Dear Prudence

Past Imperfect

I want to bury my wretched childhood, but the new in-laws insist on a rehash.

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Dear Prudie,
I was raised by an abusive, alcoholic mother who told me that the only reason she chose not to abort me was so my brother would have someone to use as a punching bag, which he did. She was a psychopathic woman who became violent when she drank. She even stabbed me once. Then my father was killed, directly as a result of her abuse, and she committed suicide a few months later. As an adult I’ve come to accept my past and use it to firm my resolve to be a better parent when the time comes. I recently married and have explained everything to my husband. But his family has started to ask about my parents and how they passed away. I don’t regret my mother’s suicide. She was an evil, callous, heartless woman. But I don’t want to share this, or how my father died. My husband’s family is my family, too, now, and the in-laws feel they have a right to some answers. While a part of me agrees, I feel that we would all regret it if I did share. How can I put an end to the questions about my past and specifically my parents’ deaths?

—No Tell-All

Dear No,
I hope you know how extraordinary it is that you have emerged from this cauldron of malevolence to become a fully functional adult who is able to love and to look forward to giving your children the start you never had. It’s important that you shared your early life with your husband, so that you don’t carry this burden alone. Your in-laws’ curiosity is natural, and your evasions about your parents must have them wondering whether there’s something dreadful you’re keeping from them. Their imaginations must run riot: “Maybe there was a suicide.” “Probably drugs or alcohol.” “It seems like there must have been abuse.” “There could have been a murder!” Since they’re likely already thinking the worst, finding out the truth, or as much as you want to reveal, will probably not be a shock. It will be better for them to know at least the outlines of what you suffered. For that, your husband should be your go-between. He can say: “Melanie has overcome a crushing childhood. Her mother was a violent alcoholic who committed suicide. Her father was also disturbed and he died from an altercation with the mother. Melanie herself was physically and psychologically abused. You can understand that this is a topic that’s very painful for her to discuss.” Then he can say you two have agreed not to make your upbringing verboten, but it would be appreciated if his parents would let you talk about it on your own schedule. If you haven’t had therapy and don’t want it, I won’t push you to start. But when the time comes for you to be a mother, consider that sometimes pain people think was buried long ago resurfaces. Be open to talking to a professional about what you went through. You might also want to take a parenting class, so you feel confident about your intrinsic ability to be a wonderful mother.


Dear Prudence: Patronizing Co-Worker

Dear Prudence,
Toward the start of my summer job, I “hooked up” with one of my co-workers. She is a few years older and much more sexually experienced. Before I slept with her, I had never even held hands with a girl. She initiated it, and I went along. We have slept together a few times, but she has a long-term boyfriend, which I knew about from the beginning. After the first time, I told her it was a horrible mistake and we couldn’t repeat it. Well, that didn’t stop either of us. She has told me that she is falling for me, and I feel guilty because I don’t feel the same way, and because she has a boyfriend. My job ends soon, and I’m going back to college, but this whole experience has shaken me because I’ve behaved in a way that’s contrary to who I thought I was and who my parents raised me to be. I feel like there’s a permanent stain on me now, and I don’t know how to get over this guilt. Where do I go from here?

—Confused and Guilty

Dear Confused,
First you check to make sure you’re home alone, then you run around the house shouting: “I’m not a virgin anymore! I got laid! She liked it so much she came back for more! Who’s the stud? Me! I am the stud!” You’re a college student who’d never been kissed. Now you are a man who has had sex with an “older” woman who showed you around the bed. This experience will be a huge advantage the next time you have sex with a new partner. You will not be consumed with performance-killing thoughts of how you have no idea what goes where. Sure, your co-worker had a boyfriend, but the summer fling is celebrated in story and song. There is nothing here for you to berate yourself about, unless you impregnated her or contracted an STD. It’s true that sex shakes people up; growing up shakes people up. You leave home and realize you aren’t simply a vessel your parents filled with lessons and bromides, however worthy. Your racy summer adventure hardly qualifies as a trip to the dark side. But you learned a lovely thing about yourself: You’d prefer to have sex with someone you really care about. Where you go next is, you find someone who fits that criterion, then you enjoy each other in and out of the sack.


Dear Prudence,
I’m a 26-year-old guy who, after two tumultuous years of under- and unemployment, found a steady job with good pay and perks. My department needs a new member to do the same thing I do. It’s a tough job with lots of pressure and deadlines. My boss is keeping me in the loop on the hiring process, sending résumés and writing samples my way. A majority of the applications I see are from people who graduated this year. I feel frustrated at the thought of hiring some recent grad when there are so many of my kin out there: twentysomethings who have been struggling to find work for several years and would love this job. Ultimately, the best person should get it, but I feel resentful about the process. What should I do?

—Reverse Ageist

Dear Ageist,
As long as you vow to be welcoming and open-minded toward whoever gets the position, I think it’s fine if you advocate for your cohort. Of course there are millions of people out of work, from newly minted grads with crushing college debts to middle-aged people with crushing mortgages and tuition payments for the kids. It is painful, though, to see young people who have had no chance for several years now to start their careers get lapped by even “fresher” young people. Your boss may think the résumés of the people in their mid-20s are a little moldering. But you can make the case that, like yourself, people a few years out (or even older) have been tested by the difficulties they’ve faced and will bring maturity and dedication to the job—and they can also be had for the price of a starting salary.


Dear Prudence,
My in-laws are kind, generous, and fun to be around. We live in different parts of the country so we get to see them about five times a year. This has become more important now that we have a child. Our 4-year-old adores his grandparents. My in-laws want to make the next family trip a Caribbean cruise. I hate cruises. I think they’re unsafe, but more importantly they’re a horrible display of inequality and cluelessness about the conditions in which local populations in the “ports of visit” live. I’m horrified about the prospect of cruising on a luxury ship and docking in the “private islands” that the cruise company owns, knowing that the local people will not get a penny out of the cruise. It fills me with dread and offends every liberal bone in my body. However I don’t want to deny our son the chance to spend time with his grandparents, and he’ll probably have a great time. So my plan is to go, but to also give money to credible local charities to somewhat compensate for the damage that the cruise business is doing. Is this a good compromise or a pathetic cop-out?

—Up the Creek

Dear Up,
I have liberal friends who volunteer their time and money to make the world a better place who also love cruises. They’ve never expressed the slightest guilt over indulging in this well-earned vacation. I’m grateful I’ll never have to go on a cruise because of a seasickness-prone husband and daughter. Being stuck in the middle of the ocean, having to constantly make conversation with fellow passengers, and trying not to throw myself on the dessert buffet every night is not my idea of an ideal getaway. I’d never even heard of this private island business until your letter. These ersatz retreats sound like a form of hellish fun, but you’re right, your kid will think he’s in heaven. I hope you realize that having to go on a cruise is not the same as being forced to walk the plank. As long as you’re going, you need to stop thinking of it as penance, because your attitude will radiate across the promenade and sour everyone’s fun. The money spent on the cruise is not being diverted from a soup kitchen; it’s a form of economic stimulus. So pack a pile of great (or trashy) books, make a donation to a worthwhile charity, and bless your good fortune.


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