Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Is my sweet aunt plotting to murder our entire family? I am a marginally successful writer, which means family members often send me material to read, usually asking how they can publish it. I never relish these requests, but I try to be polite. I now find myself in a situation that I could not have predicted. Last year, my aunt announced her intention to become a celebrated playwright. She has now written her first play, which she sent to me unsolicited along with the request/demand that I give her an “honest opinion” and pass it along to my agent. (I told her my agent does not represent work written for the stage, but my aunt is undeterred by this complication.)
Of course I procrastinated, but after several weeks of brushing off increasingly hectoring emails from my aunt, I finally forced myself to read her play. I was shocked. The play is a country-home murder mystery in which the characters are clearly based on the members of our family. These portrayals would be quite vicious by any standard, even if not for the fact that each character is murdered, one by one, in extremely gruesome fashion. I’ve always thought of my aunt as a very nice if somewhat homespun type of person. She is a former preschool teacher who volunteers at an animal shelter and collects American Girl dolls. After reading her play, it seems I may need to rethink things! To call the work dark—not to mention mean-spirited—would be an understatement. For instance, the character based on me is presented as mincing, drippingly pretentious, and effete. The character dies after masturbating with a poisoned dildo (!!!). The “twist” at the end is that the heroic and brilliant detective—a Miss Marple type whose first and last names rhyme with my aunt’s—is revealed to be the killer as well. (Her stated motive: “The world is better off without these rotten sorts!”)
On the last page of the script, my aunt attached a Post-it with the following note handwritten in what I can only hope is red ink: “Hope you have enjoyed my work of fiction! :) :) :).” As you can imagine, I am unsure of how to proceed. For one thing, I am honestly worried about my aunt’s mental state. She continues to email and text asking whether I have sent her bizarre play to my agent, when any reasonable person would know that I feel more inclined to send it to the cops. Perhaps more disturbing, my uncle (her brother) is hosting a big family reunion next month at his country home upstate. While it has been planned for quite some time, I can’t shake the feeling that we might all be walking into a deathtrap. Am I crazy to think such a thing? I can’t tell anyone else in my family about any of this because it would hurt their feelings to see their own portrayals in my aunt’s play.
A: First, the good news: I really don’t think your aunt is planning on poisoning any sex toys or using this script as a template for doing away with all of you. And I don’t think you really do, either: If you really thought their lives were in danger, you wouldn’t keep this from your relatives in order to spare their feelings. I think your aunt is the kind of homespun person who loves mystery novels and gruesome literary deaths while maximizing her coziness and security in real life, and has a very enthusiastic and only somewhat misguided bent for fiction. That she’s been so persistent about asking you for your thoughts suggests to me that she does not think you will immediately identify with the “drippingly pretentious” fop, but thinks she’s merely drawn lightly from a few real-world types in order to create a cast of evildoers and villains. All you need to do is write her back reminding her that your agent doesn’t represent playwrights and that she’ll need to do the work of finding an agent on her own. If she keeps pestering you, be firm and tell her that she needs to redirect that energy toward someone she’s not related to who can give her honest, genre-specific feedback. But this seems like a very obvious work of fiction, not an attempt to send you into an early decline.
Q. I was a jerk at the wedding: This past weekend, my girlfriend and I attended the wedding of one of her co-workers. We had been at odds with each other since the night before—it was mostly my fault because I was deep in my feelings over something that shouldn’t have mattered. We ordinarily have fantastic communication and talk through everything, but I sometimes struggle with pulling myself out of a self-induced funk. Our argument escalated significantly, causing me to spiral deeper.
Near the end of the night, various friends and family were toasting the newlyweds. The last one up was the groom’s father, who was rambling on a bit during his toast, causing most of the crowd to mutter and shuffle around. By this point I was drunk, and I felt it was a good idea to say, “Move along, already” or something along those lines. I may have been in my cups, but I clearly remember that the father kept right on talking, and I did not notice a reaction from anyone at the wedding party. I’m certain no one outside of the people standing in my immediate vicinity heard me, as we were standing in the back of the crowd. Another co-worker of my girlfriend said to her that “everybody heard me,” but again, there was no reaction outside of the few people in my immediate vicinity. Adding insult to injury, we had to leave early because after the cake was cut, I could barely stand. We missed the garter-and-bouquet toss and seeing the couple drive off.
