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I’m a condo parking-spot hoarder!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, FEB 29, 2008

I have two spaces and only one car — but that doesn’t mean you can just use my spot!


Dear Cary,

I’ve lived in the same condominium complex off and on since the mid-’80s. I live in my family home, which I bought from my mother when she recently remarried. For 20-odd years, my townhouse has been full of family members, but since I bought it a year ago, I live alone.

Here’s where the issue comes in. Parking is a scarce commodity in my complex. Each unit is allotted two spaces. My township frowns on overnight parking on all city streets, so that’s a limited option for residents and their guests if there are more than two cars in a household. Because I live alone, I have one spot that is usually unoccupied. I don’t often have guests over. Needless to say, my neighbors have noticed this. I have tried to dissuade people from parking in my spot by leaving notes on their cars if I catch them in my spot. I am reluctant to have anyone towed if I can avoid it, so I usually stick with the notes as a deterrent.

There is one group of neighbors in particular who have an interest in my spot — a townhouse owned by a single woman who has a roommate, a boyfriend and many guests. She has asked before to use the spot, and I’ve let her. Lately, though, she’s been using my spot without asking first. It has been a problem because those were the rare cases when I actually needed my extra spot, so I had to walk over to her house to ask her to move. (That really irked me. I shouldn’t have to involve my neighbors in my plans to use my own spot.) The neighbor has also broached the subject of renting my spot in a few months, because she plans to have her boyfriend move in.

Here’s where I stand. I don’t want to rent my second parking spot. I don’t want to have my spot be the neighborhood guest spot. Not because I’m a greedy, horrible spot-hoarder (I hope!). It’s because what I value most about my living situation — living alone, owning instead of renting — is a sense of autonomy. I love that I don’t have to consult anyone else about my plans relating to my living situation (as long as my plans don’t cause a public nuisance, of course).

So I resent that my neighbor’s plans to have her boyfriend move in now make the boyfriend’s parking issues my problem. I resent that I am being put in the position to either have to say yes to be a nice, good neighbor, or say no and be a big old bitch.

I like not having parking issues — that’s the one perk of having to shoulder all of the responsibilities of homeownership alone. If I have a friend over, or a service person comes to call, there’s a spot available. But if my spot is shared with the whole neighborhood, that means that I have to involve them in my plans when my spot is needed. I don’t want that. I also don’t want to rent the spot, because if my situation changes — say I have more regular guests or acquire a roommate — my neighbors’ parking issues become my problem. I’ll have to feel guilty about the fact that X won’t have anywhere to park when I rescind the spot.

I just don’t want to be involved. I’d prefer it if the extent of my involvement with my neighbors was to say “hi” in the parking lot. No more, no less. Beyond that, I don’t want to be affected by developments in their household. I have no control over their choices, so why should I have some responsibility toward them?

So, my questions — Am I a big old spot-hoarding bitch? Am I being a bad neighbor? Am I obligated because the request was made and I do have a free spot? I feel like I am, and that there’s an expectation that I’ll agree to their requests. And I resent that, because if someone makes a request with the expectation that I’ll say yes — well, that’s not a request, it’s a veiled demand.

(I’ve noticed that I’ve written the word “resent” a lot. That’s the crux of this. I resent that I have to think about this. I resent that I have the choice of being either a bitch or limiting my own options by giving up my spot.)

Parking Spot Hoarder

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Dear Parking Spot Hoarder,

Put a plant there.

Call it “The Greening of the Parking Space.”

Who can argue with a plant? Who is going to drive over a plant? Who among your (I am guessing) politically correct neighbors is going to argue that a car is more important than a plant?

If you put a plant in the space, you are doing something amusing with the space. If you want to let someone park there, just tell them in advance, “Move the plant.” Moving the plant requires a little more psychological involvement than just pulling into the spot. It requires touching somebody’s plant. A stranger is not likely to feel comfortable doing that. It’s almost like they’re touching you, moving you. The plant is an intimate stand-in.

Believe me, I thought this whole thing through and wrote a ton of analysis before arriving at this. Then, because it’s journalism, I put the nugget right up front. So if you’re in a hurry, you could just take the nugget and go. Put a plant there. QED. Yep, I told you Cary Tennis was crazy.

But if you’ve got some time, or are curious about the various things that go on in my head, read on.

An analogy: If you had a detached house with a driveway with room for an extra car, would you let your neighbor park his car in your driveway? Probably not. He probably wouldn’t even ask. It’s obviously your property. The space is visually connected to your house. So one regards it as your domain.

So I’m guessing this condo parking spot is visually separate from your condo. Like, you probably can’t see it from your kitchen window. So to an onlooker it feels like just one anonymous parking space in a sea of parking spaces.

Another analogy: As to the argument that you’re not using it so why shouldn’t she: Well, if you have money in the bank and you’re not using it, does that mean somebody else can just come in and borrow it until you call them and tell them to please put it back because you need to use it? No. Owning it means it stays there untouched until you come to use it.

But you sort of can’t blame people, right? They look at an empty parking space and they think, “You’re not using it.”

