Dear Prudence

My Neighbor Exposed Himself to Me and My Toddler

We were just having a friendly chat.

A man sits in a rocking chair. There is a black bar over his lap.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,

We (me, my husband, and our son and daughter) moved into our house about a year ago. We met the neighbors next door about two weeks in. They’re an older couple with grown kids. Our only interactions since then have been a friendly wave here and there. I mostly only see the husband outside, since he smokes. A few days ago, he was outside smoking when I’d just gotten home with my sister and daughter (she’s 2). I asked how his wife was, and he asked after my husband. We were about 60 feet apart so we were kind of speaking loudly. Anyways, he said something about how cloudy it was, and I responded with “Yeah, that’s why we left the park early.” Suddenly I see his free hand wander down to his crotch. I thought maybe he was just adjusting himself so I looked straight ahead to give him a minute, but then to my horror realized he was lingering there. Before I could process what was happening, he took his penis out and started playing with it.

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I had my toddler in my arms, and I got so flustered that I didn’t even finish whatever I was saying and walked into the house. I told my sister that I’m pretty sure l saw our neighbor stroke himself while we were having a friendly chat. However, the nice part of me wants to believe that my eyes were playing a trick on me and that I maybe imagined it … ? I just don’t know what to do. On the one hand, if he wasn’t doing that, then there’s no need to address it. On the other hand, if he was, then I would like to tell my husband and warn him about this man being a pervert.

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—Pervy Neighbor

He was doing it. Your eyes weren’t playing tricks on you, you didn’t spontaneously hallucinate it, and it’s not the “nice” part of you that wants to believe that you did. Feeling shocked and bewildered because someone you previously thought of as friendly or at least nonhostile has exposed themselves to you and your toddler is a perfectly understandable reaction, but don’t try to punish yourself for having been sexually harassed during what you thought was an ordinary conversation. Men who expose themselves to neighbors or strangers on the street often enjoy the shock and embarrassment of their victims being caught off guard. Please do speak to your husband right away, and consider warning your other neighbors, as well as filing a police report. I don’t often advise letter writers to involve the police, but since you live next door to this man and he exposed himself not only to you but to your child, such an intervention may be necessary, especially if you need to get a restraining order. This happened, you did not invent it, and you deserve the opportunity to protect yourself.

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Dear Prudence,

My mother-in-law and her two grown children were evicted over a year ago (before the pandemic-related eviction moratoriums) for failure to pay rent for three months. She had the money, she simply chose not to pay the rent, and received three notices before getting a court action to vacate. This has happened four times over the 13 years that my spouse and I have been married. We believe she has some mental health issues, but she refuses to seek help. My spouse and I have agreed (with a therapist’s help) to keep that part of the family at arm’s length for the sake of our own relationship and sanity, as previous attempts to intervene nearly ruined our marriage.

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Against our better judgment, my spouse and I went to assist them with the latest move, and I came across my father-in-law’s ashes (my spouse’s stepfather). My father-in-law died 10 years ago, and had left behind instructions for disposing of his ashes with his eldest son and my mother-in-law. I thought they had been honored, and was surprised to find the ashes tucked away into the back corner of a closet. I was packing them up when my mother-in-law told us to just “leave them behind,” and that she didn’t care what happened to them. I took the box to the car without saying a word. My father-in-law was a good man, and while we didn’t know each other for very long, he deserved better than being left behind. Because of the pandemic, we haven’t been able to gather all six of the siblings to scatter the ashes. Hopefully we’ll be able to do so this summer once everyone’s been vaccinated.

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Today, my MIL texted my spouse, demanding the ashes’ return. We’ve had them safe in our home for over a year now, waiting to scatter them. She has not asked for them back until today, when my spouse and I remained consistent on a boundary that she didn’t like. She doesn’t want the ashes scattered (against my father-in-law’s direct request). I don’t want to give them back to her. I understand, they were married, but she was going to leave them with the trash. I’ve ignored her texts and told my spouse that I’ll only return them if all the adult children agree that I should. I haven’t told the other siblings what she said the day I took them—just that we took them for safekeeping until after the pandemic. Part of me wants to tell them now, since it might affect their decision. She does get evicted fairly often, so there’s a strong chance it might happen again. My spouse isn’t sure what to do, since my mother-in-law is unstable and might lash out at us, along with any siblings who side with us. (I should add that my mother-in-law hates me with a passion.) But my spouse is inclined to think we should return the ashes, as she was his wife and has rights to the ashes. While I know my father-in-law is gone and probably doesn’t care what happens, I still feel we should honor his wishes and care for his remains. Am I being stubborn? Should we return them?

