Dear Prudence

Echoes From the Past

My brother molested me when we were kids. Should I help him fight new sex-abuse charges?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane

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Dear Prudence,
My brother, who is in his late 40s, was recently arrested and charged with sexual abuse of a child when she was 9 years old. This girl is now 16 years old and says she didn’t remember the abuse until recently. This charge came after she and my brother’s daughter, who were friends, had a huge fight and severed their relationship. In addition, my brother had something to do with the accuser’s brother getting into legal trouble. My brother has denied the charge and passed a lie-detector test. My brother, who is one year younger than I am, has asked me to speak to his lawyer and be a character reference for him. Here’s the problem: When we were growing up, my brother used to sneak into my room at night to touch me, and this is what he is accused of doing to this girl. It seems like a bit of a stretch to think this is a coincidence, but he has passed a lie-detector test. I don’t know if something that happened more than 30 years ago is relevant. Our parents were abusive and distant, and I felt that he did what he did, and I didn’t do enough to stop him, because we were so starved for love and attention. This situation has brought up a lot of old feelings, guilt, confusion, etc. I don’t know if I should be honest with his lawyer. It is also complicated by the fact that child protective services have taken his children out of the house, and the court case will affect whether he is allowed to have contact with them. It would destroy any relationship with my brother and probably with my entire family if I said anything about our childhoods. What should I do?

—Ripped Up

Dear Ripped,
As I started reading your letter, I was thinking that this sounds like a case of someone being falsely accused of sexual abuse. These instances are rare, but they do happen, even though what’s more typical is that abuse goes unreported. Then came your revelation, and it turns out you were one of those abused children who never told anyone. You recognize you cannot be a character witness for your brother or at least not one his lawyer would want. So as you point out, your dilemma is whether to simply decline to speak or tell your story. I spoke to Lisa Lerman, a professor at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law, and she said if you were to tell your brother’s attorney what happened to you, that lawyer would not be obligated to disclose this to the prosecution. However, the information could affect the defense because the lawyer would likely then be constrained from asserting there have never been any other such accusations against your brother. That seems like a worthwhile limitation to put on the defense.

The bigger question is whether you tell the prosecution. While coincidences do happen, I agree with you that it stretches credulity to think that this girl is manufacturing a story that just happens to describe your own experience. As for the circumstances of her accusation, it’s not unusual for young people who were abused and kept quiet to blurt out their story while under emotional duress. If you accept the girl’s account, then that means your brother molested his own child’s playmate. That would make me worry about the safety of his children and any others who have been unsupervised in his home. The fact that he turned to you as a character witness makes his passing of a lie-detector test (which are notoriously unreliable) look at lot less exculpatory. Your brother needs a mental health evaluation; perhaps he dissociates himself from his own actions. I think you should consider having a consult with a lawyer of your own to discuss all your legal options, including what would happen if you spoke to the prosecution. It may be that becoming a witness against your brother is just too wrenching, but at least you will have considered it. Then please get some psychological counseling. I’m concerned that you’re still blaming yourself for what happened to you as a girl (“I didn’t do enough to stop him”). You had an awful childhood, which this situation has brought back to the surface. You deserve to have a caring person help you deal with all this pain.


Dear Prudence: The Happy Hooker

Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend and I have been a couple for a year, and we recently moved in together. He is a very intelligent, mature, caring, and funny man, and I feel our relationship has a great chance at “going the distance.” Since we began cohabitating I found out he has a strange habit: He keeps a remnant of his baby blanket inside his pillow case and, after he thinks I am asleep, he pulls it out and sucks on it. I discovered this while changing the sheets one morning and noticed a wet spot on his pillowcase. I tried to talk about this with him, but he became embarrassed and refuses any attempt to discuss it. The habit itself is not a deal-breaker. What is a deal-breaker is the wet blanket, which has a smell. I want to hand wash it, but I don’t want to do this without his permission. I understand the blanket might help him relieve some anxiety; it’s the hygiene issue that bothers me. I can’t wrap my head around kissing him in the morning knowing that he’s been sucking on the blanket at night. How do I raise the issue of washing the blanket? And is this a “normal” thing, or does it suggest deeper issues?

