Category Archives: Parents


I detest my parents, but I’m turning into them!

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 29, 2005

As a student of biology, I fear that genes are destiny. I feel powerless to individuate!

Dear Cary,

My parents are pretty nice people. They raised me and my brother in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, provided us with food, attention and a first-rate education, and generally gave me a pretty good childhood. They might even say that everything that they did, all the jobs that they hated, all the sacrifices they made (they are immigrants) and all the trouble they went to, they did for us.

Here’s the catch. I can’t really stand to be with them, and somehow as I am aging, I can tell that I’m turning into them and I’m starting to not be able to stand myself. My father grew up in a household of eight siblings and the father was physically abusive and the parents played one child off another. My father is always referring to his mother’s favorite child (not him) or the indulged child (not him either). All eight children moved to the U.S. and all are not speaking to each other since there was a Terri Schiavo-like argument over their mother’s last year of care. My own mother grew up in a poor village where her father left the family for 11 years (!)(sending back little letters of $$) to work on seagoing vessels and she left her village to get a better education at the age of 13.

Now, when we get together for family gatherings (once or twice a year), we just stare at each other and don’t have anything to say. My parents are very judgmental people, always complaining about what slights other people are doing to them and how we aren’t living up to their standards. Every single sentence out of their mouths is a slight dig into my way of life. I find them, in a way, to be talentless. Bright enough to get a nice-paying job, but in other ways, with no redeeming qualities. They have no friends, they can’t tell nice stories at dinner, they can’t seem to get promoted at work; my dad, especially, wants my mother to cook and clean for him and he sits on the couch after getting home from work and watches TV. His mental challenge is to give the highway toll workers 100 pennies for his toll. They are depressed, sullen people.

You know, I want to be something special (doesn’t everybody?), and I feel like my parents aren’t special people and they keep saying that they have these terrible genes that make us all stubborn and have a bad temper. I keep reading self-help books that say, you are special just being you! Bah! You know, when you go to pick out a new puppy, the first thing that people tell you to do is to look at its mother and father and then you’ll get a good idea what they will be like when they grow up, and this is true! I don’t want to be biologically related to my parents! Lots of people say, “Oh, I’m nothing like my crazy mom and dad,” but I was trained in biology and I know that either these people were secretly fathered by the mailman or they are more like their parents than they choose to admit. How do I not loathe my parents? How do I not loathe myself for being like my parents?

Gene Therapy


Dear Gene Therapy,

How do you avoid being like your parents? You make choices. That’s it in a nutshell. That doesn’t mean you don’t occasionally say things they used to say, or find yourself having attitudes they used to have. But particularly on the big, life-changing issues, you take responsibility for your own life and you make careful, considered choices.

Those choices, in turn, go to work, long-term, like little machines in the background. They set in motion various habits and opportunities that over time mold you into the person you would prefer to be. You put yourself in a different environment, one more suited to who you want to be, and your environment, like a little identity machine, cranks out the recommended daily requirements of the life you want to live. If it’s the suburban lifestyle of your parents that you dread getting sucked into, then you make a major choice to live in a lively, provocative city, one that will teach you things you can’t learn in the suburbs, one that will bring out parts of your personality that you want to bring out, one that will nurture you in ways you want to be nurtured and discourage you in ways you want to be discouraged.

In that sense, a city can be like a new parent. You submit to its authority and bask in its love. It will suggest for you new opportunities and will admonish you for your old habits. Indeed, a new city can be a cruel master, and will punish you severely if you cross it. But it will also help you be the person you want to be.

As well as choosing an environment that molds you, you also can choose specific, targeted activities that result in actual long-term fundamental change — in how you generally feel, how you react to situations day-to-day and, in a very real sense, in who you are. They can range from highly specific things like quitting smoking or learning tai chi to broader things like concentrated study and mastery of a field you are drawn to, difficult and dangerous challenges such as rock climbing, travel, psychotherapy, religious studies, pilgrimage, marriage, child rearing. All the big, life-changing experiences will change you fundamentally to some degree if you remain alert as you undergo them. And if you respond to them deeply, each experience will take you closer to who you are and farther from the dreaded replica of your parents that haunts your sleep.

There are, as well, many cooked-up, concentrated experiences available, meant to transform the individual in a weekend. A good massage can sometimes work wonders. Anything is worth trying once. Some New Age hucksters may promise too much and deliver too little. But take what you can use and let the rest go. There is often a little wisdom in the craziest babblings of crackpots and charlatans and fools.

It sounds simple in words, doesn’t it? No problem. All you have to do is change your whole life. Ha ha ha.

So be prepared for monumental resistance from within! That is where the real struggle begins — in attempting to not become your parents you realize that you don’t really know where you begin and your parents end! You are indeed, in many ways, the same! It’s not just a question of future choices and molding yourself, but of conscious dismantling of heavy, well-installed machinery, bolted to the floor and clearly meant never to be tampered with or moved! So you walk where you can walk to get where you have to go; sometimes you have to go around, so you go around.

And occasionally you will have to fight for your life. In dismantling these mechanisms that have worked for you for so long, it can feel as though you’re losing your grip. At times of great challenge, you need faith; you need something to hang on to; you need support from people you trust; you need a map, a method, a solid sense of where you’re going. At times you may not have any of that. You may be desolate and alone, racked with doubt and regret that you ever started on this journey. At such a time all you may have is just a dim and fading notion that you started out somewhere and you’ll end up somewhere. That will have to be enough. Know that you’ll have periods of numbness and confusion. That’s the price of differentiating yourself.

Look at it this way: Even if you didn’t undertake this journey, you’d be numb and confused much of the time; you just wouldn’t know you were numb and confused.

Some of the things I have outlined above you may find unacceptable. You may say that something is “impractical” or “not your style.” You may think if you move to a city too far away from your family that it will bring down years of shame and heartache and just won’t be worth it. That sort of thinking, I would suggest, is why we do end up like our parents — we go pretty far but not far enough; we fail to challenge the very ingrained attitudes that we detest in our parents. So it is not easy. You may not recognize some of these ingrained attitudes as your enemy. They may make you feel safe and connected to your heritage. It is hard to tell sometimes. This resistance could go to the core of your being. For instance, the very notion of individuality and control over one’s destiny may feel foreign to you.

