The “Tattoo You” Edition

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S1: You produce your prudence here, prudence. If it is your proof here, prove these things that I should contact him again. Help, help. Thank you. Thank you.

S2: Hello, welcome to another mini episode of Dear Prudence. I’m your host, Daniel Mallory Ortberg. And this show is for you, our Plus subscribers. This week, my guest is Eric McVey, an organizer, a farmer and an author who lives near Kingston, Ontario. His latest book is Full Spectrum Resistance, which explores how to build more effective movements. And now here’s our first letter. This next one is all you. You get to take it away.

S3: So the subject of the next letter is how to say no to grandma. Dear Prudence. This weekend, my grandmother asked my mom if I could make her a sign for a respect life, anti-abortion, abortion, church event. I am a graphic designer. I did this once for her as a teenager when I didn’t fully understand what this event was about more than a decade later. I am vehemently pro-choice, which I honestly thought she knew. I feel like I’m fairly outspoken about my politics. My mom told her I was busy, which was true. But if this happens again and she asks me directly, I feel like I should shut it down once and for all. Instead of coming up with new excuses, how can I respectfully tell her no way in hell?

S4: Oh, this is maybe sweet, is too strong of a word, but I can absolutely relate to like man, oh man, I really do not want to get into a big discussion about abortion with my grandmother. I would kind of love to skip it, but also I don’t know that I should. What? What are you what are your grandmas like? What kind of sites do they ask you to make?

S5: My grandmothers have not asked me to make any signs, which based on. I’m kind of thankful for. But I think in this context, our later writer has the correct kind of inclination to try to shut it down once and for all. And I think it is totally appropriate to tell the truth to their grandmother in this situation, because otherwise it probably will come up again in the future.

S4: Yeah. And I think, you know, I would not necessarily like tell any letter writer who is like, I’m just going to avoid this conversation with my grandmother, like, oh, no, you’re you’re really falling down on the job here. But the fact that they say I already thought she knew. Suggests to me that you were at least like kind of comfortable before with the idea of her knowing. So I would say, like, given that you already thought she knew. I think that tells you that you’re you’re gonna be OK letting her know for sure. Maybe she kind of did. But forgot maybe she’s heard clues that you are but is hoping that you aren’t. And that’s why she’s kind of asking you for your help 10 years later. Maybe she actually has no idea and you have not been sufficiently clear. But the respectful way to tell her is I think, you know, hey, grandma, mom told me that you asked for a sign. And I just wanted to let you know directly that as much as I love you and I love spending time with you, I am pro-choice.

S2: And so I can’t in good conscience make you this sign. And I won’t be able to do that for you.

S5: Yeah, that is a really great script. And I think, you know, the letter writer. You shouldn’t, Lisa. You shouldn’t assume that you’re going to be able to change your grandmother’s mind about this sort of thing. But it’s also possible that your grandmother might be more willing to listen to you than she would a stranger. So it’s possible that this sort of thing, you know, maybe she’ll think twice about going to the next anti-abortion church event if if she knows that her grandkids have very different perspectives on this.

S2: Yeah. Yeah. And I think, you know, it can also, you know, think in advance, like, how much time do I want to spend having this conversation? And is there a point at which if things got really heated, I would want to intervene and just say, like, hey, we have talked about this now for 20 minutes and I think that now is a good time to wrap it up. Like it’s, I think, a good idea to kind of go in thinking like, are there any important points that I want to communicate to? I want to ask her any questions. Do I want to encourage her to ask me any questions? Historically, have we been able to have like fraught, controversial conversations very well?

S4: Or is this gonna be our very first time? And how how will I want to kind of check in to make sure at what point does the conversation become counterproductive? So, you know, you can do a little planning there. But yeah, all of that is totally respectful. Doesn’t mean she’s not going to be very, very upset if she is extremely pro-life and goes to rallies. It may very well be that she is extremely upset about this. And one of the things you will have to communicate to her, I think, is this is not a decision that I have come to lightly. I don’t feel cavalier about this. I feel deeply convicted. And I believe that my stance here is a compassionate one that also respects life. And I’m happy to tell you a little bit more about it if you’d like to hear it. But if you don’t want to and we simply agree to disagree, then that’s OK, too. So, yeah. Yeah. You know, have a little fight with your grandma about abortion now. Have an exciting, exciting Tuesday night.

