Dear Prudence

Jailhouse Shock

My husband corresponded with inmates for years behind my back—and now they’re at our door.

Emily Yoffe.

Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
Years ago, before we were married, my husband suggested we write to prisoners all over the country to get their thoughts about life. I was dismissive of it for all the reasons someone might be wary of writing to prisoners. Over the years, whenever we got in fights about my not paying enough attention to his creative endeavors, I would think back to this idea and recognize that it was interesting. Well, it turns out he’d gone ahead and sent out his survey to prisoners. He rented a post office box and the ensuing correspondence has continued for seven years. I only recently learned of it because some of these men are starting to be released. I am sympathetic to those recently released from prison and the challenges they face. But my husband is not prepared for the role he has come to play in these men’s lives. Several have shown up at our house wanting to speak to my husband. It is unsettling, and I am afraid to disappoint them. My husband can’t say no to these men’s repeated, insistent requests to visit our house, borrow the car, get help finding work. I feel terrible cutting these people off after they evidently know so much about us and have considerable emotional investment in our family, but I do not want them in my life or my young children’s lives. I feel like everything I don’t like about my husband is part of this predicament: carelessness with others’ feelings and time, inability to finish projects, poor planning, and general lack of awareness about social justice issues. What should I do about these men when they show up or contact me, and what on earth do I do about my idiot husband?

—Not a Prison Wife

Dear Not,
That’s quite a bill of indictment you lay out against your husband—and yourself. For some reason you married this reckless dreamer and had children with him, and now your family is in potential peril because a whole bunch of ex-cons expect him to be their benefactor. The raw material your husband collected could be the basis for an interesting project. But your husband sounds too scattered to transform it. While he was engaging with these inmates—without your knowledge!—he needed to make sure he guarded your family’s privacy. Instead, he has allowed people who have demonstrated a capacity for anti-social behavior to arrive at your doorstep filled with expectations that are destined to be thwarted. That’s a volatile and menacing situation. Start by talking with local law enforcement, explain what’s going on and your concerns, and ask for advice. You may also want to hire a lawyer who can speak to the convicts’ parole officers and say that your family should not be contacted. If your husband has been stupid enough to give your address to lots of prisoners who are now being released, you may have to move. And as long as you’re contacting a lawyer and contemplating packing up, you may as well consider whether your husband possesses redeeming qualities you didn’t bother mentioning here that would make you want to continue your marriage.


Dear Prudence,
I am a sophomore at a prestigious private college. My sister, an alumna of the college, was able to avoid paying rent by living with a very nice family and providing light child care and housework. I was lucky enough to be employed by the same family, making meals and cleaning, but I wasn’t sure how much the family would need me now that their youngest is joining the armed forces. The wife travels a lot on business, and there has been tension between the two, but they recently offered me a very interesting proposition: I could stay on as an emotional and sexual companion for the husband when the wife is away! The man is 20 years my senior, and my first initial response was to say no, but now that the shock has worn off, I’m actually intrigued by the idea. I’ve always been attracted to him, and I’m sure that was clear to them. I know other girls who work at strip clubs, and this is better than having risky sex with college men. It would also be a lot cheaper than paying for a room at college. Is it wrong for me to consider this arrangement?

—Avoiding Student Debt

Dear Debt,
Each college description on the U.S. News website ends with this boilerplate: “Paying for college doesn’t have to be difficult or devastating. Go to the Paying for College knowledge center to get advice on raising cash and reducing costs.” I looked at the knowledge center and it lacked any information along the lines of, “To get your living costs covered, hump a sugar daddy a few times a week.” You’re trying to justify a tawdry and demeaning idea by making fallacious arguments. You assert that since you’re more or less attracted to the middle-aged dad, sleeping with him is better than stripping for a bunch of disgusting strangers, and also better than having lousy—and nonremunerative—sex with your classmates. But you know this is not the total of your financial or sexual options. To make a dent in your expenses you could do what your sister did and live with a family that actually needed child care; you could apply for on-campus jobs; you could be a full-time nanny during summer breaks. I’m worried that if you agree, this arrangement will leave a blight on your memories of your college years, a sense of regret that you traded yourself so cheaply. As for the couple, at the height of Bill Clinton’s presidential sex scandal I heard a middle-aged female comic ask, “How do I get an intern to give my husband blow jobs?” Apparently, this wife feels the same way. No stretch of imagination is required to understand why the husband would leap at this deal. But as far as the lonely dad’s need for emotional succor goes, instead of stoking his desire to pay for the attention of a young woman the age of his children, you could suggest he get a dog.