And there will be a price. If you move far from your family, if you choose paths that take you away from them both geographically and spiritually, you will miss the closeness you think you might have had. There will always be the life unlived, the road not taken.

So, in short, I would say that we can avoid becoming our parents because identity is fluid. Between us and biological destiny stand the power of choice, the power to change one’s environment, and the power to undertake activities that transform us in deep and lasting ways.


Big 4-0

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, NOV 18, 2002

I have a wonderful daughter but no love or romance, and life just sucks.

Dear Cary,

So, I just turned 40. So far, it sucks, thank you very much.

There’s something about a “magic number” birthday like 40 that brings the suckiness of one’s life particularly to mind.

Not that there aren’t a couple of bright spots. The brightest is my almost-6-year-old daughter, who lives with me three-fourths of the time (the other one-fourth she’s with her mother, 1,000 miles away). Another is my job, which (despite the usual level of political bullshit and general aggro) is pretty damned fun most of the time.

But I’m finding that a life that consists of sleeping, getting the kid ready for school, rushing to work, picking up and feeding the kid, and sleeping again — well, it really leaves a lot of room for improvement.

I admire myself for my commitment to doing the best I can for my kid, and (most of the time, except for the darkest parts of the night) I think I really did do the right thing in fighting like hell to have her go to school in my city (and thus to live the majority of time with me). But a part of me keeps whispering that if my kid remains my “only reason to live,” that’s ultimately going to be destructive for her (and incidentally for me).

Meanwhile, romance is nonexistent — there’s been nobody since my daughter’s mother booted my ass out of the house a couple of months before our daughter was born — and my “sex life” consists of furtive wee-hours masturbation to Internet porn and very occasional (when the kid is out of town) trips to sleazy strip joints.

I never did date much — each of the relationships I’ve had was instigated and pursued by the woman involved — and whenever, now, I think about trying to get involved with anyone, I run up against internal arguments that I can’t rebut: 1) I don’t know how. 2) I can’t see that I have time or room in my life. 3) Who’d have me anyway — a porn-using, over-40, tied-down-with-kid, chronically depressed geek?

Over the past dozen years, I’ve tried breaking out of my destructive patterns with a variety of tools — psychopharmacology (antidepressants), a couple hundred SAA meetings, group and individual therapy, “men’s work” — and it’s all helped a little, but not enough, and going back for more seems as if it would be way too much work for way too little payoff. (Except for the antidepressants, which I keep up with and which probably keep me from completely imploding.)

So I’ve just kept on truckin’ as best I can — as I say, in the past six years, the kid’s been a great motivator. But it’s starting to feel as though I’m not ever going to get unstuck. And, frankly, another couple dozen years of this kind of stuckness is not something I’m willing to live through. What really aches badly — and makes it suck the most — is the loneliness of it all. (At least, that’s how I justify asking you for advice.)

Is there a way out of this that I’m missing?



Dear Stuck,

I was very moved by your letter, because I recognize your thinking and the pain that comes with it. I am moved toward a kind of anticipatory grief, as though I see where you are headed in a dream and I cannot catch up with you to tell you to turn. I am chasing you with only a cane to help me hobble over the stones and you are heading faster and faster toward the edge of the cliff.

What sucks is not your life. What sucks is suicide. What sucks is that you are simultaneously inches away from accepting your life as it is and inches away from jumping off a bridge. Compassionate detachment is hard to maintain in the face of that. It is hard to maintain a safe distance when you say that “another couple dozen years of this kind of stuckness is not something I’m willing to live through.”

So let me talk to you as a brother, as a fellow who has walked that dark, oppressive corridor where it is hard to breathe and hard to move. Let me talk to you as someone who doesn’t care to be delicate, but who cares very much for you and the girl.

You say the Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings helped a little but not enough. How do you know what is enough? How do you know where you would be without them? Is it enough that group therapy, individual therapy, men’s groups and SAA kept you from suicide, from arrest, from incarceration, from losing custody of your daughter altogether? It may not feel like it helps enough, but if you’re depressed, you can’t rely on what it feels like. Your feelings aren’t going to tell you the truth; your feelings are going to lead you to a room in a cheap hotel and tell you to put a noose around your neck. You need something better than feelings: You need reality.

And how do you know it would be “destructive” if your daughter were your only reason to live? How many reasons do you need?

Basically you need to make little improvements in your life, and little adjustments in your expectations. You need to bring your life and your expectations closer together, so you’re not living in that airless void between is and should. Make incremental improvements in your life; make incremental adjustments in your expectations.

I’m no expert on psychology, but I can say that cognitive therapy helped me stop using language to reinforce my depression; it helped me construct a new, kinder interpretation of reality. I know that your feelings drive your language, but I also think your language feeds your feelings and that you can change your language to starve your feelings of their false bravado of bleakness. How about making your language more neutral, more factual, pulling it out of your mental shop of horrors? Instead of saying that your wife booted your ass out of the house, how about just saying that you and she split up. Instead of saying that your life consists of just sleeping, rushing, feeding, rushing, sleeping, try saying that you have a very busy and full life.

And instead of saying there are three internal arguments that you can’t rebut, why not try rebutting them? The first one, in fact, is eminently rebuttable on its face because it’s meaningless: “I don’t know how.” Of course you know how. If you didn’t know how to get involved with someone you could never have gotten married. The worst you could do is just repeat what you did the first time. The worst a woman could do is boot your ass out of the house, or, to use our modified language: The worst that could happen is you form a relationship and then it comes to an end. How bad could that be?

The second assertion is also easily rebuttable. Many single working parents find room in their lives and time for relationships. What is so different about your life? Are you on a book tour? I’m sure you could find the room and the time.

The third assertion is not really an assertion, but a question. What woman out there, indeed, would be interested in an intelligent, employed single father, evidently smart and tough, who is managing tolerably well with his share of human challenges? You have enough grit to take care of this girl, and that’s admirable.

I’m not saying you have to be happy. I don’t even know if it’s within your power to be happy. But I think it’s within your power to stay well back from the brink of suicide and hopeless depression. Maybe that’s just as good as it gets. Maybe it’ll have to be.

