Dear Prudence

My Parents’ Friend Sexually Harassed Me. Should I Tell Them?

Prudie’s column for Oct. 4.

A sleazy-looking man drinking wine.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by OSTILL/iStock.

Dear Prudence,
Years ago, right after college, I was living with some family friends while I worked an internship in a city I couldn’t afford. They were like another father and mother to me—until one night, when we all had some wine. After his wife had gone to bed, my family friend and “father figure” got weirdly sexual with me and tried to physically “comfort” me. I left the house after he tried to touch me and moved out the next day, but I never told my parents what happened. I’ve tried to ignore it for years, but it just haunts me—especially with sexual harassment in the news every day. I want my parents to stop casually mentioning this man, but I also want to protect them. I’ve been to therapy, but it didn’t give me an answer on whether I should tell them or not. I know this is a decision I have to make for myself, but I feel like I’m stuck in making it. Should I tell them?
—Should I Tell

Given that you have a specific outcome you’re hoping for, namely that your parents stop talking about him to you like he’s a fondly remembered friend, I think you should consider telling them. It may help to write out exactly what you want to tell them beforehand and to have a plan in place for how you’ll deal with it if they react badly. It can be daunting to trade the known for the unknown, even if what you’re experiencing now is both painful and “haunting,” but since it’s only gotten more difficult to bear by yourself in the intervening years, I think you have good reason for wanting to talk about it now. “I’ve kept this to myself for years, and it’s caused me a lot of pain. I’ve been afraid to talk about it with you, but I want you to know what happened to me so that I can ask for your help and support. The reason I moved out of [family friend]’s house after college is that one night the husband waited until his wife went to bed, sexually propositioned me, and started touching me. It’s very painful to hear him brought up as if he’s still a friend of mine when he isn’t. I want you to stop mentioning his name or giving me updates on his life, because it’s not something I want to know anything about.”

Dear Prudence,
I recently started my first year of part-time law school. I enrolled primarily because of how much money I hoped I could make as a lawyer. I’d been feeling rather aimless, a bit insecure regarding my job (I work as a contractor), and uncertain whether I’d ever make enough to do more than live hand-to-mouth in my very expensive city. I just started school, and I hate it. I hate that I’m putting between 40 and 60 hours per week into something I don’t love (on top of the 45-plus hours I put into my job). I hate that I’ve had to give up cooking, that I can’t see friends or family, and that I abandoned my writing group, yoga, and other hobbies. I hate that I’m not happy anymore. I’m numb and jittery, half asleep, or severely depressed. Do I hate the subject matter? Let me give you a proper lawyer’s answer: It depends. But do I love it? Do I want to spend the rest of my life reading hundred-page cases and trying to glean a rule from them? Things could get better. I know it’s a great opportunity and I should be grateful. However, in addition to the insane workload, most early-career lawyers actually don’t make much more (and some make much less) than I do, and I’m worried I’ll never learn to love it and will then be stuck in an unsatisfying career. At the end of the day, I miss my old life. I just want to be happy again. But is that enough of a reason to quit? Should I?
—Halfhearted Law Student

