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My former best friend became a stripper


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Cary’s classic column from December 10, 2010

Wow. We were so close in high school, and now she’s doing drugs and hanging out with gangs

Dear Cary,

“Jenny” and I were the best of friends in high school. We did everything together and were more like sisters than friends. After high school, I went away to college. She never went to college, but moved to a larger city about an hour away. Although we kept in touch for the first few years, our contact dwindled. It was both of our faults. She didn’t call me much, and I didn’t call her much. There was no falling out. At this point, I haven’t seen or spoken to Jenny in four years.

I was shocked recently to find out that Jenny got her 2-year-old son taken away from her. The reason was failing drug tests and suspected gang affiliations. I also found out she is working as an exotic dancer. This is all wildly out of character for the Jenny I knew. I’m extremely concerned about her health, safety and well-being. I don’t have her current contact information, but I think with minimal effort I could get it.

My dilemma is this. I am now 29 years old and married. My husband and I own a home, and I have a steady public sector job. We are currently expecting our first child. In other words, we have a lot to lose. I am worried about making contact with a person who is a drug user and (suspected) gang member. I don’t know what type of people she associates with now. I’m worried about putting my family or my job at risk by reaching out and associating myself with her. On the other hand, I’m terrified that I’m going to pick up the newspaper one of these days and read that her body was found in a gutter. I would feel so guilty for not having tried to help.

Should I sacrifice my family’s safety to reach out and try to help a friend who was once like a sister?

Guilty BFF

Dear Guilty BFF,

It must be upsetting to hear this news about your friend. You obviously care about her and do not want to see her hurt. However, this is her life.

Her life is not an emergency. Her house is not on fire. She is not hanging from a cliff yelling for help. She is living her life, such as it is.
She probably does not have a nice clean kitchen where the two of you could sit and chat. It may be hard to make an appointment with her if she is busy getting a fix or getting bail or dealing with child protective services or managing her complex social life.

So if you want to see her, I suggest you drop in where she dances. It will give you a chance to see her without making an appointment. You might find, after seeing her dance, that you’re not really ready to call her or see her privately. It will give you a chance to feel what it’s like to be in her world, without making yourself known.

You might not like the environment. But it will help you understand what her life is like.

Her dancing may well be the high point of her life.
To you, it may seem like a pretty disgusting way to live. But this is a life your friend has chosen. It’s not a prison in which she is being held against her will.

I know that kind of life. And one thing I know about that kind of life is that when you are living that kind of life, you do not look out at all the shiny, clean people going about their orderly lives and wish your life could be like that. You have your problems, but you do not envy the straight people. You look down on them.

Such a life is not an unremitting horror. It has its ups and downs. She may occasionally be beaten and taken advantage of. She is probably exploited financially and occasionally robbed and threatened. But it’s her life and it has its rewards and its logic.

Whether by choice or not, your friend’s life is a life that many, many people in this country lead — a life of minimal income, frequent scrapes with the law, battles with social institutions, sporadic nightclub employment, frequent drug use and drinking, and association with people who have done time and are likely to do more time. In this world, violence happens with some regularity and usually has some logic to it. It arises out of personality conflicts or disputes over money or property or intimate relationships. It is something to be avoided if possible but not something that would in and of itself cause a person to flee the environment altogether. It is just something that happens, and you learn to live with it.

Think about what your friend was like when you knew her. What was her personality like? Did she have a lot of pride? Was she a passionate person? Did she like to drink when you knew her? Was she a thrill-seeker? Did she seem moody? Was she honest? Did she steal? Was she more interested in sex than you were? What kind of family did she come from? Try to connect that person you remember with the person who is dancing naked in a bar for money, who cannot pass a drug test even to keep her baby.

What do you come up with?

The most interesting thing to me in this is to ask what do you have in common? What traits do you have that might have led you into a similar life? Are there things about your friend that you used to admire, things that now you see have led her this way? Was she, for instance, a great dancer? Was she tough and stubborn and fun-loving. Were you?

If you approach her, approach her as a friend. If you can stay in touch with her, there is a chance that sometime down the road, if she reaches a true crisis, she will reach out to you for help, and you will be there. But until she asks for your help, do not assume you are there to rescue her.


I’m 38 and want kids, but the men I’m dating don’t

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 11, 2005

Since divorce, life has been pretty swell, but now I want to settle down and be a mom.

Dear Cary,

I was violently thrust into the dating inferno after my divorce nearly six years ago. During that time I’ve run the gamut of interactions: everything from being played like a plastic Flutophone to having a couple of semi-rewarding, longish-term relationships to enjoying a few purely physical hookups.

During my period of self-actualization I’ve done the following:

Gotten a shitload of therapy

Realized creative dreams of writing and getting published

Learned how to parallel park on steep hills (on the left side)

Amassed a huge network of fabulous friends

Made peace with my ex-husband

Learned French

Got promoted and learned to accept, if not fully embrace, working for the Man


Turned my ex-boyfriends into great friends

Learned to love yoga in 120 degree temperatures

According to the post-divorce survival guide, I’ve done everything correctly, yet I still can’t figure out why I’m approaching 38 and single. I have no problem getting dates, but finding someone who will, well, stick in this city has been problematic.

So, here’s my question. Lately I’ve found that the wonderful men who have been wanting to date me don’t want children. Either they’ve had their chickens or their need to create is sublimated by their artistic passions. I am still passionate about having kids. So, Cary, do I need to grow up and accept the fact that having kids may not be in the cards for me and allow myself to yield to these men who woo? Does it make sense to get attached to someone who isn’t on the same page? At what age does a woman throw in the towel? I’ve entertained having my own child, but lack of money and familial support make this a nearly impossible option.

Still Holding the Towel


Dear Still Holding the Towel,

If having children is truly, absolutely, positively, without a doubt the one thing you most want to do above all other things, then you will have to make some major life choices, and quickly.

So please ask yourself how badly you want to have children. It isn’t enough to say you want it really, really badly. The question is, what are you willing to give up? Do you want it badly enough to give up living where you live and working where you work? Do you want it badly enough to compromise on the kind of man you raise those children with?

Or do you want to continue living in the city you love, working the job you have learned to appreciate, but just add a fabulous husband and a child or two — and perhaps a larger residence to accommodate the extra people?

If you’re willing to make significant sacrifices, and you start immediately, perhaps you can find a man, and a new home, and a new job, and get pregnant and raise some children.

But if you want to keep what you have and simply add some beautiful kids and a great husband, I would say the chances of getting all that are considerably slimmer.

So which is better? The fabulous life you have now, or the life you might have if you sacrificed what you have for what you want? It’s a matter of great unknowns and probabilities.

The situation is made more acute, of course, by your age. You are already well past prime childbearing age. You’re 38.

It’s not as though you’ve wasted these years. You’ve had a fabulous time. You could not have had this fabulous time if you’d been raising kids. Nevertheless, inexorable time has crept up, lessening your chances of conceiving.

We make choices.

So these are the two choices as I see them: 1) Devote everything you have to your one goal of getting married and having kids, which means being willing to compromise on everything else — job, city, man. Or 2) Devote substantially more energy than you already are devoting to the problem, but retain those elements of your life that you already know make you happy. That way, you may win the lottery and get everything you want, but if not, you have not given up so much.

