Dear Prudence

Better Left Unsaid

Prudie counsels a letter writer who kept a brother’s suicide note secret from their parents.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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

Q. My Late Brother’s Letter: Every year my family gathers to remember my brother, “Jay,” who committed suicide at 15, 10 years ago. Once more, my parents said they simply wished he’d left a letter. The truth is: He did, and I’ve kept it. I’ve just always kept it to myself because it was so full of hate toward my parents that I was (and still am) afraid it would break them. The facts: At the time we’d just moved cities (leaving all our friends behind), Mom soon became unemployed (and cranky), and my parents started getting a divorce before the year was over. Jay hated our new school and he jumped out of our apartment window the day after his crush turned him down in public. Jay and I were close (I was 14), bonding in our “I hate life” phase, but I failed to take him seriously enough. The letter, barely legible and obviously written in less than a few minutes, accuses my parents of being selfish, of having asked for this, and other horrid things I can unfortunately remember thinking myself at the time, but that I am so very glad I never told them. I don’t want this letter to be the way they remember Jay, he was so much more than this, but every year I see my mother in tears wishing for that damned letter, as if it would fix things. Would dispelling the “letter myth” help? Thank you for your advice.

A: What a crushing burden you have had to bear. How devastating for all of you. It is agony to think that your brother—because he was so young and understandably didn’t have the psychological and neurological maturity to know that this moment would pass—ended his life. If you had handed over the note 10 years ago, it would have been crushing, but your parents would have now had a decade to try to put it into perspective. But I agree with you that giving it to them now will only cause unnecessary pain. They will be taken back to that horrible day and excoriate themselves for everything they said and did leading up to your brother’s tragically impulsive moment. You yourself must have shouldered a great deal of guilt, and you demonstrated back then an incredible amount of maturity and restraint to keep the letter to yourself. I think you should not turn it over, but I hope you have talked this out with a therapist or support group. You should not have to carry this alone.

Q. Moral Dilemma: I am recently separated from my husband of 10 years. The cause of our marital breakdown is that he is a voyeur; I discovered that he has been photographing and videotaping our female neighbor without her knowledge, while she is in her yard or inside her house. She is not naked in any of this footage, but as the shots are all close-ups of her chest or rear end, it’s very obviously sexually motivated. We are now in family court trying to settle our divorce and custody of our child, and my lawyer has decided to leave the voyeurism “on the back burner,” as he says it’s not a family law matter. I find it repellent to keep his secret, since I would want to know if someone were violating my privacy in such a way. But I’m reluctant to do anything that will damage my son’s relationship with his father, such as bringing the matter to the authorities and potentially getting him in legal trouble. Please give me your thoughts.

A: You’ve already discussed this with a lawyer who’s recommended you not bring forth your allegations. Your husband is sick, and upon finding this out, you have taken decisive action. But this perversion is not the entirety of him, and good for you for wanting your son to be able to have a decent relationship with his father. These videos are gross, and if contacted the authorities might prosecute. If your ex were engaged in the making of child pornography, there would be no question about reporting him. But I think you can go along with your lawyer’s advice and keep this knowledge on the back burner if indeed this is the extent of your husband’s behavior. Let’s hope the divorce has prompted him to recognize he’s sick and needs help.

Q. I’m the Boy From the Other Side of Town: I have been with my girlfriend for three years. We have a wonderful relationship. However, we had two very different upbringings. She is from a very wealthy family, and I grew up under the poverty line and was homeless for a time. I have worked since I was 15 and was the main source of my family’s income while I was at college. My family’s situation has gotten somewhat better, as my mom found regular employment and they have been able to live on their own. (I am pursuing a graduate degree.) But my mom was recently laid off, and she has limited English and not many work skills, so my family is struggling again. Recently I have found my girlfriend’s “problems” to be unbearable. Last week I found her on the verge of tears because she might not be able to go to a friend’s wedding in Paris. Part of me just wanted to tell her to just suck it up, or just ignore her, and tell her that those aren’t really problems! I know I shouldn’t blame her for having a sheltered life, but I’m finding it more and more difficult to do. Any advice about how to get over this that doesn’t involve me breaking up with her or resenting her?

A: You are understandably displacing your deep fears about your family onto your girlfriend. If you were talking to her about your mother’s situation and she replied, “You think you’ve got problems? I might not be able to go to Paris for Courtney’s wedding!” then you two would have a problem together. But if she was simply upset that she wasn’t going to be able to go to a fun and highly anticipated event, then you have to give her a pass. You don’t make clear whether you two have ever really discussed your personal histories, or whether she’s acknowledged how hard and admirable your life has been—and that your struggles and hard work have made her appreciate just how easy her life has been. Sure, you don’t want your relationship to revolve around your differences in upbringing, but this is a real issue, one you live with and that right now is weighing on you. If you’re in a mutually supportive relationship, this is something you should be able to discuss and even brainstorm with each other about. So if you’re not talking, start. Don’t say hearing about her petty problems enrages you. Tell her you’re really worried about your family slipping back into homelessness. Let’s hope she responds with attention and empathy.