We talked through it this morning and my girlfriend has accepted my apology. I said that if her co-worker comes back from her honeymoon and says anything to her about hearing what I said, I will personally apologize to her, her husband, and his father. They had both a professional photographer and videographer there, and I thought I would offer to pay any extra costs to edit out what I said, if their mic picked anything up. While we were checking out of the hotel this morning, we spoke with several people who were at the wedding, including one of the bridesmaids and her mother. No one treated me any differently, nor did they point and say, “Look, it’s the asshole who ruined the wedding!” This further reinforces my belief that I wasn’t as loud as I was led to believe.
While my girlfriend has accepted my apology, the guilt for behaving like a horse’s ass has set in. Is there anything I can do, besides giving it some time, to stop feeling this way? On the off chance the bride and groom did hear me, can you suggest any other ways I can atone for my behavior?
A: You’re focusing on the most obvious lapse in wedding etiquette—shouting at the groom’s father to wrap up his toast in your capacity as a plus-one of the bride’s co-worker—but the problem is not just that single moment: It’s that you got so drunk (because you were unhappy and sulky) that you had to be practically carried out of the venue before the wedding was over. I think it’s reasonable that you still feel guilty! Not because I think you should hate yourself for the rest of your life over it, but because your choice to get that drunk meant your girlfriend had to babysit and chauffeur you, leaving her unable to enjoy her colleague’s wedding. Plus, you embarrassed at least a few of the people standing around you, although it sounds like they were all well-mannered enough not to make it obvious they’d heard you heckling.
You might consider speaking to the other co-worker who’d mentioned they’d heard what you said (not the bride-co-worker, the other co-worker) to offer a quick, sincere apology for your boorishness. And the rest of what you’ve outlined makes sense to me, although I think you have reason to believe that the worst possible outcome isn’t necessarily the most likely.
I’m glad you and your girlfriend have talked about it and that she feels better about this; I’ll take you at your word when you say the two of you normally have great communication skills. I don’t think you need to overreact and assume you’re actually an irredeemable jerk if this was a real one-off lapse in judgment, but I do think it’s reasonable for the guilt to linger for a few days, because I don’t think you want to deal with your feelings in a similar way in the future. Let that guilt turn into something productive and talk with your girlfriend about how you might better have handled that “funk” if you’d noticed it earlier and found better ways of treating it.
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Q. Husband won’t drive: About two years ago, my husband (then my boyfriend) started having a physical reaction to driving on the highway. He felt like his vision would blur, he would feel dizzy, and he would feel like he was going to pass out. After a few scary incidents, he refused to drive on the highway. I begged him to see a doctor, and after much reluctance he saw an ENT, who implored him to correct a deviated septum. He had the surgery, and while his breathing and sinuses improved, his driving did not. He did not address it further. About a year later, we moved to an urban area and he began having anxiety attacks. He sought medical advice and went on medication for his anxiety, and his mental health definitely improved. During this time, we would drive infrequently (camping trips, ski trips, holiday visits, etc.). For long trips (two to three hours on the highway), I would shoulder the entire responsibility. Each time, I suggested to him that he might try driving for one exit or so, just to try it, but he refused, and also refused to talk about it. I started trying to bring it up some time before these trips with no success. Now he’s pushing to move to the suburbs and start a family, and while I want these things, I’m scared about this limitation. What if he can’t drive me to the hospital? Or drive our child to the hospital in case of emergency?
I’m pushing him again to see a doctor, and it’s a very prickly situation. I’m convinced it’s mental (a manifestation of his anxiety), and he’s convinced its physical and says he “already tried to fix it” with the nasal surgery two years ago. He’s been seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist for a year now to deal with his anxiety, and he recently admitted to me that he’s never once brought up driving.
I feel taken advantage of—he knows I don’t enjoy driving long distances, either, and would love to split up this chore. And it’s more than that: As much as I’d love to live a carless lifestyle, I’m afraid that if we move to the suburbs, his inability to drive will limit his job prospects (even now he’s had to turn down business opportunities that involved driving to a client one to two hours away) and put our family in danger. How do I make him understand the gravity of this situation?