If the main reason you went to law school in the first place was generalized anxiety about money, then I think you should seriously consider dropping out now, before you feel like you’ve invested so much time and misery in the endeavor that you’re not allowed to leave. That doesn’t mean you have to quit tomorrow, but given that you didn’t start with much love for the work, you feel miserable, you know you can continue to look forward to punishingly long hours both before and after graduation, and you don’t stand to make much money for years to come (if at all), I don’t think you’re suddenly going to develop a fondness for this intensity anytime soon. If you’re feeling anxious about your future earnings, consider seeing a financial planner, trying to move to a cheaper city, or taking on an apprenticeship or a part-time job in another industry. I’m not sure that law school is a great opportunity—lots of students are burdened with massive debt and shrinking career prospects—but it certainly doesn’t sound like a great opportunity for you. “I just want to be happy again” is a very good reason to quit something that makes you miserable and that you’ve only just started.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a 34-year-old woman who recently escaped a 13-year marriage. We have two young children and are splitting custody. After more than a decade of verbal abuse, excessive control, gaslighting, and belittlement, I am healing and getting my life back. I have always dreamed of living in a cabin in the woods and being self-sufficient and recently found a mountain cabin on 40 acres. My career and personal skills make me uniquely suited for life there, even as a single parent with two kids in tow. I have shared this dream with my parents and several close friends, and they all think I’m crazy. I’ve been criticized for wanting to “isolate” my children in the wilderness, robbing them of their social lives due to a 45-minute commute, damaging them by denying them the apparent God-given right to have individual bedrooms … it goes on. After the life I’ve lived, I cannot compromise anymore on how I want to live. I would be miserable in a city on a postage stamp lot. I don’t want to care for a three-bedroom house with multiple bathrooms. Obviously, if I was making an unsafe decision that would harm myself or my kids, I hope my friends would step in. But what I feel we have here is differing philosophies and an inability to relate to my perspective because it seems so “out there.” What can I say to my family and friends to help them understand my perspective? Am I making a huge mistake by following my dream?
—Life After Divorce

It will be helpful not to frame this decision as “this mountain cabin is the only opportunity I have to avoid further compromise as a human being,” which would not only limit your options but also turn this conversation into a referendum on your post-divorce life. Talk to your children about the cabin and make sure they have a fairly accurate sense of what changes they may be in for. Tell your friends and family that you can appreciate their input, even if it’s negative, but that you’ve also carefully weighed the advantages and disadvantages of a rural sojourn, and that you think your kids will not only survive sharing a room and having a longer school commute, they’ll get to enjoy a freedom and connection with nature lots of other kids their age don’t get to have. “I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I have a fairly strong sense of what challenges and rewards this move will bring. If the kids are miserable or it ends up being too much, then I will of course consider other options, but I’m excited to give this a try. Even if you don’t think it’s a good idea, I hope you can realize that my kids’ happiness is a priority for me and that I always have their best interests at heart.” You might also invite some of them up for a visit once you get settled in; it may be that the view from your cabin is the best argument in your favor.

Dear Prudence,
My wife left work about a year after the birth of our first child when we could not get decent child care. The children are older now, but there is still a ton of running around. I have an excellent job, but I work from home with about half of my income coming from commission. We already split homemaking work about 75-25. If she goes back to work in an office, she could at most make about a quarter of what I make, while I would probably have to cover at least half of the housework. To me this seems like an obviously bad idea: I double my home workload while endangering our primary source of income. If I had any extra time, I would probably be better off working more and getting more commission. She does not dispute any of these facts but still wants to work. I don’t want to work harder so she can work harder, for just a little more money. How do you solve a relationship problem like this?
—Home-Life Balance

You start by acknowledging that this isn’t just a math problem. Your wife has spent a number of years as a full-time mother, and her desire to work outside the home likely has a lot to do with her desires and goals for her own life, and that’s a meaningful factor that needs to be weighed strongly in this conversation. She may not be able to make as much money as you right away after several years out of the traditional workforce, but to use that as an argument against her trying to find employment now is part of what keeps mothers on the infamous “mommy track.” If your wife is saying, “I know I can’t make as much money as you, but I want to go back to work because it’s important to me and I don’t want to be a full-time homemaker anymore,” and your response is “You took time off to raise our children full time, so now your earning potential is forever less than mine, so you need to continue doing it indefinitely,” then you’re not listening to her. Would moving from doing 25 percent of the housework to 50 percent truly endanger your income? Would you actually be at risk of financial ruin or bankruptcy? Have you spent as much time and energy trying to figure out an equitable housework and child care schedule as you have determining that it would be impossible for your wife to look for a new job? This is not a situation in which everyone in your family is about to work harder for no rewards; this is about your wife’s desires for her own life, a degree of financial independence, meaningful employment, and equity. Spend less time trying to establish that this is impossible and more time figuring out what needs to change so that you can support your wife’s career goals as much as she has supported yours.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“It’s not just a numbers game!”

Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
Eight years ago, my boyfriend and I found ourselves unexpectedly pregnant; his sister also became pregnant due to in vitro fertilization after trying to conceive for many years. The girls were born two weeks apart and are very different. I had a roly-poly baby who smiled and slept beautifully. My niece has always been underweight and shy, with a not-so-happy disposition. My sister-in-law has always been very loving—and even possessive—with my child. She makes comments like “She’s the baby I should have had,” “She’s the twin that I lost” (one of the implanted embryos didn’t make it), “A child after my own heart,” etc. It made me uncomfortable, but I let it slide for the sake of peace. Now the girls are in third grade and are in the same classroom. I pack my daughter’s lunch and sometimes leave notes or drawings for her in her lunch box. Lately she has been coming home with notes from her aunt in her bag. She keeps trying to use a nickname for my child that we don’t use and professes how much she loves her. I know it seems harmless, but it really bothers me to see this. My sister-in-law has three children of her own and is taking care of an additional two from her live-in boyfriend. It’s like she wants to parent my child, who has two very competent parents already. I need some perspective here. Am I crazy for letting this bother me? Can I tell her to not send notes?
—Already Has Two Parents

I think the most concerning thing here is that you’ve let remarks like “This is the baby I should have had” slide for the sake of peace and are only now considering saying something eight years on because your daughter has come home with notes in her lunchbox. Given that your sister-in-law doesn’t attend her daughter’s school, I wonder if she’s sending her own daughter to deliver notes to yours, which would be absolutely heartbreaking. That’s the part that’s worth pushing back on—any comparisons of the two girls to her own daughter’s detriment. When it comes to something like using a nickname you don’t, well, plenty of older relatives develop unique nicknames for their nieces and nephews, and as long as you don’t have to use it, I don’t think it’s worth trying to ask her to stop. The notes may be part of the conversation when you address this with her, but I think the focus should be on—lovingly, kindly—pointing out that she has a history of comparing the two girls in a way that makes it very clear that she thinks yours is better, that this makes you uncomfortable and worried about how her own daughter feels, and that you want her to think more carefully about how she talks about them both.

Dear Prudence,
I have a friend whose husband took a plea deal in a case of possession and distribution of child pornography. It’s possible that he will be out with time served soon, although that remains unclear. I don’t care to share any space with him. I expect her to try to bring him back into social circles we share as if nothing happened. She is also in denial over the seriousness of his crime (he maintains innocence and ignorance or blames drunkenness and depression). How should I handle the possibility that I may be surprised in the future by this guy’s presence at some social event? Also, should I be disturbed by my friend’s denial and minimizing of her husband’s offense?
—Need Some Space

Yes, you should be disturbed. If this man maintains the fiction that he “accidentally” distributed child pornography, and your friend is willing to back him up, then neither of them have meaningfully come to terms with the harm he has caused. There cannot be rehabilitation or social reconciliation without a reckoning. If he is released, and your friend does attempt to bring him to a cocktail party, all while maintaining that this was all a big misunderstanding—but if anything did happen, he was just drunk and depressed, not that anything happened, mind you, because it didn’t really, but if it did he was just drunk and depressed, so it’s fine—then all that’s happened is that he was punished. Mere punishment is not an admission of wrongdoing, and it cannot be the foundation for repairing one’s life. Do not join your friend in avoiding or denying reality. Tell her that you believe he is guilty of the crimes he was convicted for, that you cannot be around either one of them as long as they try to evade or minimize his responsibility, and that if she plans on bringing him to social events you are both invited to under those conditions, you will leave.

Classic Prudie

“My husband is all the usual things: Smart! Funny! Caring! He has, however, turned into a horrible gift giver. He used to be quite creative, but our lives have become busier as we’ve become older. I’m not looking for extravagant gifts, I’m just looking for a little consideration and I know he has it in him. For the price of the half-dead grocery store flowers I received on our recent anniversary, I would have loved to have been taken out to my favorite bar for a drink. My entire family will be with us on Christmas morning. I’m still smarting from the flowers, and I’m afraid if I open another so-so gift I’ll cry!”