But you are using it. Your use of it does not consist of always placing a car in it. Your use of it consists of having it always available to you. I get that.

But it’s hard for some people to get that. There’s this cognitive leap that must be made. Admittedly, it is a small cognitive leap. It has to do with property rights and condo laws and stuff. In fact, that is what really interests me — how your problem illustrates cultural attitudes toward property rights.

We Americans are half-rancher and half-villager.

Being half-villager and half-rancher, we have conflicting desires. We want to be part of community but we want to use our God-given property rights to set ourselves apart from it when our convenience requires or our legal prerogatives allow. It throws into relief just how deeply emotional and contradictory is the right of property itself. Yes, you can own that spot. Yes, it can remain empty. And yes, its remaining empty seems absurd when there are people who need to park.

It hints at the underlying uneasiness we have about property rights. How absurd that one can own a field and let it lie fallow when the poor could grow crops there! That one can own a building and keep it vacant when the poor could live there! That one can own an old house and tear it down when those who lived there before have stored precious memories there, when the community itself has rested its memories in that building; that one might own a marshland where beautiful birds nest and in one summer dig canals into it and place timeshares there when the birds have been there for millions of years; these are all the things that our property laws allow. And they offend our sense of justice. And this parking matter is a microcosm of that: Private property rights are in conflict with emotion and what seems to be common sense.

And, you know, this whole municipal business about no overnight parking on the streets, that’s just to ensure that households do not grow in number, to enforce a kind of economic discrimination, you know, making sure that only people who can afford their housing on one or two salaries can live there, and giving the area a kind of English village look, and making sure that no red-blooded males move in and start working on their cars in the yard. In the reputable social classes, everybody takes their cars to a reputable mechanic, right? Nobody works on their own cars in this neighborhood!

And what about the somewhat misguided municipal policies that make owning cars inconvenient in the belief that such policies will bolster use of public transit? I think public transit use increases with the convenience, affordability and safety of public transit; if transit is no good, you’re just going to piss people off by making car storage inconvenient, right? People have to put their cars someplace.

OK, enough about Menlo Park. (I don’t know where you live, actually. I suppose many municipalities have similar laws.)

So I think we ought to face up to what we are, and what we believe. We do believe in the sanctity of private property. And urbanism implies anonymity and isolation from neighbors, and ownership of private property allows for that. We are not one big community. So get it clear with your neighbors: That parking spot is yours, and if you want to keep it empty all the time that is your legal prerogative. And if you want to put a plant there … well, good luck with the condo committee and its bylaws!

Anyway, it was my meditation on fallow cropland that gave rise to the idea of putting a plant there. There must be certain plants that thrive in parking spaces! What about a Lotus? Or a Caryota? That sounds like a car that I would drive!

Like I say, who can argue with a plant?

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I kissed her and then her husband killed himself

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 10, 2012

Now I’m in an agony of guilt and my life will never be the same


Dear Cary,

I met a woman at work nine months ago.  We clicked immediately but I refused her advances because she was married, to her second husband, in fact.  After a few months, I could no longer resist the attraction.  Immediately after we kissed, she told her husband they hadn’t been in a real marriage for a long time and she was leaving.

She asked him to discuss dividing their possessions.  Shortly after, he went upstairs and shot and killed himself.

As you can imagine, she will never be OK.  For the first couple of months, I stayed awake 24 hours a day with two mobile phones in my hands in case she needed me.  At the suggestion of my psychiatrist, I told her she needed to see a professional, as I am not skilled in counseling and the strain was too great for me.  Since then, we somehow launched into a downward spiral of shutting each other out, then hurting each other, and now lying as well.

She spends her time with her parents and 18-year-old son from her first marriage.  We live in such a small town that we cannot go out for dinner, spend time with friends, or see each other much at all.  When she first returned to work after the tragedy, I would come by her cubicle on bad days and give her a small gift or trinket and a hug, until one of her colleagues warned me that he would cause trouble.  A week ago she left her job because she needs more time to heal.  I’ve tried to continue finding creative ways to distract her, make her feel normal, and be together.

I am convinced I will never work through this guilt.  When I see her old spot at work where her family pictures were, when she spends holidays with her husband’s family, when I go on a social networking site and see pictures of her and her husband, my world gets shaken like a snow globe.  Nearly every time I am left alone I break into tears.  I am overtaken by the irrefutable fact that my actions led to the extinguishing of a living flame and now it is snuffed forever despite what I would give to change things.

My parents got word of what happened and no longer speak to me.  My roommate is moving out tomorrow because he’s grown angry and hateful after unsuccessfully helping me through this.  I am nearly completely isolated and I clearly need to dedicate more time to work on myself.  Almost everyone I speak to insists that I need to leave her, especially my psychiatrist, but how do you break up with the woman you love after she’s endured such a traumatic loss?

Sincerely,
Overcome with Guilt

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Dear Overcome with Guilt,

Your actions did not cause this suicide. They did not lead to it. You were not central to it.

