One of the seminal questions any advice columnist receives is: Do I tell or do I not tell? This was the dilemma presented by Wannabe-Grand who wrote in October about her now-grown son. As a small child, he’d suffered a serious playground accident that resulted in surgery and hospitalization. The mother was told that her son may have been rendered sterile. He was so young at the time that he had no later memory of the incident, and his mother had never been able to bring herself to deliver the potential bad news. Now engaged, he and his fiancée were looking forward to starting a family, and Wannabe wanted to know if she should inform him or just see how nature took its course.
In my response, I said she had to tell. It was cruel to withhold such crucial information from a young couple and make them wonder what might be wrong, should they have trouble conceiving. Commenters were less understanding and tore into Wannabe for not spreading the word earlier about her son’s potential inability to spread his seed. A month after the column ran, I received this note from Wannabe:
I agonized over what to do, took your words to heart, and yesterday finally decided to tell him. His response was that he and his fiancée are officially six weeks pregnant, and if all goes well, in July of next year, I am finally going to be a granny! I am both astonished and elated by this news.
Thank you for your counsel, and for taking a load off my mind. Although everything worked out in the end, I wish that I had taken your advice much, much earlier.
Another recurring issue for letter writers is also a classic one: jealousy. It’s such a primal emotion, but one remarkably underexplored. In August we ran a video on this subject from a letter writer who called herself Nervous at Home. She used to handle her husband’s office work, but could no longer do so because of her own full-time job and three kids. So he hired a secretary. Nervous had just found out that this woman had had an affair with a previous boss. She was worried because her husband has “the libido of a jack rabbit” and would be happy having sex five times a day—instead of the three times a week they currently shared since the kids came along and her libido had fallen off. She told her husband about her concerns and he assured her that he was not interested in anyone but her. Still, she wondered if she should force her husband to fire this woman, or get him to install a hidden camera. I answered that she wouldn’t know the personal sexual history of a replacement. What she did have was her husband’s assurance that her fears were misplaced. I said that if he were a cheater, he’d have been cheating all along. Any couple with three kids and two full-time jobs, I pointed out, should be ecstatic to have sex three times a week.
Two months later I heard back from Nervous. She said one day she had found on a tablet she and her husband shared a suggestive picture the secretary had posted on her Facebook page. Nervous asked her husband about it, and he apologized. She gave him carte blanche to confess any misdeeds and promised they would work on things together. He said he had never even come close to cheating, but missed the kind of adventuresome sex they had early in their relationship. She wrote, “We started doing a lot of the things we did before we got married that we both enjoyed. Things with us are great and that little nagging voice in the back of my head is completely gone and our relationship has never been better.” Her husband also decided to put hidden cameras in the shop so that Nervous could check in at any time. She hasn’t felt a need, but said the cameras were a good investment because her husband discovered that one of his employees was stealing tools.
I try to encourage people who are unhappy with loved ones or friends to address the issue—diplomatically, but directly. But I know that’s not easy to do. I had a letter in August from a woman who called herself It’s Not Me, It’s You, whose dear friend had just moved into the same building, after spending much of the friendship long-distance. Turns out the closeness, once highly anticipated, was now suffocating because the friend was a nonstop talker, boaster, and one-upper. I told the letter writer to sit down over coffee and explain that while she was thrilled her friend was now her neighbor, there was an issue that needed addressing. She didn’t take my advice, but she came up with her own, brilliant, Pavlovian solution that I recount here as a public service for anyone in the same situation.
I couldn’t do it. I just knew she would not take it in the spirit I hoped. So, I came up with another plan. Each time she interrupted me, I would become totally silent. I would let her talk as long as she wanted, but would make absolutely no reply. I wouldn’t even nod my head in agreement. I would just sit still with a pleasant, but not overly interested, look on my face. When she finally ran out of steam, I would say something like, “I’m trying to remember what I was talking about.” Sometimes she would go off on another tangent for a few minutes, but she started to get the point. She eventually even apologized for always interrupting. I am happy to say that, although she is still quite talkative, it has become something she is aware of and is trying to curb and our friendship is intact!
Another constant source of questions is the blooming of childhood sexuality. In September I got a letter from a mother whose 11-year-old daughter had discovered mom’s “back massager.” The girl had purloined the equipment and was using it so assiduously that she came to her mother complaining that her genitals were swollen. The mother wanted to stop this sharing of the device, but without harming her daughter’s sexual exploration. I said that the mother needed to give sensitive advice about the normalcy of masturbation and also make clear that Mom’s tools were not for borrowing. I didn’t hear back from the original letter writer, but loved this anecdote from a reader with a similar situation:
When my daughter was 13 she went to the grocery store with me. I got suspicious when we were walking back to the car because she had her own bag of stuff that she was trying to hide. I finally got it from her and found a pregnancy test inside. I panicked! She gave me a long story about how she had to get it for her friend. It was only when I told her that I was going to talk to her friend that she confessed, eyes full of tears. She had been using my vibrator and was scared that she might have gotten pregnant from it. I was so relieved that there wasn’t a pregnancy that I didn’t have much trouble talking to her about the vibrator.
Whether to hide unpleasant aspects of one’s professional past from future employers is a question that comes up occasionally, and I have learned from talking to employment-law professionals that it’s better to get it out up front than to be accused of subterfuge. So when Perplexed Aspiring Nurse, a young nursing graduate, wrote in asking how to handle having been fired from a previous job in a doctor’s office, I said she had to cop to what happened. She’d explained to me that the job she lost was one she’d been unprepared for—and that this had propelled her to get her nursing degree. I suggested she use this to explain her firing in a way that showed her determination and desire to improve herself. Indeed that’s what she did. Readers guessed right that the form was electronic, so she had to click “yes” to having been fired, but the form also allowed her write an explanation. She got an interview, and when asked about the firing she said, “I gave her the honest answer and still spun it into the positive. [The interviewer] was very nice about it and understanding.” Perplexed Aspiring Nurse is now a practicing nurse working in an intensive care unit.
And then, of course, there are the family members so rotten it’s criminal. Lots of people have unpleasant family members, but many of the letters I get contain truly appalling ones. Last year I had a letter from a woman asked by her brother to be a character witness in a case in which he was accused of molesting his daughter’s friend. It turns out that the letter writer herself had been molested by her brother when she was a girl! I gave the obvious advice that she could indeed testify to his character, but in a way that would not be something the defense would want to use. She declined to help him, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison. She writes, “This has been a difficult time for our family, but I believe that justice was served. I am glad that I wrote the letter. It seemed strange at the time to reach out in a public forum, but it is often difficult to find truly objective advice and your column offers this. You and your readers helped me immensely and I will always be grateful for everyone’s support.”
We’ll close the year on a particularly nefarious husband and high school teacher who had apparently fallen in love with a 16-year-old live-in exchange student. In March I told his wife, Hope She’s Not Lolita, that she had to take action: The girl needed to get out of their house, the husband needed to get out of teaching, and the wife needed to get out of the marriage. She wrote me a succinct summary of what happened after the letter ran: “The exchange student was placed with a different home and the ex and I are getting a divorce.”
I want to thank the letter writers, readers, and commenters for making this column possible. I wish everyone only happiness for 2015, even while knowing that since I won’t get my wish, there will be enough material to fill another year of Dear Prudence.