Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Conflicted on Harry Potter: I am a mom of three, and my oldest son came out as a trans boy when he was in first grade. He is now 15, and everyone has tried very hard to support him, including his younger brothers. My youngest is 8, and his third grade teacher read to his class the first Harry Potter book. He loves it and has been asking to read the other books with me and to get him his own wand for Christmas. I read the whole series to my older sons when they were that age and they both used to love it. But my oldest has asked me not to read the books to his younger brother and not to buy Harry Potter merchandise because it would feel to him that I was supporting J.K. Rowling’s horrible anti-trans comments.
I do not agree with Rowling at all and don’t want to invalidate my older son’s feelings, but is it possible to separate art from artist here? I suggested maybe talking about how and why what Rowling said was wrong before reading Harry Potter, but my son said that still meant I was supporting Rowling by letting his brother read her work anyway. Is there anything I can do? I want to let my youngest enjoy the world of Harry Potter without supporting a bigot and disappointing my oldest.
A: This seems fairly straightforward and comparatively low-stakes. You’ve got a trans kid who’s made a specific request of you about financially supporting a living artist who’s made transphobia a significant part of her career, and I think you should honor it. (Besides which, there is no shortage of books for kids about magic, wonder, etc.) Your 8-year-old is old enough to handle a conversation about transphobia, especially since he has a trans brother and it’s likely to come up again in the future. You don’t have to make your youngest feel guilty about having enjoyed the book, or that he should only read authors with unimpeachable characters, but as the parent of a trans kid, you want to draw the line at buying the merchandise of a living author who’s made transphobia part of their brand. Tell him you’re going to get him something else for Christmas, and ask around for some alternatives.
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Q. The secret I didn’t want to know: For years, my husband and his two best friends from high school joked about “Stephanie”—some seemingly mythical woman to whom he lost his virginity and was apparently deeply in love with. I chalked it up to guys being guys and moved on; after all, I met my husband when we were in grad school, and never felt a need to relitigate the past. However, I just stumbled upon the realization that “Stephanie” wasn’t her real name … and that this woman was my husband’s babysitter. He was 15 and she was 21 when they slept together. She was indeed his first. I felt horrified and sick to my stomach.
Stephanie passed away in a car accident about 20 years ago, and I remember my husband being pretty distraught, but I assumed it was because he had fond babysitter memories of her, not because they had been lovers! There’s nothing really to be done now, but I find myself sick with worry that my husband will find out I know. I also can’t bear to face his parents at our (Zoom) Christmas. Did they know back then? What if they did and covered it up? Why didn’t my husband ever get put in therapy? I have so many questions, zero answers, and no idea how to get any answers. I wish I never found out about this. What in the world do I do now?
A: Eventually you should talk to your husband about this, but you should give yourself time to settle first, and to prepare for a wide range of possible responses on his part. It will do your husband little good if you broach the as-yet-undiscussed topic of possible statutory rape (you say you stumbled on the “realization” that Stephanie was his babysitter, but it doesn’t seem as though you yet have evidence to support this suspicion) sick to your stomach and angry at his parents. I don’t say any of that to dismiss your suspicions, by the way; you may very well be right. But as you say, you have lots of questions now, and no answers as of yet, so I’d urge you not to approach your husband as if you already knew something. But I do think you should approach him, even if the idea of discussing this openly makes you anxious, if only because I think it will be impossible for you to hide your distress from him in the long run.
When you do approach your husband, strive to keep your tone neutral and supportive. Start by acknowledging that you two have not often discussed your sexual histories with each other, and that you respect his right not to answer any questions he doesn’t want to, but that you’ve come to wonder whether “Stephanie” was also his late babysitter. You can acknowledge that this possibility troubles you—you can keep a neutral tone without feigning indifference—but give him room to offer his own answers before sharing your own. Depending on his answers, you may find a Zoom Christmas celebration possible (albeit challenging), or you may need to discuss alternatives. If you find yourself in need of additional support and someone to process information with besides your husband, I’d encourage you to look for a therapist, since they can guarantee confidentiality, and to not discuss any possible assault with your own friends without your husband’s express permission. There are lots of things to be done now, although I take your meaning to have more to do with redress than anything else, including offering your husband real, meaningful support. Good luck to you, whatever the story may ultimately be.
Q. Stop copying me! I have a long-term friend of almost 20 years who, for lack of a better term, always copies me: moves across the country, relationship changes, appearance, even surgical decisions—the list goes on. My partner and I used to laugh it off, but it has become more and more upsetting to me as this individual also seems to be a one-way street for problems they need help with, and no reciprocation. I’m in my 30s; it shouldn’t be hard to say goodbye, but I just can’t seem to do it.
