Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.
Q. Sudden transition: My off-and-on boyfriend told me he’s going to transition. He said he let his hair grow a bit long, and then just looked in the mirror and saw a woman. I don’t want to be insensitive to whatever he’s going through, but I don’t think this is a real trans case. The trans people I know say they felt trapped in the wrong body since at least adolescence. Should I express my concerns to him?
A: You should not tell your “on-and-off” partner that she is not really trans, no. Lots of trans people are acutely aware of their own dysphoria from an early age, but that’s not the case for everyone, and the “trapped in the wrong body” narrative is far from the only way to describe a transgender experience. If you’re interested in learning a bit more about the limitations of that particular narrative, this essay by Janet Mock is a good place to start.
Sometimes when a person is beginning to come out, they can’t immediately and perfectly find the words to distill an inchoate longing, desire, or identity, and whatever your erstwhile ex’s process has looked like, I can promise you her transition is not a mere whimsy of the moment that came after she looked at herself in the mirror and saw long hair. What she is trying to tell you is not, “I grew my hair out and thought it might be fun to transition in a world that is not kind to trans women,” but, “I saw something in myself, something I may not have understood well before or felt comfortable articulating; it was something meaningful and rooted in identity, presentation, and appearance. I saw myself in the mirror, and something was different, and something was consistent, and I want you to know about it.”
If nothing else, bear this in mind: Any trans person who has reached the point of telling their family and friends has absolutely asked themselves the question, “But am I really trans?” 1 million times over. This question has absolutely occurred to her, and she’s decided the answer is yes.
Q. Husband in denial about baby allergy: I’ve recently come to the realization that our baby is allergic to dogs. This shouldn’t be a problem, except my husband loves dogs. We have cats right now, and when we got married it was with the understanding that when our cats die, and our kids are a little older, we would get a dog. Instead of accepting it, my husband is in denial and thinks that allowing her to play with and be licked by dogs will help her get over this issue. This causes her to sneeze, get red eyes, and break out into hives where she’s been licked.
What can I do to get it through to him that while this won’t kill her like a food allergy, it’s cruel and unfair? Also, since everyone in our extended family has a dog, is it fair to ask them to put dogs outside or in a bedroom and vacuum before we visit? I don’t want to be annoying, but she’s not old enough to understand why she can’t play with their dogs, and everyone will be miserable if we need to hold her the entire visit to prevent her crawling on the carpet.
A: I’m dimly aware that exposure therapy can be occasionally helpful in dealing with certain allergies, but I have no idea whether your husband’s strategy of “let dogs lick our baby sometimes” falls anywhere under that therapeutic umbrella. If you haven’t already, take your baby to the pediatrician for an allergy test, and make sure both you and your husband are present to ask questions and listen to the doctor’s recommendations. Once you know more about the nature and extent of your child’s allergies, you’ll have a better sense of what accommodations you’ll need to request before inviting guests over or taking your baby to visit family.
Q. Blind spot: I have a close friend who, though creative and marvelously witty, has an awful blind spot about her “sensitive and kind” personality. She prides herself specifically on being forgiving, but she withholds that particular kindness for all kinds of reasons, and can hold a grudge better than almost anyone I know. While it’s her right to forgive or not forgive, is there any way to gently tell her, next time she starts harping on, “Well, I never got an apology,” that perhaps some things are also her fault? And perhaps, if she’s going to tell people that she’s very kind and forgiving, then she should perhaps bury a few grudges?
A: Yes, I think there is. This is, of course, not a guarantee that your friend will not turn her blind spot on you if you attempt this; it’s entirely possible that you might say this extremely gently and thoughtfully and she’ll still ice you out. Life is unpredictable, I’m afraid, but the work is still worth doing. You can take the softer option, and next time she brings up one of her many grudges, refuse to give her conversational purchase or affirm her victim status: “I’m sorry to hear that!” “That sounds like it’s still really painful for you. I’m sorry, and I hope you can find a way to move past it.” “Relationships can be so complicated, can’t they?”
At the very least, this will diminish the amount of time you two spend rehashing her old resentments and will go a long way toward making you feel more honest and less like you’re tacitly encouraging a pattern you think is unhealthy. You also don’t have to affirm or deny anything when and if your friend refers to herself as “kind and loving.” You don’t have to do anything!