You did not advocate for this person to commit suicide, or provide the means for this person to commit suicide. You knew nothing of any suicidal inclinations he might have had. You did not know him. He did not know you. Presumably, if he knew of your existence, he knew of you only as one of his wife’s co-workers. You did not sleep with his wife. Nor did you know that, after kissing you, his wife was going to go home and tell him she was leaving him.

The one thing you did was that you broke a well-understood obligation not to kiss his wife. That is a real obligation, not to kiss his wife, which you broke. You are not supposed to kiss other men’s wives. You knew that. You did it anyway. That is something to feel remorse about. That is something you did that was wrong.

If it were possible to make amends, that would be something to make amends to him about. Unfortunately, because he chose to take his own life, you cannot make amends to him for that.

So you will have to live with that.

That’s your situation. You committed no crime. It’s not a nice place to be. But it’s not eternal damnation. It is the wretched confliction of feelings that arise when we are tangential to a tragedy.

You are tangential here. You were not central to the suicide and you are not central to this woman’s life.

I think your psychiatrist, who has more knowledge about your situation and more understanding of you as a person than I do, and is professionally trained and licensed to guide people in their affairs, probably should be listened to.

You should leave her alone.

We don’t refrain from kissing other men’s wives because we fear the husband will commit suicide. But there are certain things we might expect a husband to do if he finds out that we kissed his wife. In the movies, a good punch in the jaw is the agreed-upon right action. It’s a non-fatal expression of contempt and serves to reassert the husband’s dominant role in the wife’s affections. Seeing the man she kissed lying unconscious on the ground, she will either run to him, thus affirming that her affections have shifted, or she will run back to her husband, affirming that she recognizes her best bet is to stick with the one who is good at punching. That is how the movies portray these things. We know that real life is different. But we still like going to the movies.

Your response is sort of like a movie. You are all histrionic. You are all saying things will never be the same; you are staying up all night with two cellphones. This is a little overdoing it.

So how exactly did you harm him, and did you harm him in any material way, or only by way of your attitude toward him? You didn’t sleep with his wife, but, knowing that he existed, you did disregard him as a person. You disregarded his status as the husband. You in a sense depersonalized him; you disregarded his existence. That is what we do when we fool around with someone’s spouses; we depersonalize a stranger, or a person known to us; we do things that we know would hurt that person if he or she were to find out. This is not a good thing to do. It probably makes it easier when we do not know the person, but whether we have met or not met, we still know that some person exists whom our actions would hurt if they were to be found out.

This is why we refrain from such things — because we know that they can hurt other people. Generally speaking, our actions do not lead to other people’s suicides, especially the suicides of people we do not even know. Rather, suicidal people make choices over which we have no control. If we could reliably cause the suicides of others, rest assured it would be against the law.

In certain cases advocating for another person to commit suicide has been prosecuted.  One man sought out depressed people, “posed as a female nurse, feigned compassion and offered step-by-step instructions on how they could kill themselves.”

That’s a little different, I think you’ll agree. “While it is illegal in Minnesota to encourage suicide, there is no such federal law,” according to an ABC News account of the matter.

Out of another situation in which a person’s suicide was aided by information and interaction on the Web, H.R. 1183 has been proposed, which would  “make it a crime to use the Internet to help someone commit suicide.”

I find that interesting, personally, because my 2006 column titled “What’s the best method for painless suicide?” continues to get many hits every month from people some of whom are expecting to get practical, how-to advice. Some of them even write to me angrily or disappointed that I don’t show them where to buy poison or name the best bridges to jump off of.

People do get over the suicides of loved ones. They meet in groups and talk on the phone with hotline counselors and go through their lives. The pain and shock abate. And there is evidence to show that how we talk about such things affects how we will feel. So I would guard against saying such things as she will never get over it. It isn’t helpful. One who has been through such an event may feel outraged that others do not seem to understand its power; they do not seem to understand how deeply we have been hurt or how long the hurt persists or the many small ways in which our day-to-day functioning is impaired afterward. This is true. So it is hard to go through life grieving. It is hard to grieve among strangers who do not know the cause of our halting responses and occasional lapses into blank emotion-filled silences when we are tugged violently by the anchor of the underworld.

That is what it is like to go through life grieving.  It causes one to wonder if it might not be better to wear a black armband for a while, so others, even strangers, know to tread lightly. It is hard to go through life with a burden like that.

But it does not change the philosophical or logical problem. You did not cause this suicide. You played a part in this suicidal person’s personal drama. Or, that is, not even you played the part, but your image; this person’s image of you played a part in his own drama.

When you say, “I am convinced I will never work through this guilt,” you do yourself a disservice. Why not instead tell yourself, “I will work through this guilt.”

A part of us, of course, likes the sound of “never.” A part of us clings to it. And inasmuch as it allows us to feel the complete depth of the shock, it serves a purpose; it is poetic language. It is dramatic language. It indicates severity, or degree.

But beware the effect of such pronouncements, because they also work as prophecy. So find more poetic language, if you can; say that the depth of it is tearing you apart, that you feel devastated. You may need some kind of catharsis. Catharsis means working through. In fact, come to think of it, catharsis may be exactly what you need.

