Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Oct 29, 2012

Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence takes your questions on manners, morals and more.

Yesterday my husband and I got on one of the last planes out from San Francisco (where it was perfect) to D.C. Yes, we had to get back from vacation in time for the apocalypse! I hope my fellow Easterners ride this thing out safely.

I was a bully in school. I'm not going to justify my behavior in any way. There are no words to describe how monstrous I was. There was one particular kid, "Gina," whom I bullied mercilessly. If I inflicted half as much physical assault in my adulthood as I did to her as a teen, I would be locked up for a very long time. After I became a parent at 19, my daughter experienced some minor bullying. I saw how tormented she was and realized the things I inflicted on my classmates were way worse. I made it a mission to track down the people I hurt and apologize. Due to social media, thankfully it wasn't too difficult. Almost everybody I managed to contact responded with forgiveness. But when I tried to get in touch with Gina, I discovered that she committed suicide in high school. I have very good reasons to believe that she switched schools because of me. I am torn up with guilt and haunted by my past actions. I have nightmares about what I did to her - it's like reverse PTSD where I remember the awful things I've done to others. I have her mother's email address but I haven't had the guts to contact her. Should I send her an email? What do I say? I know this sounds gutless but I'm also scared of any legal consequences I might face after I own up to my actions.

I hope every school administrator sees your letter and contemplates the ramifications of what bullying can do.  Thank goodness we live in a time where this is taken seriously, but even so, vicious bullying still goes on and innocent kids are tormented.  But there is a big dose of hope in your letter.  You have recognized the horror of your actions, you make no excuse, you know you can't undo the harm you inflicted,  but you have reached out to apologize to your victims.  It is also moving to hear that most of them were able to forgive.  Then there is Gina -- my heart broke when I read of this girl's death by her own hand.  I don't think you should contact her mother.  This poor woman doesn't need to hear your voice,  stories of what you did, or have to grapple with the question of forgiving you.  But you need help moving on.  I think you should look for a counselor who specializes in trauma -- it will be an interesting exercise to try to heal someone who inflicted it and is now tormented by it.  I also think you could get involved in an organization that fights bullying. Think how powerful it would be for you to go to schools and talk about the harm you did,  the effects of your actions on others, and on yourself. You're right to be concerned with potential liability, so before you consider doing that, get the advice of an attorney.    Working to make the world better and safer for kids  is a gift you can give to your child and the people you hurt.

My sister is marrying a sexually conservative man, which is to say he "saved himself" for marriage and she did not. My sister has always been honest that she had a number of sex partners (more than twenty, less than thirty) with her fiancé. He always seemed to understand and not care. Then his parents insisted that the couple undergo premarital counseling at their church, and my sister's fiancé told the pastor who counsels them that my sister had premarital sex. The pastor became very judgmental. He suggested my sister had been raped as a young woman because she liked sex, and liking sex was "often" an indication of being raped. He asked my sister's fiancé whether or not he could be happily married to my sister knowing about her multiple partners. Then he brought the fiancé's parents in and told them. Now everyone is acting like my sister is lucky such a standup guy would want to marry her, and she's miserable. She fears breaking the engagement though because she loves her fiancéand thinks this is a phase. She wants my support, but because I think her fiancéand the pastor are so gross, I'm struggling to be supportive of her marriage. Please help.

Oh, what a wedding night that will be. There's your sister who knows her way around a mattress and is used to experienced, sophisticated lovers. And there's her new husband trying to figure out what to do with the equipment.  I can understand that after a randy youth your sister is ready to settle down, but I think she's having an over-reaction if she thinks the way to go is to enter into a situation in which seeking  sexual pleasure is a sign of a previous assault.  This doesn't sound like a phase. Instead it seems that if your sister marries her fiance she will always be considered a marked and damaged woman.  Tell her the truth. Say you will always be there for her no matter what, but you are very concerned that the punitive judgment being rendered by her fiance, his family, and church is not a phase but the start of a long, unpleasant siege.

