This year I got follow-ups from letter writers with a wide range of problems: trying to make contact with an unwilling biological mother, trying to avoid a malicious classmate from long ago, trying to convince the in-laws you’re marrying another of their daughters, trying to get your son’s girlfriend’s breasts covered up—and more.
The letter in March from Shunned, a middle-aged adoptee who had located her biological mother and was seeking a meeting, provoked a lot of outrage in the comments. The mother had kept the existence of Shunned a total secret and refused to have anything to do with her. Shunned was now considering contacting the mother’s other children, half brothers she’d never met, to at least get family medical information. I encouraged her to let it go—I suggested the story of her conception might have been a traumatic one. I said she will probably never get the emotional satisfaction she was seeking from her birth mother, and so she should look for it in the family she had created. Readers ferociously took the letter writer to task for what they saw as harassment of an old woman. I thought the piling-on was unfair; imagine having your mother forever think your existence was a source of despair and shame.
Shunned wrote back with a nuanced story about her life and her search. She said she felt stung by the comments and wanted to explain her motivation. Her adopted mother had always been cold and distant. She wrote, “I've been emotionally rejected by two mothers and I have the therapy bills to prove it!” After her letter appeared in the column she wrote two final letters to her biological family. One to her mother saying she would never contact her again. The other to her biological uncle—her mother’s brother—explaining who she was and what she was seeking. “To my surprise, he immediately telephoned. He was cordial and straightforward,” she wrote. He himself was estranged from his sister, but he provided her information about how she had come to be, and sent her photos and a written family history. She wrote: “He replaced a lifetime of fantasy with facts—most of it unsavory and quite sad.” She also heard from him that her two half brothers were themselves estranged from their mother, and she decided not to contact them. Even though the story she got is not a happy one, she says simply knowing has brought great inner peace and a sense of calmness.
One piece of advice I wish I could do over was my original reply to Panicked Patient, who wrote in August. She’d been tormented in high school by a classmate, and no adult, including her parents, ever came to her rescue. Panicked hadn’t seen her nemesis in more than 30 years, but recently discovered the former classmate was a nurse on the floor in the hospital where she was scheduled for surgery. She said she didn’t want to make trouble for this woman—who may have long outgrown her bullying ways—but didn’t know what to do. I responded that it would be awkward to bring this situation up with the hospital, and that if she happened to get the former classmate as a nurse she should just keep the interaction professional. Yes, I’m appalled at myself all over again! Readers in droves told me how wrong I was and said Panicked should speak to the nursing supervisor or patient advocate and explain she didn’t want that particular nurse attending to her for personal reasons. I retracted my advice in print and also contacted the letter writer. She updated me a couple of times. Indeed she spoke to the both the head of nursing and the patient advocate, and said she didn’t want the nurse attending to her because of their personal history. The representatives did want to make sure the problem had nothing to do with the quality of care by the nurse in question. Panicked, who is a nice person (“I didn't have any desire to get her into trouble”), assured them it did not. Her surgery and recovery went well, and she never saw the nurse during her four-day stay. As she was being wheeled out, however, her former classmate was at the nursing station. “She pretty much ignored me, which was fine by me,” Panicked wrote.
A wrenching letter was written by Not Taboo, a man who had lost his young wife to a drunk driver. Several years after her death, her younger sister moved to his city, they started seeing each other, fell in love, and now planned to be married. His problem was that his in-laws had never liked him, and he and his fiancée had no idea how to break the news to them. In an initial follow-up to me, he explained the reasons for the in-laws’ animosity: He was a nonpracticing Jew; they were evangelical. Additionally, when his wife died, he was traveling and unreachable immediately following the accident, and her parents irrationally blamed him for “abandoning” her. He said that his fiancée was going to take my advice and speak to her parents alone, explain she hoped they could support her choice, but that she was committed to going ahead with the marriage. In a second follow-up, Not Taboo said she had done just that. The news went over poorly with her parents who said they would refuse to attend the wedding. But more happily, the rest of both her family and his are supportive of the marriage and intend to be at their small ceremony in the spring.
Another wedding-related dilemma was from a letter writer about to be married, whose father was refusing to attend if the young woman invited her former stepmother, with whom the father was in a long-running custody battle. The letter writer considered her former stepmother to be a close friend and didn’t know what to do about the father’s demand to disinvite her. I said that given his behavior no wonder his marriages cratered, and suggested she tell him the stepmother’s invitation stands and that he could come or not. She wrote back, “Thank you so much for confirming that he was the one being unreasonable, and not me. I told him exactly what I thought of his behavior, his ridiculous custody battle, his treatment of his family and how it was impacting our relationship as well as those with all his other children.” After she let him have it, he indeed showed up at the wedding. He did not bring his new wife (who I’m assuming will one day be his new ex-wife), he stayed an hour, and he didn’t socialize. However, she writes, “I want to believe that somewhere in him is the Dad I loved as a little girl, and that it was a little bit of that long-lost person that made him get over himself and show up for his daughter's big day.”