As I said, I was very moved by your letter. I don’t think there’s some way out that you’re missing. I think you know what to do and you just need to be reminded. Stay in touch with your groups. Exercise. Eat right. Get enough sleep. Keep taking your antidepressants. Remember: Your daughter won’t let you down. And some of us out here, if you just stick around, we won’t let you down either.


I found a girl in my son’s bed

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 30, 2009

I don’t think I’m comfortable with my 17-year-old bringing 16-year-old girls home — but what to do?

Dear Cary:

Last night I discovered my 17-year-old son brought a girl to stay the night. To say the least it was unexpected and I don’t think I was expected to find out. I found out when I woke up around 4:30 in the morning and went to have a glass of water and found an extra pair of shoes at the door.

I entered my son’s room to find a young girl of maybe 16 in his bed. I didn’t say anything (I think shock set in for a while) and said to him aloud that I wasn’t really sure what to say but would talk with him later on. I didn’t kick her out. I had to leave later that morning and my son worked at night so I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet. After thinking about it I’ve decided that it’s not something I’m comfortable with and plan on telling him I don’t wish for it to happen again. I also plan on reminding him that he comes from a long line of successful impregnators so he would be wise to keep protection handy.

I’m a fairly liberal parent and give plenty of leeway to my children. I’m a single father as well. My son is an A student who holds down two jobs, and he is going into grade 12 this fall. He’s easygoing, ambitious and intelligent. I’ve never minded him having girlfriends. I expect he will respect my wishes and not bring her again overnight.

Is there something else I should say to him?



Dear Concerned,

There are many things you might say. But first: What is the girl’s name and age? Where does she live? What are her parents’ names, and their phone number and address? Those are reasonable questions. You may reasonably want to know much more — what precautions are they taking, how long have they been sexually active together, and how many other partners has your son had? But you need at least to know who the girl is and what her situation is.

Let’s hope she is at least 16. Otherwise he may have broken the law. And even if she is 16, in some states, under some combination of circumstances, sexual activity between them might be illegal. For instance, according to the age-of-consent laws linked to in the previous sentence, in New York state, “Sex with a person under 17 is a misdemeanor if the perpetrator is at least 16 (see infra). (‘Sexual misconduct,’ NY Penal Law § 130.20.)” So if they had sex in the state of New York, he may have committed a misdemeanor. It might not hurt to consult a family lawyer.

That said, might we talk a bit more broadly, and at distinct cross-purposes to what has just been said? For I am about to critique our entire society for doing what I have just done: treating sex first as a problem and second as a gift.

To begin again with an innocent mind cleansed of the obvious, let us ask: Why is sex bad?

We know that sex is not bad per se. Yet we routinely greet the sexual awakening as a problem. We do not celebrate it. It represents for your son a unique rite of passage. Your son is having sex! He must be very happy about that. He is also proud. He may have wanted you to discover him in bed with a girl. No matter what you said, just knowing that you saw him means a lot to him. This is not the pride of callous male conquest. It is rather the pride of discovery and arrival. It is probably something he would like to share, if he could do so safely, with fear neither of ridicule nor of corny congratulations in the gruff, squirm-inducing way of men uneasy with intimacy.

It is too bad that we do not have family rituals for celebrating such a thing. Weddings have metastasized into grotesque spectacles of affluence perhaps in part because they no longer represent the moment of sexual awakening. There ought to be rituals for that, the actual coming-of-age.

Fat chance.

Imagine trying to institute such a thing.

The very idea could get you arrested.

And yet I remember well.

I remember the clatter of dishes at dawn, tiptoeing out of a girl’s bedroom before the mom noticed. This happened a good bit in high school. And though we knew we had broken rules, we had no consciousness of having done wrong, only that we had done right in contravention of the many unreasonable restrictions imposed on us by ignorant adults. We felt such pleasure and beauty, such happiness and satisfaction! How could the gods not look favorably upon us — even if adults sought to constrain our desires?

And what were we supposed to do — emulate the adults around us whose arid, pleasureless lives filled us with dread? We did not wish to emulate a society of adults seemingly locked in a dry, tortured existence. We did not want to learn how to live our lives as they were living theirs. Why would we? What did they have to offer us?

So we defied them, quietly seeking pleasure where we could — in the darkness, in the early morning hours, in the quiet, air-conditioned rooms of our parents’ houses while they slept. We had found something that seemed to fulfill our destiny, ill-understood as it was, and we happily pursued it as though it were our life’s calling.

Of course, whatever your experience of sex was as a youth, you now are an adult and responsible for enforcing all the adult rules and so, too, of course you are uncomfortable with the idea of your son having sex because he’s your son, after all. Of course it gives you pause. How could it not? Let us count the ways in which the issue is bound to cause you discomfort:

You don’t control it. It could have bad consequences. You’re probably supposed to stop it. If you don’t stop it you may be held up to public censure and private condemnation. You might find yourself with a granddaughter or grandson. You might have to pay for a wedding. You might have to tell the girl to leave. You might have to police your house more vigilantly. You might have to think about your son having sex. You might be troubled by thoughts that seem just plain wrong: You shouldn’t be picturing your son having sex. You may find you carry a deep-seated taboo about that. It just plain isn’t right. Other things that may happen that you could find yourself worrying about: Your son may come to emotional harm. His girlfriend may come to emotional harm. You may find yourself wanting to console them or fix things you cannot fix. The parents of the girl may call you. You may feel responsible for your son’s actions even though you know that properly speaking you cannot be responsible for something you knew nothing about.

And yet in the midst of all this, you might wonder why this beautiful event, which is celebrated in rituals and songs and dances and paintings and sculptures and myth the world over, is cause for such concern.

Sex may bring pregnancy and the threat of disease. There are religious taboos in addition to the many unpleasant repercussions mentioned above. It is an issue for a father to deal with. It is many things. But while you do what must be done, as a father, as an adult, try to take a minute to celebrate this as well. It is also an awakening.



Is my son gay?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUL 5, 2005

As a mom, I can’t help wondering — but is it any of my business?

