Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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 email@example.com.)
Q. Blackmailing a Celebrity: I used to be in a relationship with somebody who is now a well-known celebrity, years before he became famous. He has a bizarre fetish involving worms, and there are video recordings. He emailed me a while ago (while he was engaged to his wife) asking if I wanted to meet with him and implied strongly that he wanted to engage in his fetish one last time. Now that he is extremely famous, I am tempted to get in touch with him and offer to sell him the clips for a large sum of money. The amount I am thinking of is a small portion of his net worth and probably the equivalent to an average person paying, say, a parking fine. Is it truly evil to blackmail a person if I’m only going to do it once? This guy is a jerk anyway, and I’m not asking for an amount of money that is significant to him. It is a small figure to him but would make a big difference in my pocket.
A: Sorry, I’m afraid the new policy on celebrity questions is that there absolutely will be no answer until we get a name. Initials will do. How the worm turns! Once upon a time, you were apparently happy (OK, maybe not happy) to engage in this squirm-inducing fetish with someone who was just a regular guy (who must have been a darn good customer at the local fishing-bait store). Now he’s a super-famous guy who happens to like to do something sexually with worms (and please, when you write back to tell us who this is, do not say what it is). The lesson for anyone who has a fetish involving invertebrates is that it’s best not to memorialize this on a videotape that remains in the possession of an ex. I agree that he’s a worm if he was trying to get together for a last fling with you and Lumbricus terrestris before his nuptials. But you are contemplating engaging in blackmail. That makes you a potential felon. The courts tend not to say to blackmailers, “We totally understand that he had the cash, worms are gross, and you were only going to extort him one time.” My strong advice to you is to drop the idea of being a rat.
Q. Drastic Pay Cut for Happiness? I’m miserable as a litigator, and my current boss makes it all the worse because I believe she is abusive. I’m married to another lawyer, and he enjoys the profession. I may have the opportunity to transit to a different career still somewhat in the legal field, but would mean a 40 to 50 percent pay cut. In exchange, I would have a low-stress, Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 job. It’s a career change I’ve been interested in for a while but have been too afraid to take because of the decrease in salary. Do I stay miserable, but with a fat paycheck? Or do I make the leap and adjust my budget accordingly?
A: Now that you know there’s another job out there for you, perhaps you can use that as inspiration to look for more opportunities to make a lateral—but more lucrative—move. The possible offer you’re contemplating is not the only job available. However, if it’s everything you want, and your mental health is at risk in your current job, I think you should strongly consider making the jump. First of all, try to negotiate a higher salary. Then if you take the job, keep in mind that this is not the final place you will ever work. You will get a new focus and set of skills, and if you love this different aspect of the law, doing well at your new position will set you up for a better one down the road.
Q. Save the Drama for When the Cameras Roll: I work on a popular television show. I am almost always on set when we’re filming and interact often with the cast. An older actor (married, kids) and a younger actress (dating someone) have started a very obvious (to people on set, at least) affair. The actor’s family lives in another country, and they fly in a few times a season to visit him. I have befriended his wife. After seeing how close her husband and the actress had become, she asked me to let her know if they started an affair. Now that I have to act, I realize how deeply uncomfortable I am being so intimately involved in the actor’s personal life. I know it’s a betrayal to my friendship with his wife not to tell her about the affair. At the same time, I hesitate to get involved. Advice, please?
A: You know the policy: I will tell you exactly what you should do after you write back in and tell us what show and who the cheating couple are. Given the business you’re in, it probably would have been more newsy to reveal that two stars on a popular TV show were not having an affair. If you follow celebrity gossip, having affairs with co-stars is one of the reasons people get in the entertainment business in the first place. Now what you have to do is mind your own business. Of course the wife would like an on-set spy to tell her that yet again her husband has strayed. So let’s say you do it, she comes storming onto the set, and the whole thing blows up. Is the wife going to keep you in her employ as a husband-minder? Not likely. So what’s likely is that you will be out of a job and unemployable because you apparently don’t understand the basic rules of the business you’re in.
Q. One Hit Too Many? I am in my late 20s and have been with my boyfriend for five years. Earlier this year I cheated on him, and for the sake of transparency, I let him know. He became understandably upset and then hit me across the face with a blow that left my ears ringing. He only hit me once and has since apologized. Although I want to keep our relationship going, I can’t stop thinking about him hitting me and whether he’d ever hit me again. Is this something people usually get past? How do we address this while fixing all our other issues?
A: The TMZ people don’t have a video of this, do they? It probably would be helpful for you to see a recording to remind you that you are with someone who could do this to you. I’m not sure what there is to salvage. You are unsatisfied enough to cheat. Then when you told him, he responded with brutal violence. In my book, that is a relationship-ender, and I wish you’d walked out on the spot. However, if you stay, you two need to be in serious counseling because this relationship has grave issues that need addressing.
