Dear Prudence

Pushed Out the Door

Prudie offers counsel about a mother who withheld medicine and food from the letter writer’s dying father.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

Mallory Ortberg: The time, the place, the players—everything is in readiness. Let’s chat.

Q. My mother abused my dying father: My mother abused my dying father, withholding medicine and food, as well as verbally, such that he didn’t say when he soiled himself in order to avoid her abuse as others changed him. The list goes on. I moved in with them for the last six weeks to try and protect him. Authorities and other family members were aware of the situation. I don’t seem to be able to forgive and forget when it comes to my mother, unlike the rest of the family. Now, most of the family wants little to nothing to do with me because I’ve cut ties with mother. It’s coming to a head, as I’ve been told my presence at a longstanding family vacation would make others uncomfortable wondering what could happen with Mom and I both in attendance. I’m suffering. I’ve lost my father and a lot of my family at the same time. Do I once again make peace with my manipulative, lying, abusive, and narcissistic mother at my own personal cost so I can have my family back? Or do I keep my ties with her broken? And, yes, I’m in counseling and have asked some family to join me with no takers.

A: As a general rule, I think a person should consider cutting off ties with someone else, particularly a family member, as a last resort and with good cause. “My mother withheld food from my dying father and left him lying in his own filth, and I had to move in with them in order to make sure his final days were not spent in neglect and agony” is a very good cause. There is no misunderstanding here, no way to see it from her side that would mitigate her behavior; your mother did something nigh-unforgivable and has apparently demonstrated no remorse. How on Earth could you “forgive and forget” that your mother tried to kill your helpless father when she hasn’t offered up even a half-hearted apology? How on earth could you restore ties with other family members who prioritize feeling comfortable at a lake house over holding someone accountable for abusing a dying man? There are people it is not worth having ties with, and anyone who wants to sweep abuse under the rug is not someone you need in your life. How fortunate that your father had you in his life to protect him in his final moments. Don’t let yourself be pressured into smiling and making nice with the woman who tried to kill him.

Q. Should I wave the white flag?: Two months ago, I met someone wonderful and we stayed up talking until sunrise. He lives far away and we don’t know where this is going but we are both pleasantly surprised. I’m thrilled at how open-minded he is; he’s an Army guy who builds guns and I’m a Bernie supporter with a masters in global affairs, but we just get each other. Last night he sent me a photo and it was the first time I let myself see that he has two tattered flags tattooed on his chest: the American flag and the Confederate flag with a particular animal in front of each. (This is apparently a common tattoo.) Our relationship is already a long shot but I really am impressed by him and want to be open to his explanation that this isn’t in support of the Confederacy (how?). Is there any world where this isn’t doomed? FYI, I’m black, he’s white and I don’t want to ask my family or close friends for fear that if he and I can continue they would have a hard time putting that knowledge aside.

A: I think you have to ask yourself how much time you’d spend giving a Confederate flag tattoo the benefit of the doubt if it weren’t attached to someone you’re trying very hard to convince yourself you have a future with. If this were just someone walking down the street, would your first thought be, “This man who feels strongly enough about the Confederate flag to have it permanently affixed to his body probably doesn’t have positive feelings towards the actual, historical Confederacy, for some reason”? I’m worried you’ll try so hard to be “open” to whatever justification he has (he just loves history in a way that conveniently divorces symbols from any meaningful context?) you’ll swallow just about anything he offers you by way of explanation. The fact that you’re trying to keep this information from everyone else in your life because you know they’d question whether this is the right person for you is also troubling. Most great relationships don’t start off by keeping tattoo secrets. Ask him about it—he obviously wants you to since he sent you a picture of it, rather than waiting for you to see it by accident—and think seriously about what answer, if any, could make you feel comfortable with it.

Q. Wedding gifts: My husband and I have been invited to weddings recently that listed information on websites. These websites contain links to or similar websites asking for money to pay for the wedding or honeymoon instead of a gift. One wedding website offered guests to use PayPal or a credit card to send money immediately to the couple’s bank account. To me this seem tacky, even though I usually give money as a gift anyway. Am I correct or just behind the times?

A: I have no idea what earthly good my ruling would do here. If it’s tacky, there’s not much you can do about it; if it isn’t tacky, I don’t know how you would go about communicating that good news to the happy couple. I have no interest in declaring whether or not something is tacky; frankly, I think there are a number of worse things to be. Give, or don’t give, as you see fit; they’re making a request, not a demand, and as long as they’re not shaking guests down for loose change at the church door, I think you shouldn’t worry about it.

Q. My brother wants me to help him become a famous writer: My brother is in his 40s, in a wheelchair, and has been unemployed for about two years. He has two children and pays his bills with his disability checks. I live in a big city a few hours away, where I have a pretty good job in the medical publishing industry. Two years ago, my brother said he was writing a sci-fi novel and wanted me to review it and help him get published. I eventually read it and discussed my thoughts with him over the phone (which he really appreciated), but it ended up being a tremendous amount of work. The book is bad, he doesn’t write especially well, and as I work in the publishing industry, I’m well aware of the odds of publishing a novel at all, let alone a bad sci-fi novel. In addition, my brother recently told my mother he has no intention of looking for another job; he wants to be a famous sci-fi author. I’m at a complete loss. I’m extremely busy with my work, not to mention the fact that I try to do some of my own writing on occasion. I have little time for this, and I’m also angry that my brother would give up the prospect of real work because he’s deluded himself into thinking he’s Arthur C. Clarke. I’m inclined to tell him to stop wasting his time, but I feel guilty—he doesn’t have a lot going on, finding work as a disabled person is extremely difficult, and my mother acts like I’m obligated to help him. I just don’t see how it’s my responsibility, and I really wish someone would tell him to grow up and find a real job, or at the very least, find work and write on the side. Am I being too harsh here?