Dear Cary,

I’m writing to you A) because I like your column, and B) because you were once a 20-year-old male. I’ve got one of them — a 20-year-old son, not a column — and I’d appreciate some advice.

“Kent” is a good kid. Actually more than a good kid; he’s a bit of a phenom. Very bright, high-achieving, athletic, popular, good-looking, yadda yadda. Top student in high school, president of this and that, and he’s now attending a wonderful university on a pretty wonderful scholarship. He’s funny and good company and we’ve always had an enjoyable, mutually respectful relationship. I feel very fortunate to have such a great kid.

So … is there a problem? I dunno. Is it a problem that a young man as described above has never had a girlfriend? Dates to the prom and such, sure. But not, to my knowledge, a romantic relationship, ever. He’s always had good friends who are girls, but he hangs out primarily with other bright guys not unlike himself.

My gaydar has never “pinged.” My husband (his stepfather) says firmly, “He’s not gay.” And if he is, well, he is. I guess what my dilemma boils down to is this: Is there any acceptable way for me to inquire into his personal life? Am I totally overstepping to even wonder? I suppose I wouldn’t be, at least as much, if I wasn’t watching his younger brother throwing himself into the joys of girlfriends with such delight. It makes me wonder why that didn’t happen with Kent.

I suppose you’ll ask, “Why do you need to know?” And I don’t, of course. It’s his life. But I am nagged at by the thought that if a young man were having concerns in the sexuality department, it could be an awfully isolating experience. If anything is going on, I hate to think of him going through it alone.

Can you give me any guidance?



Dear Stymied,

I was indeed once a 20-year-old male. For a while, I was even younger than that. I remember when I was around 16 my dad and I were out back behind the garage and he was trying to talk to me about my girlfriend. I remember thinking, “What does ‘knocked-up’ mean?”

He was trying to ascertain certain facts and issue certain instructions regarding the activities my girlfriend and I were engaging in. But the language he used was this weird hybrid of delicate Victorian circumlocution and World War II sailor talk. So I could not be sure if he was saying that we should stop our activities altogether (“She’s not some tart, or harpie, or gold-digger, is she?”), use condoms (“Pop two bits in a Texaco slot machine and get yourself some rubbers!”), or perhaps just follow Supreme Court rulings a little more closely (“If she gets knocked up, you’d better hope you’ve got John Law on your side”). This was a few years before the Roe vs. Wade decision. I told him she was on the pill. He looked relieved — and also, if I remember correctly, a little jealous. The whole conversation, as one would expect, was awkward.

Today, for public health reasons, parents have been instructed in how to talk to their children about condoms, AIDS and STDs, but that doesn’t mean that truly intimate things are any easier to talk about. The intimate is, by nature, difficult.

So how would I like to have been spoken to at that time, or a little later, as a 20-year-old, about the matter of my sexuality? By the age of 20, I had a passionate, if incomplete, vision of where I was headed in my life. I pictured myself being married and monogamous, but I did not picture myself raising a family (I am married with no children). I pictured myself moving to a major coastal city and trying to get involved in literature and the arts (here I am in San Francisco, working for Salon). These things, even at that time, I think I could have told my parents, had we been able to have a kind of neutral, open-ended talk about my dreams for the future.

If I had been gay, I think at the age of 20 I might not have been ready to proclaim myself as such to my parents. But my vision of the future would probably have contained the essential elements. I would probably have not seen a wife in the picture. I would probably have seen a life primarily occupied with my same-sex friends — the bright young men you refer to. The things I would leave out — dating women, romancing women, marriage to a woman — would probably indicate to a perceptive person where I was headed, whether I wanted to disguise my final destination or not. So rather than asking your son point blank, Are you gay? I suggest you take some time — a good amount of time — to ask him about his dreams for the future.

He will better be able to answer you if he understands what you want. What you want is something a little amorphous that yet requires great precision in its description: You want to know how to dream about the future.

Put it this way: You’re a mother. Mothers dream about the future, about family and what their kids will do. Your son appears in your dreams about the future. But you do not know how to dress him, what occupation to give him, whether to make him married, single, divorced, living with somebody, what. Likewise, sons also dream about the future. They do not want to deceive their mothers. But neither do they wish to be labeled. I’m sure your son would like to give you some reliable sign of what he envisions for himself, as long as he can do it without being misunderstood or pigeonholed.

So I think you absolutely should talk to him about what kind of life he wants to have for himself. I could imagine something like this:

“You know, ‘Kent,’ I’m a mom, and naturally I think a lot about my kids and the future and our relationships and the things that stand between us and greater understanding, and I’ve been wondering for a long time now about some of the things we pretend to be when we’re really not, so I’m just going to ask you point blank: Are you really named ‘Kent’”?

To which he may reply, “No, Mom, my name is not ‘Kent’! That’s the name you gave that advice columnist, asking him if I’m gay!” [LAUGHTER]

OK, so much for sitcom dialogue. I can’t put words in your mouth, but I can suggest a general outline for the kind of conversation that will help you. You need, first of all, the proper setting. For instance, a long drive is a great place, because he can’t get out of the car to get a soda or change the channel on the television. Dinner in a private place, or a long walk are also good settings.

I would indeed tell him that you are wondering what the future will hold for him. I would say that there are a lot of choices one can make in life, and that it’s vital to be true to oneself when one makes those choices. (Each choice is a blow of the sculptor’s chisel — is that too corny?) Tell him that you sense he is building a very accomplished and admirable life, that you see it in every decision he makes. But tell him that you want to get a better sense of where he is going with this life of his. I would stress that your deepest wish is that he make his decisions in accord with his truest self.

You might also say that the whole question of whether one is to marry and have children or not marry, or whether one even wants to have sexual relations with women or with men, is something that often evolves over a great deal of time, and that one need not place oneself in a box at the age of 20 and say, “This is what I am.” One’s identity can be more fluid than that. It can evolve. But tell him that you’ve noticed that he hasn’t had any serious girlfriends and you wonder if that means anything. One simply wants to know how to think about another’s life, where it is heading, what the choices are, what the possibilities are. What kind of future does he envision? Is it a future with a romantic partner? Is it a future with a man or a woman? Are there kids in that future?

