If you are a feminist and love genre fiction, the novel that may have opened up a hidden world for you was published in 1983. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon” is a magisterial retelling of the Arthurian legend from the perspective of the women in the story, most significantly the priestess Morgaine and Arthur’s wife, Gwenhwyfar, and has been a model for many revisions to follow.
Zimmer Bradley is a titan of genre fiction who extended a hand up to many, many other authors through her role as an editor. Her professional reputation has proved more persistent than her personal history, which gained an ugly new chapter this week.
I had known that Zimmer Bradley’s second husband, Walter Breen, had been convicted of child molestation. But I had not been aware that his offenses after his first conviction were widely known and debated in fan circles in the years before he was arrested again in 1990 and 1991 on charges that would eventually send him to prison. I also had not known that Zimmer Bradley was the subject of a civil suit over Breen’s child sexual abuse, and I had not read her testimony in the case. And this month, Zimmer Bradley’s daughter Moira Greyland came forward to identify herself as one of the people who reported Breen for sexual assault and to allege that her mother sexually assaulted her as well.
Zimmer Bradley has been dead for almost 15 years, which means Greyland will never confront her mother in criminal court, and readers who would prefer a ruling beyond a reasonable doubt on her allegations are unlikely to be satisfied. Even in the absence of that standard, how are those of us who love her work to think about Greyland’s allegations? This is the same dilemma that is posed to fans of Woody Allen’s work, who might wish to believe that the director’s strong female characters and his seeming insight into women’s lives are proof that he could not have hurt a girl.
A significant theme of Zimmer Bradley’s answers in her 1998 deposition is the idea that very young teenagers ought to be able to make their own sexual decisions, including about whether to have sex with adults who proposition them. She rejects the idea that any element of coercion is possible in these interactions, particularly when a teenager is physically larger than an adult.
“Did you ever do anything to protect [Victim X] from any type of sexual contact with Walter Breen during the three years that he was a guest in your home following your marriage?” an attorney asks Zimmer Bradley at one point in the deposition. Her rather astonishing reply? “Oh, please. The idea of me protecting little [Victim X], good heavens.”
Answers like these throw passages from “The Mists of Avalon” into a new and disturbing light. Take one passage about a Beltane ritual. Zimmer Bradley writes that “The little blue-painted girl who had borne the fertilizing blood was drawn down into the arms of a sinewy old hunter, and Morgaine saw her briefly struggle and cry out, go down under his body, her legs opening to the irresistible force of nature in them.”
Without the context of Zimmer Bradley’s personal history, it is possible to read this sentence as a description of an ancient religious practice that is unsettling both in its depiction of an altered state and behavior that contemporary readers would not find acceptable. In the context of her testimony, and an article she wrote about sensual relationships between older and much younger women in literature, we lose the reassurance that the author shares our moral and ethical presumptions.
Similarly, Breen justified his attacks on young boys by comparing them to sexual relationships between men that crossed significant age gaps in ancient Greece. Knowing that, and reaching the point in “The Mists of Avalon” when a young King Arthur compares the men who will become the knights of his round table to Alexander the Great’s closest companions makes that allusion seem less like a bit of cultural ephemera, and more like a queasy signal, placed there for those who know to look for it.
Though details like this feel newly significant, as I re-read “The Mists of Avalon” through the news of Greyland’s accusations, I was struck by how little the book felt changed for me.
Zimmer Bradley’s descriptions of the awakening of sexual desire, the devastating power of sexual assault and the psychic damage wrought by constricting women’s roles in society remain beautiful and evocative in ways that much contemporary pop culture could learn from. Many of her characters are young women, married in their teens, and Zimmer Bradley handles their shifting thoughts about their husbands, their roles as wives and their nascent sexuality with care and consideration. She sustains a sprawling narrative with a huge, intergenerational cast of characters over almost 900 pages. And her main character, Morgaine, is a tremendous accomplishment.
How, then, to reckon with the masterful public work and the allegedly monstrous private life? Zimmer Bradley’s contradictions raise an unnerving but important proposition. Survivors can offer tremendous insight into pain and transcendence. But so can the people who committed or facilitated depredations against them.