Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I hope you’re all ready for Valentine’s Day. (And darling husband, I’ve already gotten your gift. So you better get those subway flowers early on Thursday.)
Q. Dead Doppelganger: I recently applied for a job as the assistant director at a well-regarded art gallery. In a pre-interview phone call with the director, she told me that my credentials were an excellent match with the position and set up an interview. The minute I walked in the gallery and introduced myself at the reception desk, I started getting weird vibes and worse. Employees, including the director, stepped back when they saw me, or gasped, or fled. I checked my appearance in the bathroom and found nothing amiss. Except for this, the interview itself went fine, from my perspective, but I didn’t get the job. I asked a friend at another gallery if she knew who did get it, and it turned out to be a guy fresh out of college. Because of the gap between his credentials and mine, I decided to write to the director and ask her if she could shed some light on the situation. Surprisingly, she said she’d meet me for coffee to discuss it. She told me that the person who previously held the job looked just like me, was a dead ringer for me, in fact, and in fact was dead. The other employees had pleaded with her not to hire me. I looked him up online and saw pictures that shocked me as well as my younger sister. From his obituary I learned he had died in a car accident three months ago, and he was my age. At first I thought I could make some sort of hiring complaint, but obviously I would never fit in there, to say the least. My concern now is that I think I had a twin. Should I bring this up with my mother? Or find some friends of the dead guy and ask them more about his history? As you can imagine, I’ve been in a real state for the past few weeks.
A: This was a subplot on the last season of Eastbound and Down—Jason Sudeikis played a twin that no one knew was a twin, and after his character died, he showed up as the other one and scared the hell out of everyone who knew the first twin. What you describe sounds like the pitch meeting for a Lifetime movie—I can’t tell if it would be good or bad. I will take you at your word that this is a real experience, and from what you say, it sounds as if the people at the gallery—and you—were seeing more than just a strong resemblance. It’s something else altogether if you are suspicious there was someone out there you didn’t know about who shared your DNA. If this young man, now sadly deceased, was your identical twin, it wouldn’t have been all that strange that you both shared a love of art, would it? There is nothing to do about the gallery job; employers are allowed to make such subjective judgments about candidates. But it sounds as if you need to gather the information you’ve found, take it to your mother and say, “Mom, is there something you want to tell me?”
Dear Prudence: Newlywed Insomnia
Q. FIL Jokes: My fiancé and I just got engaged and are to be married as soon as he graduates from law school. My dad, who has a sense of humor most (but not all) people appreciate, took him on a weekend hunting trip, and according to my intended, made a number of veiled threats of violent acts should he fail to take care of me properly. Of course he tells me he was only joking and it was all in good fun, but that’s not the way my boyfriend sees it. He tells me he has grounds for a case against my father, and although he’s definitely not taking any action, he might in the future if dad doesn’t control himself. I love my fiancé, but I’m starting to rethink our engagement. Should I just tell him to lighten up, or hope that my dad understands and is more accommodating of his sensitivities?
A: Jokes about how one person plans to kill another are less funny when the jokester is holding a gun. However, I see this situation as quite different from last week’s letter in which a husband said he would kill his wife if she ever cheated on him. I’m assuming your fiancé and your father have spent some time together and at the least you’ve told your betrothed about your father’s style of humor. He may not have found the joshing funny, but threatening to report someone to the authorities for a joke fallen flat is generally a poor idea. I think you should get together as a threesome—having prepped each guy about the misunderstanding—and have a lunch or a dinner in which you try to get them to see that while they may clash stylistically, they agree on one thing: They both adore you. You tell them it would mean so much if your favorite men got along. But if you are concluding your husband is a humorless, litigious, literal-minded drag, then you need to consider why you want to sign a legal contract that binds you to him.
Q. My Family Doesn’t Like My Wife: After several years of knowing my wife, my parents and brother announced that they don’t like her. She is, of course, wonderful and neither she nor I had any clue they felt that way until suddenly they were shouting at her about things they’d apparently taken offense to but never said a word about. She and I left in a hurry and I have had minimal contact with my parents for the past several months. I cut my brother off completely after he continued to insult her. But now my Ph.D. graduation is coming up. I’d quite like to invite my parents, but they haven’t apologized to me or my wife, who has supported me both financially and emotionally throughout the project and who invested years into building what she thought was a good relationship with them only to have it blow up in her face. What is your advice? And if it’s to not invite them to this life event, what about others? Would it ever be reasonable to re-establish full contact with them if they refuse to see their utter lack of charity?