I would not insist that he declare himself in any final way. But if he balks at discussing the future at all with you, there I would press him. I would not say that’s OK, we don’t have to talk about the future. You do have to talk about the future. Having achieved much already, he obviously thinks about the future; he thinks about rewards and consequences. He’s not some slacker dude who lives in the moment. If he resists discussing the future with you, he may be frightened. If you sense this, I would not let him veer away from it merely because he is frightened. This is where you can actually do some good; you can lend him some adult strength. This is where some pressure could be helpful. If indeed he has a secret to entrust to you, this is your chance to accept it. Don’t let the opportunity slide by. Resist the impulse to take off the pressure. Let it be an uncomfortable moment. Remain silent and let him speak if he wishes to. Do not interrupt him. Hear him out.

I have had letters from young men who have not yet gotten involved with women because of various things — religious fears, fears of disease, shyness, ignorance about courtship, performance fears, trauma because of one bad experience. What these young men had in common was fear of some sort. The fact that he hasn’t had a long-term girlfriend yet doesn’t mean he’s gay. We don’t know what it means. But I think you are right to try to help him talk about something that he may feel he’s going through alone.

The trick is to give him enough room to talk — and, as I said, to apply gentle pressure if he becomes afraid to speak.

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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.


Somebody sent child protective services to my house!

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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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up


Can therapy fix my parents?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 6, 2005

We’ve been in counseling for about six months now, but it doesn’t seem to be affecting them.

Dear Cary,

You and other sage advice givers often recommend that people seek therapy for their problems, especially when a couple or family needs a mediator to help settle their issues. I’m a big believer in the power of talking it out with a disinterested third party. My question is, how do you know when it’s time to quit?

I’m 24 years old, and have a college degree, a good job and enough friends to keep me from getting lonely. I’ve been in individual therapy for a few years now, and it’s really helped me deal with some self-esteem and emotional issues, many of which are connected to my difficult family situation. I’ve been in family counseling with my parents for about six months. My parents probably seem to strangers like very pleasant people, but they are in massive denial over all sorts of deep-seated psychological issues, and they don’t want to take the risk of trying to deal with them, so they’ve basically shut down emotionally. Being raised in an environment where people were afraid of their feelings has had a profound effect on me, and I have a lot of buried anger toward them for raising me in such a repressive, unhappy environment.

When I was in college, I dealt with them as little as possible, pretty much only when I needed a check for my tuition. Once I graduated and no longer needed their money, they got upset that I wasn’t interested in continuing a superficial, dishonest relationship with them. We started counseling, at my request, because I was hoping I could explain to them why I’m so angry, so that we could be more honest with one another and move forward. However, it’s clear to me that they’re not interested in honesty — they just want me to go back to pretending that everything is nice and happy. They don’t want to deal with their own issues because they’re afraid, and they don’t want to deal with my issues because that would mean they’d have to admit that something might be wrong with them.

My therapist seems to think that they might eventually come around, but he has never met them. The family counselor says I can quit anytime I want, and that I should leave if I don’t feel the counseling is productive, but she has demurred when I asked whether she thinks continuing could be productive. I don’t want to give up on my parents, but at the same time, being around them drives me absolutely crazy (to the point of literally needing to spend two days curled up in the fetal position crying after spending the weekend with them) because either I have to pretend to feel something I don’t, or we end up fighting and they tell me it’s my fault for being “irrationally hostile.” We go around and around and never get anywhere, and I’m constantly upset about it. I feel like I’m wasting my time and energy trying to fix a situation that’s out of my control.

So do I quit? Is there any good reason to stay? And if I do quit, should I just cut them out of my life entirely? Is there something to be gained from putting myself through the pain of dealing with them? And can I fix a relationship with people who don’t want to fix themselves?

Thanks for listening. Even if you don’t answer, it feels good to have been able to ask.


Dear Daughter,

Nice to hear from you. It sounds like it’s too painful for you to deal with your parents right now. Why not take a break from them and focus on other areas of your life? At age 24, I imagine you are entering the workforce and establishing yourself socially and professionally, and perhaps beginning to look for a mate. The kinds of changes you want in your relationship with your parents may be impossible to obtain at this time, while other achievements may be well within your grasp.

So if I were you, I would continue in therapy but put your parents on the back burner. I would define some other goals therapy could help me with, like getting a better understanding of myself, clarifying my purpose on earth and finding out what might be holding me back from truly purposeful action.

If, however, you do come to feel that it’s your relationship with your parents that is holding you back, then try this: Ask yourself not how you feel about your parents but what you owe your parents. What are your obligations at this point in your life? They have put you through college but now you’re on your own: How can you fulfill your obligations?

This is different from asking what your parents want from you. Our parents may want us to fulfill certain unconscious wishes they retain from childhood, from their own relationships with their parents. We cannot help them with that. You can determine, however, what your concrete obligations are. And I think you can probably fulfill many of those obligations.

So what are our obligations to our parents? In general terms, you might come up with a list something like this: To speak with them or visit at least once a month. Not to cause them undue pain. Not to shame them. Not to steal from them. To treat them kindly and with respect. To help them when they become no longer able to take care of themselves. To be a comfort to them when possible.

Beyond fulfilling such obligations as these, we can get into trouble. For not only do you have obligations to your parents, but they have obligations to you. One of their chief obligations is to provide an environment in which you can become who you are. So if you betray yourself, then you betray your parents as well. For instance, suppose you conclude it’s your duty to your parents to become a plastic surgeon. If you are not suited to be a plastic surgeon, then in trying to become one you undermine your parents’ chief duty to you.

So the best you can do, as an adult, is to fulfill your concrete obligations to your parents. The rest — the emotional tenor of your relationship, your compatibility, your taste and politics and ideas, their projected wishes for you — is chancy.

If you can satisfy yourself that you are doing what is right and necessary as a daughter, perhaps it will ease some of the pain that arises when you see your parents. Perhaps it will also allow you to limit your contact with your parents without an undue sense of guilt.

It’s hard at 24 to imagine how a lifetime of experience has molded one’s parents, and harder still to keep in mind that time will continue to change them, robbing them of both their acuity and their rancor. If you simply go about living, you will find that these things take place, slowly but surely, seemingly without anyone’s effort.

