Like many of you, I often wonder whether readers took my advice, and if they did, how it worked out. However, I make it a policy not to pierce the veil of anonymity letter writers feel when they write to me; it just doesn't seem right to knock at their inbox asking what happened. This year several letter writers filled me in, and I'm happy to share their experiences.
I heard from two women who wrote about the aftermath of being sexually molested as girls. One, "Suffering With Skeletons," was a college student who realized a classmate was the grandson of the man who had molested her. Seeing this young man was causing her emotional havoc, and she wondered whether she should tell him of their awful connection. I advised her not to but noted that if she continued to feel shaky, she should see a school therapist. The young woman wrote to say she did not tell her classmate. Though they ended up assigned to the same study group for a final project, he was a nice person and she became comfortable in his presence. She signed her follow-up "No Longer Suffering."
The other was from a woman, now in graduate school, who wrote into a Washingtonpost.com chat that she was molested once when she was a little girl by her much older brother. She never told anyone. He has turned into a successful executive who enjoys bullying his subordinates. She said having to be at family gatherings with him makes her sick. She wondered what she should do, and whether she should confront him. I suggested that saying something to him, or addressing the family about this, could have dangerous emotional consequences for her and that she first needed to take advantage of her school counseling services. Readers backed me up that this kind of revelation can be like a grenade tossed at a family gathering and that the letter writer could be the one most damaged. I was frustrated I didn't have a better answer for her.
So I was surprised to get such a heartfelt thank you from the letter writer. She said that seeing her problem in print was at first terrifying. "But, as I read your response, and the responses from other readers in the comments area I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Maybe somewhere down the road, I'll find it therapeutic to tell my brother about the pain he caused. But you, and your readers, made me realize that it's not him that I need to confront right now. It's myself." This response pointed out the important role readers play through their insightful comments, for which I'm grateful.
In October, I ran a letter from a young gay man who, after dental surgery, was given a ride from a straight work colleague. It turns out the patient, whacked out from his Valium drip, groped his friend on the ride home—although the patient had zero memory of this. Now the friend was acting cool and distant, and the letter writer was worried their friendship was destroyed. I said that although I don't give a pass for alcohol-fueled behavior, I do give an exemption for medically induced craziness and said he simply needed to explain to his friend that he was completely unaware of his actions. Well, that was easy! The patient told me he printed out the column and showed it to his friend. "We both agreed we felt rotten about the situation, mutually apologized, and are back on great terms."
Then there was the young woman who had attempted suicide, gotten help, and recovered from her depression. She was engaged, yet hadn't told her fiance about this, fearful of his reaction. I said some things in one's past are none of a romantic partner's business. But a suicide attempt is information any partner should have—and if this news made him want to run, then he wasn't the man she thought he was. She wrote to let me know that as soon as she sent the letter, even before it appeared in the column, she realized telling her fiance was the right thing to do. "He actually was very moved by my experience and now sees me as an even stronger person than before."
One husband had a silly but complicated situation. He and his sister-in-law worked together. One day his sister-in-law called his wife with a funny story about some workplace antics the wife was supposed to keep to herself. The husband asked what the wife was laughing at, and she told him in confidence. But the next time the sister-in-law was over, the husband blurted out what he knew, leaving the sister-in-law furious. The situation was causing a serious breach between the formerly close sisters, but the husband wanted to shift the blame to them. I took him to task and told him that he needed to explain to the sister-in-law it was his fault. (I also thought the sister-in-law was being ridiculous by not realizing spouses tell each other secrets.)
He took my advice, apologized to the sister-in-law, and it worked—helped along by his gesture of treating the two women to a day at the spa. "They are fast friends again. All is well," he wrote in relief.
Would that all problems were solved so easily. "The Good Daughter/Sister/Mother/Wife" wrote in because her aging, irresponsible mother had started taking in very needy foster children—even adopting one troubled girl. The letter writer felt her mother was not able to handle these children, but her immediate concern was that the mother wanted to go on an extended European vacation and have the letter writer care for the adopted girl, who had a history of threatening violence. I said the letter writer should not be pressured into taking care of a troubled child at the risk of harm to her own children. Her mother had to find a stable situation for the girl or cancel the trip. And I also suggested the letter writer contact the social-service agency dealing with the foster children and explain that her mother was not providing the care necessary.
