This week Dear Prudence answers readers' questions about lies. Find out what happened when Emily Yoffe (aka Dear Prudence) attempted to beat a lie detector and read more Slate coverage on deceit here.
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My sister and I are adults, and my father just told us he had "broken his marriage vows" over a decade ago. The kicker is that he got the woman pregnant. We have a teenage half-brother who lives in the same city we do! My mother found out at the time because the other woman told her she was pregnant. My mother stayed with my dad, but she has never met the son and doesn't want to. All this has been a secret from us. Our dad told us he's felt guilty and that it was time for us to know. When I asked why now, he said he's been spending a lot of time with his son. They have visited my grandmother in the hospital, and my father was worried we might run into them. My father's parents have also spent time with the son and even gone on vacation with him! My mom knew nothing about this, and she's hurt that my grandparents didn't tell her. Now that my dad has told us, he wants everything to go back to normal. My sister has cut off communication with him; I have remained somewhat civil. But how do we explain to our father how badly this has hurt us and that we aren't going to be the same happy family we were?
—Just Not the Same
John Edwards could have told your father that if you pretend you aren't the father of someone you fathered so that everyone won't get mad, everyone only ends up madder. (And Richard Nixon could have explained that it's not the crime, it's the coverup.) Just think what it would have been like if your father had been honest from the beginning. Yes, the knowledge of this child would have shaken everyone. But then, long ago all of you would have come to accept that you're not the average nuclear family. I understand your mother going nuclear over his betrayal and her desire not to have this child impinge on her life, however her terms for keeping the family together are as morally repugnant as your father's behavior. An innocent child exists, one who needed a father—even if only part-time. By pretending away this boy, your parents have made you feel your family life was a sham. That's a shame, and your father is being disingenuous in the extreme if he expects his grown daughters to say they're excited about buying Christmas presents for their new little brother. But it's also time for your mother to stop trying to manipulate everyone's relationship with one another. The boy's grandparents did not need to clear it with your mother in order to spend time with him (and your mother didn't want anyone to acknowledge him, anyway). Your whole family needs to start learning to be honest and accept reality. You and your sister can start by telling your father his news was a shock and it's going to take time to process the multiple deceits. But don't take any final stands on your relationship with your father or on not having one with your half-brother. As you just learned, you can't always be so certain about the things you thought you were most sure about.
More than 10 years ago, when I was a recent college graduate, I stole about $3,000 from my employer. I was fired for this action, and the police were called to investigate. I lawyered up, and since there was relatively little evidence, the matter was dropped. I have never admitted the theft to anyone. I have maintained with family and friends that while I was a bad employee and deserved to be fired, I did not commit a crime. I know that this is not true and have always felt very guilty about being a dishonest person. I have since gone on to get a masters' degree, become a teacher, and have a family. I do my best to be a good person now, but I still cannot shake the feelings of guilt over this incident. Obviously, I don't want to go to jail, and an arrest would ruin my current life. But how can I move on emotionally from this incident and its influence on how I see myself today?
—Trying To Do Right
You say you are weighted down with guilt about your dishonesty. Yes, you did something criminal a decade ago and have never come clean about it. But since then you have led an honest life, so it's time you start thinking of that incident as an aberration. Stop worrying about being arrested. The crime was investigated, no charges were filed, and your legal jeopardy may have been made moot because of the statute of limitations. Paradoxically, if you'd been convicted, having a criminal record would have made your professional life harder, but maybe it would have made your emotional life easier, because you would have been punished for your crime and paid your debt to society. You need to unburden yourself and expiate your guilt. First, tell your spouse. This is the kind of thing married people should know about each other, and a loving partner should be able to help you put this in perspective. Next, do something with what you've learned. You're a teacher, and there are many young people who make stupid mistakes like yours but who don't get away with it. Start volunteering with kids in trouble. You can help them see that a foolish, youthful act doesn't have to determine the rest of their lives. Then decide that you will repay the $3,000 to society. Pick a worthwhile charity and pledge that over time you will give to it the money you took. All that will help you decide your self-punishment should have its own statute of limitations.