Dear Prudence

Response Unkind

In a live chat, Prudie advises a letter writer getting flack for being unsympathetic about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on 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

Emily Yoffe: OK, so the Super Bowl itself was a bust, but I am now the president of the Bruno Mars fan club!

Q. PSH Death—What About the Kids?: At my office today everyone is talking about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman and how great of an actor he was. I made that the comment that while he was talented, he was also a junkie who just left three children without a father. I am now getting the cold shoulder from many colleagues. If he hadn’t have been famous many others would be also be critical of the situation. How do I mend the fences and find some middle ground within the office?

A: Everyone who loves great acting, who has been moved, thrilled, and chilled by a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance is mourning his tragic passing. Yes, it was due to the fact that he could not overcome his addiction. But fortunately, society is moving to a place where we recognize this is a terrible illness, one that needs treatment and compassion. That doesn’t mean one simply excuses the terrible things that addicts can do; part of treatment is accepting responsibility for one’s actions. But if Hoffman had been a colleague of yours who had been struggling with addiction, I doubt many of your co-workers would have agreed with your, “Hey, what do you expect—he was junkie” remark. I think you should reconsider what you said and tell people you feel terrible for being so harsh. Say you know he openly struggled with his demons, sought treatment, and you truly feel sorrow that he couldn’t overcome them.

Dear Prudence: Missing Cousin

Q. Meal Payment in Lieu of Gift: My daughter is getting married soon. She wants to ask guests to pay for their meals in lieu of gifts. I have never heard of such a thing in all my years, and this seems outright tacky to me. She says there’s nothing wrong with “just asking” and apparently her friends have made similar requests, like contributions for honeymoon and cash gifts. There are some relatives coming as well and I’d be very embarrassed if my daughter were to make such a request. Am I being old-fashioned or is this completely outrageous?

A: If only the former governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen had thought of this as a way to pay for the catering for their daughter’s wedding. Then they might not have been indicted on criminal charges! Does your daughter take PayPal? She certainly wants to make underwriting the wedding as easy as possible for her guests. Also she should clarify for them if payment is due upon sending in their RSVP, or if the waiters will come around with the check at the end of the celebration. Yes, your daughter is being completely outrageous. Unfortunately, I promise you she is not at the vanguard of expecting one’s friends and loved ones to pay for her special occasion. As the example of the McDonnells proves, much heartache can be avoided by living within one’s means. If your daughter can’t pay for a fancy dinner, then the reception should be a buffet of something she and her fiancé can afford. Or they should make the celebration a dance party with passed hors d’oeuvres. Your daughter is starting out a new phase of her life, so urge her begin without expecting those she loves to underwrite it.

Q. Military Spouse: I’m a military spouse whose husband is about to complete his eighth deployment. This morning, I woke up to about nine emails/Facebook messages of friends and family sending me a link to the “homecoming” Budweiser commercial that aired on TV during the Super Bowl last night. This is the most glaring example yet of a pattern of people sending me links to EVERY homecoming story/video/picture that they come across and/or inquiring about what “epic plans” I have for my husband’s return. For the record, having been through this process on multiple occasions and knowing how difficult reintegrations can be, I think “surprise” homecomings are awful and can’t imagine how hard they are on families, especially children. I have tried to respond graciously in the past, but it is starting to get on my nerves. I don’t think that the stories and ads are sweet and patriotic. I think that they are exploitative and insincere: that Americans post these feel good snippets so that they can feel like they are doing something to “support the troops” while they ignore/allow involuntary drawdowns, untreated PTSD, family violence, V.A. backlogs and all the other unpleasant realities that happen after the ticker tape parades are over. I know, of course, that my friends and family mean well and I don’t want to upset them by unleashing this rant, but it gets harder and harder to bite my tongue. Can you suggest a firm but gentle way to request that the onslaught cease?

A: Thank you for this important statement. I have written about the effect of surprise homecomings on the children of deployed service people, and I agree that they are not a good idea. The kind of celebration portrayed in the Bud commercial was not a surprise for the kids. But you raise really important points about an epic homecoming. I’m sure there are people who have appreciated this outpouring, just as there are those for whom it would be a strain. You also make the larger point that a few hours of hugs and balloons make the celebrants feel good, but do not deal with the physical and psychological struggles of those who may have been deployed many times and endured terrible things. What you’ve said here—tempered just a little—is a good place to start in responding to well-meaning people. You can say your husband is coming home for the eighth time. Explain that a parade and hoopla is not what he needs. Then if there is something real people can do: bring meals, help with the kids while he acclimates, say so. You can explain a lot of military families feel pressure to have a big celebration, when what really is needed is a chance for quiet reintegration and a support system, because serving in a war zone comes at a high cost.

Q. Re: Phillip Seymour Hoffman: A few days before Thanksgiving, my nephew succumbed to his addiction to heroin. A wonderful, intelligent, warm, outgoing, friendly 18-year-old. I can tell you what would happen if I heard any of my co-workers react like that person … and it wouldn’t be pretty. The fact that Hoffman stopped using over 20 years ago and then fairly recently resumed shows that the fight against addiction is never won, it is just sometimes managed. Every single day is a fight.

A: I’m so sorry for your loss. At least as a society we are finally starting to move away from the punishment and criminalization model of dealing with addiction. You are right, it is something people must deal with for a lifetime. I hope we will continue to develop better means of treatment.