And, despite what you say, she will be OK. And you will be OK, too. But it will take time. for now, I suggest you listen to your psychiatrist. Leave this woman alone. Give it time. Back off.

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I left an abuser, but now I’m with a married man

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 14, 2007

I know I should concentrate on my own emotional health, but he says I’m special and he cares about me!


Dear Cary,

I recently ended a relationship with a boyfriend who was very violent and verbally abusive toward me. I am still trying to get over this relationship, in which I was psychologically traumatized. I went through a lot in that relationship that I have not shared.

I am now in a relationship with a man who is married who recently moved to my city; his family is still living in the city he left. He told me that he and his wife are separated and that they have unresolved issues. He also told me that he has two children who will relocate with him, but he does not know if his wife will come. It seems to me that he is using me for sex, and I believe his wife and children will relocate with him.

I told him that I am developing feelings for him and he told me that is OK. However, I think that I should stop seeing this man before I get too deeply involved and just concentrate on myself and my emotional health. I don’t know what to do because this man tells me that I am special and that he cares about me, but I feel that I will be hurt again.

Don’t Know What to Do

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Dear Don’t Know,

As I read over what you have written, I get the feeling that you see your situation with clarity. You know what happened to you. And you know that what you are doing right now is not really such a great idea. You know you should break up with this man. But you don’t want to because you are getting something from him that you need.

This man tells you that you are special and that he cares about you. You need to hear that right now. But you do not need to be in another risky relationship.

So I will say it too: You are special. I care about you. I will also say this: Many people reading this letter care about you. Many people reading this letter have been in situations like yours, and they know what you are talking about. Unlike this married man, however, we do not require anything of you. We just care about you.

You do need support and care. But you need to get it in a way that does not put you at further risk. So my suggestion is that you do two things. End this relationship with the married man. And actively seek support. That may mean finding a therapist to help with the trauma. It also may mean joining a support group for abused women.

Doing that will take courage. Where do you find the courage? You went through some things in that relationship that you have not shared. Sharing what you have been through will bring you courage. You have shared some of it with me. That is good. That is a start. You need to keep going, talking it through with a therapist and/or with other women who have been through similar experiences.

I will say this, too, at the risk of sounding a little “woo-woo” (that is what some of us in California call hazy New Age psychobabble): You don’t have to be in a relationship with a man right now. You may think you have to be. But you don’t. Not right now.

Since I am saying that many of us care about you, I should also warn you: Some people act crazy when they hear about abused women. They say crazy things. So just take it from me: Many, many people who are reading this letter know exactly what you are going through, and they care about you. And there are people near you, in your city and town, who are getting together right now to talk about what happened to them and to help each other get over it and go on with life day to day. So find those people. Find the people in your area who have been through this, and join them. Telling your experience will help them, and they will help you. You may have many complicated feelings as you do this. You may feel that some of the talking means you are “stuck in victimhood” or some such thing. People say things like that. All I can say is: Start talking about what happened. Reach out to other people. Seek support. Trust the process. And be good to yourself.

You might break up with this man first, and then join a group. Or you might find you need to spend some time with the group as a way of finding the courage to break up with this man. Or you might find you need to talk one-on-one with someone in order to decide about joining a group or breaking up with the man. The order you do things in doesn’t matter that much. The important thing is to begin.

Good luck. We will be thinking about you.

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Yo-yo man

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 22, 2003

I’m with a man who says he doesn’t believe in love, but he’s loving when he’s with me. Help!


Dear Cary,

Around four months ago I started dating this guy, “Steve,” who I met over the Internet. Steve is tall, funny and smart. He tells me that I am wonderful. He is also petrified that I will turn into his ex-wife (he divorced three years ago) and try to control his life, beat him up, and keep him from friends and family. He tells me that he cares for me deeply but he can’t love me because love sucks and he is never going to do it again. When we are together he is very affectionate and a fantastic lover. When he is away he forgets to call me, forgets our dates, and seems irritated when I contact him. So we go back and forth, seeing each other about once or twice a week.

A little about me: About a year and a half ago my husband of three years and boyfriend of 10 said that he didn’t love me and possibly never did. We are divorced and I feel that I am a better person without my ex. I know, however, that I have residual feelings of inadequacy and a lack of faith in my intuition. Therefore, when Steve doesn’t call, I start to think that all of his talk of “You are great, beautiful, smart, sexy” is just polite talk and he really isn’t interested. Also I started dating my ex when I was 18 and am now 29, and Steve is basically my second boyfriend (and my second lover) so I am inexperienced in the arena of relationships.

Should I just cut my losses and tell Steve that he is obviously not ready for a relationship? Should I take a step back and just wait for Steve to be more interested in me? Or am I being really clingy? I get terrible advice from friends: Play uninterested, play dumb, pretend that you don’t care, etc.

Hope you have better advice,

Ms. Yo-Yoed

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Dear Ms. Yo-Yoed,

I hope I have better advice than your friends, too, though I think if you look hard enough at what your friends are suggesting, you’ll see that they and I both want much the same thing: for you to gain some control over your fate, to not just be reacting to what Steve is doing.