My conservative bet would be on No. 2. Because even if you gave up everything you love to pursue the goal of getting married and having kids, there’s a reasonable chance that you would rush into something with the wrong man in the wrong town and the wrong job, and you’d be miserable, and you would have given up what you had. So the potential downside is considerably steeper; also, you might find that having children does not make you as happy as you thought it would.

So I suggest you stay in the city but narrow your dating, focus it only on men who want to get married and have kids. Put 100 percent of your effort behind that. Weed out the rest.

You may very well find a great man and get married and get pregnant and have some wonderful healthy kids and live happily ever after. Or you might adopt some kids. Or you might fall in love with a man who already has some kids. Or you might just enjoy your life as it is.

Believe me, not having kids is not the end of the world. For some people, in fact, it’s more like the beginning.

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I’m so anxious I can’t think straight

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 4, 2007


I know what the issues are, but I can’t really deal with them.

Dear Cary,

Lately I’ve been very anxious about my father. I’ve been anxious about mortality and life goals, or how to live in general, but particularly as it concerns my father.

I’ll back up. I’m 31. For the first time in my life, I have a good relationship with a man I really love. It’s a lot of fun, and such a relief, and I think maybe not having relationship anxiety has cleared the way for some older and possibly greater anxieties. For the first time in years, I’ve been having the mortal terrors again at night. I contemplate death and scream out loud. (When my man is around for that he tries to comfort me, and it does help a little.)

I assume most other people don’t feel the way I do. I never hear them screaming. But how could they fail to? In particular I worry about my father. He’s in his 60s. We get cancer in my family. I have this worry. I don’t know how I’ll cope. And: I’ve been having some low-level longings for a baby, these past years, and when it occurs to me that my father might not get to be a grandfather to my child, it breaks my heart.

If I were a shrink I might wonder if that’s a transposed longing to do my childhood over again. Maybe so. I think my childhood was actually wonderful (and it was a time when I was much closer to my father). My young adulthood was more a series of lost years from which I am only now emerging. So some of this might not be about mortality so much as it is just about my relationship with my father, of course. I feel that I have special things expected of me. I am the one who takes after him; I am cerebral and stonewalling, while my brother is affable and socially gifted. But we have ways of interacting, my father and I, that are not really interacting. He retells something he read and I listen. I tell a story from my life, but I end up addressing the other people in the room more. I don’t know why, but he’s hard to talk to. Or I have a hard time of it. We are rarely somewhere talking, just the two of us. Lately, though, he seems a little to be reaching out to me.

I am scared to talk about all this with him because it is much more than I ever talk about with him — and because I feel that all my worries are rooted in my fear of mortality, which I don’t want to mention to him, as a way of protecting him from it. I don’t know if that’s silly or not. A couple of his friends have died lately and I think it’s been hard. At some level I guess I am really scared that he is as helpless as I am. And I guess he is?

I feel that he has been having a hard time. Maybe reaching out to me has nothing to do with it or maybe it does. Alcohol has been brought up as an issue too. I’m worried he needs a refuge, and if I talked to him I’d have to know of one. I drink most every day myself. If I didn’t (incidentally), would all these feelings be stronger?

I am pretty sure the right answer is: Go to him. Learn to talk to him. But I don’t know how and where to start. Other things are easier. Other patterns are in the way, including the pattern of aimless anxiety and the pattern of talking to my mother instead. I’m worried I won’t do it. I’m worried I’ll fail. I’m worried I’ll try and it’ll be banal, or not enough, or that everything I say will come out wrong. I don’t know what I have to say. I don’t know how to invent a new way of relating. I don’t know where I’m feeling responsibilities that aren’t mine and where I’m recognizing what is truly and only mine. I’m even scared of the prospect of raising a child who takes after me and yet ends up distant from me.

Cary, can you tell me what you think?



Dear Daughter,

Yes, I can tell you what I think. But there are far too many phenomena occurring in your thought-sphere, and they are occurring too quickly, for me to take any one of them and unravel it, to say, “Voilà!”

But I can pass on to you something that has helped me, at times, to stop the whirlwind of anxious thoughts that sometimes starts up and will not stop: Try thinking of the anxiety not as the product, or result, of some other thought process, but as a strategy, a method, that you are using to avoid feeling these other things. I found this insight useful in my own life — that anxiety is a form of emotional avoidance. So then when I am anxious I think to myself, what am I avoiding? What I am usually avoiding, being the way I am, is feelings. There are some feelings about, say, my father, that I do not want to feel. So instead I flit about the house, anxious, nervous, unable to settle into my work, unable to complete a task.

Unfortunately, at that time, it is necessary to simply have the feeling. I do not like some of these feelings. They are dark, somber, helpless feelings; they are old feelings, some of them, old feelings full of regret and longing. But they are shot throughout, also, with bright, sunny memories of childhood innocence: the Sunday morning I must have been 6, walking down the clay driveway hill at our house in Tallahassee, Fla., him carrying a shovel to clear the drainage ditches at the sides of the drive, his hand on my shoulder. He called me “old-timer.” He said, “Good job, old-timer.” I did not know what an old-timer was. I knew he had a timer that he used in his darkroom when developing black-and-white prints. It was a black, spring-wound photographic darkroom timer. And I was not old. An “old-timer,” I thought. I liked it but I did not know what it was. It simply opened up into the mystery of words.

So when I am feeling things about my father, now and then something happy will come back — but tinged, of course, with the knowledge that the hill is gone, the clay driveway is gone, the strong hand on the shoulder of the child is gone. (I wonder if somewhere among his things that black, spring-wound photographic darkroom timer might still be ticking.)

So you see where this goes — it goes into time, and sadness, and loss. But it goes to the feeling of those things, not to our ideas about them, or our brittle attempts at separation from them.

Once one stops using the anxiety to avoid these things and instead begins to feel these things in their full richness and power, it is not so important to figure out whether our thinking is right or not, whether we are hiding this or that. We are simply feeling things of great heaviness and age. They come of their own accord, and sometimes they delight us, and sometimes they level us with their somber weight, but we are not charged with thinking our way through it. It is just the stuff of life: you and your father, facing together mortality and fate.

I get the feeling you are fully capable of this. You are holding these things at bay but you know what they are. So here is something to consider: This route is not the smart route. That is, it is not a thinking route. It is not clever, or revelatory. It is more something in the chest, a deep, heavy thing you carry around for a while. For this reason, I do not know why we do it or why it is important or what its evolutionary advantage is, this simply feeling the heaviness of age. Here is a thought: Maybe it slows us down so we can be around the old folks, so we can stop flitting about so much. But that is pure childish speculation. I do not know why this is so.

