Dear Prudence

My Daughter Slept With My Estranged Brother

Prudie’s column for July 25.

An older woman looking disgusted.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by drbimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,
My brother and I have not spoken to each other or had any contact for nearly 30 years. A few months ago, my oldest daughter sought him out in the hopes of arranging a reconciliation ahead of my birthday. He rejected that idea but invited her to dinner, and they ended up having an intimate relationship, which lasted for several weeks. They’re both adults, but I’m sickened by the fact that they’re so closely related, disappointed in my daughter’s choices, concerned that my brother was most likely motivated by a desire to hurt me (there’s history), and at a loss as to how to react. I have no intention of engaging with my brother, but I’m uncertain as to how or even whether to communicate these feelings to my daughter. What do I say? Should I say anything?
—My Daughter Had an Affair With My Estranged Brother

Yes, you should say something. This is baffling and devastating—I’m so, so sorry you’ve experienced something so jarring and distressing as a sick sort of “birthday present.” Sure, they’re both adults, but that doesn’t mean it’s not incest (and incest that was, at least on his part, likely designed to upset and hurt you). Even if she’s a very young and unbelievably naïve adult, I cannot imagine what your daughter was thinking or why she thought “Hey, I tried to invite Uncle Howard to your party, but we ended up going out for a few weeks instead” was information you would ever want or need to have. You have every reason in the world to tell her you’re confused and hurt by the fact that she dated your estranged brother and that you need space in order to deal with this upsetting revelation. Please book a session with a counselor (ideally one who specializes in complex family dynamics and long-term estrangement) and give yourself a great deal of room to be confused, hurt, shocked, and angry with both of them.

Dear Prudence,
I am in my mid-20s and living with four housemates. Three of my housemates and I have a wonderful relationship. The fifth person, “Lacey,” is a problem. They are nice enough on the surface, but they have a really dark, unwelcoming energy. Lacey barely works, spends 95 percent of their time at home, and exudes serial killer vibes. Two people have moved out because of Lacey, and a friend who was set to move in declined the offer because she felt scared of them. I have talked to all my housemates, and they acknowledged feeling the same way and confessed to avoiding the house because of Lacey. It feels like Lacey owns the house and we are paying for a house that only one person is comfortable living in. Lacey locks their door whenever they leave their room (even to go to the bathroom!) and goes up to my floor and leaves when they see I’m home. This makes me anxious that they would go into my room, tamper with my food, or intentionally harm my plants and pets (they’ve previously torn my plants up and used the excuse that they “needed the space”). I have been the only one standing up to them, and there is tension. I’m ready to ask them to leave. My housemates have considered this, but they’re comfortable avoiding the problem, and unless I push, they will not do anything. My questions are: Am I overreacting, am I justified in pushing, and how would you go about doing that?
—Living in Fear

Looks like we’ve solved the mystery as to why so many other people have moved out of the house! Your other housemates are unlikely to back you up if you ask Lacey to leave, so I think the only relevant question here is whether your lease permits you to kick Lacey out. (I doubt they’d be willing to leave just because you wanted them to; Lacey seems pretty comfortable with tension, and I’m willing to bet would win that particular game of chicken.) That would depend in part on whether Lacey’s done anything more concrete than just giving off bad vibes. Destroying your plants certainly sounds like something specific you can point to, but if that’s the only tangible violation aside from a general tendency to lurk, I don’t think you should waste too much time trying to convince the rest of your housemates that they should back you up. If your lease doesn’t allow you to kick Lacey out, you should assume you can’t rely on your housemates for help enforcing a boundary and look for somewhere else to move as quickly as possible.

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Dear Prudence,
My 17-year-old son is by all outward appearances a great kid. Top of his class, great group of friends, good hobbies, etc. But at home, he bullies his younger siblings and only helps with chores after significant complaining. He picks on his brothers until they’re in tears. His relationship with his father (we’re divorced) is especially bad, and they have engaged in screaming battles on the verge of becoming physically violent with one another. He has never shown too much interest in girls, but he has had a girlfriend and shown interest in other girls, some of which he has told me about himself. Recently, his father read about a boy who acted the same way because he was gay and was afraid to “come out of the closet.” I have never seen evidence of him being gay, but I suppose it’s a possibility. The one time I mentioned to him that he doesn’t tell me anything about his life anymore, he got upset and said that he and I have never discussed girls, and he’s just a private person. Do I just accept this as an explanation? I love him no matter what his sexual orientation is, but I just don’t see any evidence at all that he’s gay and am not sure how to proceed.
—Is My Son Gay or Just a Jerk?

I’m not sure what the alternative to “just accepting this as an explanation” would be—insisting to your son that he is gay and demanding he confess it to you? Privately considering him gay in order to feel better about the ways in which he mistreats his siblings? You know that your husband doesn’t get along well with your son, apparently to the point of violence, so I’m not sure why you would give much weight to his theory. If the only reason he suggests your son might be gay is because he once read a book about a kid who was similarly rude, it sounds at best like a hell of a non sequitur—and at worst an attempt to subtly lob homophobic insults at his son. If you’re hoping for ways to break the cycle of bullying and the threat of violence between your ex-husband and your children, it might be useful to consider family counseling and make sure to intervene before your son has reduced your other kids to the point of tears. You don’t need to suss out his sexual orientation before asking for his help with chores or stopping him when he tries to take out his anger and frustration toward his father on his siblings because they’re too small to fight back.

