Jun 27, 2014

The Marion Zimmer Bradley Problem

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Mists of Avalon photo MistsofAvalon_zps34395ba1.jpg

Hat tip to The Wild Hunt for this morning's disillusionment. I had been blissfully unaware of this controversy. Even though I have never been Marion Zimmer Bradley fan, I am well aware of her influence in both the fantasy genre and the pagan community. So learning that she was both an enabler and perpetrator of child sexual abuse is a little rough.

This is all the more painful because Bradley is, in many ways, a feminist icon. She introduced the divine feminine to a generation of readers and she paved the way for other female authors. The irony for me was all the more unsettling as moments before seeing this post, I had been reading yet another story on the never-ending sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and puzzling over whether there is more of a problem there than elsewhere. The Church, of course, says no and they're probably right. The larger problem is the ability and determination they've had to conceal it, creating an overarching abuse of power for which the entire institutional framework is responsible. But, there's also a kind of metaphorical power to the idea of such an incredibly patriarchal institution being responsible for the prolific theft of sexual power. We almost expect them to rape women and children. Representatives of goddess energy far less so, but there we are.

Many years ago a friend lent me her copy of The Mists of Avalon specifically because she knew I was deeply invested in goddess mythology. I didn't get far and promptly gave the book back. In retrospect, I can't honestly say why it didn't connect for me. It just didn't. But I've always respected the book's reach and power to touch lives.

I can still vividly remember how I felt when I learned that there was a Mother Goddess in ancient mythology. The one woman play presented at my college was terrible. The theater was nearly empty. The handful of women's studies majors around me, who were seeing it for credit, were falling asleep in their seats. I was transfixed by the power of realization. Suddenly the world -- things I felt and even things I had written -- made more sense. It was an organizing principle for me in a way that no other religion had been, neither my Christian background nor my Buddhist practice. In time my first goddess altar replaced the Buddhist one. I read and I read and I read. So, although I found Bradley unreadable, I well understand what a cool drink of water her writing must have been for people everywhere who were rekindling, as I was,  a memory of the divine feminine.

Many people are feeling very betrayed and disillusioned about now. Some are still cloaked in denial and spouting apologia, as referenced here. Once again, I think this creates a problem of cognitive dissonance. But the evidence seems pretty irrefutable. Unbeknownst to me, this issue had come up some years ago as a result of Bradley's deposition in the case of her husband Walter Breen, who was convicted of multiple sex abuse charges. He had sexual relationships with many underage boys. She knew. She even enabled the abuse. Horrible. But fans convinced themselves that she was misconstrued and wished it all away. A recent declaration from her own daughter Moira Greyland is much harder to ignore.

The first time she molested me, I was three. The last time, I was twelve, and able to walk away.

I put Walter in jail for molesting one boy. I had tried to intervene when I was 13 by telling Mother and Lisa, and they just moved him into his own apartment.

I had been living partially on couches since I was ten years old because of the out of control drugs, orgies, and constant flow of people in and out of our family “home.”

None of this should be news. Walter was a serial rapist with many, many, many victims (I named 22 to the cops) but Marion was far, far worse. She was cruel and violent, as well as completely out of her mind sexually. I am not her only victim, nor were her only victims girls.

More commentary from Greyland appears in The Guardian today.

Greyland, writing to the Guardian via email, said that she had not spoken out before "because I thought that my mother's fans would be angry with me for saying anything against someone who had championed women's rights and made so many of them feel differently about themselves and their lives.  I didn't want to hurt anyone she had helped, so I just kept my mouth shut".

Greyland, a harpist, singer and opera director, said it was now clear to her that "one reason I never said anything is that I regarded her life as being more important than mine: her fame more important, and assuredly the comfort of her fans as more important.  Those who knew me, knew the truth about her, but beyond that, it did not matter what she had done to me, as long as her work and her reputation continued."

She hailed the "outpouring of love and support" which has followed her revelations. "What has happened in the past 20 years, apparently, is that rape, child abuse and incest have been enough in the public eye for them to be accepted, and victims and survivors to routinely be believed now, and there are so many survivors among my mother's fans, as well as supporters of survivors and decent people who care about the truth that my mother is now being held to the very standards she wrote about," her email continued.

"I am so glad I spoke out, because on the blog, so many people have shared their OWN stories of abuse and incest and heartbreak.  I am going to keep talking about it, if only so that those people who need to share their own stories will do so now."

This revelation hits close to home for other reasons. I worked for two different publishers who published Bradley at different times. She was a grande dame, her name said with a certain reverence by the SF & Fantasy imprints it was invariably my job to handle publicity for. I was usually the only person who read and liked the genre at all in any department I worked for. The broad category of SF & Fantasy is a world unto itself within publishing.