A: There’s got to be more back story here. It just makes no sense that out of the blue your wonderful, loving, supportive wife is suddenly is being denounced by your parents and brother and accused of years of offense. I’m not at all saying they’re right—it could be the three are in a folie a trois and have fed each other’s madness. It could be that your wife, like the hunting father, has a personality style that has rubbed them the wrong way for years, and instead of addressing any misunderstandings, they decided to have an explosive confrontation. But you—without your wife in tow—need to get together with your family and try to figure out what is wrong. A graduation is not the place to do this. Meet with your parents and brother in a spirit of openness, but also make clear that their denunciation of your wife was hurtful, shocking, and unacceptable. Maybe you can broker some kind of peace, but it has to be on the basis of good will. If they want to stick to their guns that your wife is unacceptable to them, then they’ve just estranged themselves from you.
Q. Re: Joking Dad: My husband is just like the joking dad, and really, the fiancé needs to get a humor gene. Typically, my husband would say to daughter “Tell (boyfriend) if he hurts you, that it is hard to eat corn on the cob without any teeth.” No, my husband would not “play dentist” on anyone, and daughter took it (correctly) that Dad was there for her regardless. Now, it has become the in-joke between husband and son-in-law.
A: Dads have been making these jokes since Ogg, and I agree having a sense of humor (and treating Dad’s daughter right) will go a long way.
Q. Child’s Mother Causing Headaches: The mother of my child and I have never gotten along really well (the child was a result of a short-term fling which never panned out, and both of us have not made things the easiest, admittedly). Recently, however, things took a turn for the even worse when I agreed to sign a legal document for the state. It was only then, two years after her birth, that I learned that the mother had given our daughter my last name. I had always assumed that she had given our daughter her last name, but what makes me really upset is that she never asked me, and when naming her, went out of her way to tell me that she was making the choice and that I had no say in it. This is not the first time she’s betrayed my trust either (she once tried to kick me out of her life), and I’m sick of her conveniently not telling me things. How much should I try and repair the damage, or should I simply just look for more time alone with my daughter and keep the mother out of my life as much as possible?
A: Usually a father having his child share his last name is not considered a breach of trust. It’s actually pretty standard naming procedure, even if, as in your case, the parents aren’t married and can’t stand each other. It sounds to me as if you two could use mediation. Look into mediators who help with these kinds of domestic disputes, then suggest to your ex that for the sake of your daughter you two need better guidelines for dealing with each other. Even if you wish your life had gone another way and the two of you had no reason to ever be in touch, the fact is that you are raising a daughter together. Finding a way to get along with each other will benefit this little girl in countless ways. Stop looking for illustrations of the perfidy of your ex. Think what a difference it would make in the tenor of your relationship if you said, “I was very touched that Isabella has my last name. Thank you.”
Q. Transgender “Uncle”?: My brother has always been in the realm of “sexually fluid” and only recently begun dressing more openly feminine after a period of cross-dressing as a teen. He hasn’t come “out” in an official capacity and I want to be respectful of him and his pace if he should. We are in a bit of a pickle about the questions my 4-year-old has begun to ask. “Why is Uncle Jarod wearing that hat?” “Is Uncle Jarod a girl?” I’ve been discussing privacy and personal inclinations with my son, but am terrified he may end up putting my brother in an uncomfortable position. Should I just ask my brother? Or keep coaching my 4-year-old to be more demure? He is most definitely not.
A: This is a great opportunity for both these guys in your life. You answer your son’s questions honestly. And you also instruct him while it’s fine for him to take his questions to you—or to ask his uncle—it’s not polite to point to people you don’t know and comment on unusual things about them. You tell your son the truth: Uncle Jarod likes that hat and thinks it look good on him. No, Uncle Jarod is not a girl—girls who wear pants and boyish clothes aren’t boys—it’s just that there are some men who like to wear girlish stuff. You can tell your brother that his fashion sense has gotten your son’s interest, explain how you’ve answered, and say to be ready for his nephew’s questions on style.