—Wet Blanket

Dear Wet,
Without blankey your boyfriend might be sucking down a bunch of pharmaceuticals to get him through the night. But if more people had a piece of blankey to chew on, they might need fewer refills of Xanax. If this is it as far as your boyfriend’s weirdness goes, consider yourself lucky. Many people have little totems—a special coffee mug, a good luck charm—that calms them down. You need to decide if you actually want to raise this issue. But since your boyfriend knows you know, it would probably be better if this wasn’t a source of shame for him. Tell him you’re sorry you embarrassed him about the piece of blanket. Say you hope he feels he doesn’t have to hide it from you, and knowing this about him makes you feel better about letting him learn about your own little quirks. Say one of your things is hygiene, and you’d be more comfortable if he’d let you gently wash out the blanket from time to time. If the whole subject is too uncomfortable for him, then let it go for the time being. All you have to do in that case is limit your morning kisses to post-toothbrush ones.


Dear Prudence,
My husband and I were married last May 11. My new brother-in-law is now engaged, and we are thrilled, although we do not know his fiancée very well. They have picked dates for both their engagement party and their wedding: May 11 this year and next year. My husband and I were taken aback that they picked our wedding date. I know we don’t have rights to it, but when my brother-in-law sent us an email regarding the dates, he did not even mention that it had been our wedding date, and he was my husband’s best man, so he should know. My husband sent him an email back that it probably wasn’t the best date but we would make it work if nothing else could be considered. There is no indication my brother-in-law is looking to change the dates. My husband and I are confused as to what we should do. We know an engagement party can be skipped, and we will skip it because it’s our first wedding anniversary. But skipping a wedding is a different story. What would you do?


Dear Miffed,
Since my husband and I generally remember our anniversary a few days after it’s passed, I’m not even sure what you’re asking me. I don’t know how to break this to you, but until Congress recognizes Melissa and Curt’s Wedding Day as an official holiday, no one else in the world cares when you were married. Your brother-in-law is not doing this to screw with you. I’m sure if you threatened to pull out his toenails he wouldn’t be able to tell you what the date of your wedding was. Your self-regard is running up against another thing I dislike: the endlessly drawn-out wedding. I think it’s ridiculous to have two major celebrations a year apart (and innumerable ones in between) to mark a life milestone. But it’s absurd that you would skip the engagement party, let alone a wedding, because you and your beloved need to exchange gifts in private. What you two do is celebrate after you get back from your brother-in-law’s events. You also keep quiet about the enormous sacrifice you both are making in delaying those dinner reservations. But thank you for reminding me to write down our anniversary date so I don’t forget it again this year.


Dear Prudence,
I’m a man in my early 30s. I eat well, exercise, and get plenty of sleep. Due to a combination of facial structure and pigmentation, my eyes look tired even when I’m well-rested. I am somewhat insecure about this but have mostly accepted it as unchangeable. However, I get at least one comment a day about how tired I look. Someone in my department seems particularly dismayed by it, expresses her shock frequently, and has even suggested (in front of an audience of colleagues) that I start wearing makeup. Obviously her obnoxious comments are over the top, but I find the more general unsolicited input just as rude. What is the best way to respond to these comments? I want to say, “Oh, thanks, yes, I look awful! Your powers of observation are unparalleled.”


Dear Baggy,
Have you ever had anyone say to you, “You look like you’ve been punched in the eye”? I have. Just the other day the checker at the supermarket handed me the receipt and said, “Now go home and get some rest.” Which is better than the usual, “You look so tired!” I believe I personally keep the concealer industry afloat. You could discuss this option at a department store cosmetic counter, but looking as if you’re wearing makeup would be worse than what you’re trying to fix. However, since you acknowledge this tired look bothers you, I think you should see a cosmetically oriented dermatologist. There may be some creams or zapping treatments that could make you look more rested. Otherwise, just smile and dismiss the remarks: “I’ve got Dad to thank for the baggy-eye genes.” As for your colleague, you do need to take her aside and say you’ve heard more than enough of her concern about your looks, you don’t want to ever hear it again, and you sincerely hope this is the last time you ever have to have this conversation.


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