A: If you can’t stop helping someone despite a real and long-standing sense of frustration and one-sidedness, and it’s been going on for two decades, maybe it’s time to see a therapist! Obviously any real, long-lasting solution is going to involve some combination of saying no to things you always used to say yes to, and in being honest at least once with your friend about your grievances. But it’s one thing to have a general sense of what needs to be done, and quite another to envision yourself getting from point A to point Z when you don’t have a clue. It might also help you develop a sense of scale. It’s fine to say, “You never ask me about how I’m doing and it’s affecting our friendship,” but I’m not quite sure you have grounds to say, “You always break up with your partners whenever I break up with mine—knock it off,” and a therapist might also be able to help you sort through what’s really affecting you and what’s worth letting go.
Spend some time considering seriously what you’re afraid to say goodbye to—is it a sense of longevity and consistency, since you’ve known this person since you were a teenager? A sense of superiority, since you feel like the model for your friend’s knockoffs? Feeling generous, since you’re always helping them without reciprocation? Fear of what they’ll say about you if you stand up for yourself? Whatever the answer(s) may be, it might feel a lot easier to say goodbye if you can identify what you’re afraid to lose first.
Q. Am I obligated to educate my father? I’ve been living away from my parents for about four years now, and every time I talk to them, it gets harder and harder to want to keep them in my life. Last night, I called my dad to wish him a happy birthday. Without even asking how I’ve been, he launched into a rant about how culture is getting too “PC,” how “white men are the real victims of discrimination now,” and how “reverse racism is totally real.” I politely disagreed. And then I not-so-politely disagreed. Eventually we were in a screaming match over the issue, he said something disrespectful to me, and I hung up on him.
Honestly, I sort of never want to talk to him again. He’s always been mean, selfish, and rude, and I don’t enjoy spending time with him. But I’m worried that if I don’t keep debating him, he’s going to start falling down the Fox News/QAnon rabbit hole and there’ll be no turning back for him. Should I apologize and keep fighting to bring him into the light? Or should I cut my losses—and my dad?
A: Has fighting ever gotten you anywhere with your father? Have you ever told him something was important to you and gotten him to listen as a result? Has he ever followed a careful argument of yours and said, “That’s a good point—I’ll consider it”? Do you have any reason to believe he’s interested in a good-faith discussion? It sounds like you’ve been trying to maintain a relationship with him for the last four years, and that hasn’t slowed him down in the least. He’s already interrupting “happy birthday” calls in order to announce that white men are under siege, so I think your hope that there’s still a turning-back point in his future may be wishful thinking. He’s “always been mean, selfish, and rude,” and it doesn’t sound like polite disagreement or robust debate has done much to push him in any direction. That doesn’t mean you have to give up completely, but I do think it makes the decision in front of you a little easier: Your decision not to get yelled at on the phone will have relatively little bearing on whether your father ever decides to listen to other people. There is no substitute for willingness on your father’s part, and while a little often goes a long way, you can’t make up for its absence. I don’t advise apologizing unless you really think you have something to apologize for, so the most I’d encourage you to say would be something like this: “I didn’t like how our last call ended, and I don’t think you did either. I would like to be able to talk to you, but I can’t do that if you interrupt me or insult me. If you ever want to have a conversation on those grounds, we can talk, but I’m not available for any more monologues, and I’m not going to stay on the phone if you start screaming at me.”
Q. My abuser is dying: I’m a 20-year-old guy. When I was very young, my grandma (my mom’s mom) took pictures of me when I was naked (taking a bath, getting dressed, etc.) and gave them to her boyfriend, but I don’t remember it. I only found out years later, because they turned up when he was later arrested for abusing a different person. My mom no longer has contact with my grandma.
My aunt recently told us that my grandma is close to death, because of a long life of smoking and alcohol abuse. I don’t wish pain or suffering on anyone, but this woman hasn’t been in my life in years and all I know of her is that she gave her boyfriend pictures of me naked. My aunt says that she was never abusive, as she didn’t hit or touch me, but I think that taking and sharing the pictures is a form of abuse, even if I don’t remember it. I’m not interested in reconnecting at all, but my aunt is insisting that my mom and I are being horrible by not trying to “bury the hatchet” before her death. What do I do?