However, I am not a big fan of pretending. When you pretend, unless you’re a good actor, you leave your message open to interpretation. If you want him to believe that you don’t care, go ahead and tell him you don’t care. Give him the benefit of being able to respond to a clear message. But don’t play with his head or act coy. Because unless you were born to be coy, unless coy is who you are, he might not read coy even though you’re doing coy all over the place; instead, he may read goofy or strange or mentally ill.

For those reasons, I am more in favor of the declarative sentence. (I’m also a big fan of the occasional bald-faced lie, but in this case, I think the truth will get the right results.) Tell him, for instance, that when you heard him say he couldn’t love you it sounded to you like he was saying he couldn’t love you. Ask him if you heard him correctly. If you did hear him correctly, then utter this declarative sentence: I am looking for a man to love me. Tell him you spy daylight between your desires and what he is offering.

I suggest doing this because you need your situation spelled out clearly. Once it’s spelled out, I think you’ll see that this man is not the man you are looking for. You are looking for love and he’s told you he can’t do that. But don’t tell Steve he’s not ready for a relationship. You have no idea what Steve is ready for. Tell him you’re not ready for a relationship with a man who can’t love you.

Then, as you move on and look for the right man, concentrate on the observable facts; state clearly what you want and look for agreement. If you don’t get agreement, take it at face value: He doesn’t want to give you what you want. Many negotiable aspects of a relationship can be spelled out: How frequently you get together, whether fidelity is required, is he looking to get married and raise kids, that kind of thing. The less intuiting you have to do, if you feel your intuition about men is weak, the less trouble you’ll get into. I’m not saying get it in writing, exactly, but be explicit about what’s going on in your head. And pay attention to what he says and assume that he means it.

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Social cravings

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 20, 2002

I love my girlfriend, but she’s from an unambitious family. What’s an immigrant with a legacy wish supposed to do?


Dear Cary,

I am dating a wonderful young woman who makes me laugh. All the things I hate to do, like talking on the phone, cooking, changing tires, she can do with ease. All the things I am good at — sports, getting diplomas, reading — she has never been naturally inclined to do. I am a 24-year-old lawyer, and she is a 23-year-old administrative assistant.

My entire family, with the exception of my sister, came to this country with nothing and worked our way up. Coming from a small family, I am torn between marrying for love and marrying for perhaps a lesser degree of love with a higher chance of survival. Being young, employed, 6-foot tall and with reasonably decent manners, I am able to meet women and get along with them very well. I predict I can probably date and marry a nice woman with a larger, more established family if I just wait.

I am afraid that if I marry this woman, who lives with her divorced parent, I will harm my future progeny’s chances of success. This sounds rather cold, I know, but I feel a responsibility to establish myself in this country, and marrying a woman with no diploma and few close family members — delightful as she is — seems like taking a step backward. I’m not looking for a Kennedy-type clan, but I suspect that there is no natural desire for children to do well in school or to work hard. Those sorts of values are usually passed down through the generations.

There is also the networking advantage of being in a large family that stresses education. If I marry this woman — and as I write this, I can see her beautiful eyes gazing at me and her amazing way of getting melted butter on toast perfectly, spaced wonderfully next to the scrambled eggs, done just the way I like them — I will have a content, happy life.

If I marry someone a bit more established, a bit more brainy, I may not be as happy or as content as I am with this woman, but I know when I am 70, there will be a greater chance I will be able to flip through the family album and see a large group of doctors, lawyers, engineers, athletes and scientists.

What’s an immigrant with a legacy wish supposed to do?

Old-Fashioned

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Dear Old-Fashioned,

If you are only 24 and already thinking about how you’ll feel at 70, you have admirable foresight. In view of your expansive time horizon, you can probably afford to wait a few more years before settling down, especially since you already have some doubts about this woman. And I think you should. I think you should hold out until you can honestly say to yourself that this is the woman for you.
I wish you luck. I do have some experience, however, with using a girlfriend to try to wedge myself into a new social stratum via her family, and I can tell you that such a strategy is fraught with peril. You sound at once quite knowledgeable and dangerously naive.
Social class is a powerful taboo in America, all the more powerful because it is taboo. So if you should find yourself in love with a woman from a large, powerful family into which you would like to marry, in whose summer houses you would like to sleep, at whose old French table you would like to stuff yourself with Christmas ham, with whose brothers you would like to play touch football on the lawn, beware. If you find that for some reason after many dinners and many lemonades on the deck you’re still not married to her, you may be undergoing a secret WASP torture of silence, the exact methods of which even WASPs themselves are unaware, so sublimely subtle can be the cruelty of America’s casual Brahmins.
If that happens, consider yourself put in your place. Remember, it took the Kennedys a couple of generations, too.

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My aunt lent me money … with one condition

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I desperately needed money so I agreed to her terms, but I find them chilling and bizarre

 Cary’s classic column from  Sunday, Nov 21, 2010

Dear Cary,

Almost 10 years ago my wealthy aunt loaned me some money. I have not seen or spoken to this aunt in many years now, nor have I repaid the money. I would very much like to repay her, or at the very least set up a payment plan so I can begin paying her a little at a time, but so far it hasn’t happened.

