Dear Prudence

I Blamed the Victim

Prudie counsels a letter writer who regrets badmouthing a friend after she was molested.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

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

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Q. I’ve done something horrible: When I was 14, a friend was sleeping over. I heard voices and walked into the kitchen to find my dad with his hand up her pajama top. I was horrified and didn’t know what to do, and I took his side, screaming at her that she was a slut who was flirting with my dad. With my dad’s encouragement, I badmouthed her at school and cut her out of my life.

I also did everything I could to forget what I’d seen and succeeded until now. I have a 13-year-old daughter now, and we were visiting my parents. My dad wasn’t doing anything inappropriate, but I was hit with a wave of revulsion when I saw him hug her and it all came back to me. We left at once, but now I don’t know what to do.

I want to confront my dad, but I also never want to see him again. I want to find my ex-friend and beg forgiveness, but I can’t bear the thought of facing her. I don’t know how to tell my daughter and my mother that I never want her to see my dad again, and I feel so ashamed for taking his side that I don’t even know how to tell my husband. I’ve hardly been able to stop crying since. Please give me some advice about where to start.

A: I’m so sorry. More than anything, I hope you can realize that, although you profoundly regret your actions towards your friend, you were little more than a child yourself at the time and that your father was a fully culpable adult who not only molested a teenager while she was a guest in his home, but encouraged his own child to tarnish her reputation in order to keep from being found out. Please seek out a counselor immediately who can help you deal with this delayed realization and figure out how to move ahead.

Whether you should contact your former friend is difficult to say. It may be meaningful for her to hear, even decades later, that you’re sorry for not having been able to help and defend her, and that you know now your father was in the wrong—or she may find it additionally traumatizing and unwelcome. That’s part of why seeing a counselor (particularly one who deals with sexual assault and its aftermath) will be helpful to you, so you can figure out whether contacting her is a good idea, and how to do so in a way that makes it clear you won’t push if she doesn’t want to hear from you.

When it comes to your father, if you don’t feel prepared to talk to him in person, you might consider explaining briefly why you can no longer see him in a letter. He not only took gross advantage of your friend, but he also took advantage of you. He exploited the love and trust you had for him as your father and used it to continue to hurt a 14-year-old girl. That was a horrifying emotional perversion of a parent-child relationship, almost worse than his initial crime. You are right not to want to see him, and particularly not to want him around your own teenage daughter. Please take whatever steps are necessary to take care of her and yourself, and put as much distance between yourself and your father as you need.

Q. No loans: My husband and I will have five children in college in the next four years. We want to help all our children get an education without drowning in debt, but we are having trouble getting through to my youngest stepdaughter.

She is a junior and determined to go straight to a private university. A single semester would cost more than two years at a state school. Her grades are good but not great—I know she can get in, but scholarships are hard to find. Our two older children (her half-brother and my oldest daughter) are living at home and going to community college.

We can’t afford to send her to this school, and she is fighting us. She says she deserves to go and is insulted over the idea of her going to community college. She has said this in front of both of her siblings—neither are speaking to her right now because of it.

Her mother tends to promise the world and never deliver. She says she will help pay for college. She owes my husband over $10,000 in back child support and works a minimum-wage job.

My stepdaughter does not deserve crippling debt before she hits her twenties, but loans are going to be the only way she will be able to go. My husband and I have had multiple discussions with her but cannot get through to her. What can we do?

A: Continue to be clear and honest about the amount of money per year you’re able to offer her, and let her make an informed decision about what schools to apply to and what alternate financial arrangements she’ll want to make as a result. Insist that, as long as she’s living with you and her siblings, she respect their choices and refrain from insulting the very existence of community colleges. Encourage her to set up an appointment with her school’s college counselor, if it has one, who can help her apply for both need- and merit-based scholarships, as well as explain the differences between federal and private loans, and the various upsides and downsides to both.

Do not go into debt yourselves, or promise money you don’t have, just to humor your stepdaughter.

Q. No takebacks: Several years ago, my father passed his saxophone on to my son, who was just starting out in middle-school band. This saxophone is beautiful and extremely valuable, and my son has treasured it and cared for it as his prized possession. My dad has not played in more than 15 years, but his grandson has inherited his gift for music and is starting college at a prestigious school for music in the fall. He is planning to take his beloved saxophone with him.

The problem is my father wants his saxophone back. He says that the instrument was given as a loan to spark my son’s interest and encourage him to pursue music. Now that he’s on that path, he feels it’s time to reclaim the sax, probably to sell. My son does not know about his grandpa’s request, and I know he would be devastated to part with what he and I both thought was a thoughtful and generous gift.

My dad and my son have a good relationship and I can’t help but think this will cause some resentment, especially since good saxophones can be extremely expensive and we’re already strained paying for tuition. Do I tell my dad “no takebacks,” or should I tell my son to start looking for a replacement instrument?

A: Let your father and son hash this out between themselves.

If your father was truly unclear as to whether it was a gift or a loan when he offered your son the instrument years ago, then his current insistence on taking it back is more than a little rude. But it’s not necessarily out of line for him to ask for it back, especially if he always intended it to be a long-term loan (even if he didn’t communicate that effectively to you from the start).