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My father was murdered by my former next-door neighbor — and I’m supposed to just get over it?

 I’m having a rough time; I’d like some justice and some peace.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, OCT 2, 2008

Dear Cary,

I am not sure where to start or even if I should be writing to you. I have been struggling with something, and at times I think that I have it beaten enough and that asking for help is just useless whining for attention. At other times, it rears up, and I think that it may overtake me.

Two years ago, my father was murdered. Someone wanted money for drugs, and he was beaten and left to die. A second person was involved. She helped plan the robbery, waited nearby and did nothing, though she knew my father was seriously hurt. She sent someone back in the house to rob him again, then covered up the murder from police. She and the murderer are in jail. I grew up next door to the murderer. I saw him beaten, heard him begging his father to stop, saw the delinquent he grew into and how he used people up, even before he was on drugs. My father helped him learn to read, and he took my father’s life. I did not know the girl who was involved. She is up for parole next year, when she will have served only a year in jail. She lied as she pleaded guilty this past spring, diminishing her role. The attorneys for our side acted as if I was lucky that they had worked out a deal and gotten her any time at all.

What I am trying to tell you is that I am very angry and in a lot of pain. I know this hurt other people, but I seem to have taken it the worst. I had a breakdown after my father died. In about two months, I slept about 30 hours. Sometimes I still don’t think that I will make it. Others seem more able to go on. They often say things about how he is in heaven. They tried to pretend that Jesus took him up right away and that he didn’t suffer, no matter that the coroner told me it took him hours to die. I know this is their defense mechanism, but sometimes it comes across as smugness.

I was the only one to speak at the hearing of the girl involved. No one else wanted to, and my brother, who was estranged from my father, had to be begged to even show up. One aunt said something like, “This is the world. They’re not Christians. They don’t care what I have to say,” but I wanted help. I spoke, but could barely get through it. There is something in me that almost obsessively focuses on painful things, where others seem to just as obsessively ignore them. I was diagnosed bipolar, but medicine seemed to rob me of any creativity or humor, so I went off it over a year ago. (Long-term use has also had bad side effects for two relatives.) I feel as if I can’t let the girl, who is up for parole next year, get out. I feel as if it is all up to me. I feel as if my father will be forgotten, unless I remember. I know people are tired of me crying, so I hide it when I can. I know I should do something constructive and keep busy. I know there is much worse suffering in the world. I just don’t understand how this was allowed to happen. I cannot make peace. Sometimes I am not sure if I can keep going on without him. I feel as if I am serving a life sentence.

I just thought you would give me an outside opinion. These last two years are a long story that I have been struggling with.

Thank you for your time.



Dear Anonymous,

I think I can suggest some things you can do that will help you. But I do not want to launch into that right away. A person who has been through what you have been through, you tell someone what you have been through and right off they launch into a set of prescriptions for you, and you know you’re not supposed to be angry, they’re only trying to help, but you feel shorted somehow. You were just telling your story. And they launch right into all this stuff you’re supposed to do to make you better … and by the way, why aren’t you better already, why are you taking this so hard? And you know you’re not supposed to want to punch the person because they’re just trying to help. But a prescription for action was not what you were asking for, not right away, anyway. You were asking, first of all, just to be heard.

So we sit a little and let it sink in. We sit before it and regard it and we begin to feel the gravity of it. And it makes us humble. We realize that whatever we say, it will just be one small part of a long process for you. We realize that you are in pain and we can’t make that pain go away. So we sit and sense the pain you are in, too. We just sit with it for a minute and it takes hold of us, too, and we begin to react to it with deep sadness and we realize that won’t do, either; you don’t need for us to collapse into tears over your situation. That’s not what you came here for, either.

So we just respond to you as a person, not overreaching or overreacting, not smugly knowing or overly optimistic. We take in your suffering, acknowledge it, be humble before it, admit that it is real.

We live with the past. We cannot change it. We just take it in. We take it in and mourn and grieve the tragedy. We take it in; we expand to contain it. In expanding to contain it, we grow stronger.

It doesn’t feel that way right away. It feels like it’s going to destroy us.

The grief alone will not destroy you. But you need a practice, a method, a tool kit. In this kit are certain things you know will work. For instance, a place you know you can always go to: a lakeside, a burrito joint, a street corner that uplifts you when the world is sitting heavily on your shoulders, a person you know who will always be supportive when you need it. You make a list of these persons and places and tack it up somewhere, and when things get bad, you look at your list and go to one of them. You take shelter.

There are many kinds of shelter.

What happened can’t be undone. But you can do things that get you through the worst parts. You can have a set of tools to get you through.

I have been lately writing about grief a lot and I have gotten some helpful letters from people. One letter yesterday mentioned tonglen, the Buddhist practice of breathing in suffering and breathing out compassion and relief. There is a very good chapter about this in the book “When Things Fall Apart,” by Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chödrön. It was in this book that I first read about tonglen. The poet Allen Ginsberg taught a similar thing; he suggested that we breathe in the world’s ills and breathe out light and forgiveness and peace.

Someone also recently wrote to me about her mother, a Catholic mystic who saw Jesus everywhere, and used to travel to seek out his image, and after her mother died, she found that she was crying for everyone and everything, and this frightened her. She looked into her Catholic background and there found a name for this grief for the world: “tears of the faithful,” it is called, those tears we shed for the world’s suffering. (“The sorrows of the faithless are storms, which ravage everything, but the tears of the faithful are a quiet, gracious rain which helps the beautiful flowers of virtue to grow and bloom in the soul.”)

These practices do not cure history. But they help us acknowledge suffering and connect us to humanity. They help us get through the worst of it, and slowly we improve.

There are many other things one can do. There is no technique or practice that is not worth trying. If you had a whole list, you might find only one was useful and palatable. But that one might save your life. So I do suggest that you seek out methods that work for you, that you read in the literature of grief, that you turn nothing away, that you keep an open heart and an open mind. For instance, I myself have never done “grief work” in a formal sense, but I have a feeling it could be very powerful and very healing. You might consider it. I would investigate.

It has been a crazy week. I sometimes don’t know how I am going to get to the next sentence. Then something happens.

