Dear Prudence: A friend may have killed her mother. Do I have to tell the authorities?

Help! A Friend Just Told Me She May Have Killed Her Mother.

Help! A Friend Just Told Me She May Have Killed Her Mother.

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 21 2014 6:05 AM

Dial M for Matricide

A friend just confessed she may have killed her mother. Do I tell someone?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
Several months ago a woman in my neighborhood, “Helen,” died after falling in her kitchen and hitting her head on a counter. Helen lived alone, her three children having moved out as soon as they could because of her verbal and physical abuse. Although the two youngest refused to have any further contact with her, the oldest, “Ruth,” would run errands for her and take her to doctors’ appointments. About 10 days ago, Ruth told me in confidence that she caused her mother’s death. Helen was haranguing Ruth about her boyfriend and grabbed Ruth by the shoulder. Ruth pushed Helen away and stormed out, vowing never to see her mother again. She was aware that Helen had fallen, but didn’t go back to check on her. (Her body was later discovered by a neighbor.) Ruth asked me not to reveal the truth to anyone. She told me because I have mentored her since she was small and because the strain of keeping it to herself was “killing” her. I want to keep her secret, but although I’ve done many Internet searches, I can’t figure out whether I’m breaking the law by doing so. Can you help me figure out what to do?


—Possible Lawbreaker

Dear Possible,
I have had many letters over the years from adults who are dealing with elderly, abusive parents. I even wrote about how some victims of horrific childhoods are plagued by what their obligation is to the parents who made their lives hell. Now poor Ruth, who tried to help her miserable brute of a mother, will be haunted the rest of her days by Helen’s last day. I spoke to criminal defense attorney Betty Layne DesPortes about your situation, and the good news is that you can stop worrying. You want to keep Ruth’s secret, and that’s legally (and I think morally) fine. DesPortes says that unless you have some specific obligation—say you are a mandated reporter of suspected child abuse—in general the average person is not required to report to the police witnessing, knowing about, or suspecting a crime. (Here’s more on this.) That covers having heard a tortured story about an accidental death. As DesPortes notes, Ruth may feel guilty, but she doesn’t actually know how her mother died. Maybe it was as a result of her shove. Or maybe Helen got up and later in the evening had a heart attack and fell on the counter. It’s good that Ruth was able to turn to you, and I think you should give her more advice and comfort. State laws vary as to whether talks with therapists or clergy are privileged. But in every state conversations between lawyers and clients are. You should tell Ruth to unburden herself to an attorney, and take that opportunity to find out her state’s laws regarding talking about what happened with a counselor. Ruth needs to discuss not only her final confrontation with her mother, but a lifetime of confrontations. DesPortes says she knows of people who years later have come forward to confess a crime because they couldn’t deal with the psychological burden. But Ruth was at her mother’s house with the intention of aiding her, Helen is now dead, and there’s no good reason to put what happened in the hands of the authorities. Let’s hope Ruth can put herself in the hands of someone who can help her find peace.


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Dear Prudie,
My grandmother died recently. She was vicious and horrible to my mother (her daughter-in-law) for my parents’ entire marriage, but she and I had a good relationship. Ever since her death, my mother has sort of come unhinged. She wore red to the funeral and refused to stand in the receiving line, saying that she couldn’t accept anyone’s condolences with a straight face. I even heard her humming “Ding, dong, the witch is dead” the other day while she was cleaning out the condo. I understand her relief, but I miss my grandmother. What should I do? Wait it out and hope that she gets it out of her system soon? Tell her how much her attitude is hurting me and my dad? I’m truly at a loss.


Dear Grieved,
Perhaps you should be grateful that your mother didn’t bring a boom box to the burial site and blast “Happy” while doing a Pharrell Williams–style dance on the grave. Your beloved grandmother, by your own account, was unaccountably vicious to your mother for decades. Perhaps, as with the letter above, there were occasions when your mother felt a desire to give Grandma a shove, but not only did your mother always keep her hands to herself, it sounds as if she generally held her tongue. Maybe everyone held their tongues because you don’t mention that anyone ever came to your mother’s defense. Many families shrug off unacceptable behavior with the approach, “Oh that’s just the way Ethel is,” and the object of the ire is just expected to take it. Your mother took it, and while I agree it would have been more appropriate had she donned black for the final farewell, you shouldn’t begrudge her a little song as she cleans out the witch’s wardrobe. You can tell your mother that you and your father loved your grandmother and you’re both grieving so it’s hard to see her celebrating—but it would also be gracious to acknowledge that for your mother it must seem like the end of a reign of misery.



Dear Prudence,
I’m a middle-aged father of two fantastic young adults. Their mother and I divorced about a decade ago because I’m gay. Although I am certain my children know it, we have never once had a conversation about it, which makes me feel duplicitous and false. Around everyone else in my life, including friends and colleagues, I am completely out and extremely comfortable about it. I know that at least one of my son’s friends knows because his parents are also my friends. When the kids were younger, I always thought an appropriate opportunity would arise to have the chat, but it never did. My children have gay friends and liberal millennial worldviews, but I have a somewhat illogical aversion to broaching this subject with them. Do you think it is important—necessary even—that I tell them flat-out about my homosexuality, and if so, can you offer me any guidance about how I might best do so? My children and I have a superb relationship in every other way imaginable.

—Not Quite Out Dad

Dear Not Quite,
I’ve had letters from people on the other side of your dilemma—adult children who are quite sure about a parent’s sexuality, but feel uncomfortable being the one to pierce the veil of privacy the parent is wrapped in. Given what you’ve said, I agree that your children almost certainly know. They likely know you know they know, but they’re respecting the fact that you seem so uncomfortable about this that they have never brought it up. I think you should tell them because it will not only confirm an important part of their own history, it will allow you to be as much yourself with them as you are with people you aren’t as close to. You say you have a superb relationship with your children, so I assume that means you see them regularly. The next time you’re all together for dinner, after you’ve exchanged the usual pleasantries, plunge right in: “Kids, there’s something about myself I should have told you a long time ago.” I think the relief, and not surprise, will be immediately palpable.



Dear Prudence,
I am a 30-year-old woman who recently visited a specialist and had what I consider to be inappropriate interactions each time. On the first visit the doctor, a middle-aged man, seemed to be obviously checking me out. He took my medical history and, after hearing that I have no major issues, commented, “Nice and young and healthy, just like I like them.” While this seemed to be flirtatious, I decided that it could have been innocent or a misguided attempt at humor and made a second appointment. Then, while examining me (in a non-intimate area), he asked if he was hurting me. I replied no. He then asked, “Do you want me to?” I didn’t really respond, but he continued, “because I know some women are into that. Not that I know from my own experience, of course.” I was speechless and felt very uncomfortable for the rest of the visit. The reaction of my friends and family range from put off but sort of amused to disgusted and upset. My father and husband want me to report this behavior to the relevant licensing agency. What should I do?

—Dr. No

Dear No,
I’m of the school that someone has to definitely say, “Doctor, No!” Let’s hope this practitioner doesn’t wear a pen around his neck that conceals a camera, like the late doctor from Johns Hopkins whose surreptitious gynecological portraits of his patients resulted in a $190 million settlement. But this physician’s behavior on both visits was seriously unprofessional enough to warrant reporting him. If he has partners, or is affiliated with a hospital, you can first register your complaints there. You can also contact your state medical board and describe what happened. I’m betting you’re not the only female patient to be seen by this doctor and come away convinced the most urgent medical need is for him to get his head examined.



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