Dear Prudence

Three Beds, Two Baths, One Body

We’ve found the perfect house. Only problem: a woman was murdered there.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My husband and I are looking to purchase a new home. We’ve seen probably a dozen houses in the last couple of weeks, and only two have really felt immediately like they could be “home.” We lost out on the first to another buyer, but the second is still a possibility. Then we learned that the house was the site of an extremely grisly murder—a husband dismembered his wife there. We would be the next occupants. We’ve lived in a few other houses with a “past,” and haven’t felt uncomfortable. But I’m taken aback by the strong negative reaction from members of our extended family. Their biggest concern, and ours too, is our kids, who are in junior high and high school, who we haven’t told about the house. Thanks to the Internet, we know all the horrific details of the case, and that information will be just as easily accessible to them. Are we crazy to think that one bad night in a house’s 100-year history is simply that, one bad night? My husband is a pastor and I am a mortician, so who better to buy this place?

—No Ghosts

Dear Ghosts,
If every home had to have a pristine history in order to be habitable, there would only be new structures. I understand you’re worried that others may taunt your children about their haunted house, or that the kids may be freaked out by the gruesome events. That’s why, if you decide to make an offer, you have to let your children know there was a terrible murder at the house. You have to tell them what happened truthfully but with a minimum of graphic detail. I agree that you two sound like the perfect couple to restore this property to its purpose of being a family home. You are not squeamish in the face of death; your husband has an inside line on matters of the spirit. You can tell your children and your extended family that you understand why some people might be uneasy about moving into such a place. But you are the right ones to do it. If you become the winning (or only) bidder, you should have a ceremony in the new home in which your husband leads prayers for the victim. Then you can say to doubters—and instruct your children to follow suit—that while a terrible thing once happened there, all of you feel you are honoring the memory of an innocent person by making the house a place of contentment and peace.


Dear Prudence: Blackballed Son

Dear Prudence,
My girlfriend and I are having a disagreement. I posed to her the following hypothetical situation: Would you rescue from fire and certain destruction the last surviving copy on earth of the complete works of Shakespeare or a single puppy? My girlfriend says that she would rescue the puppy because the puppy is a fellow living being. She is highly educated and claims to have great respect for Shakespeare. But I think my girlfriend’s choice is the wrong one. I would rescue the Shakespeare, not just because of the aesthetic enjoyment we get from his work but also because of all the moral insight it provides us (including possibly the insight that enables the concept of animal rights in the first place). We’ve argued a lot about this. I cannot take her answer seriously, but I find it rather disturbing nonetheless. She never rejected the hypothetical question out of hand or said that the two things aren’t even comparable. She says that preserving a living conscious thing is more valuable than preserving Shakespeare. My girlfriend loves animals, especially her poodle, and is a die-hard vegetarian. I am, on the other hand, obsessed with Shakespeare and rather neutral toward animals. What is the best way for us to defuse this situation?


Dear Fireman,
I assume during your fights you say to your girlfriend, “I shall laugh myself to death at this puppy-headed monster!” And she replies to you, “Thou callest me a dog before thou hast cause. But since I am a dog, beware my fangs.” Since you fancy yourself a Shakespeare scholar, perhaps you are aware of the Bard’s propensity for having his characters fall into psychological traps of their own making. Well, here you are, having set up your girlfriend with a trick choice. In your mind her only acceptable answers were either you were a fool to come up with this game, or that she’d save the Shakespeare. Instead she chose the puppy, which now has you raging like Lear on the moors. If you want to imagine idiotic hypotheticals here’s mine: You save both folios and puppy, only to find later that the dog ate the entire works of Shakespeare. I hope you are coming to understand that harping on this has brought your relationship to the point that you might as well cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war. So to defuse this situation I suggest you apologize. Start with this quote from Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing: “Remember that I am an ass.” Let’s just hope things haven’t gone so far that she replies, “I do desire we may be better strangers.”


Dear Prudence,
My biological father left my brother and me when we were 5 and 4 years old respectively. He terminated his parental rights to us and had no part in our lives. Six years ago he reached out to my brother when he turned 21. My brother never responded. Then three years ago he reached out to me via Facebook asking for the opportunity to develop a relationship. I allowed him to visit me and have sporadically responded to text messages since the initial “reunion.” He recently sent me a gift. There was a birthday card, a camera, and a cashier’s check for more than $10,000 dollars inside. The note attached said that this was my money now and that he’d held onto it for longer than he liked. Can I keep the money? If I do keep it, how do I go about finding out what kind of strings might be attached? How do I determine if there is money for my brother? If there is none for him, is it unethical for me not to give my brother half of the check since after all he is half of the pair of children that were abandoned?


Dear Fatherless,
The average cost for raising a middle-class child is more than $200,000, so at $10,000 your father got off cheap. That was quite a cryptic note he included, but he makes it sound as if he was responsible for funds that were supposed to be for his children. So he has finally made good, sort of. But let’s say it’s purely guilt money; well, he should feel guilty since he repudiated one of life’s most fundamental obligations. I don’t see that there are any strings attached to this money. You have established a desultory relationship with him and if that’s all you’re comfortable with, cashing the check doesn’t change that. But you certainly should thank your father for the gifts and raise the question you’ve asked here about your brother. This requires either phone or face-to-face conversation. When you talk, tell him how much you appreciate his gesture and that you will use the money well. But then ask for clarification about the note. Were there funds for the two of you? If so, is he also going to pass them on to your brother? Your father might balk at giving money to a grown child who has refused to engage him, but if your brother is entitled to the money suggest that he should get it regardless of the emotions. But if there isn’t going to be any cash for your brother, it is totally up to you to decide what you do with your haul. However, since you note you and your brother both suffered equally from your father’s abandonment, splitting this windfall with him might keep you from feeling you are perpetuating your father’s psychic debt.


Dear Prudence,
I work for a small, family-run business and all the employees are very close. Almost no one brings their lunch and we don’t make coffee in the office. Whenever someone leaves to get coffee, a drink, or snacks from the shops nearby, they ask if anyone wants anything and inevitably that person ends up paying for all the drinks. The next day, it is someone different and we all just figure that what goes around comes around. Lately, however, I have been strapped for cash and have been buying only for myself. This afternoon, when a co-worker found out I was going to a food truck he gave me money to buy him something, and when I came back everyone was upset that I hadn’t offered to pick something up for them. What do I do to make sure I am immediately reimbursed, in cash, for purchases, and not in Gatorade and Fritos down the line?


Dear Broke,
This system sounds highly annoying if every trip to get a bag of chips turns you into a caterer. But shifting office culture is a difficult thing and you likely can’t do it alone. So your best hope is to make a rueful announcement that you’re on a debt reduction plan and you’re cutting back on all purchases. That means for the time being you’re going to have to bring your lunch and drinks, and pointedly decline when people say, “Can I get you anything?” If you’re desperate for a caffeine fix, just say you’re going out for a walk and gulp your drink outside on the sly. And maybe you can float the idea to the powers that be that efficiency would be vastly increased with the arrival of a coffeemaker.


Discuss this column with Emily Yoffe on her Facebook page.

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