Help! My Wife Commissioned a Gruesome Portrait of Me.

Advice on manners and morals.
March 18 2014 6:00 AM

Color Me Bad

In a live chat, Prudie advises a man whose wife commissioned a gruesome portrait of him.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Q. A Troublesome Gift: I recently celebrated a milestone birthday for which my wife had commissioned a work of art to commemorate. The artist is a cousin who works in mixed media and has a notable regional reputation. I love and deeply respect him and his work, but I never really "got" it. He uses found and recycled materials collaged together. I was horrified to discover that I find the portrait extremely unflattering and troubling. I was shocked to think that my cousin saw me this way. Friends who have seen it have also found it ugly and strangely dark—parts of this collage have my age wrong and imply that I have struggled with obesity and depression. I believe I have responded to the gift appropriately with many thanks and appreciation, but I'm not sure how I am to live with this art in my home. My wife has hung it in a prominent place that I must pass scores of time a day. I'm not sure how to even start the conversation. The additional wrinkle is that a gallery has contacted me asking to include the piece in an upcoming exhibition. I'd rather not have this depiction of me in public. How should I handle this horrible mess?

A: Be glad that your cousin was not Lucien Freud or Francis Bacon. Although I suppose if either was your cousin, while you'd be portrayed as mad and wattled, the portrait would be worth millions. First of all, you say you don't get your cousin's work, which I assume means he does portraits which are not conventional and not flattering. So accept he is not picking you out as an object of derision, he's using you as a canvas on which to express his artistic vision. I think the new wrinkle about the exhibition is a godsend. At least it allows you to temporarily get the wrinkled mess that's supposed to be you out of the house! Do not be concerned that people will think this is an accurate depiction of you. You should be sure to attend the gallery opening and have lot of photos snapped standing next to your "likeness." This will only serve to make you look happy, slender, and youthful. If you're lucky, someone will insist they have to buy the painting and you will have to convince your wife that this art lover must be appeased. But if you take the canvas home, tell your wife that as thoughtful and loving as this gift was, every time you walk by the portrait you feel you need to lose 50 pounds and start taking Paxil. Ask if you can at the least move it to the guest room so you don't have to look at it daily. That will have the added benefit that anyone who's considering overstaying their welcome will see you staring down at them looking miserable and want to pack their bags.

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Q. Telling Family About Diagnosis: I am a young man who recently went off to college about two hours from my father's house. After about six months I can honestly say I love my college and I am doing fantastic, but I got off to a bit of a rocky start. I became very anxious and sad after moving into the dorms and I began to nervously clean my body. I cleaned my body until it was quite raw and then went and saw a physician at the student health center. They directed me to the school psychiatrist and to the counseling center. I was diagnosed with OCD and my fifth major depressive episode. After completing 16 weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy and trying several antidepressants, I am doing quite well. I have made friends on and off campus and I am succeeding academically. The thing is, my family is very "holistic" in the sense that they do not approve of medical interventions at all. (They are not even treating my stepmother’s declining bone density seriously.) They are very opposed to antidepressants and mental/behavior health care in general. I am 22 and I think I am old enough to keep this from them. It is my health and I can use what tools I think are necessary to maintain it, right? I mean, after five diagnoses of MDD, I don't think it will go away.

A: How gratifying to hear that you recognized you had a problem, sought help, and it worked! You absolutely don't owe your family any explanation about this aspect of your life. Sure, it would be great if you had loved ones who wanted to understand your diagnosis and support your recovery, but you don't. They may be lovely people in other ways, but part of your maturation process has been to recognize their limitations and instead seek crucial assistance. So keep it up, keep it private, and don't feel you're keeping something from them they deserve to know. You simply are growing up and taking responsibility for your own health.

Q. Return Old Love Letters From Dad to Mom?: My parents divorced nearly 30 years ago and only maintained a relationship because of the kids. Recently, my mother passed away and, in going through her things, it was quite a surprise to discover many cards and letters from my dad to her. I've only looked at the ones that can't avoid being seen (notes written on a flat sheet of paper, e.g.), and have very little interest in going through them myself. Do I give the stack of old memorabilia back to my dad? I think sometimes encountering an old version of yourself can be both pleasant and useful; however, my parents were so ill-matched and very few positive feelings remained on either side. Thoughts?

A: Ask him. Tell him your asking doesn't imply he should answer one way or another. He may want a look at his former self, or he may not want to be reminded of happier (then much unhappier) times. If he doesn't want the letters, even if you aren't up to reading them, you should store them safely. Such family history can be fascinating to future generations who have less emotional stake in how it all turned out.