S5: Yeah. Yeah. I like that firm loving approach that also makes it really clear that you are not going to change your mind about this either about the rights, reproductive rights or about making this sign.

S6: And I think it would also, you know, the idea at the end of like my mom’s older, I was busy, which is true. But if it happens again, I feel like I should shut it down. Certainly like the current moment has passed. You do not have to bring this back up. But I think it would be you know, you have enough reason to know that this is a conversation the two of you could have. And it’s also, you know, like it’s kind of annoying for your mom to have to, like field abortion, sign graphic design requests. So, you know, if I were you, I would like set aside, you know, a half an hour to just let her know, like, if you don’t like no one, if you need something for me, please feel free to ask me and not go through mom. And then also, like, if it happens to be an anti-abortion sign, I’m not available for that. You know, happy to talk about other kinds of signs you might need. But yeah, I would lean towards like you’re already you say you’re outspoken. You thought she knew already. I say just give her a call. Don’t wait another 10 years. In case she asks your mom again, I say go with it now.

S5: Yeah. And if it were me, I would want to have this discussion in kind of a prepared way and not just have to wait for it to come up by surprise at Thanksgiving dinner for the next however many years.

S6: Right. Right. Especially because, like I think this is a belief that you feel strongly about and you’re pretty proud of. So I don’t think you want to treat it as something that you’re trying to keep a secret from her or that you’re ashamed of. I think to say, like, I actually feel quite strongly about this, and I think that’s just the better choice here. Again, I don’t think you are a horrible person. If you just like, I don’t wanna fight with my grandma about abortion today. I understand that. But yeah, my my impulse is to. Get out ahead of this, one will probably come out. Yeah, definitely. OK. Next letter, I think is all yours.

S3: All right. So our subject is tattoo. busybody. Dear Prudence, as a child, I was severely burned over my shoulders and arms because my brother, ignoring my mother’s command to stop, was horsing around in the kitchen and knocked a pan of cooking oil all over me. I grew up wearing long sleeves, even in summer, and feeling ashamed. Teenage girls can be merciless. I failed Jim, because I refused to go out in public in the uniform. I’m 20 now and in an effort to put the past behind me. I got a beautiful tattoo covering my scars. It is freeing. I can wear tank tops and even bathing suits without feeling ashamed. I’m very open to people when they ask about my tattoos and I tell them what happened to me. I do not mentioned my brother, just that I got burned as a child and I see my tattoos as reclaiming myself. My brother gets upset when he sees me and my tattoos. He has accused me of flaunting myself and made disparaging comments on my social media pictures. My mother tries to explain his attitude problems as him being ashamed. I got angry and told her that it isn’t my problem and I’m not going to be ashamed of my body anymore. If my brother needs to work out his guilt, he can do it far away from me. He is the one who burned me. I’m not going to be burdened by him anymore. I blocked him on social media. But I am afraid of what is going to happen over the holidays. I’m not sure I will be able to handle any snide comments from him gracefully.

S2: Can you help me prepare, man? It’s just like. Difficult, mean brother or weak?

S4: This one feels like super clearcut to me, like. And it also seems very obvious to me that, yes, your brother is trying to make somebody else responsible for his sense of shame over your scars. And it’s very clear to me at least that you have not been like getting tattoos that say, like, my grown brother is morally culpable for something he did as a careless child.

S7: Like, it does not sound to me like you are bringing this to him in the spirit of this is your fault. I’m letting the world know that you’re a bad person. Like his response is unreasonable, totally inappropriate. You were absolutely right to block him beyond that. Do you have a strong sense, Erica, of like what you think is the most important thing for this letter writer to bear in mind or to prioritize as she figures out how to navigate the possibility of spending the holidays with her family?