I am deeply ashamed that I haven’t picked up the phone or written a letter to at least acknowledge the situation, but so far I haven’t been able to bring myself to do so. This is partly because of the money and the length of time, but more than that it’s because of the circumstances of the loan. At the time, I was desperate for the money because I was trying to escape my abusive ex-husband, as per his parole officer’s recommendation.

My family has never been close. It is one of those families where there is a history of mental illness and everyone is always not speaking to everyone else. It took a lot for me to ask anyone for a loan at all. I was very scared and nervous about it, and the first relative I asked turned me down, which made it especially difficult to work up the nerve to ask my aunt but I was desperate.

My aunt immediately agreed to loan me the money, but the conditions of her loan broke my heart. Rather than requesting your standard IOU, she made me write and sign a form stating that if I should meet an untimely demise she would get her money back from my estate. At her request, my IOU specified that I might die soon. She was worried that my husband would murder me and she wouldn’t get her money back.

I was so anxious to get away from my husband that I wrote and signed whatever I had to, but I was stunned and hurt. I kept thinking of my own nieces, knowing that if one of them came to me with a situation like that, the very last thing that would ever cross my mind would be concern that I would not be paid back if she were murdered. My aunt did not even so much as ask if I was OK. My aunt does not love me. No one in my family loves anyone else, it seems, and that has as much to do with the fact that I haven’t seen or spoken to anyone in so long as any of the rest of it.

My horrid, vindictive mother insists that I not repay my aunt (her sister) because of what my aunt did, but I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to keep her money as payback for being cruel to me. She doesn’t owe me that money for revenge purposes. I would like to pay her back in full, but I am not interested in a relationship with her, or with anyone else in my family for that matter, including my mother. I have thought about it very seriously for a very long time, and I have decided that they are too far gone. The dysfunction is too severe and too deep. There is not one single relationship there worth even trying to salvage.

I am in serious financial trouble, to the point that I left the U.S. entirely because I could no longer afford to live there. Despite this, it’s been so many years. By now, had I even paid her $10 a month, I would no longer be in debt to her.

I like my new life in my new country, where everyone else seems to be as poor as I am. I am happily remarried and I have two baby sons. I am now a part of an extended family who does love each other very much. My own family is a part of my past that I’d like to forget, but I can’t stop thinking about the money. I need to pay it back, but in order to do that I have to make contact. I have to write or call my aunt and potentially open myself up to even more pain and humiliation.

I am in so much debt. I owe thousands of dollars to stateside hospitals for the baby I recently gave birth to and also for the baby I lost before him. I haven’t even been able to keep up with any kind of payment plan for those bills, and I can’t imagine where I’ll find the money to pay my aunt. For years now, every single time we are tallying up our bills and our debts and trying to figure out what to do about it I tell my husband, “And my aunt … don’t forget I need to pay my aunt.” Invariably he reminds me that it’s not a priority. He has seen very little of my family, and what little he has seen was enough for him to realize he didn’t want to see any more.

When there is so little money, and so much emotional and literal distance between us, I am not sure how to go about even beginning to pay my aunt back. Where do I start? What do I say? Should I just stick to the finances and not mention to her how it felt to realize that she would be willing to take money out of my traumatized and motherless children’s hands? Several years ago when my grandparents were terminally ill and their dryer broke, this same aunt bought them a new one, and she made my grandfather sign a paper stating that she got to keep the dryer after he died.

I keep thinking of things like this, and of the way my family works, and it’s making it so hard to pick up that phone. I have struggled so long to rid myself of the pain that comes with being a member of that family. I don’t know how to protect myself, other than by staying away entirely.

Thank you for your time,

G

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Dear G.,

It’s clear that you feel it’s important to pay the money back. But I don’t think that’s the most important thing right now. I think, rather, the most important thing right now is for you to take care of yourself and your kids.

So I suggest you not think about the money right now, but about the emotional content of what happened when you went to your aunt for help. What happened was bizarre and shocking. Of course, it was shocking that you were fleeing for your life as well. But your aunt’s coldhearted requirement was shocking. I mean, in a way, it was rational. But it was inhumane. It must have felt inhumane to you. It must have felt like some way of lowering you, diminishing you, to treat your life so cavalierly, as nothing more than a ledger line in her budget.

Of course there may be more to the story. Your aunt may have previously lent money that was not repaid and decided on this policy to protect herself. You say there is a history of mental illness in your family so perhaps there is a history of money being borrowed and not repaid. Perhaps your aunt has her share of problems as well. But you came to her in a moment of crisis and were presented with this morbid requirement. It must have thrown you.

So I can understand why you have not been able to touch it, and why to this day it lingers in your mind. I can see why you’d want to close the books on it.

Maybe you can close the books on it without reentangling yourself in this painful and destabilizing drama, at least for now. How? Well, one way might be to write your aunt a letter telling her all about why you came to her and what has happened in the interim and why you haven’t paid it and asking for her forgiveness.