Dear Prudence,
I am a lifelong feminist and friend of the LGBTQ community. Even though I live in a red state, I have always spoken up loudly (including writing several op-eds for my local newspaper) in favor of these positions and my personal beliefs. However, I am also one of those people who check any online correspondence for grammar and spelling mistakes before I send it. I have a position on the Oxford comma, and it is the correct one. (That’s a joke for people like me.) I am ashamed to admit it, but using they as a singular pronoun is almost physically painful for me. I usually use either the person’s name (“Sean”) or relationship to me (my co-worker, my friend, my neighbor) to avoid using they in this way. Other than the obvious “suck it up, buttercup” response, am I being an asshole to try and find an acceptable (and grammatically correct) way around this hang-up?
—Grammar Nazi

It’s interesting that you’ve floated the idea that I should tell you to “suck it up, buttercup” in order to feel like you’ve got sufficiently authoritarian motivation to use a word that’s new to you. In this fantasy, saying something like “Did anyone leave their backpack in the library?” causes you physical pain, and you want to be “corrected” in the style of a bully from an after-school special. But it doesn’t sound like anyone is volunteering to punish you for the workaround you’ve been using thus far. No one’s calling you a buttercup or demanding you conform to anything when you say Sean or my friend instead of they. There’s a lot of pain/discomfort/desire to be pushed around in this particular idea of language, which might be worth exploring—what do you see as the source/authority for rules about speech? Which petitions to change speech are legitimate and which illegitimate? What are you afraid might happen to you? You can, of course, read about the history of the singular they; consider whether there might ever be instances where it’s important for language to adapt to serve the needs of various speakers; imagine how you might be able to retain your self-image if someone else thought, even if only for a minute, that you had said something less than grammatically perfect; give it a try and see how it feels; continue using someone’s name instead of they; or any combination of all of the above—but part of the problem of waiting to hear “suck it up, buttercup” is the implication that language can only change when someone angry and powerful yells at you.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Incest isn’t automatically fine just because everyone’s an adult!”

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

Dear Prudence,
I recently started dating someone. She is funny, smart, thoughtful, beautiful, and a great conversationalist. I really like her! She has also casually mentioned things about her life that concern me, including a history of IV drug use, daily alcohol use, a DUI, alcohol-related ER visits, suicide attempts, questions of a personality disorder, and, most recently, that she receives adult rehabilitative mental health services. Is continuing to date her a huge mistake? Is it ethical to continue? How do I determine if she has given (or can give) enthusiastic consent? Are my concerns valid, or are they just a reflection of the stigma of mental illness?
—Dating and Mental Health

Deciding not to continue dating someone because of their active drinking problem (and daily drinking on the heels of a DUI and multiple trips to the ER is at least in that ballpark) is not “stigmatizing mental illness.” It’s a healthy boundary. You don’t need to frame your totally reasonable concern as solely an ethical concern for her; you might also not like the idea of having sex with someone whose ability to be mentally and emotionally present is constantly in question because you don’t always know just how drunk she is. That’s a very different proposition from declining to date someone you otherwise like just because they receive mental health services. Lots of alcoholics are funny, smart, and great conversationalists—it makes it a lot easier to get away with the DUIs and laugh off the hospital trips. Moreover, deciding not to pursue a relationship with someone isn’t a referendum either on their mental health or their status as a good person. If you don’t arrange that sixth date, that doesn’t mean you think she’s a monster who doesn’t deserve love or support or companionship; it just means you don’t think you’re looking for the same thing. Don’t put yourself in the position, this early into a relationship, of taking so much responsibility for her drinking problem that you have to invent a system for gauging her consent given that she’s subject to rolling blackouts—that is not reasonable or sane behavior to ask of a partner! Wish her well, thank her for the lovely conversations, and look for someone who’s equally charming but either well-established in sobriety or has a more moderate relationship to alcohol.

Dear Prudence,
I know you’ve said one doesn’t actually have to date someone of the same sex to “count” as bisexual. But is it fair to check the LGBT box for school and job applications that offer diversity brownie points? I’ve only ever been in one real (heterosexual) relationship, I’ve never formally come out to anybody, and I think I could be fairly happy repressing the queer part of myself so my center-right parents don’t ever have to deal with it. So I don’t feel like I’ve faced the kind of adversity that the diversity initiatives are supposed to address, or that this aspect of my identity would add such an interesting perspective to the groups I’m trying to join. Do I deserve to leverage it?
—Using LGBT Status to My Advantage

This sort of thought exercise seems to presume there are a number of schools or employers out there that would otherwise view your application/résumé as noncompetitive, be on the verge of chucking it in the bin, then see you’ve ticked the Bisexual Box, and say, “Hang on a second! Stop everything! Take this one to the top of the list, the front of the line; garland them with scholarships and hiring bonuses.” It’s far likelier they’re simply collecting demographic data on the student body to better serve various populations. The likeliest outcome is that, were you to check such a box, the school in question would be able to update a spreadsheet or a pamphlet in the LGBTQ student services center. You are not going to take away a place from a more deserving bisexual by checking a box, so don’t think of it as a moral quandary so much as an opportunity to ask yourself whether you actually are happy repressing this part of yourself for the rest of your parents’ lives. That’s a pretty tall order, and one that might be worth revisiting.

Classic Prudie

“It’s been almost eight months since my wife passed away, and I am finally starting to feel that maybe I am not going to die when I wake up and she isn’t there. We were married for just over 10 years, and she had two children from a prior marriage who are now grown. We had no children together, but I had the privilege of being part of her children’s lives. Her son lives across the country. Her daughter lives near me and has been a constant companion through my grieving, spending most Sundays at my house since her mother’s passing. My wife was significantly older than me, and my stepdaughter is only five years younger than I am. This past weekend we were getting ready to have dinner, and she told me she was starting to have romantic feelings for me. What do I do?