I was recently on an adult website and clicked on an amateur home video.  I recognized the performers as my supervisor with her husband. I am hoping they both willingly put it online, but I knowing how fiercely private she is, I doubt it. I know she had her personal laptop stolen a couple of years ago when a thief broke into her car and my guess is that he/she got a hold of this. The footage is grainy but someone who knows her well would instantly recognize her face (and the rest of her, I suppose). I feel compelled to alert her, but how? My supervisor is not the most rational person and I fear she might fire me because of the embarrassment and awkwardness. I thought of leaving an anonymous note but it seems cruel, because she'd be forever wondering which one of her coworkers, friends, neighbors, fellow parent at her child's school, etc. saw the clip. Should I tell her?

Seeing your "fiercely private" and "not the most rational" supervisor getting it on with her husband (thank goodness) on an amateur porn site is one of those things you can either find tititllating or repulsive. But after you see it, then down the memory hole it should go.  It may be that you are the only person who knows your boss who  ever stumbles on this grainy video. If you're not, then leave it up to the next person  in her life to alert her.  And you're right, an anonymous note would be cruel and leave her wondering every time she had a conversation about the weather whether the person was actually thinking, "I've seen you naked!"

Dear Prudie, My father is a wonderful man, a WWII vet and a member of The Greatest Generation. As he ages, he tends to vocalize his opinions much more than before. One of his opinions is that homosexuals should not only stay in the closet, but should absolutely not be married. My son is gay and came out to us years ago. I love my son and have always accepted him fully in our lives. When he came out to extended family, most of them are perfectly okay with his orientation. My father, however, frequently says rude remarks to my son about his orientation. Last weekend my son told me that he refuses to be in the company of somebody who is so blunt with his views on his lifestyle. I understand where my son is coming from, but I think he is being a bit dramatic. I think it is unfair that my son refuses to see his grandfather just because they clash on one opinion. My wife is standing by my son and is also avoiding my father. I can't turn my back on my father and all that he has given me and my country for one opinion that he holds. But my son and my wife refuse to be in the same room as my father until he stops saying remarks about homosexuality. I wish that my father could stop saying things to my son and I wish my son could understand that we love people for who they are, not for one opinion they hold. How can I get my family back together again?

If your father served in World War II he is indeed a very old man. I agree with you that people should cut the extremely aged some slack and accept they grew up with certain points of view that we now find repulsive. These viewpoints are dying with them, and it is worth it to see these people whole. However, what you describe is not a case in which your father sometimes makes an occasional, obnoxious, general comment about homosexuals. Instead he makes frequent, direct comments about one homosexual: his grandson. You don't say that your father is mentally addled, instead he uses his time with his grandson to insult and berate him.  I don't blame your son, or your wife, for saying, "Enough."  I hope they aren't telling you to turn your back on your father, but just making clear they no longer care to listen to his rants.  In some situations the compromise is just to understand everyone's point of view and not try to change them.  Continue to visit and honor your father. If he asks why he's not seeing your wife and son explain that his remarks about homosexuals became too frequent and painful and they didn't want to hear them anymore.

I threw a Halloween party this weekend, and my good friend Alicia came. During the party Alicia drank a lot and became very drunk. Even so, she wanted to drive home at the end of the night. I took her keys and refused to return them to her. I offered to call a cab or a sober friend to drive her home and offered to let her stay in my spare room. Alicia freaked out at me and demanded I return her keys to her. She said she was a grown woman and could make her own decisions. I still refused to give her the keys to her car, so eventually she called another friend to drive her home. The next day Alicia emailed me to demand the return of her car keys - I told her and her friend, when she left, that she could pick up her car as soon as she sobered up - and to tell me our eight-year friendship was over. She accused me of being controlling, disrespectful, crazy, and totally out of line. I am hurt by Alicia's decision to end our friendship, but I don't think I did the wrong thing by preventing her from driving drunk. What should I have done? Should I bother reaching out to Alicia and apologizing?