You could also, of course, simply tell her what you have told me if you think she’s open to hearing it. But I’m of the opinion that it’s better to ask questions designed to invite further self-examination rather than to come out and say, “I don’t think you’re especially forgiving, and you dwell on grudges more than you should.” The next time she brings up someone else she’s angry with, try to redirect her focus. “It seems like this sort of thing has been coming up a lot for you lately. Have you given much thought to what this might look or feel like from their perspective? Have you considered talking to a therapist about this pattern? Do you feel like you’ve played a part in these falling-outs that you want to examine further?”
I can’t predict her response with certainty, but I think you should be prepared for at least initial pushback. Hopefully you’ll be able to make it clear that you’re saying this because you care for her and want to help her find a more peaceful way to live, not because you have contempt for her or think she’s secretly a jerk.
Q. How do you tell someone they’re bad at what they love to do? I’m an avid reader and freelance writer, and I’m pretty public on social media about my passions. Because of this, I’m often asked by friends and acquaintances to read their book/manuscript/screenplay, /et cetera, and to let them know what I think. I’ve read some excellent stories this way—but not all of them are fantastic. Grammar issues and punctuation errors can be fixed, but I sometimes see plots with obvious holes, characters that are nothing but stereotypes, cliché dialogue—you name it.
I don’t want to shoot down someone’s dream (especially if they’ve been working on it for years), but I also don’t want to falsely praise a book I’d never recommend. How should I respond when the writer asks, “What do you think?”
A: You can always decline to read someone’s unpublished work if you’re fairly sure you’re not going to like it. A generic “Thanks, but I try not to review friends’ work—it’s too close to home, and I think it’s more useful to get an objective, third-party opinion,” or even “Sorry, I can’t commit to reading anyone else’s projects; I’m overbooked as it is,” will serve as a bland deflection. But if what you’re trying to figure out is whether or not someone wants actual, thoughtful critique or simply a cheerleader, I think the best thing to do is ask before you sit down to read their work. “I’m happy to offer feedback or suggestions, and I’m also happy to simply encourage you, if that’s what you’re looking for. What are you hoping to get out of this?”
Q. The R-word: I was recently having drinks with three other friends when one of them told us about how his parked car had been bumped into by another driver earlier in the week. He concluded, “I know we’re not supposed to say this, for some reason, but the driver must have been fucking retarded.” I politely commented that he was right, a lot of people are offended by that term, insinuating that I was among them. The three of them clearly recognized my indignation with the casual use of the word and started using the word excessively for the next 10 minutes of the conversation, apparently to get a reaction out of me. I reacted by telling them that they were being ignorant assholes with respect to people with intellectual disabilities and just plain assholes with respect to me, their friend. The storyteller argued he didn’t understand why he couldn’t use the word because it’s a medical term. I forcefully told him that the word is no longer a term used to accurately describe a medical condition, but used almost exclusively as a derogatory, hurtful word.
People curse and use derogatory language almost daily, was I right to draw the line here regarding this particular word? When, if ever, is it acceptable to use that word?
A: Your friends were being assholes. Leaving aside the question of whether it’s ever possible to use that particular word in an appropriate way (I don’t believe there is), the fact that your friends responded to your measured criticism by repeating an ableist slur gleefully and in an attempt to make you upset says a great deal about their respect for you. There’s a significant difference between using coarse or vulgar language, which has its uses, and using demeaning terms to dismiss other people as less than worthy, particularly in a way that’s stigmatizing and reinforces a hierarchy of value. What your storytelling friend said was cruel and demeaning, and the rest of the group responded to a gentle rebuke by wallowing in further cruelty. They made the wrong choice.
Q. Friend is furious I contacted her family when concerned for her well-being: My friend has had many bad things happen recently. She cried hysterically via phone to one friend, and texted me that there “didn’t seem to be a point,” then stopped responding to us. My friend and I got concerned and contacted her family to see if one of them who lives close could check on her. She then contacted us, saying, “Stop contacting my family,” so we did.
She didn’t talk to us for days, then texted me saying that contacting her family was “fucked up and offensive.” I’ve apologized, saying, “I made the wrong call, I’m sorry, I’ll do whatever I can to make amends.” No response. Others in my life have attempted suicide, including our mutual friend. That’s where my mind went, rightly or wrongly.