Q. Smartphone Dependency: I recently went on vacation to Italy with two girlfriends from college. We had a great time and ate lots of pasta and gelato, but one thing really put a damper on my enjoyment: smartphones. I completely understand the need to call and check in with loved ones—I did it myself—and hey, I can even get on board with a quick Facebook update here and there. But my experience with these ladies was mind-boggling. Every time we went to a restaurant, they would immediately ask about Wi-Fi and then disappear for the rest of the meal. One would occasionally look up and say, "Sorry, I know I'm being anti-social," but then she would keep on doing whatever she was doing behind her screen. One of them forgot her phone charger and it's the only reason I actually got to interact with her after the first day (when she had depleted her phone's charge by uploading pictures to Facebook). The kicker was our last night, when we went out to a popular spot for drinks: Cute Italian men approached us left and right while one girl spent the entire night swiping on Tinder and complaining about her lack of a boyfriend. I don't have a Facebook (or any site), so I'm wary of becoming "that friend" who just as obnoxiously pooh-poohs social networking, but enough is enough! Should I just silently doodle on my napkin (what I ended up doing in Italy) the next time this sort of thing happens?

A: I want to see this movie. A young Marcello Mastroianni comes sauntering to a table of young American women, and the one complaining most about not having a guy doesn't even make eye contact with Marcello because her nose is buried in her dating app. What you experienced is a question beyond etiquette. There is no doubt the world behind the touch screen has become more vivid and compelling to millions of people than anything happening in their lives. But if they looked up and told you what kept them so intent upon the screen, they'd have to admit it was mostly a bunch of banal texts, games, and useless news alerts. It's one thing to zone out with your phone on the subway. It's another to miss Italy because you're playing Flappy Bird. The next time you're out to dinner with your gang and this happens, speak up. Say you understand how hard it is to break away from the phone because it's hard for you, too. But you'd like to institute a no-phone rule when you're socializing. That means they're in your purses and off. If it turns out your friends would rather socialize in the virtual world while they're with you, it's time to get a new group of friends.

Q. Marriage and Adoption: My husband and I have been married for 13 years. We have two children 20 and 9 and I have struggled to have children. I tried for many years after the birth of my 9-year-old to conceive again. After many failed attempts and with all my reproductive issues we decided four years ago that we would adopt. We went through CPS in our state and have been on a waiting list for over four years. My husband was very detailed in what kind of child he wanted and I feel like it held us back into bringing a child into our home sooner. I am now facing a hysterectomy due to my reproductive issues and while I am sad about that, I accept the reality. My husband has just told me that he does not want to adopt. I am devastated. I feel duped and so disappointed. I feel like walking out—I can't even look at him in the eye. He is adamant that he is not going to change his mind and he wouldn't even reconsider it even for my sake. I am at a loss at what to do.

A: As you know, many of the children in foster care who desperately need homes come with the kind of problems to be expected in children who have had to be removed from their families. I'm assuming your husband has been saying to the social workers that he does not want a child with considerable learning or behavioral issues. So no wonder your four-year wait has been fruitless. It turns out you two have drifted very far apart on what you want. But I don't see how walking out improves your life. Even though you have accepted your infertility issues, a hysterectomy puts an end to the thought that a "miracle" might happen, so you are in a particularly delicate, vulnerable state. Sorry I don't have anything more original to say than that since you two are barely speaking, as a couple you need to see a counselor. You need to address your issues of loss, your husband has to come clean with what he wants. You both need to figure out how to understand each other and repair your marriage. I understand you feel there is a hole in your life where a new child should be. But don't let that blind you to the needs of your 9-year-old, who surely knows Mom and Dad are very unhappy and who is suffering because of this.

Q. Is It Worth Coming Out?: I am a female university student. Over the past few months, I have come to realize that I am bisexual. So far in my life, I've only ever dated men, though none of those relationships have been long term. I'll be home on break soon. Part of me wants to tell my parents about this. The other part of me thinks I should only tell them if I do end up in a relationship with a woman. While I don't think my parents would disown me, or have a moral problem with it, I do have concerns that they will question whether or not I'm "sure," or refer to it as me "going through a phase." Every time I come home my parents ask if there are any boys that I'm interested in at school, so I know the topic of my love life will come up. Would that be a good time to mention it? Or should I just keep quiet until a same-sex relationship actually occurs? 

A: Separating from your parents and establishing a new, adult phase of your relationship with them can be full of uncertainties and disconnections, as the letter from the student dealing with OCD issues illustrates. At your age people feel not fully fledged, but also aren't sure how much to share and how much to keep private from their parents. Given that your exploration has been psychological to date, I think you should keep this to yourself until you know more about yourself. You have anticipated your parents’ questions and conclusions, so there's no reason to go through the exercise right now. Without having sought a same-sex partner, you yourself don't really know how you will feel when this idea becomes a reality. You are living away from home which means you aren't under daily scrutiny. So explore away, and wait until there's something more concrete to report.

Q. Re: Smartphone addicts: I have the following rule with some of my friends when we go out for dinner or drinks: the first one to start playing with their phone, picks up the drink tab for everyone! The phones are sure to stay hidden.

A: Love it! And I admire that you can get buy-in from the addicted.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a good week.

Check out Dear Prudence's book recommendations in the Slate Store.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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