S8: Yeah, a couple of things. I mean, for one, even though our letter writer is 20, which is pretty young, it’s kind of amazing that they’ve been able to do all of these things and take these tattoo sound really beautiful. I’m so glad you’ve been able to do this. I’m sure that this has been you know, these have been difficult emotional burdens to carry for everyone involved. And this is maybe one of those kind of therapy for everyone is an option to consider. I think in a practical sense, over the holidays, a few thoughts. Is it possible to enlist your mom and maybe other family members to help manage the situation? It is possible as kind of intervenors, like you can have kind of a script or stock phrases to respond. If your brother does say some things that are shaming or cruel and I mean many of them, you you’ve said already in your letter like I am not going to be ashamed of my body anymore and I feel free. It’s freeing to have these tattoos. So I think to have something like that kind of at your fingertips would would help and to have family who understands the situation and understands how upsetting this is and can maybe step in even before you have to say something. If this pops up.

S2: Yeah. Yeah. I think I’m curious, too, about the mom. The mom’s role in all of this, because there’s, you know, just that little bit about like my mom tries to explain his attitude problems and being ashamed. And I’m curious if that’s sort of like your mom’s attempt to just be like, it’s hard for me to watch my son act out like this. I think he’s a shame. And that’s really sad. Or is it more like, hey, you shouldn’t be angry with him for treating you this way? I think the excuse that we can give this is that he’s ashamed. And so therefore, we should all try to overlook his lashing out or accommodate his, like, totally cruel behavior. So my thought is, if your mom, it sounds like, potentially has a little bit of a history of being like. Sure, sure, sure. He did thing wrong. But like, he feels so bad about it. No one else is allowed to set a limit or tell him to stop. Like because he feels guilty. He gets an eternal pass in terms of bad behavior. So if that’s the case, I think it will be good to figure out what am I going to do if my mom and my other relatives, generally speaking, choose to prioritize the most unreasonable person in the room? So in that case, I would I would advise you to consider saying something directly to your brother. I can understand that, you know, given the history there and the fact that he’s older than you, that that might feel really daunting. So, you know, think about what kind of support what I need before and after that conversation. Would I feel comfortable and safe having it in person or what? I need to have it over the phone or perhaps in a letter or in an email. And certainly if if you’re just like, I don’t believe that I can. I think that he would come down on me like a hammer and I just wouldn’t be okay. You don’t have to. But if if it’s possible, I think what I would say is I would love to be able to spend holidays together as a family. What I need from you is to not comment on my body, that’s all. If you can do that, then I would love to be able to talk about movies, books, work. You know, our pets. Whatever else. If you can agree to that, I can agree with that. And if not eminent, I’m gonna make different holiday plans. And I think that’s a really reasonable request. I don’t think you need to give any ground to his like argument that by virtue of having tattoo’s you are or wearing tank tops, you are quote unquote, flaunting your body. I truly don’t understand how a person can flaunt their body. You have to be in your body all the time. It’s how you’re alive. So like, I just think that that is ridiculous. If he can’t do that and you don’t believe that your parents or your siblings will effectively back you up, then I think the sad but necessary next move is to say what kind of holidays would I like to have? How can I organize my holidays so that I know no one’s gonna be making me responsible for their guilt? No one’s going to be making demeaning and cruel comments about my body. No one’s going to be going out of their way to accommodate somebody who’s making cruel comments about my body. And maybe that means like a a little road trip with a friend. Maybe that means saving up your money and flying yourself to a beautiful vacation destination. Maybe that means having like a movie marathon at your house and inviting a bunch of friends over who also aren’t going home to see their family for the holidays. Maybe involves just like having a kind of a bummer Christmas where you just take a lot of walks and you’re like, fuck. I don’t know what to do, but I really, really want to encourage you to say my baseline for people I spend the holidays with is they don’t say shitty things about burns that they gave me, you know. And if you don’t believe you can get that with your family not putting yourself in a situation where you think, like, I’m gonna have to, like, get through Christmas on the verge of tears because my brother is saying things like stop flaunting your arms. And my mom saying things like he’s only an asshole to you because he feels bad about burning you as a child, which is just like, what am I supposed to do with that? So now it’s my fault he burned me too.

