When bad people do good things: separating art from its author in the context of patriarchal privilege

When bad people do good things: separating art from its author in the context of patriarchal privilege June 26, 2014

I just finished reading Jason Pitzl-Water’s report on the revelation that Marion Zimmer Bradley, the author of The Mists of Avalon (now a motion picture starring Julianna Margulies and Anjelica Huston), molested her daughter and others and facilitated the abuse of other children by her husband.  Bradley’s writing was hugely influential among, Pagans and Bradley herself was active in the Pagan community at times.  In fact, a book about Bradley and others, entitled The Priestess and the Pen: Marion Zimmer Bradley, Dion Fortune, and Diana Paxson’s Influence on Modern Paganism, is scheduled for release in December.

This announcement comes on the heels of the news that Pagan musician and author, Kenny Klein, was arrested for crimes of pedophilia.  In response, Immanion Press pulled Klein’s book, The Flowering Rod, from its publication lineup.  I read several comment by people swearing to throw their copies of The Flowering Rod in the trash.

I am deeply saddened by the pain these individuals have caused and my heart goes out to those who have been hurt by them.  At the same time, I am encouraged that these crimes are coming to light and being addressed in the open.  Among other issues, these cases raise the question of how we handle these artists’ work as a community.  A discussion has already begun in the comments to Jason’s report regarding whether it is possible to separate the art from the artist.  Of course, any individual can decide this question for themselves.  Some, undoubtedly, will find the work irremediably tainted by the heinous acts of their authors.  I imagine that many copies of The Mists of Avalon will find their way into recycle bins (or perhaps ceremonial fires) now.  In an age of the mass market paperback, this kind of book burning by individuals does not bother me in the least.  I would encourage whatever helps each individual deal with this news.

Personally, I have always loved Mists — both the book and the movie.  While I unequivocally condemn Bradley’s crimes, I will probably continue to read her book and watch the movie adaptation (although not anytime soon).  In this case, at least, I don’t find it difficult to separate the crimes of the author from her work.  The fact that I never met Bradley and do not know any of her victims personally probably makes this easier for me than for others.  I don’t judge those who feel differently, and I just hope that the fact that I continue to enjoy Bradley’s writing is not interpreted by anyone as tolerance for her crimes.

I would probably not have written this post, but for a recent unpleasant interaction I had over the very issue of separating the person from their ideas.  The interaction in question was a heated Facebook discussion which occurred after I extended an invitation to a Patheos contributor to republish a recent post of his at HumanisticPaganism.com, where I am the managing editor.  I felt that the post would be of interest to the Humanistic and Naturalistic Pagans that follow that blog.  Certain people took issue with my extending this invitation to him.  All three were female, while the author of the post was male — which will be important for reasons discussed below.

The post in question was controversial, but it was not the substance of the post itself that these women took issue with.  Rather, what they took issue with was how the male author of the post had treated them in the comments to the post and in previous interactions.  I was not privy to the most of the conversations with this male blogger which upset these women, so I was ignorant of the background against which my invitation was interpreted.  I should have asked more questions about the offensive conduct, or at least expressed some sympathy, but instead I became defensive.  I responded that I was not endorsing his treatment of them, or even necessarily the substance of the post itself, for that matter.  HumanisticPaganism.com is a community forum.  While I am the editor, I don’t personally endorse the views of anyone who writes there.  In fact, it would not be very unusual for me to disagree with part of any essay published there, even though I have facilitated its publication.  And I certainly don’t endorse all the actions of every person who has published there since I became the editor.

Nevertheless, these women felt that by republishing this author’s post, I was validating his oppressive behavior and invalidating their feelings of injury.  When I responded that his ideas should be separated from his actions, I was told that this is a patriarchal privilege.  I should say here, I did not comport myself as well as I would hope in that Facebook thread.  I was at least as reactive as those I was responding to.  I’m embarrassed to say that one of the women even felt compelled to ban me from the thread.  I was clearly insensitive to their feelings.  I am grateful to Alley Valkyrie, who later patiently explained to me how women in our culture are routinely characterized by their behavior, while men are given a pass so that we can focus on their ideas.  For example, this particular male blogger is routinely granted that privilege, while the young women who I upset are not.  One example of this is how male bloggers can swear freely and use other harsh language without consequence, but female bloggers are frequently censured for doing so.  Honestly, this is something that I have been oblivious to, undoubtedly because I am male.  By not calling this particular male blogger out on his actions, while simultaneously offer him another forum for his ideas, I seemed to be endorsing — or at least tolerating — his oppressive behavior.  While I still intend to re-publish the post in question next month, I do hope that I will can be more sensitive to this issue in the future.

