Dear Prudence

My Brother’s Mother-in-Law Tried to Set Our Mom on Fire

Prudie’s column for June 6.

A hand lighting a lighter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash.

Dear Prudence,
My brother “John” married “Kim” last year. She is a perfectly nice woman, but we don’t have much in common and aren’t close. At the wedding, her mother got catastrophically drunk, sexually harassed the best man, and then got into a fight with the best man’s wife (a bridesmaid). The next morning, when the best man quietly moved tables so he wouldn’t have to sit with her, she screamed at him for “shaming” her and tried to stab him with a fork. No one on the bride’s side blinked an eye. The rest of us assumed they were just trying to salvage the rest of the day by keeping the peace, but when my brother asked Kim about it later, she said the best man shouldn’t have “flirted” with her mom and then “acted coy” afterward just because his wife found out. That’s … not what happened. We all saw her mother get out of control in front of everyone.

John said to let it go because weddings can get emotional. But then the same thing sort of happened at Christmas when Kim invited us all to their house for a party. This time, her mother tried to set fire to my mother’s dress, supposedly for flirting with her boyfriend. Kim said that it was my mother’s fault for being too friendly and that her mother had been cheated on a lot. John said that Kim knew her mother was in the wrong but was just really defensive of her. Now Kim has invited everyone to a birthday barbecue for my brother next month. We don’t want to go, but we also don’t want to skip my brother’s party. Every family has a difficult member (we have an uncle who gets drunk and angry if you won’t let him drive), but Kim’s mother actually tries to hurt people, both drunk and sober. How can we handle this? Not go? Go and do something if Kim’s mother gets upset again? (I wanted to call the police at Christmas, but Mom is worried that will alienate Kim and John. His best friend, the best man at the wedding, has already stopped talking to him because of the wedding day incident, which actually probably could have qualified as sexual assault if he’d wanted to push it, never mind his wife’s black eye.)
—Family Freakout

You are, as a family, significantly underreacting to Kim’s mom and the people who enable her. (You may also be underreacting to this uncle who gets belligerent when his relatives prevent him from drinking and driving, but we’ll focus on Kim’s mom for now.) This woman tried to set your mother on fire for talking to a man. She sexually assaulted a man she barely knew while he was serving as the groom’s best man at her daughter’s wedding. Say the following sentence out loud to yourself: “I’m thinking about going to a barbecue with a woman who tried to set my mother on fire for talking to a man.” Does that sound like a reasonable sentence? Would you feel comfortable saying it in front of other people who aren’t already weirdly bound up with this woman’s bizarre, violent antics? I’m having visions of Kim’s mom trying to throw one of your relatives on the barbecue over some perceived slight while Kim and John try to stop everyone from calling an ambulance: “Look, I know things got a little out of hand today, but you have to admit that my mother had a right to the last corn muffin.” She’s not a little bit rude or a touch difficult. She is dangerous and surrounded by people who treat her acts of wild, unpredictable violence as interesting acts of whimsy.

Do not go to this barbecue. If your brother asks why, tell him that you are not willing to put yourself in the same room as a woman who has a history of assaulting your family members and that it is unreasonable for him to expect you to. If he tries to make you feel like you’re the unreasonable one, then let him continue living on whatever fantasy island he’s currently marooned on. But don’t go join him there. If he wants to meet you for dinner in a restaurant without his mother-in-law, great. If he wants to come by your place sometime for a drink after work, fantastic. But spending time with Kim’s mom is a non-starter.

Dear Prudence,
My 19-year-old daughter died in a car accident two years ago. It splintered the few, frayed bonds holding my marriage together. My ex and I still have an 11-year-old son with special needs. I depend on my in-laws for assistance and see them often. My ex’s niece is pregnant with a girl, and her due date falls on my daughter’s birthday. They want to “honor” my daughter by bestowing her name on the baby. My ex is happy about this and cried when they asked him. When they asked me if it would be OK, I froze. My daughter was close to her cousin, and I know this comes from a place of love and loss, but the idea of hearing my daughter’s name over and over kills me. I don’t know what to do now that I have given my blessing. Everyone in the family is happy about this and sees the baby as an extension of the life my daughter never got to have. I am just reminded she isn’t here anymore. I feel sick. What do I do? What do I say?