S8: Yeah, I think that setting those limits is totally appropriate. And I mean, even if you talk to your mom or your family and it seems like they’re really supportive, you can limit the amount of time that you spend with them this year. I mean, this stuff. Do you know this? This upset. And your brother’s behavior are still really recent. And so if you decide, oh, even in the best case scenario, I only want to spend kind of a day with everyone or some some limited period of time. It’s okay to to plan that and structure things that way so that you can kind of build up more of this support and and set your boundaries where they need to be.

S2: Yeah. Yeah. And I think if if the idea of planning not to go home for the holidays is is feels too fraught. Also get like you’re 20 years old. That might feel like maybe when I’m 25 I’ll feel comfortable, but I don’t feel ready for that yet. Then I think even just going in with a plan of like okay. Given that the odds are pretty good, my brother probably will say something snide. It’s like if you’re at a point where you have to block your brother on social media. I think you can assume absent some serious intervention, there’s a good chance that he will. So to just figure out if he makes that comment, how do I get myself out of the situation rather than try to like argue whether or not he should do those things? Because I think that would feel the most awful, as if you were like trying to convince him, like, hey, please stop saying hateful things about my body. And he keeps doing it. And then your family members are like, leave him alone. He feels bad. I just think that would be so distressing. So I think maybe having a plan for like as soon as he does just say like, I’m gonna go take a walk. When I come back, I would like you to stop talking about my body so that you can just like get out of that space physically and make it really clear, like, I don’t argue or engage with these moments. I leave. So if you guys want to hang out with me, don’t do it.

S7: Yeah, but I would just. Yeah. Unfortunately, my my main advice here is like I don’t think you can expect a lot of support from your family unless you’re willing to back up these boundaries with leg. I’m gonna walk and it’s hard. I’m so sorry that I mean, this is like this is what happens when people don’t pursue meaningful healing about their guilts is they just get stuck in this awful cycle where they then blame the person that they’ve harmed for existing and reminding them of their guilt. And like your brother did not have to grow up this way, like he was also a child at the time. And there were and are meaningful ways for him to deal with his guilt for hurting you and harming you that don’t involve just like eternally seeing you as this externalization of his, like, misdeed. And so, you know, I just I really hope that at some point in his life he decides to pursue not being stuck here in this moment because he’s causing so much more additional harm than he ever did in that original moment.

S8: Yeah. And that’s something that if a mother is supportive, that she can kind of suggest and try to support the brother and doing. I think that would be maybe one of the most productive things that she could do. But it’s also it’s also possible that she’s stuck in in a lot of guilt over what happened.

S7: Yeah, yeah. And I think, you know, I unfortunately, I get a lot of letters where there’s a dynamic of a son hurts a child in the family. And the parents really, really wrap themselves up in protecting their son from his guilt over the harm he caused rather than protecting the other child who was harmed. And it’s a really sad, painful dynamic. It’s not always, always along those gender lines, but it often is. And it just again, it compounds pain, compounds harm. It it adds emotional and psychic scars.

S9: And it’s just it’s it doesn’t promote growth or healing or accountability or anything. Good.

S10: That’s aremany appositive Dear Prudence for this week. Our producer is Phil Circus. Our theme music was composed by Robin Hilton. As always, if you want me to answer your question, call me and leave a message at 4 0 1 3 7 1, dear. That’s 3 4 2 7. And you might hear your answer on that episode of the show. You don’t have to use your real name or location, and at your request we can even alter the sound of your voice. Keep it short. 30 seconds a minute, tops. Thanks for listening.