I’m going to break my rule about keeping this blog dedicated to writing, because there’s currently a scandal going on in the science fiction community. Normally I’d keep my mouth shut on a scandal, but things like this do affect us as writers, and it’s good to think about them. For context, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s children have both spoken out publicly (one on the blog of author Deirdre Saoirse Moen and the other on facebook) accusing their mother of having molested them.
It was previously known that Marion Zimmer Bradley’s husband, Walter Breen, had molested children. And though it turns out that the accusation was there in transcripts of depositions posted years ago by author Stephen Goldin, it’s safe to say that the allegations recently being aired against Marion Zimmer Bradley hit the community like a ton of bricks.
And, predictably, many rushed to defend Marion Zimmer Bradley. And, also predictably, those who did so were promptly vilified. I want to say a few words in defense of those defenders.
Now, I must start out by saying that neither Marion Zimmer Bradley nor Walter Breen are able to defend themselves. Both are deceased. Breen was tried and convicted of molesting children (actually on a couple of occasions), so legally we can describe him as a child molester. Those of us with journalistic training cannot, in a public forum, say the same of Bradley. She is, and must remain, an alleged molester. The fact that I put that qualifier in there does not mean that I do not believe her accusers, nor does it mean that I am trying to belittle the accusations. It’s simply an abundance of caution that those of us who’ve had libel law drilled into our brains do unconsciously.
And I must follow that statement up with one other: It’s not my job to determine the truth of the allegations. Nor is it yours. Victims of terrible crimes like this have been through enough without every blogger on the internet insisting that they spell out in graphic detail what happened to them, provide supporting documentation, etc., so that the rabble on the internet can decide for itself what the truth is. For the purposes of our discussion, it’s enough to note that all evidence indicates that the accusers believe what they are saying to be true. And, besides, Marion Zimmer Bradley, being dead, is no longer in a position to harm another child.
The real issue here is twofold: Allegations such as this have the potential to do a lot of damage to the Marion Zimmer Bradley estate; and victims need to be empowered to speak out, both as part of their own healing process and in order to create a safe environment where current victims know they will be heard and protected if they seek help.
Again, I need to be very clear here that I am on the victims’ side. I’m very glad that they have had the courage to speak out, and I hope that doing so will bring them healing and peace (though so far it seems to have caused them more grief than anything else). And I want to say to anyone who is currently being sexually abused, you may speak to me, and I will immediately take action to ensure that your abuser never again has access to you, and I will take my responsibilities as a mandated reporter seriously.
But let me also explain to you what happens when you come to me and tell me that someone I know and love is a child molester.
My first reaction is disbelief.
Think about it. We all know that child molesters are monsters. Only a monster would put their own sexual gratification above the inherent responsibility to care for and protect a child, a child who legally is not capable of consenting to sexual activity.
So now imagine that I came to you and told you that someone you’ve known for years, perhaps your whole life — someone you know isn’t a monster — is molesting children. How would you react?
You’d probably react by telling me that I’m wrong. I imagine most of you would not be that polite about it. And that’s good. It’s healthy to see your family and friends and loved ones as worthwhile people who are not monsters.
The problem is that every child molester is someone’s child, someone’s parent, someone’s sibling, someone’s spouse. So when you speak out against a molester, even if you have absolute proof that your accusations are true, the first reaction of everyone around them is going to be to not believe you.
No, it’s not right. No it’s not fair. But it’s how the human brain works.
So let’s say you don’t immediately back down and say you were wrong (which, incidentally, you shouldn’t). Let’s say instead that you make a compelling case. Do you know what the next response you’re going to get is going to be?
Again, it’s not fair. It’s not right. But it’s the psychology.
Remember that an accusation like this is tearing down someone dear and beloved. The person they knew is gone, and has been replaced by the kind of person who would do this sort of thing. It’s as if you’ve killed their loved one. They’re grieving. Remember the stages of grieving from Psychology class? After denial comes anger.
And, unfortunately, sometimes that anger is directed at the accuser. The rest of the time, it’s not directed anywhere in particular, and that lashing out can feel as if it’s directed at the accuser. This is unfortunate, but it’s normal.
So, please, give those who loved and trusted Marion Zimmer Bradley the space and the time to adjust to this development before assuming that they are evil people who don’t care about victims of child molestation.
This is especially true of those with a financial interest in the estate. No author gives control of their literary legacy to someone they don’t know and trust. So these people in particular are going to be hard hit emotionally and will not necessarily be reacting rationally. They may never come around. They may. Either way, we need to understand that they’re human, too, and are not necessarily thinking with their pocket books.
This does, of course, leave us with a lingering question of what the appropriate response is for the rest of us. I didn’t know Marion Zimmer Bradley. I knew her only from her editing. Can we continue to support her writing and her estate?
Ultimately, this is a personal decision, but for me there are a few factors that need to be considered:
1) Are the accusations credible?
2) Is the accused in a position to repent or change their ways?
3) Is what the accused did something that you feel you can support?
For example, one famous author is a major supporter of anti-gay causes. He serves on the board of directors of an organization that I consider to be a hate group. In this case it’s a no-brainer. He gets none of my money, despite the fact that his work was a very important part of my adolescence, until he mends his ways.
On the other hand, one of my favorite screenwriters was a Nazi. Not hyperbole. Card-carrying, unrepentant Nazi. One film historian who interviewed her shortly before she died said that the only thing she thought Hitler did wrong was losing the war. I’d call that a credible accusation. Nazism is certainly not something I can support. But she’s dead. There’s no chance that she can be brought to see the light. So in this case, I have to ask if any money I spend on her films goes to support Nazism or other causes I can’t support. In her case, the answer is that it doesn’t (no residuals), so I feel I can continue to pick up her films on DVD.
So in the Marion Zimmer Bradley case, I look at the same three questions. I don’t think the victims are lying. But I don’t see any way for Marion Zimmer Bradley to repent. And I can’t support the child molestation as a cause. So, as with the screenwriter above, I have to take a look at the estate.
The head of the Marion Zimmer Bradley estate is Elizabeth Waters, who thus far has been a staunch defender of Marion Zimmer Bradley. She has been accused of enabling Walter Breen’s abuse, but I, personally, need to contextualize that in the context of the time — we simply didn’t have the public education about sexual abuse back then that we have now, so I can conceive that she was simply misguided back then. I need to consider how she is acting now.
Alas, the jury is still out on that. I’m giving her, and hence the estate as a whole, the benefit of the doubt. If the estate steps up and tries to make things right, I will continue to support Marion Zimmer Bradley’s writing and editing. If not, I’m afraid the whole Marion Zimmer Bradley brand will end up on my “do not read” list. But Waters and the the others who are active with the estate get time and my respect as they sort this out.
They deserve that.
They’re human beings.