Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
The night after I got engaged, my sister killed my fiancé. It was an accident, but she was culpable (drunk driving). I don’t know why he let her drive, or why he was in her car, and I don’t know where they were going—my sister doesn’t remember—all I know for certain is that when I woke up the next morning he was dead.
That was a decade ago. It obviously caused a lot of problems between me and my sister. Those problems were complicated by the fact she was hurt in the accident, in legal trouble, and while my parents understood how angry I was with her, they couldn’t exactly leave her to fend for herself. Nor did I want them to, except when I did.
My family would very much like for me to forgive her. They point out that my life is significantly better than hers, I am married and have a good job as well as a houseful of foster kids while she has struggled. I know they mean that she has suffered enough, but it always sounds like they think it was a good thing my fiancé died. I would like to forgive her. She was my little sister, and we were so close until this happened. Every year I think that this year I will be able to look at her without feeling sick, but I just can’t.
How can you forgive someone for something they don’t remember? Over an incident they view as having victimized them too? Therapy helped me move on with my life, to let go of the shape I had planned and embrace my wife and our kids. I just can’t do the same where my sister is concerned. Tolerance is about all I can manage. But I want so much to just hug her again and mean it.
— Chasing Forgiveness
Dear Chasing Forgiveness
One thing that isn’t included in your letter is what your sister has done to ask for or earn your forgiveness, and that’s what I’m stuck on. Your family is asking you to move on, to change in your heart, but I’m concerned that it feels like something that is completely on you. Our emotions move at their own speeds and some things we never get over. You’ve gone through therapy and expressed a desire to have your sister back in your life. But sometimes that’s not enough and we have to accept that. It can be harder to forgive or to move on, however, if the other person isn’t working on their side of the street. I know she doesn’t remember the incident; however, there’s still an injury to your relationship that needs attention from her. Her suffering in life isn’t the same as her making amends. If you want to play a proactive role in this, you can ask her for a conversation and be upfront about the desire to forgive and dissolve the blockage you feel. That may prompt her to ask “well, what do you want me to do?” It may be hard to come up with an answer. But an apology might be a good start, especially if she can acknowledge, specifically, how you were harmed.
I graduated high school almost 20 years ago and am now well into my thirties. One of my favorite hobbies as a teenager was theater. I did both community theater and took drama classes and acted in productions at my high school. In the community theaters I was a part of, and later in college where I continued to study acting, I had great experiences and had no problems getting cast, including in a handful of lead roles. I attended college partially on a theater scholarship and represented my university in competitions for regional awards. I am no Meryl Streep, but nor am I whatever the opposite would be.
I say all of that as context for my current problem, which actually began in high school: Simply put, my high school theater teacher did not seem to like me much. While I did get parts in lots of plays, they were usually small, as “Mrs. Jones” greatly preferred the very popular students and I was sort of a personable inbetweener. I remember being humiliated after one audition when I was going for a small role and she and the choir teacher told me I was too bad to even be in the chorus. I know rejections are par for the course in acting, and I cannot claim to have deserved a role because that’s not how this works, but this was a small high school show, and I was a child, not a professional at a cutthroat Broadway audition. In comparison, a very popular and handsome boy a few years ahead of me in high school had main roles in three musicals while being well known for having a terrible voice and mostly talking his way through songs. Another time, Mrs. Jones asked someone to give up his role the morning of a big show in order to let a popular boy (the sibling of one her favorites) take it instead. The two boys were sharing the role and alternating performances and the favored one already had most of the performances allocated to him, while the other boy had one of his only two chances taken because Mrs. Jones saw an unexpectedly big crowd and wanted the more popular and attractive boy to showcase the production. I also happened to have had Mrs. Jones during her last four years before retirement and mainly remember her as tired, disorganized, and not even managing to phone-in her classes and productions. My theater experience with her was disappointing and humiliating.
This is now coming back up unexpectedly. I am not attending my upcoming reunion for many reasons, but Mrs. Jones has recently died, and there has been a push to name the newly renovated theater space after her to honor her decades of teaching, and there has been a collection circulated for an elaborate memorial plaque. People often send me these things because they remember how much I enjoyed theater and seeing me in lots of plays. I hate to admit it at this point, but I did not find Mrs. Jones to be a good teacher or director, and thought she was capable of startling favoritism and cruelty and don’t care to take part in having her memorialized. I certainly don’t want to part with my money for her. While I admit that at one point (before my time) she put on very good plays and that many people in them remember her fondly, I know I am not the only one who suffered under her. How should I approach declining the petitions and GoFundMe requests? I can just ignore them, but I would prefer to not see them anymore.