Here is something else: When the anxiety machine really gets running, it can be self-perpetuating. You have to stop it somehow: You have to stop it in order to stop it, which sounds circular. So you have to stop it by changing externalities. The drinking, for instance. The drinking allows you to continue with your anxiety, your anxious avoidance. So … oh, let me find the paragraph where I went into that (I actually tried to answer this letter a few weeks ago but got sidetracked, and then came back and liked part of what I wrote). Ah, here, this is it:

You have a lot of different things going on in your head at once. Too many things, in fact. So how does one slow down? What is the drinking part of it? Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so if you are using it every day, your nervous system is depressed for that portion of the day. So it may be a little out of whack. Think of your daily psychic and emotional economy. Say you have X amount of psychic and emotional stuff to process, and you have X processing power. Say that’s pretty much in balance, all other things being equal. But say then you eliminate four hours of processing time because the central nervous system depressant has put you on standby for those hours. You’re not processing. So what is happening? Stuff is building up. Little questions aren’t getting answered and they’re turning into bigger questions. Things that need to be felt aren’t being felt. You’re not doing the necessary daily work. You’re not cleaning house and assessing your needs and practicing, practicing, practicing. Things will pile up. You need to deal with this stuff every day.

So I think you are probably out of whack with all these emotional issues competing for your time. How do you get back in whack? That is where the “externalities” come in. Maybe, if you can find a very wise person to advise you, you get into some form of therapy. But that may not be necessary. Try some things first and see if the night terrors recede. Undertake some life changes to calm the nervous system. Just do simple things, like on the weekend clear the entire weekend and just do the things you need to do around the house. This will be grounding. Just take care of simple things. Take a bath, do the dishes, don’t answer the phone. And for a few days don’t drink. Sleep a lot. Take naps. Get lots of rest and exercise. And pay attention to what you are feeling about your father. Don’t run from it. You see what happens when you run from it. You can’t settle. You are like a nervous bird. You need to settle and accept what it is. It won’t happen overnight. It is a long process. But slowly you may begin to see these things not as complex riddles to solve but simply as situations, emotional situations, feelings, the stuff of life, simply to be felt and honored. If that does not work, you may need some extra help, a therapist to guide you through some of it. But give it a chance, first, to work on its own.

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My next-door neighbor died and I didn’t do a thing

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 29, 2006

Am I a terrible person, or just a normal American?

Dear Cary,

Before I begin, I want to preface this by explaining that by nature, I’m a fairly shy person. I hate calling people, I hate confrontation; I prefer to keep to myself. It takes a bit of coaxing to get me out of my shell.

The reason I’m writing is that my next-door neighbor died last night. I’ve lived next to her for two years. We rarely spoke: a few words over weeds in the summer, stories exchanged while passing out Halloween candy. She’s a nice woman, but we don’t have much in common and I could never imagine myself going next door to visit. She never made any overtures, either.

My neighbor was older, but by no means elderly. However, she was in poor health. About a year ago, she developed heart problems and we didn’t see her very often. My husband and I could some nights through our open window hear her coughing at all hours. I should have gone over to see how she was, if she needed anything (she has a huge family that visited frequently), but I could never get up the nerve to go.

A few weeks ago, the neighborhood block watch woman called to tell us our neighbor was in a nursing home recovering from surgery. I made noises about going to visit or send flowers, even though the idea scared the crap out of me. But then my husband got sick with the flu that’s going around, and then I got sick, and we were both out of work for a week … and then we got the phone call that our neighbor died.

I don’t know what I’m feeling about this, or what I should be feeling. On the one hand, I hate myself. I’ve always imagined — no, presented — myself as someone who could be relied on in times of trouble. And even though my neighbor never reached out to me, I never made any move toward her. It makes me sick to my stomach to think she was that sick — I guess I assumed she would be around forever — and I feel like I left her to die. But on the other hand, I didn’t know her; I doubt I could call her an acquaintance. And yet I get angry all over again that I didn’t make that effort to befriend her.

I don’t know exactly what I’m asking. We live in a society that’s so cut off from everyone. It’s amazing I even knew her name. I don’t know the names of anyone else on my street. Hell, I’ve never known the names of my neighbors in any of the places I’ve lived. We don’t live in a world where most evenings are spent outside chatting on the porch past dusk. But I never thought I’d be one of those people who never lifts a finger, who says, “Thank God the postman noticed the overflowing mailbox and knocked!” I guess I’m looking for absolution that she wasn’t my responsibility. But in my heart, I know in part she was, and I failed her. I’m a horrible human being for ignoring her suffering and doing nothing.

What Do I Do Now?


Dear What Do I Do Now?

Calm down and stop calling yourself names. You’re not a horrible human being. You’re just a normal person. You may not be heroically civic-minded, able to rise above the inertial isolation of typical American life. But you’re no monster. You’re just an American living by the norms of American society.

In certain other places and times, instead of ignoring the neighbors one might report their habits of worship to the bishop, who would then consider, at his leisure, whether to have them burned or beheaded. Or you might give their names to a faceless man in a long coat, who would add them to the list he keeps in his decrepit office of death. In other words, at the risk of sounding corny, one might say that this cold anonymity is one of the costs of an extraordinary degree of personal autonomy and freedom from authority of any kind, governmental, religious or social.

If you ask me, and you sort of did, this society is while quite free also quite cold, certainly dysfunctional, and curiously unable to meet certain basic human needs that are easily met by aboriginal tribes, orders of religious nomads and even probably some packs of more civilized dogs: When someone in our midst dies, we want to acknowledge it openly.

That is normal. But if our options are not spelled out, who among us is bold enough to wing it? The solemnity attendant on death tends to discourage the improvised lament. If there is no protocol, one is at a loss. And in this case, as far as you could tell, there was no protocol; no elder of the church called on you; no notice was posted announcing a memorial; no one phoned and requested your presence at a funeral or a wake.

So you naturally were in conflict. Your instinct was clear: My neighbor is dead. I should do something. But what? Dress in mourning? Wear an armband? Raise a banner in front of the house?

So let this be a lesson to you: Always send a card when someone is sick.

And get to know your neighbors. It’s the neighborly thing to do.

That way, if one of them dies, perhaps your name will appear in an address book, or your card will have been filed away by a family member, who will contact all the senders of cards and all the people in the address book, and thus there will occur the ritual acknowledgement of death that is so longed for.

What can you do now, if anything? Try to find a way to make some expression of condolence. To whom? Why, to the family, of course. Find out from the neighbor who informed you where condolences may be sent. Send condolences. Say that you were the neighbor, and while you were not close, you will miss the departed one, and you send your heartfelt condolences to the family and loved ones she left behind.

This is the way we live today. Perhaps it is a shame. But this is the way we live.

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I’m a suburban husband in my 40s and I think I’m getting depressed

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 11, 2008

I don’t know if this is just typical midlife stuff, or if I’m in serious psychological trouble.

Dear Cary:

I am a suburban husband in my 40s with two wonderful kids, a good marriage, a secure job and financial situation, no medical problems, no substance problems, or anything like that. I work in a technical field, but harbor pretensions of being a creative person. My emotional state has always been somewhat up and down, but in the past six months or so, it has moved more decisively into the negative territory than it has since high school, if ever. I’m always tense, and frequently feel hunted, like I’m barely holding on by my fingernails, just holding my life together. I feel as though it’s all I can do to keep my head above water.

Sometimes I am almost overwhelmed with panic, and at other times I get these flashes of depression, and I wonder how I’m going to make it through the workday. I feel as though it’s all I can do to stay on top of the details of my life, yet all I am actually called upon to do is drag my sorry ass to work, drag it home again and do the dishes sometimes. In the past I have had artistic endeavors, and one in particular that I consider my true passion and have devoted a lot of work to, work I am proud of. I feel I have betrayed that passion by not having any energy for it these days. I feel that my life is entirely defensive — there is no grip-it-and-rip-it attitude left. Things that used to make me feel more alive now just seem like hassles and pressure trips (like travel). Diversions that I once considered transporting or transforming are now almost irritating distractions. I have tried meditation, and have a sense that I should do it more often, but, you know, I don’t. Oh, and my libido has pretty much disappeared.