A: I do think it’s important to discuss this with a psychiatrist, as well as with other doctors. And I’d certainly encourage him to discuss his fear of driving with his psychologist—not so they can prove it’s “all in his head” and restore him to his former driving capability, as he may very well never drive again, but so that he can receive more accurate, and therefore more effective, treatment. I don’t want to suggest that the problem is either physical and “real” or emotional and “imagined”; the distress and isolation seem very real, and that’s worth addressing for its own sake.
As for “making him understand,” you should express your own concerns and maintain what seem to you like reasonable boundaries: “I’m not prepared to move to the suburbs with you when you’re unable to drive; that’s not a compromise that I think is safe or reasonable, especially if we were to have kids. As long as only one of us can drive (and that driver doesn’t especially enjoy it), we need to live somewhere with reliable public transportation.”
Q. No forgiveness: My father almost killed me. He was an alcoholic rage monster who beat me so badly during my teen years that I have scar issue so deep it impedes my movement. I can’t wear shorts or short sleeves. He did 10 years in jail for trying to kill me. The courts didn’t call it attempted murder, but I almost died. My mother was the ever-faithful wife and let me go into foster care. I see my siblings and my extended family when I can. I refuse to see or forgive my parents. This is a bone of contention that keeps coming up. My siblings grew up with a mournful mother and a dad in prison. My extended family didn’t have the flesh stripped off their bones as a child. My father and mother refuse to acknowledge the harm they did to me, and forgiving them wins me nothing. Spite is a good motivation; half the reason I got my degree is because my father always told me I was too stupid to amount to anything (he didn’t graduate high school). I hate having these conversations. Accepting Jesus is BS. Maybe some self-congratulatory congregation gets off on “forgiving” my dad, but that means nothing to me.
The last time I spoke with my sister on the matter, I offered to let me whip her until she bled so she could appreciate what she was asking me to do. She got upset and told me I was out of line. I am exhausted. I don’t want to cut my family off, but I am tired of getting guilted for my father’s murder attempt. I just want people to leave me alone about the subject. Help me.
A: I can really appreciate that you don’t want to cut out the last few remaining family members you have, but if your goal is to be left alone on the subject of your father—which strikes me as an eminently reasonable one!—then I think you have to at least take that into consideration. You say this keeps coming up, and you’ve found yourself having to describe your own abuse in gory detail to your sister just to get her to take your abuse seriously—and that doesn’t even work. I think that says something about her ability to imagine what you went through or to think through this situation from your perspective.
I think the line you need to draw here is that you’re more than happy to talk to your siblings about the weather, sports teams, movies they’ve seen, their own romantic relationships/marriages/children and yours—anything but your parents. As soon as they mention your parents, you can say, cheerfully and clearly, “I’m not going to discuss this with you. I’m hanging up now. Let’s talk again later when you’re ready.” I don’t want you to have to continually point to your own wounds trying to get someone to see things from your point of view; that’s exhausting and demoralizing, and worse yet, it’s not even working. I hope there are other people in your life who do see your pain, who do honor your scars, and who do not treat you like a malfunctioning forgiveness machine.
Q. Letters from a dead daddy: I am a 38-year-old woman. I am married and have two beautiful kids with one more on the way. My aunt recently died. She raised me from infancy, when my parents died. I had a good life with her and loved her with all my heart. She had to be moved to a nursing home, and my cousin and I were cleaning out her house to sell it. As we were cleaning out my aunt’s room, I found an old shoebox full of letters. I was going to toss them, but recognized the name as my dad’s! My supposedly dead dad. I ripped it open, and now the story has unfolded. My dad is alive! When my mom died of cancer, I was supposed to go to my aunt (her sister) until my dad could get his act together. It was the ‘80s—apparently this is what was done. But my aunt got attached to me and didn’t want to give me back. I don’t know how she got full custody, but I do know that I am holding letters of a man who tried to get me and then communicate with me up until 1998, when I turned 18. I am so angry right now, and I don’t know what to do.
A: I think that there’s going to be plenty of anger and uncertainty in the months to come. I don’t say that to dishearten you, but because I think it makes a great deal of sense to be angry, baffled, bewildered, and upset right now. This is truly shocking information, and it’s especially hard to find out now that your aunt is gone, because you can’t ask her about any of this. If you eventually try to look up and contact your father—and I think that might prove a helpful thing to do—you might want to ask some of the rest of your extended family members if they can tell you any more about what he was like before he “got his act together,” or why they might have wanted to keep you away from him. You may be able to request court records and learn more about how your aunt gained legal custody as well. I’d also give yourself a lot of permission just to be angry and frustrated for a long time. This is a huge shock and you are allowed to take your time and feel as angry as you need to.
