Dear Prudence

Fright in the Attic

My creepy relative won’t let anyone set foot in his house. Could he be hiding something terrible?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudie,
I have an older relative in his mid-40s, who is, for lack of a better term, a creeper. His mother was a wonderful woman with one huge blind spot: her youngest son. She babied him incessantly and supported him financially. He never moved out of her home, is socially stunted, and though friendly on the surface, can be a huge temper-tantrum-throwing man-boy. Unfortunately he also has a habit of stalking women. We’re not aware of any violence, but he will frequently fixate on a woman, usually a polite co-worker, waitress, store clerk, etc. He then drops by often and uninvited, brings little gifts, and talks constantly about this nonexistent relationship. When he is rebuffed, he will follow the woman after work until she complains to management, at which point he is fired or banned from the place of business. The family is at a loss as to what to do. After his mother died, the very first thing he did was change all the locks on her house and vehemently tell all family members that nobody was allowed on “his” property. Unwilling to make a fuss, everybody has respected this, and not a single person has even attempted to set foot in that house in over three years. Last week he was in an accident that shattered several bones. His sister rushed to the scene and his first words to her were, “If I have to stay in the hospital, I’d better not catch anybody in my house!” At the hospital, he asked for a phone charger and ear buds, and when his brother offered to pick them up at the house, he demanded a new set be purchased—and they were. He was told he could convalesce at home, which was made completely handicap-accessible for his mother, but he refused to have any family members or caregivers come there. So he is going to a rehab facility four hours away for several months. He has demanded his siblings purchase all new clothing and toiletries for him so they don’t go in the house. I have two questions: 1) What do we do about his behavior? 2) What are your thoughts on poking around his house while he’s in rehab? His paranoia and the news about the Cleveland captives has me a little concerned that there is evidence of violence or really unhealthy obsession there or worse.

—Scared Kin

Dear Kin,
Hearing your account it’s impossible not to wonder whether your relative’s home is another 2207 Seymour Avenue, the Cleveland house of horrors where Ariel Castro kept three women captive for a decade. In cases like Cleveland, the monsters hiding kidnap victims relied on the natural reluctance of people to force the issue, or the door, and inquire as to what was going on in the mysterious house with the unwelcome mat. Sure it’s more likely that your relative, who’s a disturbed and disturbing person, has simply filled the place with embarrassing memorabilia of his various obsessions that he doesn’t want anyone to see. But since your account is going to make the hair on the back of the neck of many readers stand on end, I agree with you that it’s important to find out what’s going on. Your late grandmother may have enabled and indulged her perpetual baby, but there is no reason for the rest of the family to quake at the idea of a Rumpelstiltskin-like fit from him. You notably put quotation marks around “his” property when referring to his mother’s house. Now that your relative is going away, this is a propitious time to clarify just who owns it. His siblings have to talk to a lawyer and find out the legal status of the property. They should also mention their concerns about his past behavior and his paranoia about anyone going inside. I hope it turns out his siblings have a clear right to enter and inspect the property. If so, call a locksmith, and once everyone’s in they should call out, “Is anybody here?” Look for locked doors and false fronts. I hope all you find are dust bunnies. As for trying to reform your relative, in the absence of his wanting to join the rest of his family in the real world, I don’t see that there’s much you can do to change his approach to life and romance. It’s kind of a miracle he hasn’t entered the criminal justice system, but for the sake of the innocent women who become his obsessions, his siblings should continue to keep a close eye on him. And carry an extra set of keys.


Dear Prudence: Horribly Neglected Pet

Dear Prudie,
I work for a small nonprofit. My boss and I were discussing our preparations for a critical daylong event with three high-level officers from an influential foundation we are courting for funding. The event will include a formal presentation of our work and informal time for everyone to get to know each other. I mentioned to my boss that I planned to do an Internet search and read everything I could not only about the foundation but also about the officers, including their professional history, current positions, any articles they have written, etc. My boss was taken aback and suggested it was snooping and that I could get into trouble if I revealed I had prior knowledge about them. He insisted it was better to just be ourselves and let conversation develop naturally. I countered that I saw the event as an interview, and this is the type of preparation that I would do before any interview. I did it to prepare for getting this job! Have I crossed some ethical line with my Googling?