A mockingbird has begun to sing. I can smell the sea from here. I wait for these things.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up


I lost my inheritance on a “technicality”

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 1, 2009

Due to an “error,” the stepdaughter gets everything.

Dear Cary,

It really is not about the money. My dad worked two and three jobs his whole life and ended up with a relatively small estate to distribute among his eight kids and his stepdaughter. He died first. Then his wife died. My brother took her into his home and his beautiful, loving family helped her die a better death than tied screaming to a hospital bed, which is where she was.

Now the estate is being settled and due to a technicality, an error in his wife’s will, all of the proceeds are being given to the stepdaughter, even though my dad and his wife’s wills stated that all proceeds will be shared among all of the children. We are all asked to sign a paper that we relinquish all claims to the estate and accept a token amount from the stepdaughter.

I can’t bring myself to sign it. Mostly I feel like it is a disrespect of my dad and his whole life and an unethical act. I feel like if I sign this paper and accept this insulting amount of money, I am going against his wishes and it’s just plain wrong. Please believe me that the amount of money is so small as to be negligible, even if we got the full amount that the will instructed. So it really is not about the money. I know people often say that and it really IS about the money. But the money feels more symbolic to me than anything.

I don’t know what to do. Is it Buddhism that says when you don’t know what to do, do nothing? I try to live an ethical life with my actions in line with my beliefs. (Although I don’t have the guts to be a tax resistor.)

This resistance to relinquishing the claim feels like it comes from a very deep place inside, a big no to being reasonable. I have no interest at all in suing or going to court or hiring a lawyer. I just do not want to sign a paper that feels wrong to me. I don’t even know if it will hold up the distribution process or what. I don’t care. I guess I should care because some of my sisters are in extremely bad financial positions and the small amount would be a big amount to them.

This whole thing feels like a mocking twist of fate — the Cinderella story gone south. The selfish stepsister gets the prince and fortune. The good sisters and brothers get sent out in a blizzard with no bread crumbs to lead them home. The bad guys win. I have mixed up many folkloric themes but you get my drift.

I love your column and appreciate any thoughts you can share with me, Cary. Thank you very much for your work.

Sister Left Out in the Cold


Dear Sister Left Out in the Cold,

When an “error in the will” or a “technicality” causes one heir to benefit to the exclusion of all the others, doesn’t it make you wonder what actually happened? Do you feel satisfied with the explanation that it was just a “technicality,” an “error in the will”? I don’t think I would feel satisfied with such an explanation. So I do think you should see a lawyer — not to fight this necessarily, just to get a clear understanding of what happened.

Did someone fail to file something by a deadline? Was some language the wrong language? Was something mistyped? Was something misfiled? What exactly was this “technicality”?

In my book, there’s another word for “technicalities.” That word is “law.” “Technicalities” are what the law is made of: specific, detailed, exacting requirements. Lawyers are supposed to take care of all these “technicalities” so that the wishes of the dead are honored.

When these requirements are not carried out, and that failure creates an unfair advantage for one party to the detriment of the others, that doesn’t really sound like a “technicality” to me. It sounds more like a “screwing.”

Isn’t that really what’s going on here? A screwing?

Isn’t that really why you’re upset? There was a shared understanding and a clear intent, as spelled out in two people’s wills, about what should happen. Then an entirely different thing happened. It wasn’t supposed to happen. But it benefits one party to the detriment of all the others.

And you’re being very polite about this.

As heirs, I guess we’re supposed to honor the dead with our piety and humility and acceptance. That’s what’s underneath this, at least in part, emotionally speaking, isn’t it?

But do we really honor the dead by letting a “technicality” corrupt what they wished for?

If everyone agrees that this “technicality” is unfair, that the estate was supposed to be distributed equally, then perhaps you draw up a document stating that the stepdaughter promises, upon the settling of the estate, to distribute the proceeds to all the children, as is the intent as understood by all of you. If she’s willing to do this, then maybe you know that it’s mainly fate that seems bent on screwing you. Whereas if she clings to the notion that this “error,” this “technicality,” is what rules, then perhaps you come to understand that it was not a technicality at all.

At the very least, you deserve to know what happened.


It may be something truly random and innocent, the fault of no one. But then what we’re talking about is incompetence. You’re being screwed by fate and incompetence. OK, at least you know. So what’s worse, to be screwed by somebody who knows he’s screwing you, or to be screwed by incompetence itself, by somebody who doesn’t even know he’s screwing you — by somebody who, in turn, is no doubt being royally screwed by somebody else and hasn’t even felt it yet?

I can’t decide. It’s so hard to pick. Maybe it depends on how good-looking he is.

Damn. I’m getting worked up now, too.

I’m getting worked up because words like “technicality” and “error in the will” are the costumery of scoundrels. I’m getting worked up because the law can be a beautiful instrument for justice and should not be used for obfuscation or to justify the unjustifiable. I’m getting worked up because we ought always, as citizens, be alert to the manifold and dazzling ways that people will use the law to blind us, to confuse us, to frighten us into submission, to remind us of our subservience before the masters of the law, to remind us that we are not really free citizens in the face of the law but servants from whom only obedience is expected, and that as children of parents we ought to be only meek and grateful for whatever passes to us, and never question the law or the lawyers and their “technicalities” and “errors.”

I’m getting worked up because use of the law to hide the truth reminds us that torture, in one universe, is what those who want to carry it out say it is, and that legality, for those who want to break the law, is whatever they say it is, and that what’s right, despite the manifestly stated wishes of all involved, is what the lawyers say is right, because they are in command of all the “technicalities.”

It stinks. You’re getting screwed and it stinks and you deserve to see the face of whoever or whatever is screwing you. Whether that face be the face of fateful incompetence, of greed, of selfishness, of covertly hostile maneuvering, of brilliant cunning, or of accident, of bureaucratic bungling, of unconscious wishes surfacing as error, whatever: You deserve to see the face of whatever is screwing you.

So find a good lawyer, one who is on your side, show the lawyer the facts, and don’t leave the office until you yourself understand what happened.

Then at least you know. Knowledge is power, and knowledge is healing. At least, by knowing the facts, we reconcile ourselves to the world of scoundrels and bungling and simple, blasted fate.