— Understudy Woes
Dear Understudy Woes
As a former high school theater kid and current theater adult, there’s nothing I love more than rehashing very old drama about cast lists and flubbed lines and whatnot. But the way that Mrs. Jones treated you and the other students goes beyond the usual backstage antics. A teacher should nurture a gift and a love for theater, instead of putting up roadblocks. So, it makes sense that you don’t want to memorialize her. I’m unclear on who is sending you the GoFundMe requests and if this is a constant stream, but if you’re getting them directly emailed, as opposed to, say, getting tagged on Facebook, it may be simple enough to reply “Thanks for thinking of me for this. Mrs. Jones and I didn’t have the best experience so I’m not a great candidate for donating.” You can get into the specifics if you want, but it doesn’t sound like you want to relive it, but rather to move on. A succinct “thanks but no thanks” may prompt questions but you don’t have to respond to them. Short of making a grand public announcement of your disinterest—which will invite even more questions—I think the case-by-case responses may work best.
I am a queer white woman who recently became engaged to my longtime girlfriend. My mother died when I was 3, and my dad remarried very swiftly. While he and my stepmother both earned very high salaries and made sure my childhood was more than comfortable, they were also distant, cold, and while not outwardly hateful, ignored me and iced me out of our extended family after I came out. Given that we currently talk once every two years at best, I’m certain that I don’t want them at the wedding.
However, from the ages of 4 to 13, I was primarily raised by a Black nanny named “Nora,” who was more of a parent to my than my dad or stepmother ever were. Nora attended my high school graduation, talks with me every year during the holidays, and her two sons still stay in touch with me as well. I want to invite Nora and her sons to my wedding, and ask her if she would walk me down the aisle. However, when I brought this up to my fiancée (who is a woman of color), she said that she was concerned that this could be more “emotional labor” on Nora’s part that would only benefit me, a privileged white woman. She also pointed out that she grew up under similar circumstances as Nora’s sons—her mother was a housekeeper for an affluent white family—and said that after spending years caring for her sisters while her mother took care of someone else’s children, she would feel upset that those children still wanted to have her mother caring for them and protecting them as adults. I’m not sure what is the right thing to do here: Should I invite Nora and her family to our wedding or not?
— No Longer Nannied
Dear No Longer Nannied,
When I’m not doling out advice on Slate, I spend my time as a playwright, and my most successful play to date is about a Black woman writer who found professional success with a fictional story about a white girl and her Black nanny, and the white woman who claims the Black woman stole the story from her real-life experience being cared for by a Black woman. The question of Mrs. Harrison, the play, is who owns this story; what neither character, initially, recognizes in their disagreement is that they’re missing a voice—that of Betty Harrison, the former domestic worker in question. It’s her story, too. I tell you all this to let you know that I think about this exact situation a lot, and I know how easy it is to make assumptions about what people are thinking and feeling.
You ought to take two people at their word here: the first being your fiancée, who has already expressed reservations rooted in her own history. This is something that will continue to pop up in your relationship. You both probably see the world differently, and there’s almost certainly some blind spots that will complicate your marriage if you don’t voice them and work them out, ideally with a professional. The second person is, of course, Nora. Right now, it doesn’t seem like you’ve discussed this possibility with Nora and the infrequency of your conversations leads me to believe that you’re not in the best position to know off-hand whether this is something she’d be comfortable with. The relationship that you and Nora had is a complex one, and your understanding of it and residual feelings about it are going to be very different from hers. That’s not to say that she doesn’t care about you or remember you fondly—I have no way of knowing that. Simply that you have to have a more in-depth relationship to know the truth.
At this point, it just doesn’t sound like you and Nora are close enough for her to walk you down the aisle. It’s not quite emotional labor, at least as defined by the term’s originator Arlie Hochschild, who wrote of “a situation where the way a person manages his or her emotions is regulated by a work-related entity in order to shape the state of mind of another individual, such as a customer.” Nora, surely, has done a lot of emotional labor in your history, though, when she was in your parents’ employ. But labor or not, your current situation could put Nora in an awkward, uncomfortable position, and I don’t think that’s your intention.
Sending a wedding announcement or invitation, without requesting that she walk you down the aisle, feels less fraught by a smidge. Family friends often get invites, but it can’t be overstated how this situation is complicated by money and the power imbalance of an employer-employee relationship. I think the most graceful solution is to simply send a wedding announcement, perhaps with a note of gratitude for her influence in your life. Second best is to have a conversation with Nora during which you don’t ask her to give you permission or to make you feel better about this. In this conversation, you can engage as adults and you can let her know that you want to send her an invitation because she meant a lot to you but that, as much as possible, you hope to release her from any obligation to come or send a present. You two are in a relationship but, like all relationships, it continues to change. This could be an opportunity for you to get clarity around it and for you to show up for it in a new way.
For another take on this question, check out Michelle Herman’s advice in Care and Feeding.
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