One thing I learned during my publishing career, more generally, is that people aren't their writing. There are wonderful people and brilliant thinkers who don't express themselves very well through the written word. And there are writers of astounding depth and wisdom whose work dwarfs them as people. Many great artists -- many great people -- have feet of clay. I still think Orson Scott Card, whose books I also handled for a brief time, is one of the greatest writers in the English language. I find his political and social views odious, but I don't consider it a reason to disregard his writing. The work stands on its own.

I don't know that I can say that in a case like this. There is something profoundly disturbing about a writer of any topic, let alone feminine power, who sexually tortured her own daughter. It's altogether too incongruous. Even if I were inclined to read Bradley's work today, I don't think I could, however great and good her muse may have been.

After reading her daughter's brave words and poetry, however, I sincerely hope she writes a book.


  1. Just had to comment because I echo so much of what you said here. I hadn't known MZB was big in the pagan community but she was definitely a great in the science-fiction and fantasy circles. I read her Sword & Sorceress anthologies as a teen but strangely also never took to her books, and doubt that I'll go seeking them now. I did love OSC's books, before I heard of his political and bigoted views. I still think his works were/are amazing but will not seek his new stuff now, or SF&F books in general. I just rarely read fiction anymore.

    1. I was a member of the Berkeley Pagan/SCA/Sci-Fi fandom community during the years when all this was supposedly going on, and I'd warn everybody to take the Greylands' accusations with a large grain of salt. Everybody in the community knew that Walter Breen was a pervert, that Marion would almost desperately cover up for him and try to keep up a fa├žade of respectability, that Moira was a hysteric who would accuse anybody and everybody of rape and perversion, and that her brother would usually go along with anything she said. Where, really, is the *evidence* that MZB was such a monster? We never saw it while she lived. Why did Moira wait until 15 years after MZB was dead to come out with her version of "Mommy Dearest"?

  2. Hi Janet. Thanks for reading.

    I have to say, I think Scott Card's best years are behind him, as a writer. But Ender, Speaker, the Alvin Maker series, hell, I'd still recommend them. Hart's Hope, also amazing. And Wyrms remains one of my all time favorite books. Card is a bigot who really doesn't see that his views are bigoted. It's unpleasant but at least it's not criminal and predatory.

    MZB on the other hand... Good golly, the more I learn the more horrified I am.

  3. The Breendoggle history now has its own wiki. It's horrifying. And possibly even more horrifying is the ignorance and enabling by a big chunk of his community.

    There's some really good commentary here on that and it echoes my feelings very well. What in the hell was wrong with these people? It's a very harsh reminder of how poorly sex abuse was understood a few, short decades ago.

    I also looked at the original write-up, which apparently started the firestorm and forced Tor to take down its MZB hagiography. She's pulled out some the most disturbing bits of the deposition.

    " Q. Where did you have this discussion with David where he thought he was too old for Walter?

    A. When he was 15 or so.

    Q. So at the time that David was 15, David informed you that he believed that your then husband was not propositioning him because at that point David was too old for Walter’s tastes?

    A. I think that’s what he said. To the best of my memory, that’s what he said.

    Q. So you were curious enough to ask your own son whether your husband had made a sexual proposition to him?

    A. I wouldn’t say I was concerned enough. I would simply say the matter came up in conversation. "

    So she married a man who she thought was PROBABLY not sexually interested in her son because he was too old at 15, but she wasn't concerned about any of it.

    This woman was one sick twist

  4. I meant to post this a while ago, and I'm not sure why I didn't. This is an interview with MZB's son, Mark Greyland, who has also come out publicly as a survivor of her abuse. It's one of the saddest things I've ever read.


  5. I just stumbled on this post by Moira Greyland. It's deeply disturbing, not least for her distorted conclusions regarding gay marriage. Her story is horrible and MZB was vile.


  6. Breen was definitely a pervert, but where's the solid evidence that MZB was? All we know for certain, from her own testimony (taken after she'd suffered a stroke) that she was raised in a society that considered 15 the age of consent, that she didn't really believe Breen was a perv until the facts were thrust in her face, and that she tried to preserve her family's reputation in the local community. Where's the proof of her kids' accusations?

  7. Where's the proof... THE question used to silence victims of sexual assault. Very, very high bar when it comes to adults who've found the courage to disclose the secret shame of their childhood. Sexual assault, the only crime where victim testimony isn't seen as evidence, and the victims are blamed and defamed. But the fact that MZB covered for Breen for years is pretty solid evidence of her own twistedness and culpability in numerous assaults. That alone makes her a monster, in my book.


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