Is this just a run-of-the-mill midlife crisis? Looking back at what I’ve written, it actually seems a little more messed up than that, like textbook depression. There is no rational reason for the feelings of dread I feel most of the time. Should I just smack myself and stop whining like a little girl? How can I introduce some perspective into my life in a way that my gut and heart will understand? I strongly resist the idea of pharmaceutical help, which I’m sure a professional would steer me toward. Then again, maybe I’m like the adulterer who tells his mistress and himself that he’s miserable with his marriage but never seems to get around to divorcing his wife — actually much happier with the current situation than he lets himself believe. (What do you want? Look around and ask yourself: What have you got?) I’m quite functional and am good company: Most people who know me would be very surprised to know I wrote this.

What’s your take?

Out of Gas


Dear Out of Gas,

Well, I really appreciate your writing to me, first of all. And, sort of in line with what I have written above, I’m trying to stay away from the position of, like, knowing it all and being clever, which is the death of a real advice column, and instead just relate to people from the heart. So I can say that I’ve felt how you feel, and I’ve come close to clinical depression myself, and also steered clear of antidepressants. I did consult a psychologist and found out some pretty surprising things, things I hadn’t noticed or thought about. And I was able to make some adjustments and I’m better off for it. I don’t have those periods of blinding despair and depression that I had started to have. And I’m, uh, nicer to myself now. So I got out of my 40s without ending up in the nuthouse. Hurray for me, I’m an American male success story.

I don’t know why this seems to happen in the 40s, except that by the time you’re 40 if you’ve actually been working you’ve been doing meaningless bullshit for so long that it really starts to get you down. I’m not saying your work is totally meaningless but, come on, there’s something else you’d rather be doing. I mean, you can do your technical work for a while, and make a good salary, and put plenty away as investments, you can sacrifice for your kids’ future and put your own needs aside, you’re strong, you’re a man, you can handle it. But after 20 years of that it’s not surprising that you’re starting to fray. You’re not getting enough sleep, you’re having to do what other people tell you to do at work, you’re behaving yourself, you’re doing what you’re supposed to do so people don’t say you’re a creep or so your wife isn’t embarrassed by you. And that’s fine for a while, but Jesus, if you think of how you were at age 18, and what you liked to do, what gave you pleasure, what your ideals were, and you think what your life would be like if you had followed those ideals, and then you think if there is anything in your life today that meets those ideals … no wonder men in their 40s crack up. You’re not alone.

Speaking of being nice to yourself … man, you sound like you put yourself down a lot. You might think it’s just regular humility, not making too much of yourself, or being realistic. But behind it, you’d be surprised, there could be these assumptions you don’t even know you have, like, oddly enough, that you really do deserve to be slapped like a little girl. That you’re not good enough. That you’re a fraud. I mean, look at how you talk about yourself. You say you “harbor pretensions” of being a creative person. What kind of talk is that? Would you talk about somebody else that way? Creativity belongs to all people, regardless of class, race, economic level, gender, whatever. It’s not some special prerogative of the rich and the gifted, or the politically popular. What is with all this judgment, like you can’t write or paint or do music unless you are a professional at it? How did we get to this point as a culture?
What about having a little humility and saying, You know what, I feel better when I paint duck decoys, so I’m painting duck decoys. And fuck you, get out of my garage. And don’t call them figurines. They’re duck decoys.

OK, so that does not sound so brilliant. But that’s what I’m saying, that some of this stuff is not about being brilliant. It’s about being real. It’s about being truthful. It’s about being able to live with yourself.

So in a nutshell, here is my three-part program for you. First, do get yourself checked out as to the whole clinical-depression angle. Get your blood done and all that. If they say yeah, you’re a case, you can decide for yourself whether to take meds or not. But see what the clinicians say. If you don’t want to take any drugs, don’t take them. Just tell them you’re not taking any drugs. Just say you want to get checked out.

Second, start a program of taking care of yourself, meeting your own needs. Start tomorrow: Eat a good breakfast. Relax before you drive to work. Relax after you drive to work. At work, have a good lunch — I mean a healthy, well-prepared lunch. Take a full hour or whatever. Leave work early and go to the gym. Have a good two-hour workout, a sauna, a good shower. Or, if you don’t belong to a gym, do some running in the woods, or whatever you do for exercise. Then go home and have a good meal and hang out with the family. Get to bed early. Get lots of sleep. Don’t yell at anybody. Take it slow.

Try it again the next day, same thing. Get lots of sleep, eat well, plenty of exercise, take it slow. Goof off a little. Exercise. Enjoy the air. Take a look at your calendar. Schedule a vacation with the wife. Book a place with a hot tub and a slow pace.

And the third thing, which you can do on your own and also in conjunction with a therapist if you decide to go that route, is just recognize that there are tangible forces in the world working against you, and that you need to be conscious of how you are reacting to these forces. People say, “Don’t blame others for your problems,” and all that. Well, fine. But don’t introject either, OK? Don’t blame yourself. We’re living in pretty scary times. Don’t pretend that it doesn’t affect you. It’s healthy to have an adversarial view of those portions of the world that are against you. Life is a fight.

And if you don’t like your life, say so. If you don’t like going to work every day at the same time and driving the same route, and coming home to the same suburb, say so. It may help you start making some long-term plans for change. It’s not against the law to have complaints about the way our society is organized. You put monkeys in the suburbs, they’d go nuts; they’d tear the houses down and start living outside in the park. We’re all cooped up in these little houses and it’s spooky. OK, so I am an unreconstructed hippie and devotee of Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri. Our suburban living may work fine for some, but it would drive me nuts.

We ought to protest in the streets simply because there is not enough joy in our lives! Why don’t we do that? Wasn’t it wonderful when we were 16 and we’d go demonstrate in the streets not even knowing what exactly was wrong or how to fix it, just saying we’re here, we’re fucked-up 16-year-olds and we’re not going to take it anymore! We don’t have to have all the answers. There’s a lot in this world not to like. I mean, where do you want to begin? And let’s not get started on all the killing, the explosions, the destruction that’s going on. I’m just saying, how can we not be affected by that?

So, to sum up: First, get yourself checked out by an expert to see where you are on the official spectrum of depressive episodes. Second, take concrete steps to eat better, get more rest and get more exercise. And third, get mad! Recognize that there really are many external forces working against you, and it’s not surprising or shameful to be affected by all this, the way the world is, the way you have to live your life. It’s good to be affected by it. It shows you’re human. It shows you’re awake. It shows you’re alive.

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 20, 2004

I grew up in an abusive household, but I’m determined to be happy. Am I capable of it?

