Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, chats with readers weekly. Starting June 10, the live chat will be hosted here on Slate. 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 email@example.com.)
Q. Illicit Filming: I’ve been married to my husband for almost 20 years. During that time he’s been a good husband, father to our girls, a great friend, a wonderful lover. We’re not perfect, but we’ve been happy. Until last week. For the past year, we’ve had my niece’s 19-year-old friend living with us. She ended up in our city looking for work and clicked with our family—she wasn’t ready to live by herself (rough upbringing) and having had a similar childhood I wanted to help her get on her feet. Hubby agreed. She’s a beautiful young woman and my husband made a few comments to her about how cute she was. I pointed out to him that he’s a father figure and his comments don’t sound complimentary—they sound icky. Then she abruptly moved out. It turned out he had attempted to secretly film her undressing. I don’t get it. I’m at a total loss as to how to go forward. If he ever showed signs of being a pervert in the past, I missed them entirely. I can barely speak to him and all he’s said so far is he doesn’t know why he did it and feels sick at the harm he’s caused. I’d like him to get counseling but we’re supposed to be making an international move in a few weeks. Are there books and websites to help him make sense of himself? I’m now worried what happens when my girls bring friends over.
A: You may want to purchase a book to throw at him, but I’m afraid there’s no quick way to resolve the awfulness that has been revealed, and I understand it couldn’t have come at a worse time. You’ve got a few weeks, and you and your husband have to make speaking with a counselor a priority. Someone may be able to see you intensively on an emergency basis—start asking your friends for references, and perhaps your physician can recommend some people. You and your husband have to discuss with a neutral party how he could so completely lose his moral bearings, whether he’s ever done anything similar, and where you go from here. You also need to see if the move can be delayed. If it’s for his work, and it can’t be, then perhaps he goes alone, then you two perhaps can continue to discuss this with a therapist via Skype, while you take some time to sort out what your next move (or not) will be. You also need to contact the young woman. You took her in because you understood what it was like to come from a rough background. Now one of her saviors has turned into a violator, and she’s going to need help herself. Think of the move this way: If one of your family members had fallen seriously ill, it would have to be postponed. You have now found out your husband is seriously ill, so dealing with this takes precedence over everything.
Q. College Incest: I recently started school at a large university for the summer term after transferring from a small private college. I have a disability that makes it difficult for me to live with others and make friends, so I was delighted to have a liberal-minded roommate who is not only incredibly considerate and fun to live with, but who has helped me make other friends. I know that her mother died a few years ago, and she and her father have had difficulty coping. Yesterday, I returned early when my class was canceled and was shocked to find her and her father having sex in our room! They were startled and he quickly explained that he is not her biological father. She told me later that the relationship with her adoptive father began after her mother’s death when she was 18, that it is fulfilling and she plans to continue it, though she promised I would not have to witness it again. I am concerned that this is unethical or illegal, and that he is taking advantage of her. I don’t want to lose my friendship or living situation, and I’m not sure what the school could do to help. Should I insist she seek counseling?
A: OK, this guy wins today’s sick dad contest. You’re right that this is breathtakingly unethical. I don’t have time to investigate during the chat what incest laws say about sex with a legal adult child, and the laws do vary by state, but whether the father is a prospect for the criminal justice system, he is an egregious violator of the soul of his daughter. It doesn’t matter that he is not her biological father. He has taken profound advantage of his motherless child, and that she says the relationship is fulfilling shows that she’s not really in a psychological state to assess what’s happening. The fact that he would visit her on campus to have sex shows how far outside the boundaries of sanity these two have gotten, or actually, how far he’s dragged her. You cannot insist she get counseling. But you can go to the counselor yourself and ask what to do. I also suggest you call the hotline of the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, explain what you’ve seen, and ask what you should do next. Your roommate has been a good friend to you, and now you have to be one to her. This means being kind and understanding, and turning to knowledgeable adults to see what should happen next.
Q. Stingy Socialite: There is a group of mothers at my children’s school who get together socially every now and then. We usually go to a restaurant for a meal. One mother always sits next to me and when it comes to paying (we all pay for our own meals) she pointedly looks at me and says she forgot her purse. It’s not like we dine out at luxury establishments, so the first couple of times I didn’t think much and paid for her. Each time she thanks me politely and says she’ll pay for me next time, yet she never does. I started sitting further away from her and avoided eye contact, but now she makes a point of asking me directly. I feel stingy saying no in front of everyone else when it’s not a great deal of money. But Prudie, this lady drives a new Audi and her husband is a prominent real estate agent in our area who sells multi-million-dollar mansions. I’m having a hard time imagining why she needs me to pay for her each time. How do I say no in a nice way?
A: They may have an Audi in the driveway, but that doesn’t mean it—and everything else—wasn’t paid for on credit. However, whatever her personal financial (or psychological) troubles does not mean you’re her personal lunch benefactor. You already know you’re never going to get repaid for the previous meals, but that doesn’t mean she should stick you with the tab for future ones. Next time you all get together, before being seated tell her explicitly you’re not paying for her lunch this time, and if she asks you in front of everyone, you’re going to say you can’t. Maybe she will find another soft touch, or maybe she will find her wallet.