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My dad threatened to shoot us all and chop us into pieces

Write for Advice

I’m not sure how much filial devotion
I owe my father, now that he’s talking
about buying a rifle.

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 4, 2007

Dear Cary,

Since our mother’s death four and a half years ago, the burden of caring for our elderly father has fallen to my siblings and me (particularly my oldest sister and my brother). When my parents retired they moved far away to a rural area in another state, which is difficult to reach by plane and is easily an eight-hour drive. My mother was never particularly happy there, and we were never very happy about having to travel so far to see her. Nevertheless, my father’s law ruled and she remained there until her death, lonely and isolated.

My father, to put it bluntly, has never been a particularly likable person, and he has alienated virtually everyone he has ever known. He is narcissistic and selfish, self-pitying and mean, insulting and dismissive. He has virtually no friends where he lives and is barely tolerated by his neighbors and fellow churchgoers. None of us feels any particular bond with him, outside of a feeling of obligation that we must care for him. All of us have admitted to each other and ourselves that we do not love him.

From afar, my sister pays his bills, makes his doctor’s appointments and schedules repairs for his tractor and appliances. My brother, who is disabled and doesn’t work, has made several extended-stay visits with him despite the severe emotional toll these visits take. Though we have persistently lobbied my father to move closer to us since my mother died, he has stubbornly refused to acknowledge his dependency on us or the excessive toll caring for him is taking.

In the last several months a few events have happened that have pushed the situation to a crisis point. First, an aide we hired to come to his house to assist him with medicines, buy groceries, etc. has become a romantic obsession for him. This came to our attention after he asked her to buy condoms so that they could “have sex ” because he is “in love” with her. Since she entered his life, he has attempted to transfer all of the duties my sister had been performing for him (and before that, our mother) to her, and became very irate when we interfered with this make-believe relationship by limiting the amount of time and types of activities the aide could perform. Next, his license was suspended (and will soon be revoked) because he is not fit to drive, an event we hoped would “wake him up” once and for all to the situation he is in, but it only gave him an excuse to rely more heavily on his aide. When she is not available, he continues to drive, putting at risk his own life and the lives of countless numbers of people unlucky enough to share the road with him.

Last weekend my sister and her husband drove down to his house to disable his car and ask him once again to come back with them, but unsurprisingly he refused. Then, he got it into his head that my brother-in-law must be at the bottom of this conspiracy (when in fact he has only been an exceedingly patient observer) and came after him with fists up. My brother-in-law restrained him, telling him he didn’t like the way he was treating his wife and the rest of his family, to which my father replied, “She’s my daughter and I’ll treat her any way I like.” When they decided to leave, my father ran after them, telling my sister that although she was once his “favorite” he didn’t love her anymore, and that he was soon going to buy a rifle and kill us all and chop us up into little pieces.

To say the least, we are fed up and disgusted. After the considerable investment of time and emotional energy she has contributed to our father’s cause over the past few years, my sister is devastated. He was a shitty father always, but when our mother was alive she was a buffer between him and the rest of us. It has only been in the last several years that we’ve had to face, so starkly, how much we truly do dislike him.

The question is, what to do? If he won’t help himself, and refuses to let us help him, what obligation do we have to bend to his whims? We can no longer care for him from where we live, and we no longer want him to move closer to us. It may sound cruel, but as the situation is not likely to get better, we would prefer to distance ourselves from it altogether. If he wants to be alone and as isolated from us as he is from the rest of the world, what obligation do we have to subject ourselves to his abuse and disdain?

Practically Fatherless


Dear Practically Fatherless,

I would say you have very little filial obligation at this point, aside from the bill paying and medical scheduling that your sister is already doing. Because the relationship with a parent is felt to be so special, we sometimes neglect to consider the ways in which it is just another human relationship that must conform to the same norms and standards that every other human relationship conforms to. We overlook behavior that is in fact beyond the pale and intolerable, and that leads to insoluble conflicts and impossible situations.

It is understandable that you feel the age-old pull of fatherly gravity, that you are susceptible to an ancient wish to make things right. But not only do your well-meaning efforts meet with resistance — they seem to make matters worse. So remember this:

Your father is still capable of making choices. They may be bad choices, but they’re his choices.

In this case, he chose to chase the car down the road, threatening to buy a rifle and shoot you all and cut you up into pieces.

His threat may indicate that he is mentally unstable and in need of care. So I advise you to consult local psychiatric social services about what you can do in this regard. For while your obligation to involve yourself further may be limited, you do have an obligation to understand the legal and medical situation, so you can make informed choices. If he were willing to give up certain of his rights, by appointing someone his guardian and/or assigning durable power of attorney to someone, then you would have certain powers to conduct his financial affairs and restrict his movements. In this area, in addition to consulting with social services, you should get a full accounting of your legal rights and responsibilities from an attorney with experience and expertise in elder law. The SeniorLaw Web site lists many resources. An aging person, with certain indications of dementia, does not proceed neatly one day from “competent” to “incompetent.” Rather, for a period of time one is lucid at times and not at others. So I think unless and until he is declared incompetent, you must judge him by the standards you would use to judge anyone else.

All this becomes moot once he buys the rifle.


Few prospects are more chilling than filicide. And, as this short monograph on reminds us, Freud maintained that where there is a prohibition, there is a wish. Else why the prohibition, eh?

And parents do not just kill their little babies. They also kill their adult children. According to “Classifications and Descriptions of Parents Who Commit Filicide,” a research report authored by Linda Cylc while she was doing graduate work in psychology at Villanova University, “fathers generally kill older children. Murderous fathers frequently have histories of drug and alcohol abuse, previous criminal records, and very high levels of environmental stress, and the murdered children often have had previous injuries (Palermo, 2002; Stanton & Simpson, 2002) … One more stressor seems to be important; fathers who kill their children are very often going through a separation from their wife or other marriage/relationship problems, and this can be seen as an additional risk factor (Marleau, et al., 1999).”

So do what you can, and absolve yourself of guilt. Consult with legal and social services to get a firm understanding of what your options are. Try to define a trigger point at which you would petition the court to have your father declared incompetent. Otherwise, stay out of his way. And warn the neighbors!

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