Bringing this back round to Bradley and Klein, I will be watching closely to see how to see how people deal with the issue of separating Bradley’s work from her person.  It will be interesting to compare responses to the news of Bradley’s crimes to the responses to the news of Klein’s crimes, since the former was a woman and the latter a man.  I will be looking to see if Bradley’s work is privileged more or less than Klein’s was, by disassociating their works from their respective authors.  Again, I think each individual needs to deal with this issue in the way the feel is best.  But it behooves us at least to be aware of the possibility that a patriarchal privilege is at work in these cases.  At the very least, before you light your copy of The Mists of Avalon on fire, check your bookshelf to see if The Flowering Rod is still sitting there.

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  • Deana

    I used to periodically reread Mists, until finding out that Bradley was the kind of person who would send a scathing letter to a 16 yr old writer, telling her to quit writing now because she sucks. http://diannesylvan.typepad.com/dancing_down_the_moon/2008/10/vampires-saved-my-soul.html (Dianne Sylvan is talented, but even if she wasn’t, there’s no excuse to be so nasty when a simple “no” would suffice.)

  • Deana

    Wait a minute…now that I know the allegations against MZB, I realize the story (Mists) itself is, at its core, about an aunt who forces her niece and nephew to commit incest with each other to satisfy her own purposes.

    • Karen Wheeler

      kind of creepy to say the least, I never thought that part had any real good point to add to the story in the first place. I thought at the time that if the culture in the book was encouraging of that action, then it would not be part of my culture. So, for me, it has always been literature, not something to aspire to… wrong is just, well, wrong. I can separate the book and the author, but knowing it all as it is makes me distance myself from recommending it as anything other than a story with weird quirks to it. I never really got why there had to be such romance around such cruelty in the first place.

    • Kara L. Brinkman

      Deana, while you might be trying to read MZB’s personality into the Mists of Avalon story here with your comment, you need to tread carefully. MZB took her cues from the Arthurian legends which are rife with incest, murder, patriarchal privilege, etc., etc.

      • Deana

        Oh, for sure, ancient stories are full of all manner of things (as are modern stories). Still, authors make certain choices of how to handle material, and those choices can look creepier in hindsight when you have more information about the author’s personal life. This is the only version I’ve read of the legend in which the Morgan le Fay/King Arthur incest was orchestrated by their own aunt. I wasn’t saying we should psychoanalyze authors based on their novels…only that it looks weirder in retrospect.

  • Deirdre Moen, the SF author who has been corresponding with Moira Greyland about MZB, takes the position that what is important is not to speak of a writer or artist’s life and work while leaving out important facts about their behavior — which is why she criticized the biographical piece that was originally posted on Tor.com, as it made no mention of Breen’s conviction or MZB’s role in that. I agree, and I agree that going forward, MZB’s abuse of her children needs to be explicitly part of her biography. (There is additional information here, for those who haven’t been following the story that closely: http://www.sff.net/people/stephen.goldin/mzb/lisa_excerpts.html)

    Myself, I think I am at minimum now unable to recommend MZB’s work. But I am also reminded that these issues are very, very complicated: http://www.moiragreyland.com/buy-albums

    • Karen Wheeler


  • I was stunned to find the woman who wrote the “Darkover” novels could participate in such crimes. But I do wonder if simple condemnation of the works, the art — the product of other aspects of that life is correct. What does it achieve? If the goal is to fight the horror that happened, DOES book-burning, book-banning and so forth accomplish that goal?

    Since I know others who were inspired by “Mists” and by the sci-fi Darkover in ways that made the world a much better place, I have to wonder. I wonder if a healthier view might be that MANY creative people are flawed — and some in horrific, even criminal ways; but to consider their creative products a reach for the good that they somehow lost along the way? The old saying about tossing the baby with the bathwater might apply.

    I don’t own “Mists” anymore. Something I can’t recall exactly now, in the final last quarter of the book disturbed me deeply. Every time I looked at the book, I sort of suppressed an inward shudder — I think it was something about the son of the king she married. I finally just took the book down and got rid of it. But that is me, it was personal.

  • Falkenna

    It is interesting to consider what part the passage of time plays in these decisions. Pagans who work with the Norse tradition have had to deal with such issues from the beginning, with regard to the operas of the unquestionably and influentially anti-Semitic Richard Wagner. And while he may not have been personally guilty of unacceptable *action* in this regard, one’s mind cannot really separate it from the atrocities his work later contributed to. The newness of the MZB revelations, the shock and feelings of betrayal at its sudden discovery, and the specific victimization of children, quite rightly have brought strong and raw emotions to the surface; but the issue is not new, even for our community, nor will it go away.

  • Would you believe I totally missed the Marion Zimmer Bradley controversy? Terrible to hear that! For my first Great Rite, I drew a henna crescent moon on my Third Eye (wasn’t quite prepared for the tattoo then). Just goes to show that you never know, do you?