Dear Searching,
What a strategy your boss has for impressing these funders: “Hi, I’m Rip Van Winkle, and I don’t know a damn thing about your organization, or even too much about the 21st century.” I assure you, that if you mention to one of the funders, “I see you went to Fordham, so did I!” that this person will not think you’re getting your information by hacking into PRISM. Anyone going into a funding meeting who hasn’t done their due diligence deserves to be told in due time they’re not getting the money. Of course any new technology changes assumptions about how people interact (not that search engines are new). The telephone was once considered alarming. But if it becomes clear at your meeting that your team hasn’t bothered with the basics of knowing who you’re talking to and what they do, you’re going to offend them with your ignorance. I think you need to push back with your boss and say, as charmingly as you can, that one reason you got this job was because of the research you did about your own organization. You can explain you’re going to limit this search to the germane and appropriate, but that you would like to give him a packet of your results so that you both go into the meeting able to turn the conversation to your advantage. If Rip objects, start using your search skills to find another job.


Dear Prudie,
I am a young media professional working at a small, niche publication in the Midwest. Everyone I work around is at least 10 years older. I’ve only been at the company for about six months, but already I’ve noticed some issues in our efforts to reach and expand our audience. Right now, our publisher, in addition to her many other responsibilities, handles both our website and social media. We have some online presence, but I have training in this realm and I know we could be doing a lot more. For example, we have Web content that isn’t being posted, and what’s there sometimes requires obscure search terms to find. I’ve brought this up to my editors who shrug and say it’s the publisher’s responsibility. My publisher is not a receptive person when it comes to change. Do you think it’s worth making the effort to try to improve this?


Dear Stymied,
The incompetent, oblivious boss is starting to lap porn-addicted husbands and crazy mothers-in-law in my in-box. Apparently, the motto at your small, niche publication is “We’re becoming ever more obscure!” I think you should put together a proposal of what you would like to do over the next three months to expand your online and social media presence. Make specific recommendations and say you will take this on in addition to your current duties because you are committed to broadening the reach of your publication. If the publisher blows you off you have to consider whether, like the letter writer above, you’d be better off at an enterprise that would still like to be around in the coming years.


Dear Prudie,
My ex-husband is a Disney hater. He’s always held very strong opinions about the evil this company has done to the world, their financing of war conflicts, their stereotyping, and their indoctrination of young minds. We have a daughter and when we were married, I accepted that we would raise her Disney-free, even though I have fond memories of watching Disney movies as a child. So our 9-year-old daughter watches Disney productions when she’s with me, but I don’t know if she’s told my ex. I’m now remarried and my husband has family in California near Disneyland. He loved going there as a kid and would like to offer the same experience to his stepdaughter. My daughter wants to go but is fearful of displeasing her father. (My ex is also very jealous and has forbidden our daughter to refer to my husband as her stepfather, but that’s another story.) My husband argues that my ex does not have any say in the way we spend our money or where we want to take the girl for vacation, as long as she’s not endangered, and Disneyland hardly counts as “endangerment of a child.” We’re traveling to California in August so we have to make a decision. My ex will say that we had an agreement on how to raise our daughter and I’m violating it. Help!

—We’re Going to Disneyland?

Dear Going,
There’s an argument to be made for limiting any corporation’s hold on your child particularly one responsible for the travesty of Oz the Great and Powerful. I also agree with Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, in her objections to the Disney-fueled princessification of American girlhood. But this isn’t evil, it’s just marketing. As for how Disney spends its money, someone has to tell your ex-husband that Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars franchise doesn’t mean the company is actually in the military business. There is plenty in this letter that makes clear why this man is your ex. You mention as an aside that he forbids his daughter to call her stepfather her stepfather, a crazy and unenforceable demand. Your ex seems to specialize in these. Unless your divorce and custody arrangement specifically had a goofy Mickey Mouse clause that your daughter can not be exposed to any Disney products, I agree with your husband that your ex can’t stop all of you from standing in line for hours when you’re in Anaheim. But I’m worried about your daughter’s fear of her father’s displeasure. After this vacation, you don’t want your daughter to feel she either has to lie to him about what she did on her summer vacation or endure his wrath. So Mom, when you get back, you should give your ex a heads-up about your trip to the dark side. You need to be able to calmly talk all this through with your girl and tell her she should let you know if her father gets angry about things. It could be that your daughter needs more Disney and less Dad in her life.


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