A: Continue to be “horrible.” Your grandmother abused the access available to her as a relative in order to furnish a child predator with naked pictures of you as a child. Tellingly, she has never apologized to either you or your mother for what she did. Now she happens to be dying, and she continues to demonstrate zero interest in apologizing or reconnecting with you. It’s simply that your aunt is uncomfortable with the idea of consequences for child abuse (perhaps because it makes her question her own choices about how she relates to your grandmother, perhaps for some other reason) and wants to unload her discomfort onto you. She has no right to do that to you, and she certainly has no right to tell you that you weren’t abused simply because you didn’t know you were being photographed as a child. It is not “horrible” to have no relationship with someone who exploited you to please her pedophile boyfriend and never apologized or tried to meaningfully amend her life. You are not hurting your grandmother in any way. You did not cause her sickness, and you are not prolonging or exacerbating her suffering now. Feel free to ignore your aunt, or tell her to kiss off, as you prefer.
Q. Pride about new skill: I know I am overthinking this low-stakes question and could use perspective. During COVID, I started learning how to play the piano. I’m kind of proud of myself, and during my family gathering, I would like to play a song in front of everyone (not a full-blown recital, but a one-minute easy piece). A cousin (young adult) is disabled and cannot use their hands in the same way, so would not be able to acquire this skill. Is it hurtful to essentially brag about this new skill I’ve acquired? My immediate answer is obviously no—there are plenty of talented people who can do things I would never be able to do. But for some reason, this feels different. Any advice?
A: It seems clear that whatever “reason” this feels different from any other activity you can do unassisted is coming from you, not your cousin. You don’t say that they’ve ever even displayed hesitation about what other people do with their hands, so I think it’s safe to say that this sudden bout of guilt is coming from inside the house, so to speak. Don’t assume that your cousin will be hurt or offended by a one-minute piano piece, go ahead and ask your relatives if they’d be interested in hearing you play, and otherwise behave normally.
Q. Regret for turning down relationship: I’ve been having an affair with a man for a little over a year (I’ve known him for seven). We’re both in our 30s. He claims he just got back together with his wife. He asked me to marry him five years ago but I turned him down, a decision I’ve regretted ever since. I’ve given him close to $10,000 from my trust fund over the past eight months, but I would like to send him a card, note, or something this holiday season that lets him know my regret. I think last year I sent a holiday card but addressed it to the two of them. The thing is, I want him to know if things go south for him (the relationship is already rocky), that I would like him to choose me. Is there really anything appropriate in this case for my purposes? What can I send? I guess I would like to be friends but it’s like I’m waiting in the wings.
A: I think this guy probably knows you want him to choose you. If the “yearlong affair” didn’t clue him in, the $10,000 gift probably would. The question is how much “waiting in the wings” you think is worth your while, and how long you’re prepared to wait before you start to regret that decision, too. If you want him to leave his wife, you shouldn’t send him a tasteful card hinting that you’d like to be considered as a replacement. To be clear, I don’t think there’s an “appropriate” way of communicating such a sentiment—let’s leave appropriate out of it and set our sights on a more manageable goal like “frankness.” You’re already having an affair and sending him cash gifts; this seems like an obvious case of pennywise and pound-foolish if you suddenly get precious about what you want. You want him to leave his wife for you, so go ahead and tell him. If you’re willing to keep having an affair even if he says no, then you’ll likely have very little leverage in the situation, but at least you’ll know you spoke your mind.
Q. Feuding sisters: My middle and youngest daughters are having a huge feud! It’s worse than that—they had a fight! The instigator is usually the younger. The older sis feels she has always been bullied by her, and is always the first to apologize. They actually have not spoken for two months. I don’t know how to allow them to fix this, and it looks like they have no plans on fixing it either.
A: My answer is totally dependent on how old your daughters are! If they’re both grown and living independently, then the most you can do is encourage them to talk to each other, limit how much you’re available to listen to either vent about the other, and let them handle their own relationship, even if it causes you some grief. (If you do agree that the younger is always instigating quarrels while the elder is always the first to apologize, you might want to share some version of that perspective with each of them separately.)
If they’re both still at home, you have more grounds for insisting on (and moderating) a rapprochement. You can stress that while they’re both entitled to their feelings (“I’m not going to force you to like each other right now, or pretend that you’re not angry”), they do have to learn to be at least civil to each other while they live together. That may include long bouts of silence, although I think it’s not unrealistic to expect them to acknowledge each other while passing the salt at dinner. You can also try to talk to each of them separately first, to try to get a sense of their grievances and how you can best help each of them, before sitting down together and trying to come up with a realistic set of goals. Good luck!
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for the help, everyone! See you next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q. Reality bites: My youngest daughter, who’s 9, has a strong tendency to crash and burn after big fun events (birthdays, holidays, trips, etc.) and a really tough time resuming “normal” life. Having finally figured out the pattern, any advice on how to soften her recovery from Christmas this year? Read what Nicole Cliffe had to say.