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—Ashes to Ashes

I’m inclined to agree with your spouse’s (tentative) position. Your mother-in-law does sound like a very difficult person to deal with, and I think you did the right thing last year when you took your father-in-law’s ashes instead of treating her short-term expression of distress as an instruction that required honoring. But the immediate danger has passed, and there are other family members who can help in the event of a future eviction taking place before it’s safe to gather as a group. Since you know your mother-in-law particularly dislikes you, and you want to minimize your interactions with her for your own peace of mind as well as for the sake of your marriage, it might be best to return the ashes to the eldest son, who jointly inherited them, and let the rest of her children sort out how best to honor your father-in-law’s final wishes in the context of his widow’s occasional volatility.

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• Send questions for publication to prudence@slate.com. (Questions may be edited.)

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Dear Prudence,

I recently moved to a new city where I have an intermediate grasp of the language, and no real support system. Due to COVID, a lot of the normal activities (sports/gym) that I would use to make friends are on hiatus. Now that cases are decreasing, things are opening up, but I’m not engaging in these activities where I would make friends. COVID is an easy excuse, but the reality is I’m not that afraid of COVID, I’m terrified of interacting with other people in a language where I’m not fluent. I’m taking courses, but I have no real opportunities to practice, and it takes me half an hour to mentally prepare for small interactions such as the grocery store. How do I get back out there?

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—Fear of Interactions, Not COVID

Part of what’s tricky is that one of the best ways to practice a language is through small interactions with native speakers at places like grocery stores. Do you have a sense of what terrifies you most about such interactions? Are you afraid of public judgment, of slowing other people down, of appearing self-conscious in front of other people in an environment where you can’t control for their reactions? Something else? Whatever the underlying fear(s) may be, your best bet might be to look online for other recent arrivals to the city looking to practice their language skills together, so you don’t feel like you’re the only person in the grocery store/post office/coffee shop who’s less than perfectly fluent. “Please excuse me, my ____ is still a little clumsy” can also go a long way toward removing some of the tension from a low-level interaction, if only because you’ll know the other party is aware that you’re still learning. You can also try to tap into whatever support systems you might have in your old city; while those friends won’t be able to help you practice or join you on your errands, they might be able to provide a reassuring word or a listening ear when you need to psych yourself up to go to the laundromat. The more you do it, the less the idea of fumbling for your words or asking someone to repeat themselves will feel like a nightmare to be avoided at all costs. Soon it may feel more like (an increasingly rare!) unremarkable part of adjusting to life in your new city. Hopefully you can eventually cut down the mental prep time from half an hour to 15 minutes, and eventually to nothing at all.

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Help! My Wife Needs Me to Review All of Her Work for Her Job.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Claire Cox on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

Dear Prudence,

Recently, I learned that one of my exes has transitioned, and I find myself confused about how to think and talk about our history together. For background, at the time that we dated (about 10 years ago), we both identified as cisgender lesbians. We have no current contact, and I am not looking to reestablish contact. Still, he was a significant person in my life, and it’s not unusual for experiences that included him to come up in my present-day conversations with others. Now that I know, I want to use male pronouns and his new name in how I conceptualize and speak about him. However, my memories are of a woman. I want to be respectful of who he is today, but I also can’t erase my own experiences. It feels inaccurate to describe that time in my life as me being in a relationship with a man or to talk about the experiences I had with him using male pronouns to refer to the person I was with then. How can I honor who he is today and still find a way to honor my own memories with this person?

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–Past Pronouns

Since the two of you are no longer in contact, and have no plans ever to resume contact, there’s a limit to how much any of your choices can affect your ex. That’s not to say this doesn’t matter, but I’d encourage you to scale back some of the intensity here, not least because I think it will help you to stop thinking of this as a zero-sum game where either your experiences or his must be erased for the benefit of the other. “If I refer to my ex in an anecdote about our relationship by his new name or ‘he,’ then I’m respecting trans people but obliterating my own past experiences; if I refer to my ex by his old name or ‘she,’ then I’m disrespecting him but living more authentically” is too dramatic by half, and not useful either to you or to trans people generally. “This was before he transitioned” is a much easier way to preface an anecdote and will ensure your listeners can understand and contextualize whatever story it is you’re looking to tell.

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

“She appears to have found out some juicy gossip and is having a bit of trans panic about it.”

Danny Lavery and Colby Gordon discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

My husband is wonderful and we love each other very much. He also has depression and about two years ago he had several psychotic episodes, during which time he was abusive toward me. I did not leave him because I was aware he was not himself. He has found the right medications and therapist, and is doing wonderfully. He is the best version of himself, and we are actually happy. I, however, cannot free myself of the trauma he caused me. I understand he was not himself at the time, but that doesn’t make it hurt less. Little things trigger memories almost every day, like putting in eyedrops or pressing the space bar when I’m working. I can usually brush them off, but sometimes when I drink, I get angry. He knows exactly how I feel and tries to be supportive, but he is not in the place of helping for he was the one who caused my trauma. I went to therapy for a while and it helped, but I can no longer afford it. We are strictly socially distancing, and I do not want to burden my friends with this. I feel alone. How can I help myself?