Q. Re: Child’s Mother Response: I picked up the book Joint Custody With a Jerk because of the title but it was really helpful in dealing with my ex. It essentially redefines the parenting relationship as a business relationship. Much easier when you remove all those pesky emotions.
A: I obviously can’t vouch for the book, but thanks for the suggestion. It sounds like a helpful way to reframe the relationship.
Q. Father Is in Prison & Wants To Write the Kids: I have a 12-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter. Their biological father has been in prison for three years and will be for the next seven. My children have had no contact with him for eight years because he was very abusive to me and I left him and completely cut off contact. I have told them both as much about him as I felt was age-appropriate, so they are aware of where he is. I felt when he was released, assuming he served the full sentence, they would be of age to make the decision whether to have contact with him or not. Well, he just wrote me a letter stating how sorry he is and asked if he could write to the kids. I don’t believe his apology, and I could put my own issues with him aside, if it was in their best interest, but he is in prison for statutory sodomy of a 6-year-old girl. My daughter doesn’t remember him at all, but my son has been starting to ask more questions and seems to be interested in hearing from him. I’m not sure how to handle this. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
A: I think you should talk to a lawyer about the possibility of termination of parental rights. He sounds monstrous and I agree with you there’s no reason for him to become pen pals with his children. You have done the right thing by not lying to your children about him, and by answering their questions honestly, and age appropriately. As the kids are getting older and want to know more, you might want to check in with a therapist with expertise in incarceration and sexual offenders in the family about how to proceed. The sad truth is their father is a sick man who hurt a child, and you wisely decided you would never let him hurt them.
Q. Long-Distance Relationship: I’m a woman in my early 20s in a very long-distance relationship. My partner has never been perfect, and I’ve never thought the relationship would end in marriage, but he is smart, funny, honest, and incredibly kind. My problem is that I’ve had a consuming crush on another man who lives in the same city as I do—a man who would not be a great match for me, but who I’m incredibly attracted to and can’t stop thinking about—for quite a while now. I feel horrible and unfaithful, but to some degree I’ve welcomed these feelings because they distract me from missing my partner and feeling alone and very far away. Should I be taking this as a sign that it’s time to end my relationship, despite having few real complaints about my partner himself? I feel like a louse and wonder if it’s time to spare him.
A: I don’t know if you have high standards for “perfection” or if you’re just drawn to guys you acknowledge aren’t quite right for you. But you’re in your early 20s, so that’s OK, as long as not-quite-right doesn’t become a lifelong theme. You are seeing a guy you don’t want to marry and can’t see. So stop (not) seeing him. Yes, it’s hard to be on your own, but having a distant boyfriend sounds like more of a crutch than a match. It could be your boyfriend is himself experiencing the same feelings you are, and it would be a favor for both of you to be free.
Q. Re: Doppelganger: He should see if he can find out this person’s exact date of birth. That could either dispel the idea of a twin or come close to confirming it.
A: The same date is not absolute confirmation, but you’re right, a different birth date pretty abruptly ends this movie.
Q. In Your Face Relative: I have a niece who asked me if she could stay at my home because she has a job interview in a town about three hours from where I live. She will fly in from out of town. I used to be close to this niece, but over the years her political and religious views have diverged sharply from mine. She likes to get in your face about these subjects and argue. When I or others try to change the subject, she does not take the hint, but digs in deeper than ever. For example she has told me I am going to hell because I don’t share the same religious beliefs. I have not seen her for several years as I have not kept in contact due to her behavior. I want to help her out since she is currently out of work. I want to be a gracious host, but I am worried that she will say something insulting and I will say something I regret back. Hopefully she has matured, but what do you say to someone who is rude to your face?
A: This could be a wonderful occasion to heal your rift. Or it could be like finding a loathed talk-radio host has moved into your home. If she asks for a place to stay then proceeds to insult you, it may be that the economy is not the only reason she is out of work. But since you know her possible M.O., you decide in advance that no matter what the provocation, you will not say something you regret. If she starts in you can say, “Louisa, I was so thrilled you got in touch because I’ve missed you. We have to agree to disagree about politics and religion. So let’s skip that. Instead I want you to fill me in on what you’ve been up to.” If she goes off on you anyway, then that indicates that somehow the poor girl is off. So hold your tongue and when you say farewell be grateful she lives far away.
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