An apology is owed here: Alicia to you. It would have been nice when she sobered up if she said she appreciated your saving her from killing herself or someone else. Instead she's doubling down on her right to break the law and endanger the lives of everyone on the road. So when she comes, assuming she's not still on a bender, hand her the keys and say farewell.

When I was 19, I was raped while serving on active duty in the military and I subsequently got pregnant as result of the rape. Being on active duty isn't like other jobs, and being a single parent (the father was going to jail for rape and aggravated assault) in the military means deployments, odd work hours and 12 hour work days all while stationed thousands of miles from family members who could lend any support. Add that to the stress of a rape trial, and the trauma from the assault itself, and I chosee to end the pregnancy. With all the talk about the military rape scandals, rape and abortion in politics these days, it's something that often comes up in casual conversation. I'm at a point where I can talk about the rape in public, but I'm not sure how to do so in a way that is appropriate. I want people to understand that these things happen, much more often that you think, and that they aren't some abstract political concept but things that happen to real people every day. I would like suggestions on how to do that without clearing the room before I make my point. Awkward Silence

I'm sorry you went through this ordeal and I totally understand your decision. Thank goodness you were able to make it. I just don't understand people who would impinge on this profoundly personal choice. I wonder how public you want to go.  You could be a powerful spokeswoman for reproductive rights  by contacting an organization and telling them you're willing to make your story public.  Whether or not you would consider that, in your personal life it is  up to you in any given situation whether to offer your story -- do not feel obligated. However, if the conversation turns to "real rape" (how unbelievable this is where the national political discussion has taken us) feel free to speak up.  You can say quietly and simply, "I was raped and was impregnanted as a result. My rapist is in jail and I decided not to continue the pregnancy. I just wanted you to know this is not an abstract debate, but it's about real people, unfortunately lots of them." 

Isn't there some sort of obligation on the part of the pastor to keep this kind of information private? Bringing in the fiance's parents and informing them is a gross violation of the couple's privacy. In addition, it is the pastor who suggested that the sister was raped because that's the only reason a woman would like sex. What kind of backwards thinking church is this? And would the sister really want to raise her future children in such a judgmental and repressive environment?

Thanks for pointing out this is an alarming invasion and if the sister goes ahead she's signing up for a life of public shaming.

Three months ago I gave birth to my first child, a daughter with Down Syndrome. My husband and I did not know prior to our daughter's birth that she would have Down Syndrome. I love my daughter so much, but since her birth I have been depressed and very sad, I think because of her extra chromosome. I am so thankful to have a healthy happy baby, but at the same time I feel this grief, and I feel terrible about how I feel. I tried to befriend the parents of children with Down Syndrome, but none of them shared my feelings. I don't know where to turn, because my husband adores our daughter and feels no sadness. Am I a terrible mother?

What you are describing is totally normal. Of course you love your daughter, and of course you are grieving for the more typical child you expected to have. Raising a child with disabilities presents challenges and it doesn't do any good to simply put a smiley face on what's ahead.  It's too bad your support group has not been supportive. It could be that these days most  people who have children with down's Syndrome knew beforehand,  and so you are encountering people who come at this from a different perspective. Perhaps in the on-line community you can find more like-minded people who are struggling with this discovery and with whom you can have a more honest conversation.  I am concerned that three months post-partum you are feeling significantly depressed. Please go back to your ob right away and describe your symptoms. Whatever the origin, post-partum depression is serious and fortunately treatable.  Do not beat yourself up -- you sound like a wonderful, self-aware mother. And be assured you are not alone.

I think there is a real issue in labeling generations "Greatest" or "Entitled." These labels group an extremely large group of people into one personality trait. Some members of the so-called Greatest Generation are probably entitled. Some members of the so-called Entitled Generation are probably hard working, honest individuals. Labeling generations this way does not really help us fairly designate groups of people. Perhaps we should be re-thinking these labels and what they actually mean. I'm glad the LW's father served in WWII and I am thankful for his service. But that doesn't mean he can act any way he wants.

