Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Thievery blunder: So, I just left the Dollar Store, where I purchased several items—then subsequently left without paying for an entire bag of stuff! I didn’t realize my error until I got home. I’m not sure what to do now. My first thought was to go right back, apologize, and pay for the items. But I’m nervous (paranoid?) that I might get in trouble. I could go to another Dollar Store and buy a bunch of stuff that I leave behind, to make things kind of even? I don’t know what to do! Help!?
A: In the grand scheme of things, it was an honest and low-level mistake. One bag is not going to make or break the Dollar Store; this will not be the deciding factor in whether this location stays open another year or an employee keeps their job. If you’re feeling lousy about it, you can go back with your receipt and explain your error; I think it’s unlikely anyone else will care about it as much as you do. If you don’t want to risk the possibility of getting in trouble (you’ll need to weigh your own personal sense of what risk you’re running; while I think it’s unlikely you’d be accused of stealing, I don’t want to promise that response is impossible), you can always write a brief note and mail it to the store care of management, enclosing cash for the cost of that forgotten bag. But again: It was an honest mistake, you didn’t steal food from the mouth of a hungry child, and you should go easy on yourself.
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Q. How do I stop my sister from confronting my former lover? More than 25 years ago, when I was 19, I had a summer fling and lost my virginity with a 50-year-old man. It was absolutely consensual and absolutely wonderful! He wasn’t a teacher, nor my boss, nor was he married. (He was recently divorced with children.) I look back on that summer as a wonderful time in my life. That fall when I left for college, the fling ended and I rarely saw him again. But no one knew about this. We lived in a town of 1,000 people and this would have spread like wildfire and not gone over very well.
One weekend last summer, I told my older sister. She was mortified! She claimed that it was “just like rape” even though I was an adult and a willing participant. And while I am sure he was thanking his lucky stars, we were both taking advantage of each other. Now my sister wants me to confront this man and his family. Prudence, he is in his late 70s, and my understanding is he has dementia. His children don’t know about this, and I see no reason for them to know now. Furthermore, the last thing I want to do is drag my husband into this. But my sister is insistent to the point where she says she’s “willing to do the talking for me.” How can I get her to stand down?
A: “If you ‘do the talking for me’ by yelling at a 70-year-old man with dementia about consensual, of-age sex I had with him 25 years ago, you will not be doing anything to protect victims of rape and you will not be ‘helping’ me with anything. All you will do is damage our relationship and my ability to trust you. I have wonderful memories of my time with him. My only regret is sharing it with you, since you’ve done nothing but tell me how I should feel about it, disregarded my autonomy, and repeatedly claimed that you know better than I do what’s good for me. You need to stop. Stop threatening to harass an old man and his family, stop telling me I wasn’t fit to make my own decisions then or to contextualize them now, and stop giving your opinions on a 25-year-old fling that no one has asked you for. If you don’t stop, I will be unable to trust you. That would make be very sad, because I value our relationship, but I don’t know how to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t respect my right to think and act for myself.”
Q. My best friend invited my rapist to her wedding: My friend of eight years got engaged in 2019 and asked me to be a bridesmaid. We met in high school and were part of the same church community, which I have since left and am now agnostic. My ex was also part of the same church community. Our relationship was never healthy, but it escalated in 2016 when, after I was sexually assaulted, he questioned why I would not be physical with him. Despite my repeatedly saying no, he would force himself on me. This happened for months, and my friend knew of it. We broke up eventually, but I knew they remained in contact due to church commitments. She informed me before the wedding that he would be invited because she “did not want to make things awkward at the church.” COVID has postponed the wedding, and restrictions ensure he will not be there, but I cannot help feeling angry and hurt that she would invite him in the first place. How do I go forward? Can I?
A: I’m so sorry that your friend has put you in this position. This is worlds apart from the last letter—your friend already knows that your ex raped you repeatedly and has invited him to her wedding simply because she thinks not to do so would make things “awkward” for her. You have every reason to feel angry and hurt, and every reason not to attend that wedding. It’s simply a question of what you feel safely prepared to discuss with your “friend” before deciding on your next move. If you would rather RSVP “no” and avoid further conversation, you’re perfectly right to do so. Your friend has chosen to prioritize her comfort over your well-being and safety; you don’t have to have an argument with her about whether it’s hurtful to invite your rapist and you to the same wedding if the prospect of such an argument sounds demoralizing or exhausting. Conversely, if the idea of telling her definitively that your friendship is over as a result of her actions sounds like it would provide you with some relief or closure, you should feel perfectly free to do so. But you should not feel like you need to force yourself to go and put on a happy face to keep things at this church “running smoothly”—you deserve much better than that, and no friend should ask you to do it.
Q. Is it OK to never bring up obvious topics? Four of us have been childhood friends for 20-plus years. We are close enough to discuss “big” topics, like infertility, deaths, divorces, coming out, etc. We’re a genuinely respectful group that believes in and works toward inclusivity.
