d suffered decades before. I can’t smell fresh homemade sourdough bread anymore, without feeling a wave of grief for her lost potential.
That’s why it took me a month to consider this post.
Last month, a series of events resulted in the public revelations that the late science fiction author Marion Zimmer Bradley (hereafter referred to as MZB) not only knew about her husband Walter Breen’s sexual predation on young children, but that she was involved in similar acts herself, as well as the physical and mental abuse of her own children.
AbsoluteWrite has a thread on it here. The Radish Report story begins here. Teleread has a couple of very thoughtful articles here, from Paul St. John Mackintosh. The Guardian has a report here. If you have a strong stomach, they are all worth reading.
As a teenager, I admired many SFF authors as distant but inspiring figures. I still recall the foreword to one early eighties-era fantasy anthology of MZB proteges*, which talked about the author/artist commune of her house in Berkeley, California. At the time, it sounded like a wonderful, magical place – even though my early bullshit filters made me think the account was likely sanitized for public consumption.
Some years later, after leaving my little hometown, I interacted with local science fiction fandom and the SCA. Like many young people, I was idealistically seeking a ‘tribe’, a core group of people with whom I shared common goals and beliefs. It never really happened. Turns out, I’m a more of a hermit at heart.
That certainly wasn’t helped when I witnessed some incredibly bad diva behavior at conventions and SCA meets, from MZB herself or a few of her proteges and friends. I was never directly involved or affected – but it was jarring to watch, to say the least. An education in social constructs and conferred power, right out of my college anthropology textbooks.
I heard vague whispers of those allegations back in my early days in science fiction and fantasy fandom and in the Society of Creative Anachronism (25 to 30 years ago). I heard that people who mentioned it in public were criticized by MZB’s supporters, in either camp (she was a founding member of the SCA.)
My involvement then was distant: I rarely traveled to sf conventions or SCA meets where I’d be near MZB or her direct supporters. I didn’t know any of them personally. I had submitted a few short stories to MZB’s fantasy magazine, because it was one of the famous pipelines for new authors in the eighties and nineties. I also submitted pieces to MZB’s famous Sword & Sorceress anthologies. I never sold a piece to the magazine or the anthologies.
I respected MZB as a mentor for many authors, but I never read much of her own work. It just didn’t grab me. Her fiction changed people’s lives, often in what appeared to be good ways. She was one of the first guard of unrepentantly female writers, writing stories from a pro-female viewpoint. Some of her proteges are positive inspirations to me even now, while others have not impressed me favorably. I have fond memories of my last rejection note from her magazine, because it actually convinced me I was on the right track for my own fiction.
I was impressed by the sheer fervor of her fans, both writers and readers. At that time, MZB’s ‘Darkover’ universe was not only a strong original science-fantasy series, but a springboard for unnumbered fan fiction writers. (I owe my first fan fiction introductions to a Darkover fan writer, though not through that fandom.)
Even from the outside, I saw good and bad in those tight-knit communities.
No one ever came up to me and said: ‘That woman and her husband abuse kids.’
Or: ‘Her friends and family know about it.’
I heard a whisper about something called ‘the Breendoggle’; in pre-Internet days, it was some old scandal that was hard to research. The version I heard was little more than ‘MZB married a total jerkoff sleazy guy, and they barely talk anymore.’ I heard whispers about a long-ago pornography accusation against MZB, but never direct case numbers or sources. I heard about autocratic rewards and punishments of hangers-on, depending on how MZB or her associates apparently felt snubbed or praised that day, that event, that convention. I heard ‘Don’t make her mad, she holds grudges.’
I never drifted closer to MZB’s circle.
Some years later, a friend made me aware of some court depositions made by MZB around the time of Walter Breen’s last arrest for child sexual abuse – and the immediate backlash and fannish divisions that once again occurred.
The depositions were not pretty or safe reading. They exposed a lot of unanswered questions. I’m sorry to say that I filed their evidence under ‘nasty allegations, but not my problem’, and paid little attention to them afterward. By that time, I’d largely stopped writing original fiction, attending conventions, or interacting with fandom or the SCA. I had no intention of doing so again.
Now, looking back, I thank whatever random fate and social circumstances kept me out of MZB’s group. I can thank her worst followers for partially jump-starting my skepticism and inoculating me against easy, idealistic inclusion in any social group. My trust and support now have to be earned.
Now I write original science fiction and fantasy with graphic adult content. I could be a target, on either side of the ultra-liberal, ultra-conservative cultural debate. Thus, I should pay attention to the behavior of my fellow authors.
I see so many similarities, on a smaller scale, between the MZB case and the larger travesties of the Sandusky and Catholic Church abuse scandals.
In all three examples, a rigid social hierarchy (in a group largely separate from the public: SFF fandom, college sports, the reluctantly modernizing Church) resulted in the opportunities for hidden (and open) abuse. That abuse was shielded by both public assumptions of innocence, and by the complicity of insiders who knew what was happening but chose not to reveal it.
The outrage and counter-charges are flying thick in the SFF fan community, hard on the heels of other recent but unrelated sex abuse allegations. I’m glad to see conventions have implemented stronger anti-abuse safeguards. I’m glad to see people talking about this and other cases in the open, and no longer shouted down or threatened into silence.
I’m sorry that, in such a charged climate, there exists the real potential for worse backlashes against people who may not have committed the alleged acts, but who are tried and sentenced by public opinion before all facts are made clear. (In MZB’s case, I think there is weighty enough evidence to indicate at least some of the allegations might be true.)
I’m sorry for many of MZB’s defenders, who probably didn’t know this was going on, and are now in the position of redefining their support.
I’m sorry for the millions of readers who took real hope and validation from MZB’s work, and now must come to grips with the question of how far to separate artists from their art.
Most of all, I’m sorry for the victims, who must endure new publicity and judgment while showing an incredible capacity for graciousness and encouragement. I can’t know if their stories are completely true. I’ve seen the debunking of a lot of other sensationalist claims from that same era. Even so, given all the other evidence from multiple depositions, I suspect that there’s more truth than fiction involved here.
What can I do about it? Not a damn thing, really. I can buy the books of those MZB associates who seem to be sane and reasonable humans. I can give away or recycle those few paperbacks I still own, written by people who probably knew something wrong was happening. Avoiding MZB’s own work is no hardship, because I didn’t read much of it in the first place. Ignoring submission calls to the next Sword & Sorceress anthologies won’t be difficult, because I gave up on them already.
In the end, this post isn’t as important as the ones to which I’ve linked. Here they are again, so you don’t have to scroll up:
* That would be this anthology, containing works by MZB herself as well as associates and proteges. It’s a sad contrast now, because there were stories in here that were little gems, and unknown writers whom I adored.