Dear Cary,

I grew up in the home of a raging alcoholic, drug abuser and emotionally and verbally abusive father. For the first 18 years of my life every encounter I had with any man was abusive and violent in some form. I spent my entire 19th year of my life crying, every day, all the time. It finally occurred to me that it wasn’t fun being so depressed and that I could change it. I spent the next few years reflecting on all that had happened and even- tually taking action to change my situation. I was determined to have a normal and healthy sex life, and good or bad I went about this by a series of love ‘em and leave ‘em “relationships,” the longest of which lasted three weeks. I barely passed high school but started to read quite a bit, kind of a self-education.

At first I faked being happy, and started doing things to make myself healthier. Eventually I didn’t have to fake any- more. I made a lot of progress over the years and really broke free of my past when I moved to a small college town out west when I was 22. I rarely even think about how bad things used to be. I am incredibly happy with my life and feel that I am very healthy. I am in college and making straight A’s; I snowboard all winter and hike and backpack all summer. I am sure you have heard that you can see the face of God in nature; I am not religious but I found that to be true for me. I don’t want to load

you down with too much background, but I feel that some of this is likely to still be with me.

I had my first real relationship this year. I dated a man for 10 months; I ended it this October because after 10 months all he could see was that I was great fun outdoors, a blast in the sack and fun to drink with. I wanted more, the whole package, and I couldn’t believe that after 10 months this was all he could see. So I ended it.

I started to date a new guy in November. Perhaps that was too soon but it is what it is. This man is wonderful; he’s caring, sweet, really good-looking, smart, funny, fun and goofy, a lot of really wonderful attributes. He works in violence prevention and is very involved in the women’s movement. He’s giving me all the stuff that I couldn’t get from my first relationship. It’s small stuff but he cuddles, and stays the night, and holds my hand. There are problems, though; the sex is too sweet and car- ing, he asks me every time if I am sure I want to do this, and then follows up during to make sure I am OK. It makes me uncomfortable and unsure if I do want to do it. I suppose we started being intimate rather fast but I know no other way. I find myself comparing him to the guy I used to date. I want orgasms but he seems unwilling to go down on me, which is the only way it happens for me. It seems that for him sex is about connecting emotionally, for me it is about pleasure. It’s strange because he’s very affectionate except when we have sex. He has started to be more comfortable with me going down on him, but says that I shouldn’t have to deal with that. Will this just get better with time? Have I rushed this? Can I talk to him about it? I’ve tried talking to him a little about it and he usually says that I am the most open and to-the-point woman he’s ever known. Is it too soon to talk about sex?

We went skiing the other day and I found myself comparing him once again to my ex. He’s not as playful and it just wasn’t as much fun. However, later that night we had dinner and I had a great time and was reminded that I could really like this guy. I am still friends with my ex and we ski together on a regu- lar basis and always have a blast. Is that being unloyal? Can

I give my time and joy to my ex and still date this man? Did my relationship with my ex last so long because he kept it so very casual? Am I capable of a real relationship? Should I even worry about any of this?

I hope I wasn’t too long-winded. Thank you for your time; I’ll appreciate your thoughts on any or all of this.

Finally Having Some Fun


Dear Finally,

Congratulations. You’ve done remarkably well.
You know, a person could linger on your first sentence for a long

time: “I grew up in the home of a raging alcoholic, drug abuser and emotionally and verbally abusive father.”

A person could figure, that’s all anybody needs to know every- thing about you. And indeed, while I’m trying to concentrate on your questions and think about your present, I am strongly drawn back into myself, to the dark, heavy center of memory, not because I was abused but because I share some ineluctable consciousness of the Fall.

I’m glad you’re having a good time, and I think you’re doing all the right things. It’s great to be skiing. I’ll bet just flying on the snow could keep you happy forever if you could just keep flying down the mountain.

But perhaps because I have a cold, which also keeps drawing me into myself, it’s taking everything I’ve got to stay focused on you, there in your bright and shining ski suit. Regardless of what specific advice I can offer about these men, I want this encounter to be about the rest of your life. I want to give you something, in this chance meeting, that you may think back on years later. And that is this: What I have observed is that the effects of an abusive child- hood never seem to go away completely.

I don’t know the statistics. I just speak as an observer. I don’t even know if it’s possible to make statistics on how the immortal phan- tom of abuse lingers, how much it weighs, what electrical charge it

carries, what kind of light it emits. I don’t know if the phantom of abuse has any measurable reality at all; perhaps its footprints can be found in an altered brain chemistry. And against what control could we measure it, anyway? Would we not need a duplicate you, raised by a duplicate father except without the alcoholic tirades, the unpredictable departures, the simmering, acid explosiveness?

I don’t want to be a downer, and I don’t want to condemn you to a lifetime of therapy groups and self-doubt, like a cancer survivor always fearing it might come back. So I can only say what I have observed: Even though you feel you have banished these episodes in your early life forever, you need the courage to always bear them close to your breast, where you can see what they’re up to. Because they may be working on you as you age. As surely as early musical training, the early traumas of chaos and abuse are there, a kind of language eager to be spoken again.

If you don’t pay attention, in odd moments of stress and over- whelm, you find yourself speaking this strange language without realizing it at first. It’s already installed, and there’s no tag on it saying “this is your bad experience, don’t replicate this.” It won’t even feel like abuse, because it’s such a part of you.

Darn. I don’t mean to scare you. I forget what your question was. OK, the new guy: He’s obviously not your true sexual mate. You don’t click. You need someone rougher, more self-assured. He’s too tentative for you. But the first guy probably did not have the com- plexity you seek. So keep having fun, and keep looking. You obvi- ously have a lot of depth, and a lot of energy to take on the world. The only thing that worries me is what I’ve seen so many times — how you can overcome these early events by staying active and alive, but if life takes a bad turn, the only model you have for coping with adversity is this age-old raging father figure.

I’m sorry I got caught up in all this, but that first sentence speaks so loudly to me. Because I assume that you and I belong to a quiet society of secret sufferers, that we recognize each other on the street like an underground, that we know each other to be differ- ent because we don’t react like others do. We’re more driven, more crazy, more desperate, hungrier, touchier, louder, always breath- lessly skating on thin ice above the dragon; we know better than to

stop skating and sink into the water.
Visualize a loving childhood. Visualize what it would have been

like if your father had been a strong, stable, loving, sober man who never left you waiting in a dark parking lot, who never slept the whole day through when he was supposed to do the grocery shop- ping, who never told you anything but the sweetest words a girl could hear.

And then, regardless of how well things are going, pay atten- tion to how your reactions differ from those of people who were not abused. Watch for signs that this first ugly language you were taught is calling out through you to be spoken.

And if it has to be spoken, speak the vehement words on paper, speak the cruel glances in drawings, play out the tirades in loud guitar chords.

You can be perfectly happy. But the past never goes away com- pletely.

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My 8-year-old misses his old life — should we move back to the suburbs?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, OCT 19, 2006

It was good to separate from their alcoholic dad — but I feel bad about bringing my kids to the city.

Dear Cary,

My husband and I are recently separated. To make a long story short, he developed a serious drinking habit over the course of our nine-year marriage and refused to seek treatment. He became violent, mismanaged his business, squandered an inheritance and was terribly irresponsible with money, so much so that when we sold our house a few months ago we narrowly escaped foreclosure.

