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I am a university student enrolled in a class that meets several hours a week. I recognized another student in the class but couldn’t figure out where I knew him from. Recently I asked him, and I really wish I hadn’t. His grandmother used to baby-sit us as kids, and for three years, her husband sexually molested me. Legal action was taken, and I thought I was over it. I had one conversation with his grandmother after the events, and it was clear she was in serious denial. Since the grandson’s revelation, my stomach has been in knots. However, he has been pleasant toward me, and his response when I asked his identity indicated that he has no idea what his grandfather is guilty of. I’m scared that every time I see him, I will be taken back to that time in my life. He has grown to be a very nice young man, from what I can tell. I just don’t know what to do. Should I confront him? Avoid conversations about the past? Avoid him altogether?
—Suffering With Skeletons
It is understandably shocking that a specter from a past you thought was buried has intruded into the safety of your college campus. But this young man’s presence doesn’t have to make you physically and emotionally ill. Instead of thinking of him as a representative of a horrible violation, instead recognize that he comes from a family that’s probably been deeply damaged by the criminal in its midst. From your description of the grandmother, it’s possible the family has never even addressed this sickness. Since molesters go for easy targets, he may have even violated his own children or grandchildren. How brave you were to help stop him. As you know, having something awful happen to you in childhood does not write your whole life. You have emerged as a happy, productive young person; be assured that won’t be undermined by being in a classroom with this fellow student. Don’t tell him about your terrible connection; it would be painful and awkward and ultimately purposeless. I’m sure there are many people on campus with whom you have not much more than a nodding acquaintance, so just keep your interactions with him pleasant and superficial. If you continue to feel shaky, take advantage of your school’s counseling services—ask for someone knowledgeable about sexual abuse. A good therapist should help you work through what’s been stirred up and get you back to feeling confident and safe.
I think my 4-year-old may have heard and possibly seen my husband and me during “private time” one night recently. I had the feeling I was being watched about two minutes before I realized that my bedroom door was open and my son was standing in the doorway. It was an acrobatic two minutes, and I have no idea how long he’d been there. It turns out he had an idea for a better way to prepare his cereal. (He comes up with the strangest things at 2 a.m. Last week, he woke me up with an idea for a new toy.) We heard out his cereal idea (less milk), but I’m not sure what to do about what he saw. Should I let it go and not even address it? Maybe he was so busy thinking about cereal that he didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Should I ask him what his interpretation was before attempting a G-rated explanation? He most likely doesn’t comprehend what he’s seen, but how can I keep this particular topic off of the therapist’s couch in 20 years?
—Afraid of Oedipal
If over the millennia, tiny members of our species were psychologically crushed by stumbling upon their parents having “private time,” we long ago would have gone the way of the broad-faced potoroo. If you think about traditional human living arrangements, you can understand why our ancestors were spared extended debates on the content of sex education curricula, since the children were able to attend late-night demonstration classes. It’s only fairly recently in human history that we stopped being all tumbled together at night, and that we invented privacy and the locked bedroom door. Your son sounds like a delightful young inventor, and I hope that some night at 2 a.m. he will come up with a better way for getting passengers through airport security. But until then, I would let him contemplate his Fruit Loops in peace and not trouble him with the information that what Mommy and Daddy were doing last night is called “suspended congress” in the Kama Sutra. Until he is old enough to write down his nighttime inspirations on a bedside notepad, just flip the lock on your bedroom door when the urge for private time strikes.
I am a 22-year-old woman engaged to a 25-year-old man. We have been together for four years and living together the last two. I love him dearly, but I am having a little trouble with his mother. (Insert mother-in-law joke here.) My biggest issue is that she treats him like he’s still 10 years old! He is the youngest and the only son, so I can understand that she has trouble “letting him go,” but I am starting to think that if she hasn’t done it by now, she never will. She comes over to make sure his laundry is done and that we have enough food. She makes all of his appointments for him and goes with him to each one. When he is sick, she is over all day long. I have talked to him about how it bothers me that his mother goes to his dentist appointments and does his laundry, but he is very nonconfrontational and just tells me that if she wants to do that stuff, it’s OK with him. How can I get her to realize that I am the woman in his life now, that I am fully capable of taking care of him, and that he is fully capable of organizing his life?
You could start leaving notes for her saying things like: “Janet, please put the pot roast in the oven and make sure it’s not overcooked” or “The shirts could be ironed more crisply, and you’re using too much bleach.” The problem is not getting his mother to realize that the umbilical cord is getting mummified by now. The problem is your fiance. About a decade ago, he needed to start the process of pulling away from Mom and taking more responsibility for himself. But he didn’t, and instead he passively let himself be emotionally crippled by her. I’m surprised you also don’t need a lock for your bedroom door to keep her away during private time. You got into this relationship when you were only a teenager yourself, and you’re still a very young woman. If you want your life circumscribed by watching Mommy take Hubby to the dentist, then stick around. But if you want them both to understand he’s an adult, then break it off, pack your stuff, and make him stand on his own.
I recently received a “save the date” card for the wedding of someone I don’t know. The bride is the daughter of the doctor who has an office next door to the law office where I work. Trust me, I’m as confused as you are. Apparently, Dr. Father of the Bride asked my boss for my address and the address of my co-worker. I barely know this man. We sometimes chit-chat about the weather in the elevator. I didn’t even know he had a daughter! I know I can’t ask, “Why on earth are you inviting me to your daughter’s wedding?” But I hope you can help me with this question: Do I have to get them a gift? Half of me says that if I’m invited, I am obligated to. But I’m living paycheck to paycheck. Would a nice card with my best wishes suffice?
Maybe we really do need a health care overhaul if our country’s doctors are now scrounging around their office buildings’ directories in order to come up with people who might contribute to their kids’ dowry. Perhaps this doctor finds your observations about the weather so profound he wants you to share them during the wedding toasts. Perhaps he sees the wedding as an avant-garde piece of performance art composed of confused strangers. Perhaps he’s out of his flaming gourd. But you have incurred no obligations to this man or the mystery bride. Toss the “save the date” note, and when the actual wedding invitation comes, although you may be tempted to respond expressing your bafflement, simply give them your regrets.