It sounds like you’re closer to your in-laws than your ex at this point, so I’d suggest asking them to talk to your ex’s niece on your behalf. Please don’t feel like because you froze on the spot when they first asked you about it that you’re now honor-bound to go along with it. It makes sense that you’d need time to think it over. Tell them that you appreciate the kindness of your niece’s gesture and that you know it’s intended as an act of love and connection, but as you’ve thought about it, the idea of hearing your daughter’s name spoken every day would be a very painful reminder of your loss, and you hope they will be able to ask your ex’s niece to reconsider. You could ask if she’s willing to use it as a middle name, so there’s still acknowledgement of their relationship but it doesn’t put you in regular contact with your daughter’s name.

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Dear Prudence,
I grew up in an Episcopalian family. My grandfather was a priest, my gran was an organist, my dad is a deacon, and the rest of the family sang in the choir. When I was 14, I became interested in exploring religion and theology. My dad was OK with that until I brought home a book on Wicca. He threatened to burn it if I didn’t return it immediately. I’m 33 now and pagan. I’ve been in the broom closet with my dad for years. It doesn’t bother me—except that I’m getting married next year in a pagan ceremony and I want him there. We are not asking him to be financially responsible or to participate in any way. We just want him to be there and support us as we say our vows. How do I tell my super-unsupportive dad that I’m pagan without alienating him or destroying our relationship?
—Pagan Wedding

I wish I had a script for that! You can tell him gently and try to offer in broad strokes what you get out of paganism; what it means to you; and how it helps you live the kind of life you consider good, useful, and compassionate. But if he’s determined to be alienated by the very idea of paganism, there’s probably no way you can phrase it that will avoid at least some conflict. That leaves you with a few options: First, and possibly easiest, you could tell him about your wedding after the ceremony and say you eloped, leaving the details of the ceremony purposely vague and maintaining the sort-of-secret of your spirituality indefinitely. This has the obvious downside of not getting to have your father at your wedding, and your dad could learn the details and get upset regardless. But if you’re OK maintaining an otherwise close relationship that accepts certain limitations on your father’s part as a precondition of said closeness, that’s probably your easiest, safest choice (though I wouldn’t advise this if, say, you’ve got a number of cousins attending).

If you can’t see yourself going that route, I think it’s better to talk with him now, while you’re still a year out from the wedding and potentially have time to go through a brief estrangement or extended conflict before the big day. And when it comes to giving unsupportive parents news you know they won’t respond to with joy, it’s best to be straightforward, offer a brief sketch of your own perspective and why you’re introducing the topic now, and give them the opportunity to ask some questions: “I want to invite you to my wedding next year, and I want to tell you something about it now. It’s going to be a pagan ceremony, in keeping with our beliefs, which means that there’ll be [briefly outline what will distinguish your ceremony from a traditional one]. I’ve been reluctant to bring up my beliefs again, because I love you and I don’t want this to come between us. But I think it’s time you knew this about me, and what it means to me, and if you ever want to learn a little bit more about why I’m a pagan or what my spiritual practices mean to me, I would love to answer any questions you may have. I really hope you can be there.” Beyond that, I’d advise you to stay calm, anticipate that his first response may not be his best or last response, and hope for the best.

Dear Prudence,
Four years ago, my grandpa shot and killed himself. I still get really emotional thinking about it, and I’m haunted by intrusive thoughts about how and why. I’ve contemplated a support group, but I don’t know if I’d fit in. My grandpa was 89 and had lived a full life—married 70 years; served in the Army; traveled; had a successful career; and saw his kids, grandkids, and even some great-grandkids come into the world. But he had been in failing health for some time. He was in pain and was losing his independence; he’d been in and out of hospitals, nursing homes, and emergency rooms before finally coming home. He was proud and stubborn (qualities we shared), and I believe he dreaded becoming dependent on anyone ever again. It’s not the fact that he died—I’d long expected it—but the way that he died that feels traumatic. My grandmother found his body, and there was no note and no goodbye. We were close, and I had plans to visit just three days after he died.

