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My mother passed away when I was 12 years old and my father followed just a few years later. My dad had two brothers, Uncle A and Uncle B. He was close to Uncle A, but estranged from Uncle B. Uncle A and his wife took in my younger brother and me, and despite the early tragedy, we are both pretty OK, well-functioning people. My uncle and aunt were just about the only family we had, and a few years ago, when I was in my early 20s, Uncle A passed away. Before he died, he let me in on a family secret. The reason for the estrangement with Uncle B was because he molested my brother when my brother was just 2 years old. My mother walked in when it was happening, and my parents’ disagreement about what to do led to their divorce. My parents ended up doing nothing except for not talking to Uncle B anymore. I didn’t tell my brother what I found out because I didn’t think any good would come of it. Now it’s a few years and a few twists of fate later, and my brother and Uncle B are in the same narrow, sparsely populated field of work. My brother has befriended Uncle B and sings his praises. Uncle B has introduced him to higher level people, he’s invested in my brother’s business, and my brother thinks of him as his “guardian angel.” Except that he molested my brother when he was a toddler! I think my mother’s death at age 45 from a stroke was caused in part by the stress of what happened. My brother is always on me about “letting go of Dad’s bitter legacy” and getting to know Uncle B. What am I supposed to do here?
This secret knowledge is a tremendous burden. You need a way to lighten this load, but it is not clear whether sharing this story of Uncle B with your brother will bring you relief, or simply spread the weight onto both of you. I spoke to Jenny Coleman, help services program director at Stop It Now, a sexual-abuse prevention organization. She said there were so many potential implications in any action you take, or don’t take, that she said the best course for you is to find a counselor with expertise in child sexual abuse and talk this out. There are a lot of variables here—how close you and your brother are, the fact that the only witness to the abuse is dead, the importance your brother places on your reconciliation with this uncle—that she says the best way to arrive at an answer is exploring all this with a trained professional in a confidential space. I concur and I hope you take that step.
But I’m also going to offer my own reaction, which is that I see more harm than good in telling your brother at this moment. You two have very little family. Your brother has found both professional and personal support in reconnecting with your uncle. Let’s assume your mother indeed saw something monstrous take place. You just don’t know if your uncle has been a serial perpetrator who has never been caught, or if he got help and hasn’t reoffended. But given the distance of the events and that your mother is no longer alive to corroborate, there’s not much you can do to act on what you were told. Take comfort, at least, that your adult brother is no longer in danger from your uncle. If you are willing—and this is something to discuss with a therapist—I also think it might be helpful to go to dinner with your brother and uncle. You can get your own sense of the man, and find out if anything in his current biography (maybe he volunteers at a day care center!) alarms you. If your uncle brings up the estrangement and blames your father, then he has opened the door to the past and you can consider whether to provide a clarification for the cause of the breach. I’d be most concerned if down the road your brother has children who would be available to Uncle B. That would change the calculus of their relationship and you would be compelled to tell your brother what you were told. But I think you will be more credible to your brother if you have demonstrated a willingness to get to know your uncle and have acknowledged what he has meant to your brother in recent years. Secrets can be toxic for those who keep them, so even if you don’t tell your brother, a good therapist will make you feel you aren’t carrying this one alone.
My teenage son has a smartphone and I have an app that allows us to track where he is. The other night he said he was going to a movie with friends at a local mall. As my wife and I were going to bed, she wondered if he was on his way home. I discovered he was on the opposite end of town. It wasn’t anywhere dangerous, but he had to take the freeway to get there, outside our comfort zone for his driving. He did get home safely. When my wife and I were teens there were no cellphones and we did crazy stupid dangerous things our parents never knew about. Our son is a very good kid who gets excellent grades. After we learned that he had lied to us we debated what to do and decided to call him out. He was remorseful, but he was also angry that we were spying on him. We told him that if he turns the app off he’ll lose the phone. He wanted to know why he can’t have the same freedom we did when we were young? We didn’t punish him, we just told him we wanted the truth moving forward. He’s going to be a senior this year, and we know we’re going to have to loosen the reins a bit. Of course at this point, we can’t really believe him when he says he’s going to a movie. What do you think? If the technology is there, is it good to track where your kids are?
—I’ve Got an App
The other day I was talking to my teenager about what it was like for me to be a teenager in the 1970s; I might as well have been talking about the 1870s. She found it hard to fathom that when my friends and I went out the door our parents had no idea where we were, that when we were in a car, we were beyond the reach of any parents’ supervision. Now parents are their own private NSA, able to track their kids’ movements in real-time. Sure, I find it infinitely reassuring that I can reach my daughter on her cellphone, but it’s not just my technophobia that keeps me from downloading that app you have. She and her friends keep vampire hours, but I don’t monitor where she is because I need to practice letting her go, and she needs to learn to make her way in the world. I’m not defending your son’s lying. But you acknowledge your own mildly reprobate youth, so you can imagine the thrill for him of being on the forbidden side of town, of successfully navigating the highway at night. You are right to drive the point home (about his driving home) that you have to be able to trust each other. So sit down with him and draw up some rules for the coming year. Say that you’re keeping the app on for now, and if you find he’s lied to you, there will be consequences. But you know that he’s a senior and things are changing, so if he is straight with you, by October you will turn off the tracking.