Every week, Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Mother of complications: I was adopted by a nonblood relation, “Jane,” and her husband, “Rick,” who raised me alongside their daughter, “Stacey.” Jane has always been an angry woman—quick to yell, demean, throw things, and strike out at me and Stacey physically. Jane had a very troubled childhood, and she has a lot of untreated anxiety and anger issues that stem from this.
My biological family is back in my life, and they all hate Jane and say she stole me from them. (They lost a very ugly custody battle because of their drug problems.) My father, Rick, has divorced Jane and will not speak with her, nor will my sister, Stacey, or any other relatives. Jane’s violent, angry, and manipulative transgressions over the years have made her a pariah.
I am still on speaking terms with Jane, but recently my biological mother and Stacey have both asked me to cut her out. My own therapist seems to think it would be a good idea as well. But this woman raised me, and while she has done some awful things, I don’t feel it’s entirely her fault or under her control.
I also don’t want to upset Stacey. We have a very close relationship, and I don’t want to lose her because of Jane. I don’t know if I should just cut Jane out and feel guilty for leaving an aging woman alone, or if I should confront Stacey and my biological family about letting me decide for myself who to keep in my life.
A: I assume you’re not asking Stacey or anyone else in your family to interact with Jane when they’re spending time with you, or asking them for advice about your relationship with her. It sounds like this is a fairly private relationship that’s distinct from the rest of your family interactions, and if it’s important to you to maintain some contact with Jane, regardless of whether anyone else in your life chooses to do the same, then that’s ultimately your decision. You don’t even need to justify that choice by determining to what degree her abusive behavior was her fault or within her control—you can determine what level of contact works for you and why.
It’s absolutely fair for Stacey to say that she doesn’t want to hear about Jane, or to be involved in your relationship with Jane in any way. But beyond that, the choice to stay in touch with Jane is yours, not hers. I don’t think you should “confront” her about it, because that would be needlessly antagonistic in a situation that’s already fairly fraught, but I do think you can speak clearly about your choice. You can tell your other relatives that you love them, that you respect their decision not to speak to Jane, that you aren’t trying to downplay the significance and duration of her abusive behavior, and that it’s important for you to maintain some form of contact with her.