Q. Confused: My baby sister is in her early 20s and in a confused state of life. She doesn’t know what she wants to be and takes on new identities like hats. I understand exploring your sexuality, but my sister leaves scorched earth in her wake. She convinced her college boyfriend to move to L.A. for her and cheated on him with a girl. She convinced herself she was a lesbian and even stayed “friends” with her ex-boyfriend (while living in his apartment rent-free). She and her new girlfriend ended up moving up north to live with me, only for my sister to cheat on her with an old guy friend of ours. I was the one who spent time comforting and helping this poor girl deal with her broken heart. My sister couldn’t be bothered and got upset with me. I wasn’t “supportive enough” because I told her she needed to get her shit together or get out of my house. I wasn’t going to kick out the old girlfriend without a penny to her name because of my sister’s sexual awakening. My sister wanted her gone and didn’t seem to care that this girl quit her job to move here in order to be with my sister. We seriously fought and my sister moved in with our friends (but I helped with her rent the first two months).
My sister is now bi or pan or poly—I don’t really care or want to keep up. I can’t get it through her head, I am upset about how she uses up people whom she claims to have loved at one time. She has already burned her bridges with the people she moved in with last, by sleeping with two separate people and not telling them she was involved with the other one. I am exhausted. She is convinced that she is the victim in all these experiences. I am the only family she has on this coast and I don’t remember her being his selfish or self-centered as a kid. I am also a self-identified cat lady and a decade older than her. What do I do here?
A: Gently disentangle yourself from her dating life, I think. If she tries to rope you in with the latest details or ask for financial help because she’s alienated another live-in partner, you can just say, “I’m sorry to hear that! I hope things get better soon,” and change the subject. Don’t get into an argument with her about whether she is or isn’t a victim, and don’t bring her orientation into the conversation. Since your goal is to keep an increased distance, it won’t help to say, “I don’t really care what your orientation is,” as that’s sort of designed to invite defensiveness. But take that step back, don’t invite her to move in with you again or offer to front her rent when she cheats on her next landlord-slash-partner, and hope she grows out of it.
Q. Secret relationship for the past three years: I’ve been in a complicated relationship with a man whom I love for the past three years. The reason it’s been kept a secret for so long is that I cheated on my ex-boyfriend with him and they were good friends. My ex and I broke up, and his friend and I continued seeing each other but kept it a secret in fear of the already-formed—and understandable—judgments and ridicule from him and our mutual friends. I’ve never loved anyone this much, and that makes this all seem worth it to me.
Our shaky beginning and a foundation that was built on lies have led to a lot of cheating within our own relationship, sending us down the path of nonmonogamy. I also told him a while back that I think I might be queer and that I wanted to explore that side of myself. But I love him and don’t want to lose him. We have been trying to make this work within our relationship, but it’s been tough to navigate and we both have since lied about people we’ve been with.
We eventually reached a breaking point and promised to be honest with each other. I was, until I messed up again and had a fling with a woman (which has now ended) that I still have yet to tell him about. The reason I’ve been nervous to tell him is that she is roommates with one of our friends who’s connected to our past situation with my ex—further complicating and putting our relationship at risk. He has also reached the point now where he wants to tell his friend (my ex) and our friends that we are dating. He doesn’t want our relationship to be kept a secret anymore. I understand and in a way want this for myself: to be free and honest. But I’m completely lost in how to approach my friends whom I’ve lied to for so long, how to tell him that I was dishonest again even after I promised not to be, and how to navigate being queer while dating a straight man. This is all my fault and I’ve dug myself a hole so deep I’m not sure how to get out. I’m afraid I’ll be left with nothing.