Q. Re: Moral Dilemma: If my neighbor were taking pictures of me, I would want to know.

A: I’m curious what most people think. If your neighbor were recording images of your rear end as you were weeding the garden—and they were for his private (blech!) use only and not posted online—would you want to know, or prefer to pull up the dandelions without knowing? (I will not make hitting him in the face with a trowel an option.)

Q. SIL Is Always Exhausted; Can We Just Stop Hanging Out?: My wife’s sister is in her second year of an intensive residency program. I find her career very admirable, not the least because of the 80-hour weeks she puts in. However, occasionally my sister-in-law will make plans to hang out with us on one of her rare days off and then spend the whole time being exhausted, talking about how tired she is, etc. It seems to me she feels obligated to see us every so often when she would rather spend these days relaxing. What’s a nice way to say, “Hey, take care of yourself, we’ll be here when residency ends?”

A: In those rare hours off, it’s understandably she wants to have contact with her loved ones, even if she mostly is having hypnagogic sleep while socializing. When she suggests getting together I suggest this: Tell her you’re going to bring dinner over to her place. Eat and hang out for an hour or so and have a glass of wine or two. Then have your wife escort your sister to her bedroom and tuck her in.

Q. Re: Neighbor Photos: As long at they were never shared on the Internet—I would NOT want to know.

Q. Re: Moral Dilemma: I would want to know, so I could get the police involved. A guy with so little respect for women might escalate his invasion of privacy to even more intrusive and criminal behavior. Imagine how the LW would feel if she kept silent and her ex ended up raping someone.

Q. Re: Moral Dilemma: I’d want to know. And hit him with a trowel. Or worse.

A: The votes are coming in—thanks.

Q. Gave Husband Permission to Have Sex Outside of Marriage …: My husband and I have been together nearly 20 years. Our sex life has dwindled to maybe once every two months because of my issues. I gave him permission to go outside of the marriage for sex, but I really didn’t want him to have a relationship with someone else. Recently he came to me and said he has found someone and told me he can’t have sex without an emotional connection. I feel betrayed and want him to not continue with it. I will work on giving him more sex. He says it’s unfair to give him the OK and then take it back. I feel horrible but I didn’t think this would affect me as much. I don’t know what to do.

A: This is one of those hall passes that you can only give with the knowledge that it may result in the recipient making a complete break. Some people can separate sex from emotion and just tend to their physical needs. Your husband is not one of these people. Your telling him to seek sex outside your marriage has resulted in an unsurprising, but understandably distressing situation. At least give you husband credit for being honest with you. What can I say except that you two should march off to couples counseling where you will be with a professional who can help you hash out what you both want out of this marriage, or whether he wants out.

Q. Re: Pictures …: Realistically, in an age when everybody has a cell camera in his pocket, everybody should assume that they might be photographed when they are in public. In this case, the neighbor is plainly visible outdoors and she is clothed. If the pics are for the photographer’s private amusement, no harm done. The real issue would be if the pics were ever posted online, particularly with identifying information or embarrassing captions.

A: Lots of people are saying call the police, this guy is a danger who knows what else he’s up to. However, this is an interesting point about whether it’s in fact legal to film a clothed neighbor in her yard. (And is being in one’s yard considered out in public or not?) I agree with the posters who suggest the letter writer get another legal opinion, one from someone more expert in this aspect of the law.

Q. To Correct or Not to Correct: An acquaintance just started a business and has put the link to the website on social media. I checked it out and saw about 10 typos and comparable errors. Do I tell her and risk her being offended (“kill the messenger”) or leave well enough alone and just wish her well? If I tell her, what words are least likely to offend?

A: If someone you know would blow up at you for helping her business succeed, then she’s not cut out for business. Such errors broadcast that she will do as lousy a job for her clients as for herself. You say this is an acquaintance. I don’t know if you know her well enough to know she’d be offended. If she would be, then let the marketplace speak. If you’re asking if it’s rude to point out the errors to her, I think it’s actually helpful. If she doesn’t thank you, then you don’t want to get to deepen this acquaintanceship.

Q. Re: Privacy: Whether or not it is legal to take pics of the neighbor, she ought to know. However, the LW says her husband is taking pics of her inside her house. This is creepy and the neighbor needs to know immediately.

A: Ah, good point—the wife did say he was photographing her in her yard and in her house. Photographing someone in her house is illegal. But the wife is in a complicated legal situation right now and she needs to talk to her divorce lawyer about the consequences for her divorce and custody proceedings if she calls the police on her husband. If her divorce lawyer won’t explore this, then again, she should talk with another lawyer. She has to move forward in a way that best protects herself, her child, and the neighbor.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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