I’m worried I’ve lost her friendship forever. How do I make amends?
A: Right now, I think the most useful amends you can offer your friend is to continue to respect her boundaries and let her re-establish contact. I can understand your concern for her well-being, but it’s also possible that she’s not close with her family for good reason, and her behavior at the time, while certainly cause for concern, may not have merited direct family intervention. You acted out of love for her, but good motives don’t always translate 100 percent of the time into the best possible action. I’m not sure what the best possible action would have been at the time; you didn’t necessarily do something objectively wrong, but it still hurt her, and that’s always tricky.
You’ve apologized and promised not to contact her family on her behalf again, which is all you can do at present. If she continues to keep her distance, then I think you should respect that—she knows you’re available if and when she decides to reopen contact.
Q. Re: Husband in denial about baby allergy: I’m kind of surprised that the baby can tolerate cats—typically cats cause more allergic reactions than dogs, and people are allergic to the protein in cat spit, which is basically airborne and floats everywhere.
I digress. I would think having your doctor weigh in on your child’s allergies would be helpful. An official diagnosis and a treatment protocol (“Do not have a dog in your house with your allergic child.”) should sway your husband if he’s a reasonable adult.
And you might end up with a child who, despite allergies, wants a dog. This is what happened with my nephew, who underwent a series of allergy shots to decrease his allergenic reactions to dogs. While no dog is hypoallergenic, there are a number of breeds that are far less triggering: poodles, bichons, coton de tulears. My nephew got a bichon and didn’t have a problem (he was, I think, 8 when he started the series of allergy shots).
A: Getting a formal treatment protocol is absolutely the best thing to do! Right now, the letter writer and their husband are both operating with a degree of uncertainty and ambiguity, and finding out what’s the best possible treatment from a medical professional is going to be extremely useful. There’s also no reason to get a dog right now while you’re also dealing with a newborn—the letter writer is probably already pretty swamped—but it’s great to bear in mind that, in the future, if they do decide to get one, there are a number of breeds that are easier on allergy sufferers.
Q. Are you my auntie? When I was 5, my dad got remarried to my stepmom, whose daughter (I’ll call her Millie) was 8 at the time. We were always friendly with each other, and haven’t had much of an issue since.
Millie has a daughter and a son, but they live on the opposite side of the country and aren’t able to visit now. Her daughter is 4, and when I saw her over the summer, she briefly referred to me as auntie. Millie pulled her daughter to the side and told her that I was not her auntie and that I was to be referred to by my first name. I’m not her godmother, nor have I been given another special role in her life, so I always thought that auntie fit me best. I never thought we were so disconnected, but I guess I was wrong. What should I say, if anything?
A: It may be that you and your stepsister have very different views of your own relationship. Without knowing more about the history of your interactions together, I’m reluctant to offer direct advice about whether to speak further with Millie about your honorifics.
Saying nothing is certainly an option. The fact that you two grew up together, but you only describe your relationship as “friendly” and relatively free from “issues” suggests that that may, in fact, be your best option.
If you do broach the subject, however, you should make it clear that you’re not asking her to change anything, nor demanding to be referred to as “auntie,” but that you do consider her and her daughter part of your family, and that you care for her. If she’s receptive to that, maybe you two can have a useful conversation about what you mean to one another, and how you can interact with one another’s extended family in the future. If she draws a line, I think you should respect it, and let it go.
Q. Re: Sudden transition: My ex went through something similar. They grew their hair for a bit, and then, one day after reading some things online, determined they were trans. I had the same reaction—I have known other trans people, and they were all very clear that they had been aware something was wrong since childhood or adolescence. However, my ex is now happily living her life as a woman. I never expressed my concerns, and I think it was for the best that I didn’t.
A: I’m glad to hear that your ex is doing well and that you found a way to process your own feelings externally to your relationship with her. One thing the letter writer might find helpful is to bear in mind that, while some of the changes to their ex’s physical presentation may be new, they do not have access to the inside of their ex’s head—what we see externally is not necessarily the first or best representation of an internal experience. This is an opportunity to learn more about the vast diversity of trans experiences, to ask questions of a trans-competent therapist or at a PFLAG meeting, and to offer support.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for your help, everyone. Lots of heavy stuff today—take care of yourselves, and each other. See you next week.