Dear Prudence

Cold-Blooded Brother

He bullied me viciously when we were growing up, and my parents did nothing about it.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudie,
When my brother and I were kids, we were close. But around the time I was 14 and he was 10, he started verbally bullying me when our parents weren’t around. Even when they were there he would whisper threats and insults to me, but they didn’t notice. Sometimes I would answer angrily back, and my parents reprimanded me and send me to my room! I was thin-skinned and insecure and became terrified to be alone with him because he would insult my looks, say I had no friends, tell me I was an idiot because I wasn’t good at math, and then say he could get away with anything because he was younger. He would fart directly in my face when I was sitting on the floor. He acted more and more viciously until by the time I graduated high school, he was calling me his “chew toy” and used the pronoun “it” when talking about me. If I started crying, he would laugh and say he had “succeeded.” When he was 14 and I was about to leave for college, he hit me in the face and pushed me down the stairs. On multiple occasions during those years of abuse, I would try to talk to my mother about it, but she either wouldn’t believe me or tell me that I should show more maturity because I was older. When I came home for Christmas, I cut off all communication with him, and we haven’t spoken a word to each other since. Now my brother is 18 and I am 22, and he is about to leave for college. He is attractive and intelligent and my parents are very proud of him. I, on the other hand, still see only the bad in myself. As a result of his bullying, I have low self-confidence and no great ambitions for the future. My mother recently has been encouraging my brother and me to talk and to become friends again. I want nothing to do with him for the rest of my life and have told her so, but she keeps trying to shove us together. What should I do?


Dear Hopeless,
Your chilling tale about your brother is made even more cold-blooded by your description of your parents—particularly your mother—willfully ignoring the pathology of their son and virtually conspiring with him to make your life a misery. Of course I don’t know what was going on with your brother. It’s possible he was just an unusually vicious child and has outgrown it. It’s also possible, for example, that he was being abused in some way and then displaced his trauma on you. But if there was no precipitating event, and if today he has no remorse and would recommence hostilities if you resumed speaking, then it’s possible your brother may be a sociopath. Sure, lots of siblings have ferocious rivalries. Stuff like face-farting can be simply a disgusting prank. But what’s worrisome about your brother is how his behavior escalated, and that it was calculated, callous, and covert. Sociopaths are adept, as this article points out, at escaping scrutiny. There is increasing recognition that this disorder starts young and has a strong genetic component. Perhaps there’s a clue in the behavior of your own dismissive, heartless parents. I understand those who would rebuke me for suggesting a diagnosis of a mental illness, given my lack of medical credentials and having only a one-paragraph description of your brother (admittedly a strong basis for a rebuke). But I would feel remiss if I didn’t raise this possibility for you to ponder.

You are in a strange psychological bind. You haven’t spoken to your brother in a long time, so in the absence of there being an acknowledgement and apology from him, the onus is on you to create this rapprochement. I support your decision not to make this move. Your brother tormented you for years and he is a young man now. If he wants a relationship, he should be the one to act. If he does, proceed cautiously. Read The Sociopath Next Door by psychologist Martha Stout and see if it resonates with what you observe of your brother now. If so, you may need to continue to do what Stout recommends and which you instinctively knew: refuse contact. That may make for odd family gatherings, but if he hasn’t changed you must avoid being manipulated by him again. You made it out of a neglectful household and have stood up to your favored brother. Please recognize and celebrate the strength of character this has taken. Your brother’s assessment of you was wrong, so don’t give him the power to pass judgment on your abilities or future. Help yourself heal by finding a therapist. You will enormously benefit by having someone hear your story and help guide you on your own healthy path.


Dear Prudence Live in New York: My Best Friend’s Husband

Dear Prudie,
My girlfriend is a beautiful, funny, and intelligent young woman and I’m very lucky to have her in my life. We met in college, we know each other’s families, and are each other’s best friends. I’ve been with her for almost two years and I would like to start a life with her. There’s only one issue—as a Muslim, I feel my future wife has to believe in God. I’m not the strictest of Muslims, I occasionally drink and don’t follow everything written in the Quran, but my girlfriend is an atheist. She says she’s open to believing, but that is a requirement in order for our marriage to be valid within Islam and so that we can marry in a mosque. I want that not only for religious reasons but because it’s a cultural and familial tradition. We’ve talked about her converting but it’s usually ended up with us brushing it aside or with her being hurt because she says I can’t love her for who she is. Of course I love her and want to be with her but I also want my future marriage to be validated by my religion and accepted by God. But I don’t want to pressure her into converting, either. What do I do?