With the exception of my relationship with my grandmother, whom I don’t want to burden with my grief, my other family relationships are fairly superficial. My friends can’t quite relate. Therapy is a last resort (financial reasons as well as a previous bad experience that has just turned me off). I think a support group might make sense for me, but I would feel guilty lamenting over the loss of my 89-year-old grandpa alongside people who may have lost kids, siblings, spouses, etc. I view my grandpa’s death a little differently. His life wasn’t tragically cut short, and I can’t say that we didn’t have enough years together. Honestly, I wish he’d lived in a state with legal options for terminally ill adults to end their own lives (I mention this only for context—I’d never bring it up in a support group setting). Yes, I know my grief is legitimate. And I know that if he’d died of natural causes, I wouldn’t still be so emotional after four years. But I also know that my grief is just different from a mother who lost a child, for example. Would my presence and grieving offend or elicit eye-rolls from someone mourning someone who was younger and/or not terminally ill? I want to be respectful and sensitive. What do you think?
—Grieving for Grandpa

I think looking for a support group specifically for people who have lost loved ones to suicide will be the best move for you. Suicide Awareness Voices of Education has a running list of various suicide support groups nationwide, and going to a group that’s not just for the broad umbrella of “anyone who’s grieving” may go a long way toward making you feel like you belong there. (You have every right to go to a general grief support group, but it may put your mind at ease before you walk in the door.) You seem very aware of the ways in which the traumatic loss of your grandfather is not the same as the traumatic loss of a partner or a child, and I think other people will be able to identify that difference too. I don’t think you’ll confuse or upset anyone by wanting to talk about your own loss, and they’ll be able to share your sense of scale. Part of the labor of grieving together involves saying, “Your loss is not the same as mine, but there are ways we can mourn together and help one another, and it doesn’t require sameness or conformity of experience in order to work.” I hope you’re able to find a group near you, go, make meaningful connections there, and know that you’ve earned your spot in the circle.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Kim is the operator in the Titanic saying, ‘Yeah we hit an iceberg but it’s fine, go back to sleep.’ ”

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

Dear Prudence,
I attend a large university and am going into my third year. I love my school and have made really wonderful and supportive friends. However, I would love to find a romantic partner. I’m a straight woman, and I’ve been on a few dating apps and gone on many dates in the past couple of years, often with plenty of mutual interest, but my chronic illness and service dog make things complicated. He goes everywhere with me in order to detect if my medical condition is becoming dangerous and I need to take action. He makes me feel safe, is extremely well-behaved, and unless I’m in need of medical attention or we’re out walking, no one usually notices him.

I try to be up-front about my service dog, but I usually don’t bring him with me on first dates out of fear. My siblings sometimes feel uncomfortable with the dog and say that I’m “attracting too much attention,” so I fear that men I want to date will feel the same way. I usually mention my dog on first dates, and it’s almost never well-received. Sometimes guys say they’re allergic, which is legitimate, but sometimes they say they aren’t comfortable or that they’re not looking for a relationship with someone who needs a service dog. Some just say, “Oh … ” Others start asking a lot of intrusive questions about my medical condition and express reservations about dating someone with “constraints.” I don’t want to date an asshole who secretly hates my service dog and resents me for my chronic illness, but I’m tired of being completely shut down just because I have different physical needs than they do. How can I find people who don’t feel intimidated or weirded out by my service dog? Is there a way to bring it up that won’t make people jump into panic mode? Is there a way that I can respond to people who do express concern about my service dog and dating to make the situation more comfortable?
—Suddenly Dog-Shy

I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with this same roadblock on so many first dates. It sounds absolutely exhausting. I’m sorry, too, that your siblings have made you feel like a quiet, well-behaved dog that helps you monitor your medical condition is drawing unnecessary attention, as if you were doing something bizarre or socially inappropriate. It sounds like this problem exists mostly in their own heads and that most people in public don’t give your dog a second thought. I hope you can remind yourself to dismiss their concerns as having nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.