Dear Prudence,
I have two beautiful daughters in their 40s. One of my daughters, Katherine, lives 15 minutes away, and my other daughter, Anne, lives on the opposite coast with her children. Anne is only able to come visit us once a year, on Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the only time when my daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren come together. Three years ago, Anne’s 17-year-old daughter Molly decided to become a vegan. I respect her beliefs. Molly is deeply affected by seeing people consume animals, and told me that she is not comfortable being present at a meal where any meat is served, and that she will not be present in the house when meat is being cooked. In order to make Molly feel comfortable, I decided to make a vegetarian Thanksgiving. However, Katherine and her husband are livid, and say that they will boycott Thanksgiving. I’ve tried reasoning with them, and reminded them that we buy organic produce when they come over, to accommodate their beliefs. However, they have decided that they will stay home and won’t see Katherine’s family at all if I “side” with them by making a vegetarian Thanksgiving. What should I do? 

—Veggie Dilemma

Dear Veggie,
Welcome to the vegan version of the Cheney family Thanksgiving. (Though it’s hard to believe Tofurky could sunder a family as effectively as two sisters’ opposing stance on gay marriage.) This fight is ridiculous, and what’s really unfortunate is that you’ve got brats on either side. I think your original mistake was in completely accommodating Molly. It’s admirable that she is taking an ethical stance on her own consumption; however, part of growing up is understanding that not everyone shares your views and that you are not entitled to cram them down others’ throats. Especially on Thanksgiving. It’s hard to believe that for the past three years Molly has refused to be present anywhere meat is served. That must make for lonely times in the high school cafeteria, and an inability to have dinner at most friends’ houses—even assuming her parents have turned their own into an entirely meat-free home. You should have told Molly there will be several vegan options for her, but also the traditional meal for everyone else. If she decided to eat by herself in the den, then you accept that’s the kind of thing 17-year-olds do. But how pathetic that Katherine and her husband think the kind of thing fortysomethings do is boycott Thanksgiving because they hate tamari-roasted Brussels sprouts. If Katherine had been lobbying you to stick with a traditional meal and have side dishes for Molly, that would have been fine. But she feels entitled to ruin the holiday. So since you’ve already given in to one set of demands, I don’t think you should give in to another. Tell Katherine this is a one-year experiment and you hope she can be grateful enough to be together with her entire family to keep the peace. If not, it sounds as if there will be some empty seats at the Cheney table.


Dear Prudence,
I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year and I don’t want to invite two people: my sister’s boyfriend and my uncle. Both for the same reason. My sister’s boyfriend was accused of child molestation but pleaded out to assault on a child. I don’t doubt the original accusation. My sister won’t go if he is not invited; my parents won’t go if he is. I have small children and won’t have time to watch all of them around him in addition to hosting. My uncle actually was convicted of child molestation many years ago. But he has come to family events regularly since being released from prison. Again, I can’t really monitor him throughout the whole thing, and quite frankly I don’t want to deal with the stress of having these two in my house with my children. My grandparents will throw a fit if he is not invited, though. Should I suck it up and deal with the stress? Maybe assign them unofficial babysitters? Or should I just deal with the fallout and not invite them?

—Not a Fan of the Black Sheep

Dear Sheep,
Having to come up with a policy to deal with the multiple child molesters puts into perspective the average Thanksgiving dilemma. For advice on how you could proceed I talked to Deborah Donovan Rice, executive director of Stop It Now. Rice said your two priorities are the safety of the children and your comfort. To address those you need to consider each guest separately. Your sister’s boyfriend is an unknown quantity, has recently been prosecuted for a crime against a child—and your parents don’t want to be in the same room with him. Rice suggests you tell your sister that because of these concerns you are unable to open your home to her boyfriend. Tell her you hope she will come for the meal or at least drop by, but you understand if she declines and if so, you will miss her. Your uncle is a more complicated case. You say it has been years since he was released, he has since been at family gatherings, and you don’t indicate further harm to any children. Rice points out that it is important to know if any family members are among his victims. If so, their feelings about being in a room with him are paramount and will determine whether he’s invited. If this is not an issue, you need to talk bluntly to your uncle about your concerns about his being around children, and his plan is for keeping them safe and himself out of trouble. Ideally, he will suggest, or agree with you, that he not have any physical contact with the children, nor will he ever be alone with them. You can tell him you will back that up by enlisting family members to monitor this promise. If he freely accepts these terms, then it seems reasonable to let him attend. If your uncle dismisses your concerns, or says his behavior is in the past and it’s not fair to bring it up, then you are entitled to say that given the fact you have children and will be busy with hosting duties, you are more comfortable if this year he makes alternate plans for the holiday.


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