—Feeling Lost

Dear Lost,
I know such mixed marriages can work because my family is Jewish and my sister’s darling husband is Muslim. (My sister is darling, too.) However, they are equally unobservant, which makes moot the religious requirements you are stymied by. I spoke to Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of the new book ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America and she notes that American Muslims are increasingly marrying outside their faith. It’s acceptable within Islam for a Muslim man to marry a Christian or Jewish woman as long as she espouses a belief in God. (A Muslim woman cannot have a religiously valid marriage to a Christian or Jewish man.) It’s also easy to convert to Islam. But if your beloved doesn’t believe in the religion of her own forbears and has no interest in adopting yours, it’s good you’ve recognized that pressuring her into feigning piety is a poor way to start a life together. But as Riley points out, your focus on the wedding day is obscuring the more pressing issue of what role you want religion to play in your life after that. This is something Riley has found many interfaith couples don’t discuss during their courtship, to their detriment. So you two must. You each need clarity on what you see as the role of religion in raising your children, for example. Your girlfriend has made clear her lack of religious feeling is an essential part of her. So you must use Solomonic wisdom to resolve your dilemma. You have to decide whether it is better to end the relationship because your faith demands it or to accept that since she is everything you want in a wife, what you thought was a requirement actually isn’t.


Dear Prudence,
My father has been a police officer for more than 30 years. Due to the recent violence (Aurora, Boston) he insists on carrying his gun on him at all times, including when he visits my home to see my small children. We live in a high-rise in a very nice neighborhood in a major city, but he reads the news about the violence in other parts of the city and won’t leave his gun behind. This makes me extremely nervous. Recently at work, while cleaning his weapon, he had an accidental discharge. Luckily no one was hurt, yet he still carries his gun around my kids. I’m on the verge of banning him from being around my children. My mother and I have a difficult relationship and she thinks it’s fine he’s packing 24/7. Am I overreacting?

—Gun Not

Dear Not,
Your father has spent a lifetime holding back the chaos, so to him the world seems like a place teeming with threats. But I hope he knows that the chances of his loved ones being victims of a madman or terrorist are infinitesimal, and that if he looks at the crime statistics in your neighborhood he will be reassured that you’re all quite safe. As a law enforcement officer he is entitled to carry a concealed firearm, but you are also entitled to make the rules of your own home. It’s perfectly reasonable that you don’t want weapons around your children, and your father’s recent, unfortunate experience illustrates that a loaded gun can present dangers even when under the supervision of the most experienced owner. However, you aren’t going to win a crime or gun debate with your parents. What you can do is buy a gun safe and tell your father that when he comes to your apartment you ask that he place his firearm in it. Let’s hope your father’s desire to be a wonderful grandfather trumps his need to be ready to lock and load.


Dear Prudence: Return of the Deadbeat Dad

Dear Prudence,
I’ve read that 80 percent of drivers believe they are better than average. I, alas, am in the 20 percent. Although I’m a competent driver who’s never been in an accident, I am not a confident one. I’m one of those speed-limit-obeying, freeway-avoiding, make-four-right-turns-to-avoid-a-left drivers who makes more aggressive drivers crazy. But I drive myself and my stepkids around, just sometimes taking a little longer to get there. I do get requests to participate in carpools or shuttle other people’s kids to events. Having extra passengers makes me exceedingly anxious. Is there a way I can decline these requests in an honest way but without making people fear that I’m a hazard on the road?

—Road Warrior

Dear Road,
Ah, the flustered white-knuckler who drives other drivers around the bend. Yes, I’m one of them, so I can sympathize. However, it’s one thing to recognize that driving is something you must endure, and it’s another to drive around in circles to avoid a left turn. I think you could get up to speed by turning to the gentle, expert services of a driver rehabilitation specialist. In the meantime (or forevermore) you can tell the other parents, “I know it sounds silly, but I’m just not comfortable driving other people’s children.”


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