One member gained a significant amount of weight years after our adolescence. I have never asked her about it, and I’ve never discussed it with the other two. It didn’t change anything about who she was, so why would we? I assume she’s experienced fatphobia, although hopefully never from us. But I feel hypocritical because I avoid topics that might be fraught (say, a feature story on a plus-sized model’s journey and challenges), without having ever asked her if she finds those topics triggering. You’ll have to believe me, I very rarely think about this part of her existence when we interact.
A: It’s perfectly fine—more than fine!—not to discuss a friend’s weight with your other friends. It is, in fact, polite not to discuss a mutual friend’s weight with third parties. Nor do you have an obligation to regularly discuss fatphobia socially just because one of your friends is fat; you don’t have to say, “Hey, I hope you never experience fatphobia, especially not from me.” You’re not failing to be a caring friend or socially conscious citizen by not discussing the challenges some models may experience, even plus-sized models. You’re doing fine.
Q. Reality of unequal income or codependency? My boyfriend and I have been together for about a year. He is loving and caring and I see a future with him. And it is the first time I’ve felt like a true equal in a relationship, except for one thing: our finances. Currently, I make about six times his yearly income and am very comfortable financially. At the beginning of our relationship, we split costs equally, although once our income was discussed, I felt responsibility to pay more. Around this time we were also having discussions about privilege. I’m a white woman from a middle-class family; he is a person of color and had to help support his family financially from a young age.
Fast forward six months, and I find myself paying for almost everything we do (takeout, groceries, dates). I don’t actually mind spending money on us—I can afford it—but I struggle with codependency issues from trauma, and I’m worried that I’m using money as a way to deal with guilt, or to try to control how he feels about me. He does not ask me to do this, but I feel stingy if I ask him to pay for a takeout meal because it would be no big deal for me and would be a hit in the budget for him. I gave him rent money once, which I offered.
Today he quit his job (which I encouraged, for mental health reasons), but I find myself obsessing about what to do if he gets in a serious financial bind. He mentioned he was scared he would have to move home on the opposite coast if he can’t find a job in four months. Should I refuse to help financially even if that means him moving and losing him? Do I give him more money, or does that mean I’m just giving into my codependent tendencies of saving someone?
A: Why don’t the two of you try to come up with a shared budget together? You don’t have to make a once-and-for-all decision right now, where you either give him money whenever you feel guilty and he feels anxious, or you pay for everything without discussion because it makes you uncomfortable to acknowledge your much-higher income. You two are in a relationship together, not a privilege-measuring contest, so it’s important that you can openly discuss financial arrangements or compromises before striking them. “I’m happy to spend money on our dates [or offer occasional loans or outright gifts, whatever else comes to mind], but I do want to talk about limits, goals, and concerns beforehand.” You’re entitled to set a ceiling on how much money you want to give or loan your boyfriend in a given month or year, even if that ceiling is quite high, simply so you’re both working with the same information.
You can also discuss this with a financial planner and a trusted friend or two. It would be a mistake, I think, to keep this completely between the two of you simply because you feel embarrassed about making more money. It might create an environment where you started to feel obligated to continue giving him money indefinitely simply because you had done so in the past, where you felt internal pressure to minimize your own needs and concerns because you haven’t been able to share your guilt, and that would not serve either of you well. That doesn’t mean you have to broadcast your financial situation to everyone you know, but one or two trusted friends should go a long way toward helping you see certain potential roadblocks or problems before they arise. You two have barely talked about money except for a general conversation about your respective expenses and privileges. That’s fine for a start, but now that money’s changing hands regularly, you need to be able to talk about your budget at least as often as you talk about your feelings. Good luck!
Q. Dad’s FB friend request: My dad, who I haven’t spoken to in years, sent me a friend request on Facebook. Now that I have kids myself, I’m struggling with whether to respond. My parents divorced when I was 10, and my dad was a lousy father but an even worse husband. I have very few memories of him growing up as he was in and out of our lives. I also have nine other half-siblings (that I know of). My dad frequently cheated on my mother, even going so far as leaving my sister and I in the car when we were small kids while he cheated. I struggled in my 20s with relationships because I never really saw any positive ones growing up. My dad and I never had a close relationship, and he has made very little effort to stay in touch with me and my sister. He talks to my mom more than he talks to us. He tells my mother that he doesn’t reach out to us because we’ve made no effort to reach out to him, which is true.
I do, however, feel that he’s my father and he should make an effort to be a part of my and my family’s life. He has tumultuous relationships with his other children. They argue, then the next day act like nothing has happened. My sister and I have always steered away from the dysfunction and drama. I’m willing to let bygones be bygones but I need him to accept responsibility that our relationship is in this current state due to his inability to face his lack of wanting to be in our lives. I was thinking about seeing him the next time I travel back home and having a conversation about us starting over. I feel as though this is an ego thing and he’s embarrassed to admit that he failed as a parent. Am I asking too much for him to take some initiative in our relationship?
