Dear Prudence

Help! I Think My Old Coworker Is Shopping His Daughter Around for Marriage.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

A man looks worried next to the silhouettes of a father and daughter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Valentina Sheboltaeva/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Every week on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

Recently, I had a situation where I felt really uncomfortable, and I’m wondering if I should do something. I had a coworker some years back I’ll call “Bill” who I got to be pretty good friends with, until he left that job because he couldn’t stop fighting with the supervisors. Bill got back in touch, and I told him I was still working there and a supervisor myself. He saw on my Facebook that I’m not married anymore and he asked if I was seeing anyone and I said no, I’m not. He invited me to a barbecue and, since I didn’t have anywhere else to go, I said yes.

Bill and his wife live in a rundown rental house and are obviously not doing well at all. I met their daughter “Bertha” who is 28 and still lives at home. Bill and I got to talking privately and he told me he’s worried about Bertha. As a kid she cried every day at school and pretended to be sick all the time to get out of going. Like her mom she wouldn’t learn to drive and has never learned. After she graduated high school she hasn’t been able to stick with a job for more than a couple months, and hasn’t had a job since before COVID. She has no friends and she’s never had a boyfriend. He’s afraid of what’s going to happen to her when he’s gone. Bill told me he was diagnosed with cancer and hasn’t yet told his wife and daughter. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to beat it because he has no insurance, no money, and both his parents died of cancer around his age. His wife weighs about 500 pounds and is probably not long for this world either. He has no savings and nothing to leave them but a world of debts, even his car is not paid off.

Bill then started talking about what a good cook and housekeeper Bertha is, the fact she’s a virgin, how she’d make a great wife, she just can’t deal with the outside world and needs someone to take care of her. I was shocked when I realized he was basically begging me, a man roughly his own age to be his son-in-law. I said I was flattered but I just started seeing someone online. This was untrue, but I didn’t want to tell him I don’t find Bertha attractive at all. But she seemed like a sweet girl and I can’t stop thinking about how if her dad is basically pimping her out to guys old enough to be her dad, she might end up in a really bad situation and not have the wherewithal to deal with it. Should I do anything, and if so, what?

— Concerned in Carolina

Dear Concerned,

I shared your letter with readers hoping to get advice on how you might make things better for Bertha, who seems to be especially vulnerable—unable to drive or work or support herself, possibly as the result of some emotional or other mental health issues that have seemingly gone untreated since childhood. Things will only get worse for her if she loses her parents or, God forbid, if her father alerts some man that she’s a perfect person to marry and completely control. I was worried about her and wondered if there might be anything you could do to help Bill get some support for all of them or at the very least stop trying to pimp her out!

But I didn’t get the help I wanted because, well, you really rubbed people the wrong way with what you wrote. Sorry to say it, but the contempt people picked up on about the family’s living situation and the mother’s and daughter’s weight led to an almost unanimous consensus: You’re not caring, you’re judgmental; you can only do harm here, and you should simply leave them alone.

Guy needs to butt out. The last thing this family needs is somebody who calls a woman “Bertha” and tells you how much her mother weighs, in case you don’t know what exactly is not attractive about “Bertha.” This young woman needs help from somebody, but not this dude. — @lindaholmes

“Rundown rental house,” “500 pounds and not long for this world,” “I do not find her attractive at all,” etc. The letter writer doesn’t like or respect these people. He should do nothing. — @drakejenn

I gotta be honest, the LW in this case rubs me the wrong way (as does the father, if we assume LW is an apt narrator of the story). I think everyone needs to go their separate ways, and hopefully this family has other supports. — @SaraLang

First of all he needs to cool it with fat shaming the wife and judging the daughter. Bertha sounds like she’s dealing with some pretty severe depression. Secondly this is not his business, and one of the few times I’m fully in favor of ghosting, because this is an insane request. — @battymamzelle

I would call him to task for his fat shaming and then advise him to encourage his friend to tell his family about the terminal cancer ASAP. The best thing he can do as a random acquaintance, if he’s not ready to offer friendship, is to encourage honesty. — @flying_heathers

He needs to say out of it and rethink the way he judges and talks about women. I do feel sad for this young lady and what seems like untreated debilitating anxiety, but “concerned” is not going to be any real help. — @lauraradley

He’s no friend. Not because he doesn’t wanna marry “Bertha”. He looks down on them & thinks himself better. They’re poor, obese and dying & he’s a supervisor. Seems like he just showed back up in this guy’s life to make himself feel better about his own unmentioned shortcomings🤷🏾‍♀️ — @Bat_MaaM

And there were many more similar replies where those came from.

A couple of people suggested a line of thinking that was not so much advice for the dilemma you’ve laid out, but a suggestion that maybe you misread what Bill was asking. Could he possibly have been asking you to hire Bertha rather than marry her? If you’re sure that’s not the case, there were a couple of responses suggesting that you warn Bertha and others urging you to have a quick, stern word with Bill about how weird he’s being and why he should stop.

Assuming her dad was hinting about marriage rather than you giving her a job, and perhaps looking out for her … the time to say something was in the moment. You could double back with him and ask if you read his hints right and then tell him how dangerous that could be if you want another shot at the reaction. But is there anything to stop you from assuming/pretending he was hinting about a job? Telling you she’s responsible despite her resume? And then giving her a trial? You’ll get a much better sense of her actual life if nothing else. — @ktmulvaney

Until OP said otherwise, I definitely thought Bill was about to ask him to hire Bertha — @jannatesq

My 1st reaction to the letter: I wouldn’t trust “Bill” at his word. LW should back away but first perhaps tell “Bertha” her dad’s trying to pimp her out. Seems a 28yo woman should know that’s happening. — @KathMSchmidt

Yes, he should let her know that she needs to figure herself out because dad is trying to offload her on people he doesn’t even know very well. Also wouldn’t hurt to say gosh Bill that’s pretty creepy stop asking strangers to take your daughter off your hands. — @whatsupwithmaia

So those options are available to you for concrete action, and I don’t think they would be terrible ideas if you feel the need to act.

But what we learned from the majority of responses is that your attitude toward the people you claim to want to help matters. A lot. Your letter suggests that you’re troubled that members of this family are or will be suffering because of their mental or physical health, their lack of access to resources to care for themselves, or because of poverty. That’s a legitimate concern, and the fact that there’s no real safety net for any of them is an issue with our society that’s much bigger than your former colleague. I don’t know if you can solve it for Bertha or for any of them. But you can commit to changing your attitude toward people in similar situations so that, at the very least, you’re not part of the problem.

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