Excellent points, thanks for making them. Yes, the father here seems a little too enamored of hanging a halo over his own father's head. You can honor your father's service, appreciate that he was a great dad, and still be infuriated that he would demean your own son.  If the letter writer feels there's nothing to be accomplished by standing up to the old, old man, okay. But it's a bit much that he expects his son to go over and get bashed.

My husband's first wife died and he maintains a close relationship with her family. He is particularly close to her mother, whom he calls "mom" (his own mother passed away at a young age). Throughout our marriage I respected their relationship, although there were times when I wondered if he was doing a little too much. For example, he has given her a very large sum of money when she bought a new house, or when her nephew got married, etc - more than what we could afford. Another time, her daughter was meant to visit her but had to cancel the trip last minute - so he invited her to come with us on what was meant to be a romantic getaway so she wouldn't be alone on her birthday. She had surgery a couple of times and both times my husband took unpaid sick leave to take care of her. She's been having medical problems but does not want to live in a nursing home. Her daughter lives in another country so my husband now wants her to move in with US. I could see myself living with his father if need be, but this woman has minimal ties with me. We've had horrendous arguments over whether to live with her or not. He says she is his mother and I should not be so heartless. I certainly don't think of her as my MIL and I don't want her to move in with us. What should we do?

Even if his former mother-in-law was his actual mother, I would object to the place she has in his life. People should not go broke to support their parents; they should not ruin romantic weekends with their spouses to accomodate their parents (except for an emergency); and unless both spouses are in favor, they should not move their elderly parents in with them. The problem here is not convincing your husband this woman isn't really his mother, it's that he's undermining his marriage by placing her needs above yours.  I try not to end every letter with a call for therapy, but here goes. Stop having the horrendous fights and get the two of you to a neutral party to help you negotiate how your husband can feel he is honoring this woman while respecting your limits.

Dear Prudence, I am 26 years old, and completely certain that I never want to have children of my own. I am open about this side of myself with partners, family, and friends. For financial reasons, I haven't yet pursued a tubal ligation, but with a new job I'm starting, this surgery may soon be a realistic opportunity. As I consult with doctors to find a suitable course of action, how can I prepare myself for the judgement I may endure because of my young age, and gracefully defend my choice against those who might feel the need to dissuade me? -- Spay-re Me

That you're getting your tubes tied is not something you need to share with anyone.  If you don't want to discuss this, don't bring it up.  But I urge you to choose some less permanent form of birth control. Yes, I know there are many happy child-free people who knew at an early age they never wanted kids and never changed their minds. There are also many people who in their twenties who were convinced they never wanted kids who in their thirties are thrilled to be parents.  It's really hard to imagine at age 26 that life could throw so many twists and turns your way that things you were once certain about are now no longer true.  I understand you may find my remarks presumptuous and offensive, but keep in mind you sought out my opinion.

Prudie, just throwing this out there, but there's a popular blogger and author whose daughter was also unexpectedly born with DS. Her post about her daughter's birth is stunning in its honesty and emotion. The blog is "Enjoying the Small Things" and the author's name is Kelle Hampton (her book about her daughter's first couple years is called Bloom). I'd definitely recommend that this mom read at least the entry about the daughter's birth.

Thank you. That's why the chat is so wonderful -- people who have just the right answer can weigh in.

My husband and I have been helping my in-laws with grocery bills and giving them small amount of money  as they are struggling financially. Through a few poor business decisions, they are now left going through the bankruptcy process and living off social security as their only income. Recently, it has come to my attention that my mother-in-law has made some rather large and expensive purchases and it has upset me, knowing that they have no plans for their future. Since I am supplying them with as much money as I can for little things, do I have a right to question their recent purchases?

Yes. If people are financially dependent on others, then their benefactors have a say in what happens to the money. You are seeing why these people are entering old age with nothing.  I think your husband should contact the local social service agencies that deal with the elderly and see if any offer  financial consulting services that are free or low cost. Your   in-laws need to be on a budget. Then it's up to you and your husband to explain to them that everyone is struggling and that you two need to start saving now for your own retirement.  You can say it's one thing to help with groceries, it's another to realize your money is being diverted into a wide-screen TV.  Inform them that unless they can live within their means, you two are not going to enable their living outside  it.