Since your son is both the saxophone’s current owner and a freshly minted adult, I think you should tell your father to speak directly to him about it. You can encourage your son to be polite, even if his grandfather isn’t, and to consider possible alternatives to giving it back. Maybe they could work out a plan where your son buys the saxophone from his grandfather at a reasonable secondhand rate. But let him take the lead, and confine yourself to a supporting role.

Q. Re: No loans: With three college-age kids myself, my advice would be to offer her the same amount you’re paying the other two. That keeps it fair. If she wants to go beyond that, then she’s footing the bill for her tuition. Also, she may not get in or may visit the university and not like the campus. A lot can change in that junior year, trust me!

A: It may very well be that this expensive school she’s got her heart set on will not accept her, which would make things a lot easier. I’m also getting a lot of reminders from other readers not to co-sign on any big loans.

Q. Sheer shirt at work: A large portion of on-trend women’s shirts are sheer to varying degrees. I work in an academic institution that does not have a dress code. Do you think it is ever appropriate to wear a shirt that shows your bra?

In general, I think shirts that are very sheer are usually (appropriately) worn with a camisole underneath. However, there are a lot of shirts that are fairly opaque from the front or in certain lighting, but much more sheer in the back or industrial lighting (of which the wearer may or may not be aware).

Personally, I love the look but would never dare to wear it at work.

A: If you would never dare to wear the look at work, then I think you have answered your own question! Don’t wear something to work that makes you feel self-conscious and uncomfortable—save the more daring looks for after-work events.

Q. Re: No takebacks: Just FYI, since I happen to work in the weird little niche that is the musical instruments industry, a secondhand sax does not depreciate like a secondhand car. Used instruments retain their value extremely well, and good ones can be as expensive as comparable new ones, or more so (especially prestigious models that are out of production). It would be nice for Grandpa to give his grandson a great deal, but the market price for this sax is probably quite steep.

A: That’s good to know! It would be nice if Grandpa was willing to cut his grandson a family discount, even a small one, but it may end up that it costs the same either way.

Q. Accepting Money: I recently did some landscaping work for my girlfriend’s parents. It wasn’t much trouble (it only took a weekend) but they insisted on paying me. I refused, but then they gave the money to my girlfriend to give to me. We both agreed it wasn’t necessary and ended up spending it on more landscaping stuff for her parents.

I don’t have a problem with this, but I am curious: Would it have been inappropriate to accept the money? Was it impolite to refuse?

A: This is a completely arbitrary ruling, as are all of my rulings, but generally speaking, if someone is offering to pay you for hours worked (always a good idea!), even if the someones in question are your girlfriend’s parents, you get to demur politely once and then graciously accept. A weekend is a long time, by the way! It’s generous of you to offer to do it as a favor, but I can understand why they felt obligated to pay you even if you’re not strapped for cash.

Something tells me that if you keep dating this girl, you two are going to be locked into a very pleasant lifelong battle with her parents over who gets to pick up the check. It’ll keep you sharp.

Q. Infertility Blues: My husband and I have been trying to get pregnant for three years; we had one pregnancy after two years of trying and miscarried at 11 weeks. Every time I’m around someone who is pregnant, I feel like running away and finding a quiet place to cry. It seems like I’m surrounded at work by women expecting or their excited husbands. Just hearing about their joy (or worse, when they complain about it) makes me miserable.

I tried going to therapy but the therapist made me feel worse: “You seem like a high-strung person, maybe you’d get pregnant if you were less stressed.” I never went back. I wasn’t stressed when we started trying; I was happy and excited. We’ve been tested for fertility problems, but fertility treatments are exhausting and don’t make it any easier to hear my co-workers talk about their “happy surprise.”

I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to tell someone to please stop talking about their pregnancy because they’re making me miserable. So my question is: How do I get over the resentment I feel toward pregnant women?

A: First off, I’m sorry that you had such a lousy therapist—telling a patient they’re “too stressed” to get pregnant is not an especially useful thing to say. I hope you’re able to find a genuinely helpful outlet for your frustrations and resentments, whether that be from an in-person or online infertility support group, a non-lousy therapist, a journal, or something else. I think you should prioritize setting aside some time every week for dealing with your feelings about your difficulty conceiving, whatever that looks like, so that you have a regular outlet and don’t feel you need to keep your feelings to yourself 100 percent of the time.

The most important thing to remember when it comes to other women who are getting pregnant is that it has absolutely nothing to do with you. If the entire world got pregnant tomorrow, it would not change your situation one iota; ditto if the entire world found it could not get pregnant tomorrow. If you need to limit the amount of time you spend engaging in happy pregnancy talk, it’s absolutely fine for you to politely excuse yourself after the initial congratulations, but you’re quite right that it’s not appropriate (nor useful!) for you to ask other people to talk or care less about their own pregnancies.

Q. Re: Accepting Money: Homer says in the Iliad: “To refuse a gift is an unholy thing.” I agree with Prudence, decline once then accept graciously.

A: We can’t appeal to a higher authority than that! Prudence is a classical virtue, Homer is a classical poet, money is a classical gift.

Mallory Ortberg: Phew, lots of thorny family planning issues this week! Good luck making it through the day, everyone—personally, I’m inclined to follow that bold reader’s good example and spend the rest of it in bed.

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

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