I could not afford to purchase another home in the idyllic suburban town in which we lived, so I moved with my two children, ages 4 and 8, to the city. I love it here, as I am a 15-minute walk away from the university where I am a graduate student in a very demanding biomedical research program. I am sharing a house with my sister, who is helping me immensely. She watches my children so I can run to the grocery store and is home when I have to stay late in the lab.
Five months into our move, my 4-year-old has adjusted, but my 8-year-old is miserable. He misses his friends and his old lifestyle, and his best friend who lived next door. There were 18 children on the block where we lived and they were always outside playing together. There are few children where we live now (unless you count the rowdy undergrads), and even if I allowed him to go outside by himself there would be no one to play with. Though we go to the park on weekends, he is not spending nearly as much time outside or with friends as he used to. Yes, there are great cultural opportunities here and it is more diverse, but that matters little to my son.

I feel so guilty for having removed my son from such a wonderful environment that I am considering moving back. Although I could not afford to purchase a house in that town, I could rent something small there. However, this would mean a longer commute for me, getting home later in the evening and the loss of my sister as a housemate, as she wants to remain in the city.

My dilemma is this: The city is better for me, but Mayberry is better for my son. Should I move yet again (an exhausting prospect) or make him tough it out?

Even if we did move back we would not be on the same block. I am aware that on the scale of possible human tragedies this one ranks pretty low, and though I remind him of this and offer him Lemony Snicket books, it does not comfort him. I know I had to leave the marriage, but did I have to leave the town too? I’m starting to think that in the turmoil of a dying marriage, I put my own needs before those of my children.


Guilty in the City


Dear Guilty,

I can relate to what your son is going through. When I was 12 my family moved to a world I did not recognize.

I did not know what to do to feel the way I used to feel. I did not know what I needed or how to get it. I did not know what I was feeling or what I had lost.

Knowledgeable adults could have helped this sensitive kid adjust. But such people were not available, and the adults who were available were overburdened with challenges of their own. So I was left to my own devices.

I did not do well in that situation. I did not develop the coping skills I needed. I now know that to adjust and grow in my new surroundings I needed to do two things: to maintain ties with my old world and to forge ties with my new world. But I did not know that then. I was just a kid.

So I had some troubles.

Therefore, my heart goes out to your son, who is much younger than I was when we moved. His connection to his home has been torn. He is doing his best to adjust. But he does not know how to adjust, nor does he have the powers to create a new world in which he can feel comfortable and confident.

Luckily, he has you. You are going to have to create that world for him. I suggest that rather than moving back to the suburbs or suggesting that your son just “tough it out” you consciously set about to create structures for your child that maintain some ties with his old world and help him cope with his new world.

Drive back to your old neighborhood and let your 8-year-old hang around, breathing in the air of the old place. Let him go play with his friends for a while in the old neighborhood. Have his best friend come and spend the night. Let him spend the night at his best friend’s house and then pick him up. Maintain the connection to the old neighborhood without having to move back there.

At the same time, create structures in his new world so he can develop new ties. I don’t know what organizations are available or what his interests are. Nor do I think this is going to be easy. I remember what it was like to live in a neighborhood where all a kid had to do was walk out of the house and his playmates and friends were all right there. In such a setting, there was no need for formal activity programs such as the Boy Scouts or what have you. But that world is gone. Your son is going to have to do things differently now. He is going to have to participate in more formal social structures. Pick some fun activities that will put him in regular contact with others.

He may resist. I certainly did. But I suggest that you be firm. You know what is necessary. He does not. He may think he knows what he needs, but he is just a kid. You are the mother. You know best. If he finds it hard to get to know new kids, help him. Keep at it. Do not let him fail.

You have a chance here not only to help your son adjust to his new surroundings but to counteract the lesson that an alcoholic father imparts to his children: that when stressful change arises, one responds by collapsing inwardly and drinking. You can demonstrate a more positive pattern — that one responds to stressful change by creatively adapting, by coming up with new ways to interact with the world.

You don’t have to explain all this to your son. Instead, teach by example. You can simply say, “We’re adapting to change.”

I do suggest that for the sake of maintaining a positive attitude you think of it as “adapting” rather than as “toughing it out.” Try being grateful for the opportunity you have gained — that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life watching the father of your children kill himself in front of you, fearing that he will crash his car into the neighbor’s garage or collapse on the front porch with his pants down around his ankles. You have escaped that danger. You and your children are safe. You may find, when you consider your good fortune, that you feel some measure of gratitude to the wrinkle of fate or cosmic force or God that brought you this far unharmed.

Your kids are going to find this hard. They are going to miss their dad. And they’re going to be sad and upset sometimes. But I think, all in all, that you have a very lucky 8-year-old.


Mad about him

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 21, 2003

Our love makes me feel part of something bigger, but his anger scares me.

Dear Cary,

I’m in love. Hooray! This is a good thing. It’s beautiful. There is mutual honesty, caring and affection. This man encourages me to think and to explore, and he makes me feel beautiful and loved. Our love makes me feel a part of something bigger, some biological necessity. He’s the first person with whom I’ve ever considered starting a family.

I know all the joys that come with love, and I know that love involves risk and vulnerability. But, we’re fighting. I’m not a good fighter. I am learning to be a good discusser of feelings, but a fighter I am not. My beloved is a fighter.

Rarely (maybe three times in the last year) he gets really angry and blows off steam through a kind of violent stream-of-consciousness spoken fantasy. I’m not frightened or threatened personally; I know he uses those words to let go of anger, and he would never act on his violent thoughts. But I never know how to react to these outbursts. The first time it happened, I tried to talk him down immediately. But after we both calmed down, we discussed it and he said that he doesn’t want to be talked down, he wants to feel that anger in the moment and then let it go. This sounded fine to me. (Does it help to know that he is an artist? The only time I’ve ever seen him like this is when his art is attacked — not just a critical review, but really scathing remarks.)

Recently he had a temper tantrum at my house. His violent stream of vocabulary was really unnerving and disturbing to me. So I told him that if he needed to talk that way therapeutically, that he had to go talk to someone else, because I just couldn’t handle seeing him that way. So, of course, he left.

When we discussed it later I found that he wants me to fight for him, with him, next to him, to be on his side — to be angry at whomever has wronged him. He thinks that it’s him and me against the world, and he doesn’t feel like I “have his back” or support him emotionally.

I want to support him, but I don’t want to be “against” anyone. I just don’t deal with things the way he does. I’d rather sit down and discuss something with someone than tell that person to shove off.

My roommate heard his recent outburst and doesn’t really feel comfortable with him around the house. I think she’s overreacting, but if that’s the way she feels, there isn’t really anything I can do. My boyfriend sees my acceptance of her feelings as a betrayal to him. He thinks I should have told her off and stood up for him. He’s really disappointed.

Is this simply one of those fundamental differences that can’t be overcome? I feel like I would be compromising myself to fake an empathetic anger if I don’t feel it. But on the other hand, I don’t want to leave him stranded, feeling embarrassed and ashamed of his anger. I know that relationships involve introspection and that lovers can teach you things about yourself and help you grow. And I see his point about me needing to “butch up” in certain circumstances. I’m at an impasse. I don’t want this to be a deal breaker, but I’m not going to become an angry person. I don’t want to be one.