Writing it to her might help you focus your feelings and uncover feelings you may not have realized you have. And it could be a way of saying goodbye to that chapter. You could even tell her, in the letter, that the reason you are writing it is that you just can’t deal with the craziness of your family right now and you just need for it to be over. You could declare it over.

Then maybe read the letter aloud. Maybe read it to a picture of your aunt. Light a candle and lean her picture up against the candle and read your letter to her and, I don’t know, burn the letter, or bury the letter. Just don’t send it to your aunt.

Write it but don’t send it.

Do a ritual that brings you some peace. You could use some peace.

And then, if you still want to pay your aunt back, open a savings account and begin putting money in the savings account. Put in whatever amount you can afford to put in regularly. Give this savings account a name. Call it Aunt Payback or something, so that it’s clear it’s an account to pay your aunt back. Just keep putting money in it. It might take years. But when it’s full, you can send the money to your aunt.

And, to return to that utterly morbid requirement in the IOU, I suggest you put instructions in your will such that if you should die before the payback account is filled and your aunt has been repaid, and if your aunt should indeed show up with her IOU demanding repayment from your estate, then whatever is in that should be used to settle her claim. That way, it’s sort of an insurance fund, so neither your kids nor your husband will be fully liable for this debt, should it come due.

You know, there’s a lot of talk about symbols in psychology and literature. And you hear people talk about what something is a symbol of. And maybe some symbols are like letters of the alphabet, in that they always have the same meaning. But it seems to me symbols are more like tools, or weapons, whatever is at hand for the psyche to serve her current purpose. If we are sad, deeply sad, ineluctably sad about how our family turned out, and if we grieve for a life that will never be, and if we grieve for many hurts and slights and insults received over many years, and if we go through a number of shocks and hurts and upsets and dislocations until we are thoroughly rattled, and we are always wishing that there were some solution that would ease the pain and bring back a sense of ease and delight and calm, then we may indeed come to seize on some object or idea and believe that it is the central object or idea, and that if we can just accomplish that, our other problems will evaporate.

It doesn’t matter what that symbol is. We’ll take whatever is available. For me, once I became attached to a truck and it symbolized everything I needed at the time. At other times I will become attached to money, or to a past event that I feel I must rectify, or to … oh, I don’t know, like a child believing if he gets a train set for Christmas he’ll be happy for the rest of his life and if he doesn’t nothing will console him.

So the work we must do as adults, in untangling all the threads of our tangled lives and emotions, the work is to take each piece and deal with it as it is, knowing that no one magical act can transform everything, knowing that there is no magic fix, but that if we patiently perform the painstaking operation of untangling each thread, we will make progress, and we will find increasing calm and order and hope. So we have to do the hard work of deciding which strings we are going to untangle first and which can wait and which ones we are just going to let go of.

Some strands we just leave tangled. It isn’t worth it. It may be appealing to perform one dramatic gesture that sums up the whole of our voluminous complaints and past injuries and imagine that if only we did this one thing, we would be in the clear. But that’s not how it works.

It’s too bad. I generally want to fix everything right away. That’s my nature. Believe me, it has not been easy to learn new ways of thinking. But I have, to some extent, and I think you can, too.

So there’s two parts to my suggestion. One, I’m serious about doing the ritual, to get to an emotional peace with this event. And then the other part involves practical action, because crazy as it is you apparently did incur this debt and it’s good to do what you can to repay such things and to prevent their becoming a burden on your children or husband, in the case of your death.

And then, do me a favor? Just try to enjoy your life? You’ve been through enough. Find some time to relax and enjoy your life. Don’t let this thing hang over you. Say goodbye to it. Bury it. Burn it. Let it go.

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In Florence. Italianate facades. Espresso on Magenta and Corso Italia and a boy with a harmonica

Kids are beautiful in cities. They ain’t been ground up yet. There’s harmonicas. After grueling San Francisco-Paris-Florence flight we ride the tiny Pensione Crocini elevator to the tall windows on the courtyard, wash, nap, then espresso at the cafe and luxuriating in the beautiful visual rhythm of the Italianate style, the beautiful rhythm of spring on the Arno, which is rushing past the American Consulate now with the heavy spring rains (spotty snow still on the Alps as we flew from Paris), art students in retro ’80s T-shirts and Deloitte employees in white shirts and black ties on motos, and the carabarini with their carbines guarding the embassy down Corso Italia a block from the Arno, golden buildings in blue light, our tiny cage elevator with the seat where the operator used to sit, our courtyard with the magnolia tree in flower, the salmon-colored apartment block sprouting satellite antennas and bedsheets drying in the warm May air and laundry and awnings and the ubiquitous shutters. A city like a painting, pretty in its particulars, well composed, holding together, yielding up its treasure as long as one cares to keep looking, flowing past on bicycles and Maseratis and scooters. Three euros for two espressos at a red metal table under an awning in the breeze off the river. High walls. High fashion. Mysteries behind towering doors.

Saturday we meet Janet Shepard and Joya Cory and her husband Richard here at the Crocini and Sunday we take the train south from Florence to Castiglion Fiorentino and start the first of two nine-day writing workshops at the Le Santucce residence, looking forward to seeing our hosts Alfeo and Miranda and Luisella and Luca .