Q. Re: Drastic Pay Cut for Happiness? I’m also an attorney. Seven years ago I went from a lucrative job at a firm to the public sector. I make about 40 percent less, but the hours are great: 8 to 5 with an hour for lunch, no work on the weekends or evenings, and lots of vacation. I adjusted my lifestyle by making coffee at home, bringing my lunch, and making dinner at home more often. I also cut the cord and stopped paying for cable. Other than that, my life hasn’t significantly changed. I get to do everything I want. I’m saving for retirement. I don’t have as much disposable income, but I don’t require a big-firm salary.
A: You gained happiness and cooking skills. Sounds great!
Q. Crying Neighbor Children: I recently moved into a small apartment building, and next door is a woman with three young children: a baby, a boy about 4 years old, and another about 6 years old. I’ve never heard her speak other than to scream at them. They are little boys, yet they are never outside playing. She screams at them as they leave in the morning and when they return at night. The other night the older boy was locked out of the apartment (on purpose) because he didn’t do a “good enough job” picking up some papers that had blown into the yard. It was 9 p.m., there was no light out there, and he was crying, “Mommy, please, I’m so tired.” This went on for about 20 minutes. This morning one of them was wailing as he was screamed at all the way to the car. I lived in an abusive home as a child, and without the help of a guidance counselor at school, I don’t know where I’d be. I’m not suggesting I attempt to “help” them, but at what point should I call child protective services or the police? It’s heartbreaking to hear this every day, and I can only imagine how those boys feel.
A: Today is the day to call CPS. I wish you had called the police the night that little boy stood begging to come in. You also should consider using your phone to record some of these horrible scenes; an audio recording would be most persuasive. The time to get the authorities involved is today. Before you call, write down all the specifics you can remember so you can make the case that this is pervasive and ongoing. After you call, keep your ears open—if the abuse continues, you can escalate this to supervisors, because the well-being of three children is on the line.
Q. Abortion Kept a Secret: The other day my girlfriend asked me to look for some paperwork in her files at home that she needed for work. I also found something I wasn’t looking for. It turns out she had an abortion three years ago when we’d been dating for about four months. Now I don’t know how to bring it up. This doesn’t change things between us, but I can’t pretend I don’t know. I’m not looking to accuse her of keeping it a secret, but I do think it’s a conversation we should have.
A: You were not snooping but came upon something that I agree would be hard to not talk about. And it shouldn’t be that hard to talk about. You don’t want to accuse her, and you don’t want to berate her. You understand why, given the circumstances of only knowing you for a few months, she was simply not ready to have a child with you. At that point she wasn’t even ready to discuss the pregnancy with you. But now you know, so you should take her hand and say when she asked you to go through the files, you found information about the abortion. Say that while you will totally respect her privacy if she doesn’t want to discuss it, you also don’t want her to feel that this has to remain a secret.
Q. Re: Crying Neighbor Children: I called CPS on my terrible neighbors on three separate occasions, and I had to call the police on them more than once after there was terrible fighting and shouting matches; screaming kids who sounded like they were getting beaten; a mother screaming, “Don’t you touch them”; doors slamming; and glass breaking. Nothing was ever done. I’m not even sure CPS even came to investigate, but the cops did nothing. I called the police to follow up the next day, identifying myself as the person who had called 911 and requesting they do something or asking if they needed more information for their report. I even found out what school the girl went to (by her uniform) and spoke to the principal (a required mandatory reporter) who said she would “look into it.” Nothing was ever done, and until the day I moved out, there was still abuse going on. It made me so very sad.
A: Tragically, there are many cases such as what you describe where nothing is done. (Alternatively, there are cases in which misunderstandings or minor events end with parents being taken to court.) There is no perfect answer. One can only hope that in any given case the authorities will do what they are supposed to do and help people. In the case the letter writer describes, there is no alternative but to call, and keep calling.
Q. Advising a Sister: My sister (just out of her teens) was at her boyfriend’s house for dinner, and at some point she sat on their couch. After going back to the family room after eating, she saw a stain and realized she had started her period. After my sister rushed to the bathroom to confirm it, her boyfriend’s mom came to talk to her. While his mom was very understanding about the whole thing, my sister was absolutely mortified, especially after finding out his mom cleaned up after her while she was in the bathroom. She drove home immediately. I told her she could call, visit, or write a card apologizing for the incident and offer to help replace the couch cover (a bed sheet), but she’s so embarrassed that she doesn’t think she can look his mother in the eye or visit his house again. Do you have any advice as to how to handle the situation?
A: Thank goodness Mom didn’t take the opportunity to quote from Macbeth: “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” Just about every woman has experienced this mortification at one time or another. Any older woman who finds this has happened to a younger woman at her home should be as kind and understanding as your sister’s boyfriend’s mother. This is one of those things that, having been dealt with, can be considered closed. The mother quietly cleaned it up so as to save her son’s friend any embarrassment. Nothing more needs to be said. But your sister, because she is so bothered by this, can also get the mother alone next time she is visiting and say she is really sorry about the mess and deeply appreciates the mother’s discretion. Tell your sister that the mother’s good deed will be undone if your sister’s response is to disappear from her life.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. I will be checking TMZ for any news of a celebrity who has a very special earthworm friend.
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