More news of bad behavior about wedding invitations came from a married gay man who had three sisters, two of whom were lesbians, one of those also in a same-sex marriage. The third, youngest sister was a heterosexual, devout Catholic with five children the uncle and aunts were close to. One of the nieces was getting married, and while the uncle and aunts were invited, the invitations left off the names of the two same-sex spouses. The letter writer had contacted the mother of the bride to find out if this was an oversight, but she had not responded. I said the niece was old enough to handle this herself, and he should discuss the invitations directly with the bride. Shortly afterward I heard from one of the snubbed sisters, “Aunt Cynthia,” who gave me an update. The uncle followed my advice and wrote an email to the niece. He didn’t hear back from her, but he and the other sisters got an email from the mother of the bride, “a toxic, hateful and bigoted kiss-off.” So Cynthia sent a card to the bride explaining etiquette required that married people be invited to weddings as a couple, and that in the absence of that, she would not be able to attend. She wished the bride a lifetime of happiness, and in honor of her wedding said she was making a contribution in the bride’s name to the Campaign for Southern Equality. And I say to Aunt Cynthia, “You go, girl!”
I was much mocked for my answer this summer to the woman whose question about her son’s well-endowed 19-year-old girlfriend appeared under the headline, “The Hills Are Alive.” The girlfriend was accompanying the entire family on a weeklong vacation. The letter writer said the young woman’s breasts often spilled, braless, out of too-tight outfits. She wanted to know if it was all right to tell the girl she needed undergarments and more appropriate clothing for the trip. I said she should offer to take the girl to a lingerie department, spring for a couple of bras, and explain to the young woman that certain situations required certain dress codes. I got slammed for suggesting this, but I defended my position by saying there’s nothing wrong with an older woman giving some supportive advice to a younger one. Indeed, the mother took my suggestion and bought the young woman two bras. The mother said only once did she have to send the girlfriend back to her room to put one on.
But, she also reported, it turned out the girl was a handful in every possible way. She ordered the adults around, insisted her boyfriend buy her expensive gifts, kept everyone waiting, and complained if she wasn’t the center of attention. The mother ignored most of it, but at one point was so exasperated that she pulled the girlfriend aside: “I told her she needed to be more of a giver and less of a taker and that requests should be bookended with 'please' and 'thank you.' " By the end of the vacation, the son was fed up, too, and broke up with her upon their return.
Another poorly behaved girlfriend was the subject of a September letter from Afraid to Check My Phone. He was a young man whose best friend was thinking of asking his girlfriend to marry him. But the girlfriend has recently sent Afraid an explicit nude video. He felt he should tell his buddy, but there were two complications: One, the friend had struggled with depression and had previously attempted suicide; this new girlfriend had brought him great happiness. The other was that the letter writer had once drunkenly hooked up with one of his pal’s previous girlfriends. I told him that it would be more devastating for his friend’s emotional health to end up married to such a woman, and that if she tried to say he had instigated a flirtation, her video was quite an indictment of her character. Afraid did send an email to the girlfriend saying if she didn’t tell her boyfriend about the video, he would. She begged him not to and said it had all been a drunken prank. But Afraid went ahead and told his friend, and he broke up with the girlfriend. Afraid was reassured that his friend believed he had nothing to do with it. He and others got together to monitor his mental health and make sure his friend had company around the clock in the weeks following the break-up.
Speaking of videos, in one of my own (G-rated) videos I dealt with a question from a woman about an (X-rated) recording she found of her husband and his long-ago ex-wife. While she was upset by it, I told her to be glad he had learned some useful things in his first marriage, and if it looked hotter than theirs, be inspired to get more adventuresome. In response I got a note from a woman with the subject line: “I'm Wife #1 from your video.” She wrote: “Will you permit me to speak directly to Wife #2? Look, honey, it must have been awkward to find our old sex tape. But guess who's mortified about it? Me. I regret agreeing to make the video in the first place! Do everyone a favor—please delete it and then empty the trash icon. Thanks to our mutual friends on Facebook, I've seen photos of you and your husband. You look happy together, and I wish you both well. You're #1 in his life, so don't waste those warm, fuzzy feelings over this.” Even if Wife #1 is not the ex-wife referred to in the letter, her advice stands for any Wife #2 who stumbles upon evidence that once upon a time, her husband had sex with the woman he was married to.
I almost always rely on letter writers to volunteer their follow-ups on their own. But one letter this year so haunted me that I reached out twice to the original letter writer to see what happened. Scared Kin had an older, creepy, and reclusive relative with a penchant for stalking women. The man had taken over the house of his elderly mother after she died and had not allowed any of the other relatives in it since. Scared Kin was concerned something malevolent might be going on in the home. She said the relative had recently had an accident and was at a rehab facility, and wondered if the family should investigate the house. I said there was no way not to think of the house of horrors of Ariel Castro, where three kidnapped women were held for a decade, and urged the family to take steps to get inside. I’m sorry to report I heard nothing back. But I suppose it’s a relief I also haven’t read anything in the news about another kidnap home, nor about one that was booby-trapped to blow when relatives tried to break in.
This year, as always, I am so grateful to the letter writers for their fascinating dilemmas, and the commenters who add so much to the experience of the column. I also wanted to give thanks to my editor, Lowen Liu, whose graceful way with words and good judgment immensely improves the column (any errors in judgment are all mine)—he also writes the brilliant headlines. Here’s to 2014!
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