Art and Monsters – On Marion Zimmer Bradley and Not Looking Away

Karin Kallmaker Sisters of the Pen 5 Comments


Trigger warning. This blog deals with child rape and a writer you probably loved. Marion Zimmer Bradley was a rare talent as a writer. Unfortunately she was also something even more rare: a female pedophile.

How do people with the power of art inside them commit monstrous acts? The emerging truth about MZB irreparably soils my love of her work.

I can only imagine the state of mind of the many, many writers who got their start through her zines and anthologies. For so many lesbians, Thendara House was the first time we saw ourselves in a mainstream book. She saved lives and these documented revelations taint the wonder.

Of course, perspective is important. She abused children, including her own children, and she enabled her husband to abuse more children. The children’s ruined lives matter far more than the loss of regard for the writer and the diminishment of the magic of her books.

Before you say “What the hell?” here you go.

Again, trigger warnings. The Importance of Books and the MZB Timeline and Marion Zimmer Bradley – It’s Worse Than I Knew. In the latter, I found Moira Stern’s Mother’s Hands – in “honor” of my mother, Marion Zimmer Bradley incredibly moving. Truly only for the strong stomach: Breendoggle Documentation Now on a Wiki . But please note this quote, it is important:

Many of us have been through some really dark times, and we have the pieces that spoke to our hearts that got us through those times. It genuinely gives me no joy to know that, for those whom MZB’s works were those pieces, I’ve dislodged that for them. – Dierdre Saoirese Moen

Writer Ari Marmell expressed his anger at this revelation (and more) and also a need to do something more productive than just be angry. It was through him that I first saw the full MZB story after seeing only hints of some shocking news. But it wasn’t really “news” because much of the information was known, and a lot of people didn’t want to talk about it. The revelations only gained traction when a prominent organization wanted to award a lifetime achievement honor posthumously.

I considered my own heartbreak and anger, and decided it made absolutely no sense to engage my own energy with people who are refusing to see (you can go looking at comments, but it’s much like reading comments from rape statistics deniers).

That is the first and hardest thing to do: Whatever venal behavior it may be we have to learn to see it. And then learn not to look away.

Condemnation is Only the First Step

In this case, which I am just absorbing myself, it is easy of course to cast the abusers into the depths where they belong. But that is not the whole job. As those writers who worked with Marion Zimmer Bradley (On doing a thing I needed to do – Janni Lee Summer) deal with complicated emotions, this blog by Natalie Luhrs’ (Silence is Complicity) points out the greater danger, and one we see around us in groups of all kinds: Abuse is allowed to flourish because it finds a social setting where the rules make an exception.

Stuebenville did not happen in the 1970s. Penn State did not happen “in a different time.” In both cases, people committed monstrous acts. Some people refused to see it while it happened. Some people saw it and looked away. When facts became undeniable, some people excused the monstrous acts because the perpetrators were somehow exceptions.

What Luhrs’ blog addresses within the Science Fiction Fandom – and is applicable universally – is this unwritten rulebook: We are the exceptional/persecuted, therefore we allow/ignore deviant behavior lest we become the unexceptional/the persecutor. This is the atmosphere that abusers exploit. This atmosphere is how coaches and priests prey upon children and teens, how rape culture permeates sports, why people who report abuse are shamed and ostracized, and how, in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s home, too many adults did nothing to stop public displays of adults sexually touching children. It’s why caregivers ignored long-term child abuse.

But Artistry! Talent! and Other B.S. Excuses

There are people who defend or excuse Bradley based on her tremendous artistry, or that the drain of great art engendered a kind of mental illness which manifested as abuse. Incest practitioner Paul Gill has defenders, after all, who blather on about it being “normal for him.” Some people want to blame the dead husband for a sick Svengali influence so MZB isn’t accountable for her own actions and her lies on his behalf. (These defenses for MZB are detailed here: Marion Zimmer Bradley – The Ethics of Artists) As the blog points out, these defenses are pure bullshit.

Did I want to find out this information about an admired writer, one who also had a part in The Ladder? No, I did not. But I will not look away or excuse it because it disturbs my world view. However it may wound me it is nothing compared to what children in her household endured.

No special talent, gift or oppression can ever have been so great that we say rape is okay or abusing children is a mere eccentricity. Any whisper within a group of this nature should be, at the very least, a red flag.

Going Forward

I hear Ari Marmell’s call to do something with his anger that is productive. Let us all examine our own personal bank accounts of privilege and power and spend our balances in resistance. Refuse to be part of saying “we” get a pass on the basic rules of decency because “we” are somehow an exception. When you see this presumption developing around you, name it, call it out, because you can. People younger, newer, weaker than you can’t. Be the hero that these kids didn’t have in rooms full of people who wrote about heroes.

That’s the irony that breaks my heart.

Closer to Home in Lesbian Fiction Today

In my own corner of the world, based on accounts after the fact, it appears that a man masquerading as a lesbian penned several lesbian romance-adventure books that included kidnapping, torture and rape. These “tests” were followed by the victim professing love for her rapist. This “rape her, then marry her” plotline was standard fare in straight romances until feminist critique made it unpopular.

Unfortunately, when I investigated reviews for myself, there were few criticisms of this writer’s plots voiced until after the writer’s identity deception was known.*

Rape as a prelude to romance, in my opinion, is always worthy of ridicule regardless of the author’s gender or sexuality. Was this “lesbian” writer allowed repeated leeway with rape as a getting-to-know-you device because of the lesbian fiction community’s wariness of turning into persecutors? We have been oppressed, so we must not oppress?

To be very clear, I am not equating failure to call out a writer over “rape is okay if they fall in love” plots with being silent about actual child rape. But my mind immediately drew a parallel between the silence that was afforded “one of us” that was withdrawn when the perpetrator was found to be not one of us. I see a red flag and I don’t want to look away.

I am heartsore at the loss of Mists of Avalon, of Darkover, of Thendara House. And this is, at least right now, what I am doing about it. Let’s be sure to keep our own house in order. Rape is never okay, no always means no, in life and in our books, no matter who writes them.

*I have no wish to reveal this writer’s name or in any way promote this writer, so I ask that any comments respect that.

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