Click here to read a transcript of Prudie’s live weekly chat with readers at Washingtonpost.com.
My wife and I have been married for four years, and we have a 2-year-old son. She’s going to school full time, our son’s in day care, and I work in a rapidly declining industry for mediocre pay. Times are hard financially. My wife was born in another country and abandoned by both of her parents as a child. She met her father only once, when he arrived unexpectedly at our wedding. Over the past year, she has begun talking to him on the phone and trying to build a relationship. He has recently offered her a substantial amount of money as a gift, an amount that’s close to my annual salary. We are living in the United States, and he is in my wife’s homeland, an impoverished nation that has suffered through several brutal wars over the past 40 years. The issue is complicated by the fact that my father-in-law fought for the faction that killed millions of civilians. He apparently rose through the ranks and is now relatively wealthy and owns a vast swath of land. Can accepting this money be rationalized in any way?
There’s a reason the phrase “blood money” chills the blood. You know your father-in-law is able to give you such a generous gift because he’s become a wealthy man through murder and confiscation. You and your wife may be lovely and will use the money only for the most benign purposes, but Lady Macbeth can tell you evil stains don’t wash out so easily. I talked to Charles Tucker, executive director of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University, and he mentioned a couple of possible legal complications to taking the money. First, look up the Alien Tort Claims Act. This allows people who are the victims of human rights abuses to bring suit in the United States, even if the crimes were committed elsewhere. It is a legal growth industry, and if your father-in-law is caught up in such a prosecution, his victims could lay claim to his money—which could lead back to you. Also, if your father-in-law’s country is listed by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism, you could be subject to restrictions on accepting money from that country.
But let’s face the ugly fact that a good way to get away with murder is to commit it on a mass scale and assume your father-in-law remains rich and free. That still doesn’t remove the moral taint that you already acknowledge. Additionally, perhaps this generosity comes with some future strings. Maybe he contemplates a time when it would be useful to leave his country, so he’d like some relatives in America who feel an obligation to help him. Or maybe he wants to draw you in with a gift, then propose you start doing some financial laundry for him. Finally, Chaucer’s story “The Pardoner’s Tale” is an instructive take on ill-gotten cash.
A couple of months ago, my boyfriend had part of his ceiling collapse. I told him he was welcome to stay with me until it was repaired. It’s fixed now, but he’s still at my place. I travel frequently for work and have been coming home to some unpleasant surprises. He’s trying to be helpful but says he’s “just a guy.” So when he does the laundry, my dark clothes end up covered in light-colored towel fluff. There are other disgusting and unsanitary issues like the trail of urine running down my toilet and the kitchen counter spotted with grease or food. I’m not a neat freak, but I do think that he should respect my living space. I even hired a cleaning lady—but neither she nor I can clean up after him every day. After an exhausting trip, I came home to a new mystery odor and again set upon scrubbing his urine off of my bathroom floor. I don’t want to marry or have kids, and I’m tired of acting like his mommy, but I do want to keep him as my boyfriend. How do I get him out of my house without getting him out of my life?
He may be a true slob, or he may be “just a guy” (if you had a Venn diagram of these two states, the overlap would be significant), but face it—you’re a neat freak. You are entitled to be one, but it’s a good thing that until now you have lived alone. Either your boyfriend adores you or his apartment is a dump, because having someone monitor every crumb you leave and drop of urine you discharge has got to be a real drag. (As comedian Rita Rudner once observed about men’s relationship to toilets, “They aren’t too specific.”) The best way to get him out of your apartment is to tell the truth: Living together full-time is driving both of you crazy and will destroy your relationship. Explain that his moving in has made you realize that having another person around to mess up your pristine space is not for you, and surely he can’t be happy having you chase after him with a wet rag. There are no guarantees he will continue to be your boyfriend, but if he’s stuck around this long, he seems unlikely to end it just because you want him to go back to dribbling on his own bathroom tiles.
My teenage niece, who is undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma, is currently bald. My sister-in-law insists she wear a wig both in the house and in public because her daughter’s baldness “makes people uncomfortable.” My niece hates the wig and prefers to wear a scarf or nothing at all. I think the person who is most uncomfortable with my niece’s current appearance is her mother. I think her demand about the wig stems from both her belief in the importance of a woman’s appearance and also her genuine fear of her daughter’s illness. At first, I wasn’t going to say anything because my niece has never bought into her mother’s vanities, but then my niece called me sobbing, saying over and over again, “Mom thinks I’m ugly now.” What is the best way to address my sister-in-law’s inappropriate overemphasis on her daughter’s appearance without worsening an already difficult situation?
How awful that your niece not only has to confront her mortality, but she must try to deal with her mother’s anxieties and insecurities. Your niece has now reached out to you, so you must try to help her. Sit down with your sister-in-law and gently tell her you understand how scared and worried the whole family is over her daughter’s diagnosis and that you’ve noticed tension over the effects of the chemo on your niece’s appearance. Suggest that she and her daughter meet with the hospital social worker at the cancer center to talk about this. The social worker should also be able to direct your niece to a support group for young cancer patients, where she can discuss this and everything that’s going on in her life. Perhaps the therapist can also meet with her privately or direct her to a counselor schooled in helping people undergoing treatment. And since she feels that she can confide in you, step in and step up. Take her out—wigless—and let her vent about her life. This girl needs a supportive, nonjudgmental, loving adult to help her get through this ordeal.
I’m getting married in a few months, and the preparation has gone smoothly, except for one detail. For the cake, we are limited to certain flavors because I have allergies to some common ingredients, including a severe reaction to chocolate. My fiance’s mother and sisters flew into a hissy about it when they found out. I was bombarded with almost daily demands that I choose a chocolate cake. Not even my bridal party could convince dear mother-in-law that it was out of the question. My fiance told them that ingesting even a little chocolate could put me in the hospital. But they say the cake is “for the guests” and that I’m being too controlling. Now my future mother-in-law and her daughters have said that they will refuse to enjoy the wedding without a “decent chocolate cake.” I fear how these women will act toward me once I’m family. How can I pacify this impending riot?
I admire you for resisting the temptation to order chocolate cupcakes for them and put strychnine in the frosting. Ah, a case where the bride is behaving normally, while those around her are demanding monsters! This gruesome group takes the cake and sounds like something out of the Brothers Grimm. Maybe they want to be the first on their block to have the wedding reception segue into a funeral cortege. Mother-in-law and her daughters are free to dislike the wedding and make themselves look like a bunch of brats having a tantrum. The best weddings always feature insane antics so the guests have something to talk about on the ride home. The way you deal with them now, and in the future, is to serenely float above their ridiculous demands. If the cake question comes up again, just say with a smile, “Myrna, I understand how you feel about chocolate, but we won’t be having it at the wedding, so there’s no point in our discussing it further.”