Trying to Stand by My Man


Dear Trying,

What makes the dramatic display of anger frightening to onlookers is the worrisome sense that bones are going to get broken if it keeps up much longer. If you don’t know the guy who’s stringing together a sputtering symphony of profane threats, making withering allusions to sexual dysfunction and raising questions about the phylum and genus of one’s parentage in an often alliterative and sometimes surprisingly musical — if hardcore — way, you might be justified in assuming that the next step is going to be the breaking of facial bones or some kind of epileptic seizure. Especially if you’re in the next room, it’s hard to tell if and when the police are going to be pulling out their tiny notebooks and talking in that strangely repressed monotone that the most violent of public authorities seem to think lends gravitas to their mien. The whole thing is to be avoided if at all possible — as no doubt you’ll agree.

But since you’ve latched onto a man who isn’t stuffing and holding onto his anger like a good citizen but instead sees life as some primal battle that must be fought, us against them, as loudly as possible, you don’t have the option of avoidance.

Feeling as I do somewhat hemmed in by our undemonstrative public culture, I do sympathize with this guy. But, heck, it’s your job to be hemmed in, buddy. Because, look, the rest of us are hemmed in. So what makes you think you can pop off while the rest of us are meekly submitting to the rules of polite society? Because you’re an artist? Ah, go fuck yourself!

That’ll get me in trouble, won’t it? But you see, that’s how I feel, and it’s healthy to just let it out, isn’t it?
Well, no, it isn’t healthy really, because already I’m filled with remorse for my little outburst, as perhaps your boyfriend is, in a mild way, when he realizes that his outbursts aren’t going over in the heroic way he would like.

I think the most important question is: Can he control when and where he has these outbursts? There seems to be an element of conscious choice in your boyfriend’s outbursts. Perhaps he knows where the line is; perhaps he can bring himself to the brink of losing control and then back off, and feels cleansed and powerful afterward. Perhaps, like an actor, he conjures up frightening emotions and directs them for artistic effect. But there is also an element of loss of conscious control, perhaps allied to a longing for primitive power.

The fact that he frightened your roommate suggests that he either is not in control of these outbursts, or that he does not use good judgment. If he can control this, perhaps he ought to find some theatrical environment where he can take it as far as he wants to, without frightening your roommate. If he cannot control it, then he and you have a problem. An outburst could get him in trouble if it happens at the wrong time. He could get shot. Besides, nice people will get the wrong idea.

I’m really curious: Where did your boyfriend learn to talk that way? Did he pick up this stream-of-consciousness angry-man act from his father? Is there a library of tantrums in the closet of his mind, passed on from father to son like a box of porno tapes? Or did he think this all up on his own? Did he grow up rich or poor, on a farm or in the Bronx? Is he Italian or Norwegian? I’d love to know where he comes from, where he learned this.

But the bottom line is: 1) He doesn’t get to dictate how you choose to express yourself; you’re both free to express yourselves in the manner that seems true to you. If he thinks that because you don’t yell, you’re not on his side, then maybe he can’t hear well. 2) He needs to know that under certain situations his yelling and screaming is way out of line and is going to have consequences. 3) You need to look into whether he’s got a history of violence; the yelling and screaming may just be an outlet, but there may be a history of violence, or abuse, behind it. If so, that’s a serious matter. He could be dangerous. If you feel really frightened, there may be a reason.


My brother abused me — now our parents want us all together again!

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Cary’s classic column from Friday, May 23, 2008

I would like to help them celebrate their 50th anniversary, but I dread being in the same room with that man.

Dear Cary,

When I was a teenager, I was sexually abused by my older brother. I’ve been through three different therapists trying to work this out. Three must be a charm because through talking to the third one I found a way to confront my brother and come to peace with this issue by forgiving him. Forgiveness in the C.S. Lewis sense of wishing him well in the rest of his life but not feeling that pursuing a relationship with him is part of the deal. Consequently we haven’t spoken or had any contact for years. I don’t wish to see him or have him anywhere near my children. I don’t want to be near him. He lives on the other side of the country so it has been pretty easy to avoid him.

Here’s the catch. My parents’ 50th wedding anniversary is coming up. We were discussing what kind of a celebration my parents would like over dinner the other night with my parents and my other brother and his wife. My mom said that her wish would be for the whole family to be together and, in fact, if this couldn’t happen, that she would not want any sort of celebration at all. She knows what has happened between my brother and me and knows that I have no contact with him.

It really bothers me that she is trying manipulate me into spending time with him by threatening not to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary unless we all get together. She has never handled this issue sensitively and wonders why I can’t just get over it so we can all be one happy family again. I feel that she is being selfish and inconsiderate by forcing the situation. I feel pulled in two directions. I want her and my dad to have a happy celebration. Getting to 50 years is no small feat in our world today. But I also want her to understand that it is important to me to not be expected to spend time with my brother. I know that it hurts her that her family is torn apart, but having us all show up together in the same room for a party isn’t going to magically create the perfect family that she so desires.

The biggest downer in all of this is that the responsibility for the family celebration and whether it will happen or not rests on my shoulders. I didn’t ask to be abused. It was no picnic coming to terms with the abuse and I don’t see why I should be the one who has to make the decision to make or break the party. I’m not the bad guy here. But if I don’t concede to spend time with my brother, it will look like I am. It won’t just be the two of us in the same room for the first time in eight years; it will be family pictures and forced hugs and conversations and … UGH!

So, do I stay true to what I want to do for my own sanity and personal emotional safety? Or do I give in and spend my parents’ 50th having one of the most hellish days of my life? How much does one need to sacrifice to honor and love one’s parents, or mother anyway?

Forgave but Did Not Forget


Dear Forgave,

I cannot resist the idea that you might, by seeing your brother once more, finally extinguish the remaining embers of power he holds over you. For to know finally, with deep unshakable certainty, that the person who hurt you can never hurt you again — that would be a good thing, no? To know that you can be in his presence safely in any place, at any time of the day or night? And to know that you had a safe place to go and a way to extricate yourself should the trauma of contact prove too uncomfortable, this might make any such contact more bearable, might it not?

That he still renders pieces of the earth’s territory uninhabitable for you: Isn’t that a circumstance that should be finally laid to rest? Would you not like to be able to walk anywhere with impunity, even into his own house — not that you would want to, but simply that no place on earth ought to be walled off from you, since you have done nothing wrong?

You need to know in your very bones that he can never hurt you again. I may be wrong; it may be too much of a magic trick; but I am thinking that seeing him in the midst of the family, in a setting from which you have a pre-planned exit, having prepared adequately, might finally extinguish his hold on you forever.

When we still feel a person holds the power to hurt us, we live with residual fear, and our movements are restricted — through our own choice, we say to ourselves; we’d simply rather not see him. But a choice made in fear is not really a choice but coercion. If in fact this person can no longer hurt us, and yet we continue to live in fear of contact with him, then simply knowing is not enough; we need to experience, firsthand, that he has no power over us. We need to feel it vividly. In such a case, we may need to have contact with him even though the prospect fills us with cold fear.

I can see how it would bother you that by participating in this party you are fostering an illusion — that he never did what he did, or that it didn’t matter as much as it mattered. But this is not about the perceptions of others. It is about reinforcing a truth for you.

This must be said also: You do not have to do this. It is your choice. You are not living for other people. They can celebrate if they want to. They do not have to include you. It is not your fault if your mother persists in being rigid. She is trying to control you. You do not have to let her.