A: I don’t think you should give him the full-barreled opinion you just gave me, certainly, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t be honest with your brother about the odds of getting published, not to mention the fact that there’s a significant difference between “getting a novel published” and “becoming a famous sci-fi author,” two very distinct things he seems to have conflated into one. You can soften the blow by reminding him, truthfully, that someone who works in medical publishing has no real weight in the science-fiction market, and there’s not much you can practically do to help him achieve his goals. (It should also be mentioned that even Arthur C. Clarke worked as a pensions auditor, served in the army, and clerked for an indexing service well into the 1950s, even after he had found success selling his short stories; Kurt Vonnegut continued to teach English and write ad copy after the publication of his first novel; Isaac Asimov remained on the faculty at the Boston University School of Medicine even after he started making more money as a writer than as an academic—there’s precedence for finding, and keeping, a day job.)

Q. Accepting Facebook friend request: I unfriended a classmate on Facebook because he dismissed my feelings when I referenced his homophobic teasing 40 years ago (I came out in high school). A lot of classmates teased me, but this particular guy was the worst of the group. In his defense, he was an ass to everyone, but my 16-year-old self thought I was being singled out. He has since sent another friend request. Should I just ignore it, or send an email explaining my feelings for the unfriending?

A: You don’t have to write a manifesto about what an asshole the guy was, but you can certainly send a message back that makes it clear you didn’t unfriend him by mistake, and that he shouldn’t try to contact you again. Keep it short and discourage further conversation: “Hey, Chimothy, I’m not interested in accepting your friend request, because you were a jerk when I came out in high school. Best of luck with everything.” (Also, for the future, if someone is rude to everyone, this is not actually a point in their defense. It is a point against them.)

Q. BF with uncertain immigration status: My boyfriend and I have been together six months. We’re both in our late 20s. We get along really well. He’s kind and supportive. I’ve always prioritized my job and friendships over dating and relationships, and it has surprised me how happy and settled I feel with him. The thing is—he’s an immigrant and his work visa ends this fall. I know he is interested in staying in the U.S. and is worried that his visa won’t be renewed. He hasn’t brought up marrying for a green card, but I imagine it’s on his mind. Most of me feels like it isn’t that big of a deal, and my mom supports it—but my friends are a little freaked out about the idea. Am I underestimating how significant this is? And if we decide to, how do we balance our still somewhat new relationship with a legal marriage?

A: The key to your letter is “he hasn’t brought up marrying for a green card, but I imagine it’s on his mind.” You are at least seven conversations ahead of yourself, and imagining what a partner is thinking without confirming with them is a recipe for misunderstandings. Ask your boyfriend what he’s thinking about his upcoming visa renewal, and listen to his concerns and ideas before suggesting anything. If he thinks he’s unlikely to have his visa renewed and if he’s exhausted all other options and if you two have similar levels of confidence in your relationship, then you can have a conversation about the possibility of marriage as a path to citizenship, but not before. Stop discussing your impending marriage with your mother and your friends, and start discussing it with the person you would presumably like to marry.

Q. Friend has no time: I have a dear friend, “Betty,” whom I’ve known since our youth. We’ve always been close, confiding in and drawing support from each other during difficult times in our lives. We are now each happily married, and are good friends with each other’s spouses. The problem is that our relationship has lost some of its closeness in recent years ever since she had a child. I certainly understand that parenthood can completely transform a person’s life, and I couldn’t be happier for Betty and her lovely child. However, I do miss my friend. We’ve tried several ways to continue to stay in touch, but with little success. She chooses to stay off her phone when she’s at home with her child, which eliminates weekdays until bedtime and all weekends. My wife sympathizes and has tried inviting Betty (and her child) over on weekends, so we can talk while her child plays, but Betty almost never takes her up on these offers because she wants to maximize her one-on-one time with her child. I’ve spoken to Betty about this, and while she also confesses to missing talking to me, she feels unable to draw herself away from her child, even for the small durations that I ask. While I admire her devotion to her (now 4-year-old) child, I find it inconceivable that she cannot spend even an hour every few weeks to talk. Is it reasonable to expect that Betty should make some time every few weeks to catch up, or am I being unrealistic in my expectations from a working mother?

A: She sounds slightly more than usually attached to her child, but I think I see an option you haven’t considered. Rather than asking Betty to come to you, why not ask if you can stop by her for a few minutes for a cup of tea and a chat? Don’t invite yourself over to dinner, of course, but make it easier for her to say “yes” by minimizing the amount of effort required on her part. If she continues to fend you off, it might be time to accept that this relationship is fading into the background of Betty’s life.

Read Part 2 of this week’s chat.

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