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—Stuck in the Past

I hope you’ll consider “burdening” your friends. I don’t believe that it is a burden, by the way, but if your only other options are to see a therapist (which you can’t afford) or to try to rely on the very person who hurt you in the first place, it’s an urgently necessary alternative. No one of your friends can single-handedly “solve” this problem for you—and it doesn’t seem like you expect that of them—so you’re not asking them to do anything but listen and provide you with occasional support, which is well within the remit of friendship. In the meantime, it might also help to arrange to spend time apart from your husband when you drink, even if that only means planning to spend the night in the guest room, so you don’t have to worry about containing your angry reaction in front of him. It also may be necessary for the two of you to eventually socially distance separately, even if you plan to move back in together at some later date. If you find yourself needing to “brush off” painful, rage-inducing reactions to recent trauma every single day, it may be that space is the only way to ensure that you can continue to heal safely. That doesn’t mean you don’t love your husband, or that a new kind of relationship might not be possible in the future; it may in fact be the best way to ensure that new kind of relationship can exist. In that case, you’ll need the support of your friends as you figure out how much time you’ll need apart and where you’ll spend it, so start talking to them about it as soon as you can. Good luck.

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Dear Prudence,

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years ago, after a lengthy battle with my mental health. When the pandemic hit and I started working from home, I finally had the time and energy to start managing my diagnosis. I’ve been in therapy, changed my doctor and my medications, and adopted various mindfulness techniques, and I now feel stable most of the time. My issue is trying to accept the “new me.” I used to experience long periods of depression followed by short, hyper-anxious and distressing manic episodes, but in between those two states I often felt great, on top of the world, even. People gravitated toward me, and I felt like the center of attention, just sailing through life. I’m sure I sometimes annoyed people in that mode, but I was so confident and self-assured that nothing could bother me. Before therapy, I considered this “the real me.” So did my friends. After a lot of exploration with my therapist, I now realize this was an extension of my mania. Thinking about the times I felt untouchable, I was actually engaging in really chaotic and risky behavior. I was impulsive and filterless.

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It’s obvious to me now that this “real me” wasn’t me at all, it was a symptom of my illness. Now that I’ve settled into something more stable, I’m so worried I’m not fun anymore. Whenever my friends and family talk about me, they say I’m extroverted, loud, and vivacious, but I’ve discovered I’m actually an introvert at heart. I still enjoy socializing, but my “big personality” rarely appears now unless I have an episode. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been, but I’m worried that once the lockdown is lifted, people will be bored by the healthy version of me. How do I become comfortable with myself after feeling like I was someone else for so long? And how do I explain how different I am to my friends and family?

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—Not Always “Fun”

I realize it can be useful to distinguish between one’s core sense of self from behaviors or patterns one associates with an un- or undertreated diagnosis, and to that end, if you find it meaningful to associate your “real self” with your present condition of increased stability and decreased extroversion, you should absolutely keep doing it. But I don’t think you have to frame this conversation with family as friends in quite the same way! “Now that I’m getting better treatment, I’m feeling a lot more relaxed and low-key. I also find I crave more solitude and time to myself. I’ve felt anxious about discussing this with you, because part of me worries you won’t like me as much if I’m not ‘on’ all the time, but this balance feels really good/sustainable/healthy to me, and I appreciate your support” is equally true but won’t put you in the painful position of offering up your “true self” to either be affirmed or negated in a single conversation. You can certainly contextualize this difference by discussing how it relates to your treatment if such a conversation appeals to you, but you also don’t have to describe in detail every single personality shift you’ve experienced through therapy and medication in order to justify them, either.

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Another piece of good news (not unilaterally good but unexpectedly useful in your position) is that lockdown is not going to be lifted wholesale and overnight, so you’ll be able to plan ahead and stagger your interactions with friends at a pace that suits you. You can schedule manageable, modest get-togethers where you catch them up on what’s been going on with you and plan to have lots of alone time to unwind afterward. You may even find that you’re not the only one who’s experienced a significant revelation or resultant change in lockdown, either; it’s possible that one or more of your friends might also share that they feel seriously changed by the experience, either directly or indirectly, and you’ll be able to offer reciprocal support to the people you love.

Classic Prudie

My cat is 18. The cat harasses me all night. She is deaf and toothless, and traumatized if I shut a door to escape her. When I take a shower, she howls. My young kids love her. She is expensive because of medicine and special food—$200 in a month excluding vet visits. We have not gone on a family vacation for years. When I talked to the vet about putting her to sleep, they said she is a healthy animal with manageable concerns and that they would not do that. She is friendly and alert but she is ruining my life.

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