Q. Addict Mom Taking Away Family Relationships: My mother is a 52-year-old prescription pill addict. As a family, we have tried talking to her, rehab, hospital stays, you name it. She agreed to rehab only to get there and manipulate and bully her mom to come get her. Long story short, she got her way. I was raised by my grandmother, so she’s the only mom I’ve ever known. Yet now, she’s chosen to take on my mother and let her live with her, and life go back to just as it was. Mom’s seeking drugs again and lashing out at grandmother for even talking to me. I’ve come to a point where it’s not even a battle worth fighting. I called for commitment, Mom gets out, I’ve called for adult protective services, no investigation since grandmother is a willing participant (and the enabler to these actions). My question to you is, how do I move forward from here? I’m losing my grandmother because of my mother. I don’t want to let go, but our relationship isn’t the same now. The only person who was supposed to take care of me turned her back on me and is now taking the only mom I’ve ever known away. I’ve got a wonderful husband and his family is great—but still, dealing with the aftermath of mother being gone and her choices means my grandmother made choices to still support and enable my mother and drive a great divide between us. How can I move past this and keep my life in balance?

A: Your situation is an example of the damage addicts can do to those around them. Compassion for addiction is, as I’ve said, not a free pass. I’m wondering if there is some kind of intervention you can do for your grandmother. That is, whether you can try adult protective services again, explain the abuse is escalating, and at least get a social worker to come with you and talk to your grandmother—away from your mother—about the cost to her of enabling her daughter. You can make clear to your grandmother that you understand she wants to help your mother, but that she isn’t. You can say that as long as your mother is using drugs, you have to step away from this situation, and that it is agony for you to see your grandmother caught in the middle of this terrible cycle. Whatever happens, please seek a support group or an individual therapist. You need help for dealing with having never had a mother, and now the pain you feel over the loss of your relationship with your grandmother.

Q. Re: Daughter’s wedding food—don’t be so stuffy!: I actually think that is an ingenious and quirky way to have a kind of “self-sufficient” wedding. Especially since the payment of the meal is probably FAR less than the standard cost of a wedding gift, which the bride and groom have, unmaterialistically, said they don’t want. Plus in this scenario, the person shelling out the money toward the wedding actually gets something in return, albeit slightly cold roast chicken and sad veggies. As long as this request is worded carefully with some acknowledgment of how strange it may seem to older, more traditional guests I say go for it and I’m impressed by the ingenuity of creating a happy, inclusive occasion to celebrate their marriage with all the people who want, and expect, to be invited.

A: No. Gifts are optional. This is charging admission to be a guest. If you can’t afford to put on the wedding of your dreams, then you wake up and put on the wedding you can afford.

Q. Revenge on Co-Worker Sabotaging Career: I just found out that for the past three years, a co-worker has been sabotaging my career for her own personal advancement, mainly by telling lies about me and by withholding important information that would allow me to do my work more effectively. She is now being promoted to a bigger position outside of our group but within the company. I have hard evidence that she has broken several major company policies along the way and am considering taking it to HR. However, I’m worried about potential blowback. I’m also interviewing for another job outside of our company, but don’t yet have an offer. If I’m leaving the company, should I take it to HR as a nice parting gift as I leave? If I don’t get the job, should I take it to HR with the potential consequences? Or should I just count my blessings that she won’t have me to kick around anymore?

A: If this new job doesn’t come through, then keep looking. I wish it were the case that if someone knows of a perfidious, manipulative co-worker, management would like to be informed so they can then take appropriate action. But since you mention possible blowback, you yourself know that isn’t necessarily the case. The co-worker is being rewarded for her actions. She may have tainted you. This means that your presenting your evidence could end up hurting you, as unfair as that is. While you’re looking, be glad that she’s out of your immediate circle. This is a great opportunity to show just how capable you are, and things may get a lot better at work. If you do end up leaving, simply say how much you enjoyed your opportunities at the company.

Q. Only Child: We have a 5-year-old and it’s likely she will be an only child. Not by choice, but because of secondary infertility. I’m conflicted about how I feel about this. On one hand, she’s a very happy, confident child who makes friends with ease and I think she’ll do just fine being the only one. On the other hand, I feel responsible for depriving her of knowing what it’s like growing up with siblings. My husband and I both have siblings and intended on adding to our family. I know the literature that says only children are no worse off than those with siblings. But my mind goes in circles on this issue—she’ll have everything she can possibly want! she’ll be lonely! she’ll get our full attention! she’ll yearn for a larger family! How do I break out of this cycle and just enjoy the child I have instead of being fixated on this only child issue?

A: I once met a Russian immigrant family at a dinner with friends. There was a grown daughter, who was a fantastically successful computer scientist, her husband and children, and her parents. At one point I asked the woman’s father if he had other children. He held up his index finger and said in his delightfully accented English, “Only one. But a good one!” My husband and I each come from a family of four siblings, and we would have liked a younger sister or brother for our daughter. But after that dinner we often repeat to each other the wise words of that Russian man. We, too, have only one, but a good one! You already know that being an only child is fine. Sure, your daughter will miss some things by not having siblings, but she will gain other things. You can also try to ensure she has close relationships with her cousins, and when she gets older and you go on family trips, you can have her invite a friend to come along. You have dealt with secondary infertility, but think of how blessed you are that you were able to have your daughter. Get out of your own head and look at those struggling around you. Then be grateful that you, too, have a good one.

Click here to read Part 2 of this week’s chat.

Discuss this column with Emily Yoffe on her Facebook page.

Check out Dear Prudence’s book recommendations in the Slate Store.