Click here to read a transcript of Prudie’s live weekly chat with readers at Washingtonpost.com.
The ickiest thing in my professional career just happened, and I’m not sure what to do. I’m a reporter, and while waiting around for an assignment, I poked around in the files on a company laptop to pass the time. There wasn’t much, so I went into the trash. It was full of pictures. The first ones were head shots of a girl. I kept clicking and found the same girl, naked, in explicit poses. I figured I had stumbled onto a co-worker’s porn habit when I realized it was my boss’s daughter, who is in high school. The laptop does get taken home on occasion by top staff. I emptied the trash, deleting all the pictures. It was weird seeing my boss the next day. I didn’t tell him about the pictures. Should I have? Does a parent want to know if his teen is taking these kinds of pictures? What if he doesn’t believe me? I don’t even want to think about more sinister reasons why these pictures were taken. Was there a better way to handle this? What should I do?
—Wishing I Hadn’t Looked in the Trash
After I finish suggesting what I think you should do, you may need to look for new employment. This might not be a bad idea, anyway, not only because of the state of the news business but because of your lack of reporter’s instincts. You stumble upon what might be the biggest story of your career, and you decide the best thing to do is delete the evidence? Let’s take the most benign reading and suppose that this teenage girl thought it was fun to have some graphic pictures taken of herself and then download them onto her father’s company laptop. No, it doesn’t make much sense, but maybe it’s sexting gone awry. You may not want to think about the “more sinister” reasons why the pictures were there, but any sentient person is going to consider the possibility that Dad is responsible. Because your boss might be the perpetrator, do not tell him what you found. Something horrible may be happening to this girl, and you need to alert the authorities. I spoke to Janis Wolak, senior researcher at the Crimes Against Children Research Center, who said that most sexual abuse happens in the home, and it’s not unusual for an offender to put images on a work computer. She suggests, as a first step, that you contact your local child protective services. The staff should be trained to investigate in a sensitive manner what’s actually going on. Another possibility is your state office of the federally funded Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which likely can retrieve the deleted files. You should be able to report your suspicions anonymously to either place. If it ends up that the girl was responsible for the photos and your name comes out, you can tell your boss you couldn’t evaluate what you found and felt a duty to protect his daughter. And if it turns out to be more sinister after all, make sure you get a piece of the story.
I am a female doctor in my mid-20s working in a small private practice. I really like my patients and my boss (a middle-aged male doctor), but I am having problems with some of the staff. Several members of the all-female staff openly disrespect me in front of patients. One has introduced me to patients as “Mrs.” instead of “Dr.” and has called me by my first name. Others have questioned my recommended treatment (also in front of the patient). I have even been snapped at within earshot of patients for making simple requests (like locating a patient’s chart). I feel these staffers are undermining the trust and respect of my patients, many of whom (especially the older ones) already have trouble believing I’m a doctor because of my age and sex. All of these women are considerably older than I am, so it’s difficult for me to confront them. (I also hate confrontation.) So far, I’ve ignored it, but it isn’t going away. How can I get them to stop but also still be nice?
—Female Doogie Howser
The staff is testing you, and the disrespect is going to spread more efficiently than swine flu if you don’t initiate a quarantine. From now on, right after each incident, pull the miscreant aside and address the misbehavior. You want to strike a tone of brisk confidence, which means no defensiveness and no apology. So say something like, “I notice you introduced me to the last patient as ‘Mrs. Howser.’ It’s ‘Dr. Howser,’ and that’s how you need to refer to me in front of patients.” Or, “If you have a question about my treatment, I welcome discussing it with you later. However, you are not to contradict me in front of patients.” Or, “When I ask you to perform one of your duties, I expect you’ll do it efficiently and politely. It’s unacceptable for patients to hear you complain about a request I’ve made.” Keep this up, and it’s likely you’ll see the contempt is quickly contained. If it isn’t, or if a few people continue to subvert you, you must talk to your boss; such behavior corrodes the practice he has built. And remember, while sexism may never be completely eradicated, despite your profession’s best efforts, the generation that can’t believe a woman is a doctor will eventually die out.
I recently married the man I love, and we are expecting our first child. He is a great husband … and a cheater. He never cheated on me, but he did have an affair during his first marriage about five years ago. He felt great guilt over it, ended the affair, confessed to his wife, and tried to work it out, but the marriage couldn’t be saved. My problem is that I can’t get over the affair. I didn’t even know him then, but I relive it in my mind almost constantly. He knows that I’m paranoid about this and does everything he can to reassure me that despite his past, he doesn’t want to ruin his life a second time, especially since there would be a child involved. It’s driving me insane. I can’t keep living like this, and, more importantly, I know my marriage won’t survive if I do nothing but think about it. Is the saying “once a cheater, always a cheater” true? How can I move on from a past that isn’t even mine?
Dear Paranoid Wife,
Your husband is not a cheater; he’s someone who once cheated and is now your faithful husband. Guess what: Virtually everyone is capable of cheating, even you, which doesn’t mean you’re going to do it. And someone who did it once is not doomed to repeat. Your husband was distressed by his affair, and he tried to make amends. He was honest with you about his past. He sounds like a reliable, self-aware person. You have at least enough self-awareness to acknowledge that if you keep up like this, you’re going to wreck your marriage. Probably a good way to drive someone to cheat is to constantly harass him about cheating, even though he’s not. What you need to do is break your destructive thought pattern. Get The Worry Cure by Robert Leahy. It has concrete advice on how to stop this chronic fretting and gives you steps to redirect your mental energy to something more constructive, like what your as-yet-unborn child is going to get on the SATs.
I have learned from experience that the best way to get along with my three sisters is to limit my time with them, and when I am around them, to smile and keep my mouth shut. For the past three years, my sister “Tina” and her husband have rented an expensive house at the beach for a week and invited me and my other sisters to come, provided we pay a portion of the rent. Tina likes the best of everything, and if my husband and I participated, we would end up spending close to $1,000. I would rather spend that money doing something I really enjoy. The first year I said I couldn’t join them because of a schedule conflict, and the last two years I simply have not responded to the invitation. I think Tina is a little miffed, but it certainly isn’t because the group will miss my company. She and her husband have two homes, no kids, and boatloads of money, yet they are looking for help in financing a beach vacation that meets their specifications. Should I reveal my true feelings to Tina or just keep my mouth shut (as usual).
—Call Me Mum
Dear Call Me,
It’s not a surprise that you don’t get along. You refuse to discharge the simple courtesy of declining Tina’s invitation. By not responding, you think you’re sending this message: “I can’t believe that someone as rich as you would be so presumptuous as to decide where you want to take a vacation, then expect me to use my precious time and money to pay for your pretentious choice.” Actually, you are sending this message: “All of you know how impossible I am, so I’m acting badly to give you something to talk about when you’re lying on the beach.” It’s true that if people want to organize a family getaway that everyone chips in for, then everyone should have a say in choosing the locale. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be gracious to your sister and thank her for the offer. You could explain to Tina that the beach house vacation is out of your price range and suggest that next year all the sisters find a mutually agreeable place to get together. But if a group getaway doesn’t interest you, then explain you’ve already planned a vacation in the Rockies.