What the mom who has had the little girl with Down's Syndrome is going through is perfectly normal. It's natural, when parents find out their child has a disability, to go through the stages of grief. Not only should this mom see her OB again, but also check with your state's Medicaid offices. If her child is not eligible for Medicaid, they can still help connect her with agencies that can provide support services. Children with Down's can live very fulfilling and happy lives, but that starts with a parent armed with information and education about her child's condition, and there are service agencies that provide that. I wish this mom the best. Once she is through the grieving process (a counselor could help her with that, too) and reaches a point of acceptance, she can begin to work toward giving her sweet daughter the best life possible. Kids with Down's are also some of the most affectionate people around, so she will really enjoy that aspect of her daughter's condition. She just has to get through the initial difficult stages.

More good advice, thanks, especially about seeing what government services are available to help this family.

I work in a small office of around 30 people. At 26, I'm the youngest female employee by about 10 years. The owner of our company is in his late 70s. He's rarely in the office, but shows up for a few weeks at a time to check on things. I dress appropriately for my age and in business casual attire. No cleavage, no tight, revealing clothes, and no short skirts. Despite being appropriately dressed, the owner still finds reasons to "check me out". He isn't subtle at all in his long up and down glances or his stares in the kitchen. One time he asked me if I worked out when I bent down to retrieve a box. Prudie, it makes me so uncomfortable! I don't know if I should speak up to someone about it, since he hasn't physically done anything to me. We don't have an HR department or really anyone who fits that role, so I'm not sure who I would talk to. Any suggestions on how to handle this old gawker with tact? Thanks.

He's the owner, there's no HR, he likes to gawk.  I think you've got yourself a perfect storm here of having to put up with occasional unpleasantness.  Fortunately he's not around often and he keeps his hands to himself. I am not defending this disgusting old coot, but I don't see a way to make this stop except leaving the company.  When you interact with him be cordial and professional. If he asks questions that lead to conversations about your body cut them off. Boss: "Hey, do you work out?" You: "No. But I do have a lot of work, so please excuse me." 

Dear Prudence: I am a 52-year-old attorney and single mother of three teenagers. I have my own solo practice, and I enjoy what I do - when I do it. My problem is, I get to my office, and I get on Facebook, then go to Pinterest, then read your column - and before I know it, the day is over and I've done nothing. I'm very frustrated with myself. I never miss deadlines, but I should be working harder. We should be comfortable financially, but I make just enough for us to scrape by. I really did buy a book on procrastination, which I never finished reading. I went to a counselor (I had a very hard time finding one I could afford, as my insurance doesn't pay for it), and all she said was, "Well, stop it." I tried ADHD medication and it made me feel jittery and terrible. Do you have any other ideas? Thank you.

You sound like me, except I don't have a law degree and I waste my time with other stuff besides Pinterest and Facebook.  First of all, it's important to start your day with my column. After you accomplish that goal, you need to have systems built in that remove temptation.  I know there is software you can put in place that will keep you off-line so install some. That way you will only be able to work on your documents for a given period, until you're allowed a window of reward.  Instead of beating yourself up, I think mindfulness therapy is a useful way to go. It means you accept your flaws and try to handle them, instead of seeking to trying to extirpate them.  Maybe it would help to say, "I've got three great kids, I've built a practice I enjoy, and I like scrolling the web a little too much." Then when you have an urge to waste time, you say, "Yes, there I go again, I really want to check Facebook, and why not, it's fun.  But right now, I'm going to finish two more pages first." Maybe I'll even try taking my own advice!

Thanks everyone.  I hope we ride this out safe and dry.  Fingers crossed we'll have power in time for next week's chat.  Good luck!

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Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, offers advice on manners, morals and more. She is also Slate's Human Guinea Pig, a contributor to the XX Factor blog, and the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.

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