A: It’s not asking “too much” of a parent for some initiative and willingness to discuss possible mistakes they made during your childhood. But your father may not be willing or prepared to honor such a request. That’s an important distinction! What you want from your father is for him not to blame you for not initiating a reconciliation he’s never demonstrated much interest in, and for a conversation where you gauge his willingness to discuss new ways to relate to one another in the future. Those are reasonable, limited goals, and if your father can’t meet them with you, I think you’re right to continue to keep your distance.
Q. Quietly listening: Against my social circle’s better judgment, I’ve taken a liking to a controversial writer/podcaster. There are many accusations lobbed against him, but never any receipts, and his viewpoints are often mischaracterized. As a trans woman, I disagree with him about some things but I’ve never heard him say anything wildly unreasonable.
I’m torn. I understand if people don’t want to support him, but does that mean I have to stop? After reading the accusations against him, I personally find a lot of the backlash against him overblown. I enjoy his podcast, and I feel a little guilty pleasure when I listen to it. I won’t support all his endeavors—he is a bit much—but is it that terrible if I review the charges against him and continue to keep up with him quietly?
A: I’m afraid this letter is insufficiently detailed for me to be truly helpful! Is it terrible to “keep up quietly” with a “controversial writer/podcaster”? I’m not sure what keeping up quietly means. (Is it reading his work without telling your friends? Giving him money and deleting your ‘Recently listened to’ tab?) And I don’t know the nature of the controversies surrounding his work, nor the kind of accusations lobbied against him, nor what conclusions you’ve drawn after reviewing whatever aspect of the “charges against him” are publicly available, nor which aspects of his work or public persona you find “a bit much” (even though he’s apparently never said anything “wildly unreasonable”—perhaps it’s a question of what you consider “wildly” unreasonable versus merely “a bit much”). You do not have to answer to your friends for every book you read, every podcast you listen to, or every personality you follow, but if part of the guilty pleasure you’re experiencing comes from the perceived transgressiveness of “getting one over” on your scandalized friends, it might be worth considering whether you’d like to prioritize your pleasure over your guilt and have an honest conversation about how you view this guy and his work with your friends. You don’t have to agree with your friends, nor ask them to agree with you—so why not have this conversation with them? “I think X and Y views are mischaracterized, I disagree with him about Z but like what he has to say on A and B, and sometimes I listen to his podcast. I understand why other people might dislike his work, but I like ____ about him” seems a perfectly reasonable thing to say.
I’ll finish by noting you don’t say a lot about what you like positively about this writer or his work. You think the charges against him seem flimsy, that his viewpoints are often mischaracterized, that he doesn’t say “wildly” unreasonable things, that you think the backlash against him has been overblown, and that you feel guilty pleasure when you listen to him. You think most people don’t understand him, but you don’t say much about what you think there is to understand. That’s not to say you’re not allowed to like him until you can list three unique and concrete accomplishments of his, but it’s worth asking yourself, “Do I like his work specifically, or do I like feeling like I’m secretly thumbing my nose at the consensus of my friends, and his podcast is the easiest way to access that feeling?”
Q. Secret sibling: We recently discovered a half-sibling from a relationship that happened before my parents met. That parent has since passed away and the other parent doesn’t know about the kid. We are torn about whether to tell the remaining parent, which would cause great emotional pain, versus keeping it quiet, which would cause pain to the newly discovered half-sibling. To tell or not to tell?
A: That largely depends on whether you plan on cultivating a relationship with this newly discovered half-sibling! If you’re not, and you don’t believe it’s likely to come up again, you can decline to share this with your remaining parent, since it’s unlikely to be very relevant to your futures (although there’s always the possibility that they’ll find out another way). If you do plan on establishing contact or staying in touch, I think you’ll find it increasingly challenging to keep such a relationship a secret, and it would be better to have things out in the open.
Q. Re: How do I stop my sister from confronting my former lover? The sister is having such an extreme reaction to the letter writer’s consensual relationship with an older man that I wonder if it struck a nerve. Does the sister have a nonconsensual experience in her own past she might want to share?
A: I feel pretty reluctant to speculate about her motives here. It’s certainly possible that this struck a personal nerve, but it’s equally possible that “nerve” has to do with prudishness/judgment/disgust with sex and not personal trauma. The letter writer can remain open to that possibility, but it won’t really change her next moves, so it’s not terribly important to discern at present.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone. If you find yourself tempted to pretend one of your relatives is dead to score a point on Facebook, take that as an indicator that it’s time to log out for the day.
From Care and Feeding
Q. Cat’s away! Generally speaking, when one parent or the other is periodically gone for a brief business trip, what level of parenting is acceptable? I’m talking about things like meals, screens, etc. In our family it’s usually two days tops, maybe once every two months.
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.