When it comes to the guys you’re seeing, I’d recommend trying a few things. First, I’d consider trying one or two dating apps or sites that specifically serve people with chronic illnesses. Not because you ought to restrict your dating pool—certainly keep using the apps you’re already on—but because it might feel energizing and exciting to occasionally go out with someone who also has a service dog or at least has a deeper understanding about why a person might need one. Second, let these guys know beforehand, either in your dating profile or in the conversation arranging the time and place of your first date, that you have a service dog that monitors your medical condition. If they demur, disappear, or start to ask overly personal questions (rather than a friendly question like, “Is there anything I should know about him? Should I acknowledge him, or is it better to leave him alone when he’s working?”), then at least you haven’t wasted an evening. And if you occasionally need to give yourself a break from dating because you find it’s wearing down your self-esteem and emotional resilience, please do. Take a few weeks or months off, focus on the people and the things in your life that give you joy, and only reenter the dating pool when you’re feeling ready.

Dear Prudence,
I am a white cis woman who enjoys being very feminine, and I am in a heterosexual relationship. I was in this relationship a year ago when I admitted to my boyfriend, and myself, that I had a crush on a female co-worker and I am bisexual. I’m now out to my friends and family, who have all been supportive, my mom’s “But are you sure?” notwithstanding.

The last time I went to a Pride parade was around 10 years ago, I was in middle school, and I was wearing a Straight Advocates for Equality shirt. Now Pride Month is rolling around again, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Do I go to a Pride event with my straight boyfriend? Do I go alone? I just moved to a new town a little over a year ago and don’t really have friends whom I could ask to go with me. And most of all, I don’t know if I would be welcome or enjoy being there, or if I would feel like I don’t belong. Am I wrong that Pride isn’t meant for people like me?
—Is Pride for Me?

I’ve noticed an uptick in this “Should I, who used to think of myself as straight and came to understand myself as bisexual while in an opposite-sex relationship, consider myself welcome at Pride?” conversation over the past few years, but it’s almost entirely taken place online. That’s not to say versions of it don’t happen in person, but if you simply go to Pride, you are not likely to run into anyone saying either you can or can’t be there. Also, more importantly, there is no person or group of people who have the authority to ban you from Pride events.

As for whether you would enjoy being there or feel like you belong, I cannot guess. You may go and make friends; you may go and feel isolated. There are a number of ways to feel alone in a crowd, as well as a number of ways to establish meaningful-if-fleeting connections with strangers in public. You’ll only know if you go. In the long run, it’s important to ask what kinds of communities you want to be a part of; how and in what ways you might ask for your boyfriend’s support in acknowledging, affirming, or exploring your bisexuality; what kinds of relationships and connections you want to prioritize; and how you might invest in your local queer scene in such a way that next Pride you have a group of friends you want to go with. Does your city have Pride events beyond the parade? Many do, and many have additional events or stages or parades specifically for women or bisexual people. Mostly, I’d urge you to think of Pride as the beginning, rather than the end-all and be-all of your bisexual life in this new city. If you pin all your hopes of finding friendship and feeling immediately at ease in your identity on a two-hour parade on a Sunday in June either by yourself or with only your boyfriend for company, that’s too much pressure. Good luck!

Classic Prudie

I’m a divorced mother of three college kids. While I was raising them alone, I had no time or money for vacations, home improvements, dates, or my own education. But with them all in college, I returned to school to get my degree and reconnected with my high school sweetheart. I’m in love like never before. He lives out of state but will be moving in with me soon. I want time to bond with him without having the kids around. My house is small and having three young adults around will mean no privacy. Two of my kids have apartments at college, and one son with Asperger’s is home taking a semester off. Their father lives nearby but was neglectful and is a selfish jerk with a personality disorder and a second wife and kids. I told my children in January that my fiancé would be moving in, and my daughter said she planned to go to summer school and stay in her college apartment. My other son said he had a job and apartment lined up. Now my daughter’s decided she’d rather come home, and my son wants to come on weekends because his job is in a boring town. I’m considering barring them from returning home and telling them to just suck it up and grow up. Will it cause permanent damage to our relationship if I tell them to stay with their father or only come one weekend a month? I’ve worked as a secretary and also cared for my elderly mother. Isn’t it my time to be happy?