Shucking a Bad Seed

Shucking a Bad Seed

Shucking a Bad Seed

Advice on manners and morals.
Nov. 19 1999 3:30 AM

Shucking a Bad Seed

Please send your questions for publication to prudence@slate.com.

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Dear Prudie,

My friends and I regularly read your column and just love it! Shameless flattery aside, we do have an issue and hope you can help us. My brother-in-law is in a serious relationship with a friend of mine. I actually introduced them at my wedding. The problem is that my friend treats my brother-in-law (and everyone else, for that matter) like dirt. She yells at him, tells him what to do, what to wear, where to go, and how to spend his free time. She is moody and extremely unpleasant to everyone. Needless to say, I don't see much of her anymore. Anyway, we are afraid that my poor brother-in-law, who does not have the benefit of very much experience in relationships, will ask her to marry him.

My family, my husband's family, and our friends cannot stand her and dread having her at family gatherings--to the point where we are all trying to figure out how not to invite her to Thanksgiving or Christmas. In short, we want to say something to him because we know that there are women out there who will treat him with respect, courtesy, and affection. How can we tell him how we feel without making him feel totally alienated?

--Hopeful in Va.

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Dear Hope,

Perhaps your brother-in-law views being emotionally slapped around as foreplay? The woman you describe sounds like a cross between a harridan and a dominatrix. However, even an inexperienced man knows when he is being treated like a dog in obedience school. Prudie wonders why he thinks this is all right. The loose thread here is that you say you don't see much of her anymore, but she was a friend. Did her behavior change?

In any case, since your brother-in-law's nearest and dearest want to keep Miss Congeniality away from holiday gatherings, Prudie suggests you and your coterie of concerned friends decide on a designated yenta (which is how it may be perceived) and that person must tell him flat out that people who care about him do not like the way he is being treated, and they see dark days ahead. He will either respond with a defense of his PMS poster girl, or confess that he is trying to end the relationship. Either way, he will be made aware of the concern, which is really all that outsiders can do. If he chooses to stay in the relationship and the next gathering is a nightmare, simply tell him the woman makes for too much discomfort and, although you will miss his presence, the greater good of the group takes precedence and not to plan on further get-togethers. Worst case scenario is that he will feel alienated, and his relationship with all of you will be strained ... but just as friends don't let friends drive drunk, neither do friends watch in silence as friends hook up with bitches.

--Prudie, directly

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Dear Prudence,

My mother, who is a charming woman in almost all other respects, appears to have a grave problem staying employed. There is a definite pattern afoot here: At first, the new job is wonderful, the people scintillating and fabulous, the work enticing and exciting. After a few months, trouble begins to brew--invariably with her supervisor. What follows is less a slide down a slippery slope than a professional avalanche that results in either a dismissal or a narrow escape to the next "dream job," where, of course, the cycle repeats yet again.

It is screamingly obvious to everyone who knows and loves her that the trouble lies with my mother and not, as she would have it, with the parade of horrible bosses fate has saddled her with. Needles to say, as I write this letter, she is about to lose another job. She is 58. I have tried gently to suggest therapy. I've sympathized and logged hours and hours on the telephone listening to every sordid detail of every office slight, all to no avail. I have even considered appealing to her current employer (with whom I have a warm acquaintance) to overlook her nuttiness and keep her on because, despite her Sturm und Drang office manner, she really is very good at what she does.

I admit a good deal of my concern is self-motivated. With a modest income of my own and two children to provide for, I fear if she loses this job, it will be her last, leaving me to support her--and I know in advance that I can't let her end up in a welfare hotel. But her chances for finding a replacement gig dwindle with every lost job and every looming birthday. I would prefer to be my mother's daughter than my mother's mother, but my resentment is building every day. Prudie, what to do?

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--Distraught Daughter

Dear Dis,

What a thoughtful, insightful letter. While at some point all grown-up children become, to a greater or lesser degree, parents to their parents, your situation is complicated by, at best, a personality disorder, and at worst, mental illness. Your mother's repeated manic initial response to a job, then making a mess of it, is legitimate cause for concern. What you must do now is confront your mother with the truth as tactfully and forcefully as possible. Make clear that you are willing to be emotionally supportive if she makes efforts to help herself but that financially you are unable to have her as a dependent.

For your own emotional well-being, know that the worst case scenario may involve distancing yourself if she will not acknowledge her problem. If she winds up "in the system," getting city or state supervised housing and therapy that may not be a bad thing. This is sometimes the mental-health equivalent of an alcoholic hitting bottom. You should also know that your evaluation of the situation is humane and loving, and that, however things play out, you will have been a good and caring daughter.

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--Prudie, supportively

Prudence,

Although one may disagree with the ham-fisted way in which smokers were evicted from restaurants, people like me with sensitive noses appreciate the result. It took years for me to work up the courage to ask someone not to smoke near me, and now I don't have to do that anymore. But a new terror has arisen. Recently, in a crowded but fancy restaurant in the middle of the delicious main course, the empty table next to ours was occupied by a group of people including a woman wearing far too much perfume. It was overwhelming and made it literally impossible to taste the food: Everything tasted like perfume. And then my nose started to run. The expensive meal was ruined, but I didn't say a word. Should I have? And to whom?

--Allergic and Sniffly

Dear All,

In the particular situation you write about, you could have asked the maitre d' to give you another table, assuming one was available. In the big picture, however, overpowering scents are a burgeoning problem, and Prudie shares your discomfort. Since there is no way to instruct a strange woman to please hightail it to the ladies' room and wash off all that Chanel No. 5 or to inform people that the scent they have chosen to pour all over themselves is retch-inducing, those of us who are knocked out by perfume are basically stuck. Moving one's location or leaving an establishment is about as far as an offended party can go. Some places, however, have designated themselves "scent-free zones," but certainly a small number. This may be the wave of the future, however, because who would have thought, 10 years ago, that you couldn't light up in a restaurant?

One problem with perfumes and colognes is that the wearer, for some strange reason, is not able to smell when she or he has overdone it. And, surprise, men can be as guilty as women. Also some ethnic groups tend to go in for excessive eau de whatever, sometimes instead of bathing. And of course there are the tchotchke shops in which one is overcome by potpourri, incense, scented candles, and sachet. Being assaulted by smells unfortunately is an issue we can often do little about. Maybe nose plugs?

--Prudie, sympathetically

Prudie,

Regarding the letter from "mm," I can tell you from experience that sisters do not take kindly to ANY advice given them about raising their children. Sitting down and having a frank discussion is asking to start World War III in the family. Better your correspondent should be the aunt these girls can go to for advice, support, kind words, etc. Better she should do everything in her power to be a role model of acceptance and love and build up these girls' self-esteem at every opportunity. If they spend time alone with her, so much the better. As for her sister, mm could express her understanding of how difficult it must be to raise these children, give her sister a chance to vent, mention classes or books that might be helpful, but never, never make it personal. No finger-pointing or superior attitudes, please. It never has a happy ending.

--Four Sisters of My Own

Dear Four,

Thank you for adding immeasurably to the discussion. You have firsthand knowledge of a situation which Prudie, as an only child, could not have ... proving, again, that experience has great value.

--Prudie, gratefully