A: You’re right that this is complicated, and I can see there are a number of dynamics in your relationship you feel trapped in (the lying, the cheating, the sneaking around, the broken promises, the self-loathing, the shame, the exorcism of that shame in another round of cheating). I hope and have reason to believe that you will be able to get out of this cycle, and I think the first step is to tell other people about what’s really going on in your personal life. You’ve already told your partner when you’ve been with someone else before, so even though telling him about this particular woman feels especially fraught, you have reason to believe he will take the news with at least some equanimity. You say you don’t know how to tell him, but I think that’s a good starting point: “I’ve fallen into a pattern of lies and secret-keeping around this relationship. I feel ashamed that I lied to you about whom I was seeing, and I’m really compelled to date women. I don’t know what to do with those two impulses, and I don’t know how to figure out my own queerness healthily and sustainably while we’re in a relationship. I also don’t know how to tell our friends about us, and I’m worried we’ve kept it a secret for so long that the truth is no longer an option.”
The good news here is that the way out of this situation isn’t just to keep one more secret, or to manage one more fiction, or to try to think your way out of one last crisis, which is exhausting work. You get to abandon the delusion that you’re going to be able to solve everything by panicking a lot behind the scenes and making up plausible-sounding excuses until everyone stops being suspicious. I don’t know if you’re afraid of being left with “nothing” in the sense that your boyfriend might break up with you and your friends might be angry with you, or “nothing” in the sense that you’re not sure who you are beneath all of lies, cheating, and image management. Either way, I think you’ll only find out what you still do have left once you start talking openly and honestly about what you’ve done, what you want, and what you’re prepared to do. I think seeing a therapist might prove helpful, as will giving both your boyfriend and other friends time to digest the news. But I also think you’ll feel a certain degree of relief in telling the truth, and things might seem a little easier to untangle out in the open.
Q. Re: Is my sweet aunt plotting to murder the entire family? My cousin, a successful writer, always says firmly: “I have to make sure I don’t ever read friends and family—we have so many experiences in common that I would be horrified if one of the projects I’m working on looked anything like something I’m sent. It wouldn’t be plagiarism, but it might look like it, so I would have to abandon a year’s work to avoid the appearance of copying. So even my agent and my editor can’t read my family and friends. Sorry.” He adds a list of ways to get one’s work seen, like writers’ groups, writing classes, etc. Beside some of them, he writes in “I tried this for X number of years.” But he doesn’t even open these things and used to have a budget for sending things back unopened with that letter.
Guess how I know that? I used to be 25, and full of misplaced hope! (Life’s good, but the Agatha dream went away.)
A: That is excellent boilerplate language for getting out of having to read weird, sometimes-upsetting manuscripts from various aunts, college roommates, and various other would-be writers. I hope everyone with an agent feels free to use this to turn down requests.
Q. Update—Re: Supportive boyfriend versus showbiz dreams (Aug. 22, 2019): Thank you for responding to my email about moving to L.A. It was surreal and cool. I considered your cautious advice—believe me when I say I have considered all the things you outlined. I was severely underemployed for two years and do not take major financial decisions lightly.
Nonetheless, I now have a very strong sense that moving is what I need to do. I am tired of tamping down my dreams for the sake of the misplaced kindness and caution of others. I have done that for 27 years, from my parents trying to gently steer me away from the arts to math, to college professors telling me I was “too smart to perform” despite my earnest and vulnerable efforts to explain my dreams. While I thank you for the kindness and concern in your letter, I strongly feel the need to tell you—and others, retroactively—You can fuck right off.
A: Righto! I’m not entirely sure just how much of that last bit is directed at me, but I’ll take the bad and the good together and consider myself both thanked and instructed to clear out. Good luck with your move!
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for your help, everyone; if your aunts try to hand you any manuscripts this week, just tell them you’re too afraid of plagiarism to take a look.
From Care and Feeding
Q. My kid is too smart for his homework: I have an 8-year-old son who is really, really smart but really, really stubborn. Although he gets good grades, we fight all the time over schoolwork. He is constantly saying that he doesn’t see the point of some simple task, that it’s stupid and easy, that he hates it. When he does the work, he’s lazy, resents having to do multiple steps on things, and doesn’t follow directions well. Example: They are teaching students to do math a certain way, but he can do it in his head, so “What’s the point of doing it like that if I can just do it and get the right answer my way?” Same thing with spelling. Each day they do a different task with their word list. And each day we get drama and fighting because he “doesn’t see the point” to doing anything other than simply being quizzed on the words. I’ve tried incentives, but he was never reward-oriented. He’s always been a grouchy kid, but school is just turning him into an angry kid. Parent-teacher conferences are this week, and I’m going to bring all of this up, but I would love some ideas.
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