The Good Daughter wrote back, "I did have the frank discussion with my mom, and it was painful and messy but ultimately helped clear the air." Her mother ended up finding a residential care facility for the girl so she could go on her vacation. Ultimately Good Daughter concluded that, as troubled as the situation was, she didn't want to talk to social services because the adopted daughter was better off with her mother than back in foster care.
I also appreciated hearing from people whose experiences mirrored those of the letter writers and who let me know whether my advice hit the mark or went awry. In response to a recent letter from a 16-year-old girl, wondering whether she should report that her girlfriend, "Bee," was having an affair with a 45-year-old teacher, "Mr. A," I heard from an adult woman who as a teenager had had an affair with an older teacher: "I found it impossible to say no to my Mr. A because I was afraid of the consequences for him if people found out, because he had been my friend and confidant, and I didn't want to see him get in trouble. The whole time, a small part of me hoped someone would find out and 'save' me from him." She says in retrospect she knows, "He was just a disgusting jerk who took a part of my innocence, and so is Mr. A."
On the flip side, there was the letter from an adult who now felt haunted by making a false accusation as a child that a man had approached him in the men's room. The letter writer said that in the confusion of his childhood thinking, he was trying to keep from having to go home with his alcoholic, abusive father. I said it was unlikely there was anything he could do at this point and that, given the flimsiness of the accusation, the man he accused was probably not prosecuted. A woman wrote to me in response that when she was 6, one of her friends accused the writer's father of touching her and "making her feel weird." It was widely believed the girl was lying, because she often made up stories. (As the original letter writer's story shows, that can be a child's way of saying, "Someone please help me.") Nonetheless, the girl's parents called the police, the father was investigated, the letter writer was temporarily put into foster care, her father lost his job, and the family had to move. "Our family was broken and my father's life was ruined by this little girl. An accusation of abuse can be just as bad as a conviction."
In response to the letter in which I asserted that sugar gliders, nocturnal Australian marsupials, are not appropriate pets, I heard from one woman in the sugar gliding community who wrote, "I know many people who take them to work in a glider bonding pouch that they wear underneath their clothing." This did not change my mind, but I appreciated the indelible image.
Finally, in a video I responded to a young woman, who, though attractive, felt like a passed-over frump every time she went out to a bar with her more overtly sexy and alluring friend. I suggested she study her friend's flirty moves, but more important that she think of her friend as "the bait." Then when the schools of men came swimming by, she'd have a chance to chat up the ones who didn't connect with her friend. I was pleased to hear what good advice this was from a man who found himself at a bar when two women walked in. One was sexy and vivacious, and he was immediately attracted to her. After a few minutes of talk, he realized she was a ding-dong. So he got to chatting with her attractive but less flashy friend. They were engaged two months later and have been happily married for more than 30 years.
This year, as always, I want to express my appreciation for the fascinating problems, trenchant insights, well-deserved criticisms, and even the occasional happy ending you send.
More Dear Prudence Columns
"A Cornucopia of Crises: Prudie takes on Thanksgiving quandaries involving uninvited guests, the ghosts of holidays past, and exiled smokers." Posted Nov. 18, 2010.
"Bob & Carol & Ted & Malice: My parents' swinger friends are trying to blackmail our family after Mom and Dad's tragic deaths." Posted Sept. 30, 2010.
"No Debt of Gratitude: I borrowed cash from Dad to care for my dying mom. Now he's demanding payback." Posted Aug. 12, 2010.
"Dirty Pretty Things: My girlfriend has worn the same undergarment for weeks. Isn't that disgusting?" Posted Aug. 27, 2009.
More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts
"The Grinch Who Stole Thanksgiving: Prudie counsels readers on Turkey Day predicaments, such as flying solo for the holiday, hosting irritating in-laws, and attending multiple dinners. Posted Nov. 22, 2010.
"Baby Mama Drama: Prudie counsels a sleuth who uncovered a baby-trap scheme—and other advice-seekers." Posted Nov. 1, 2010.
"The Family That Bathes Together: Prudie counsels a mother who wonders when the time is right to stop bathing with her little boy." Posted Oct. 12, 2010.
"Help! I'm Too Hot for My Age: Prudie counsels a woman whose youthful looks bring her nothing but problems—and other advice seekers." Posted Feb. 8, 2010.
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