But if you can see it as a test of your own capacity for remaining in the flame and not flinching, if you can see it as a test of your humility and your distance, then perhaps you can take this event like a trophy. You can set it on your mantel. You can say quietly to yourself, I did this just to see if I could do it. And I could. So he no longer has any power over me. So if I can do this, what else can I do? How I must have expanded! I am so much stronger than I thought!

My reasoning is that the risk is worth it. If you find you can be in the same room with this person you will have acquired a new power. It won’t mean that you have a relationship. It will only mean that your sphere of free movement has expanded. It will mean that you need not fear this person any longer. It will mean that you can gaze upon him as upon a stranger.

Of course, this is a magic trick and there is no guarantee that you would perform it flawlessly. Dragons may sprout from his head and threaten to attack. Spirits, stinking, vile spirits may surround him. There may be a force field of evil around him such that you find yourself propelled out of the room into the yard. You may have to go to a hotel. But you will have tried it. You will have made an approach to the physical manifestation of this awful evil, this monster of the past. And for that you may count yourself the hero in this drama.

The choice is yours, but as I look at it, I feel you have more to gain by approaching the fire than by staying away. Just be sure that you have someplace safe to go, a hotel room that you control, and that you have someone to report to at a specified time. Make appointments to call, and to limit your exposure. If you will be there with a partner, have a signal with the partner so that you can excuse yourself if you want. Have that choice.

Because choice is what this is about, in a way. In being abused, you were deprived of choice. You were deprived of choice and personhood. It may be that in some small way you could now retrieve some of that choice and that personhood by standing in the fire and seeing it can no longer singe you.

That is what it is: It is a test of fire. But you will have a net. You will have a watch you can look at and say, I’m sorry but I must leave for an appointment. You will have a rental car to get in. You will have a hotel room to go to. You will have a plane to catch.

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Somebody sent child protective services to my house!

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, NOV 30, 2007

An anonymous complaint brought a scary visitor with a list of accusations.

Dear Cary,

I have an unusual problem that is really hurting me. About two months ago, a worker from the child protection agency in my town appeared on my doorstep. She told me she had received a report about me and my child and was investigating. She came in and read off the accusations. I was reeling and in shock. Someone associated with my small church had sent in a complaint anonymously. The accusations were ridiculous and untrue except for one. My child had kicked another child whom my child was really upset with. This child was jealous and had been teasing a lot, but his parents weren’t aware of it. This incident was reported in detail to the agency with the statement that “she didn’t care about it,” which is, of course, untrue. I was really upset about the kicking and talked to my child about how we settle differences, and then I took away a planned play date. We talked to the parents and I thought the matter had been settled.

I had to furnish names of people who could vouch for my parenting and I gave two friends from church. I also talked to the minister, who is very new to our church and to other church leaders. Everyone I’ve talked to is shocked and supportive and no one has any idea who could have done this or why.

The mother of this boy grew increasingly distant and angry after this incident and then refused to speak to my child and me at all. They quit coming to our church soon after. This family didn’t have many close friends as they are hard to get along with and didn’t come very often. Their child didn’t have friends at the church either except for my child. We had been very good friends at one time.

I could tell from the worker’s demeanor that the charges weren’t going to go anywhere but I still haven’t heard from the agency. I could be in for a surprise but I seriously doubt it. No one at the church has been contacted by the agency, but the worker had already visited my child and the school counselor before she came to my door. There were no concerns at the school and my child handled herself well so far as I can tell. It’s a real nightmare to have this happen.

My problem is that I don’t know for sure who did this. If it is this family, they aren’t at my church anymore and probably aren’t going to be much of a threat in the future. If it’s not this family, then it’s someone from my church and that is very scary as we are active at the church. We’re still going to the church and participating in selected activities. I’ve curtailed some of my child’s activities to lessen the chance that someone might observe something that can be twisted around to look damaging. Other than this mother, I’ve had no conflicts with anyone else in this town and neither has my child.

What is the most prudent thing for me to do? What is the psychological profile of someone who would do something like this to a child and his mother? Is it likely to be someone I’ve had a conflict with or a relative stranger?

Thank you so much. I think you give very thoughtful responses to people.

Pretty Good Mom


Dear Pretty Good Mom,

You’re telling me that an employee of the state, acting on an anonymous accusation, visited your child and your child’s school counselor, and then came into your house and read you a list of accusations made by someone associated with your church. Then you were required by law to furnish a list of people who could vouch for your parenting.

Your letter inspires great outrage. Where is this place? Who are these people?

I couldn’t live in a town like that!

But here’s what a reasonable citizen might do. A reasonable citizen might go to the agency and ask for a meeting with the caseworker and the caseworker’s boss. I would want to learn as much as I could, not about who made this particular complaint, but about how such a system operates. Does it happen often that people are referred in this way? What are the procedures? What records are public and what are private? What is the agency’s funding? What is its charter? Who makes decisions about who is hired and fired?

Now, of course our society has to protect children. There are some truly evil people out there.

But I would want to know if I, too, could simply make a complaint about someone at random and cause a case worker to go visit them and scare the living daylights out of them. I would ask them to show me the form and the process by which I could make such an anonymous complaint. I would ask them how they determine the credibility of such a complaint. Must a person making a complaint appear in person, or could such a complaint be made in writing or over the phone? Must the person furnish identification? Are records kept of the person’s visit or phone call? Under what conditions are those records made public? What threshold of credibility must a complainant meet? What evidence must be given prior to the sending out of an investigator? What protections are in place so that any old sociopathic busybody can’t just use this agency to harass and terrorize his or her neighbors? And if there are protections in place, were they used in this instance?

Finally, I would be very curious to figure out — though I wouldn’t ask this directly — if a person making a complaint might be able to use specific knowledge of the agency and its personnel in order to cause an investigator to come out.

You know what else I would want to know? I would want to know what kind of academic background and credentials these people have, these people who are empowered to walk into some family’s home and read off a list of anonymous accusations. Of all the powers of the state that are available to petty, misguided bureaucrats who might have just a touch of the sadistic and the power-hungry in them, this is one power that ought not be entrusted to just anybody. I’d want to know that anyone doing this job at least had an understanding of the limits on state power in a free society.

And I would want to know how often it can happen that a totally bogus complaint reaches this point. I’d want to know if they audit their activities to determine this. I would want to know if this agency had a higher incidence of such false complaints than other agencies.

And I’d say, well, if this is a public agency with public records, then the press has a right to see them.

And then once I’d learned all I could, I’d contact a reporter at the local newspaper.

I’d tell them my story.

I’d beg the reporter to at least call the agency and inquire about my case.

You wouldn’t have to get the reporter to promise to do a story, just to make a phone call.

Come to think of it, the logic is sweet: In the same way that a child protective agency is more or less compelled to investigate any complaint, so a newspaper reporter is more or less compelled to at least make a phone call to check out a tip.

Now, I’m kind of dumb about small town life. It may be that doing these things would make life too uncomfortable for you. If so, I would still suggest that, in order to understand what happened, you learn as much as you can about the social forces in American life that could lead to such a thing. And if I were you I would think seriously about moving to a more cosmopolitan area.

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