How do I know if I’m an alcoholic?

Write for Advice

There are certain signs that I have a problem with alcohol, but nothing terrible has happened so far.


Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 27, 2005

Dear Cary,

You write so eloquently about alcoholism and drinking problems in so many of your columns that I hope you can help me.

I’m drinking a nice cool beer as I write to you, despite the fact that I’ve gained 30 pounds in the last year from this habit of nightly drinking. I’m not sure I’m an alcoholic — in fact, I don’t think I am — but there’s no arguing that I look forward to my evening drinks the same way I used to crave cigarettes, which I stopped without a problem 15 years ago.

I went to a 12-step program for close to a year. While I didn’t drink during that time, I felt like an outsider there. I rarely have more than about five or six drinks at a time, even though I do it virtually every day, and usually without others knowing. However, other than the weight (which isn’t yet a real deterrent, since I’m just slightly overweight), I don’t suffer visible consequences, so it’s hard for me to relate to the stories of woe and loss. I also usually stop around five drinks, so I can’t relate to the “I drank ’til I was toast” stories. I can’t drink anything other than wine or beer, even if I try. I would never drink and drive and never do. And I know it’s external evidence, but I am an attractive 40-year-old woman with a good job, well-liked inside and outside work, own a cute house, a nice car and have family, friends and a loving boyfriend who care about me.

However, I do feel a creeping sensation of “I must do this,” and this is beginning to worry me. For example, if I know I am staying somewhere I won’t be able to drink as much as I want, I put some beer or wine in my suitcase to be safe. The nightly drinking, which started last fall, also worries me, although another side of me says it’s OK since it’s not that much, just a habit.

I dread going back to that group. I spent the most depressed year of my life there, although physically I felt great. I went there in the first place because I had a few bad incidents, and in fact have never resumed that level of drinking. According to all my research, I appear to be an alcohol abuser rather than an alcoholic, but practically speaking, I’m not sure what alternatives that creates. I’ve been to two therapists and neither helped. I’m keeping this a secret from my family and boyfriend — well, he knows some of it — and so they can’t help much either.

Reading my story, do you think I’m alcoholic? And are there alternatives other than stopping completely? I tried Moderation Management and I felt even worse there — to me, a bunch of truly problem drinkers not wanting to deal with it. I feel like I don’t quite fit anywhere. Any help you can offer would be appreciated.

A Friend

 

Dear Friend,

One of the things we lose as we become full-blown alcoholics is the ability to make sound judgments. Luckily, it appears that you still have that ability. Unlike somebody who is too far gone to know what is good or bad for her, you are probably capable of making a clear-headed assessment of where you are in your drinking career and where it is likely to lead. For that reason, I suggest you return to those meetings you were attending with that very purpose in mind. They can offer you a wealth of anecdotal evidence on which to base such a judgment. I suggest you listen particularly for stories of people like yourself who have achieved a fair amount of success in life. I also suggest you tell your story to other people so they can perhaps help you identify the similarities and differences between what you are experiencing and what they have experienced.

In that way you can accomplish two things. You can assess the likely outcome of your drinking, based on the outcomes of others. And you can also be of service to others who want to stop drinking. By being present there, you give others the courage to be present as well. There may be women there who, like you, cannot relate to tales of utter devastation and loss, but are indeed concerned about their drinking. Perhaps they can relate to someone like you who has it pretty much together — although she does pack bottles in her suitcase for emergencies.

If you gather from those meetings that most people who reached the point you are at with their drinking found they were able to quit with relative ease when they decided they wanted to, then your mind may be put at ease. If you find, however, that many of those who lost everything were at one point roughly where you are now, it may give you cause for grave concern. This might be a good time also to take a look at the “20 Questions” pamphlet prepared by Alcoholics Anonymous. At the very least, if you do these things, you will have ample evidence before you and, being of sound judgment, can make a sound choice.

There is, in addition, a third reason to go back to those meetings, and this may the most directly relevant of all. You say that for the almost year you were attending those meetings, you did not drink. You note that you were not particularly happy during that period. But your reason for writing to me is not that you are unhappy. It is that you are concerned about your drinking. It sounds like the meetings did keep you from drinking.

As far as happiness goes, many people find that after an initial period of adjustment they can live quite happily without drinking. My guess is that you are not all that different from the rest of us, and that if you do finally decide to give up drinking, you will be just fine.

I seem to be repeating patterns of abuse

I’m a well-educated and intelligent woman, but childhood trauma has brought me to the edge of madness.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 10, 2005

Dear Cary,

Ostensibly, I am a relatively well-educated, intelligent woman. I had a rough childhood. I was abused as a child; my usual punishment was caning, but my mother also pulled my hair and boxed my ears.

I grew up minimizing the abuse. I was weirdly adult about everything. I would carefully explain to my older siblings that our mother had a difficult childhood and she still loved us, she just wasn’t in her right mind. There is a picture of me with a hand-shaped purple-and-green bruise on my arms. I am on a merry-go-round. I have a smile plastered on my face, painful and artificial.

I have never felt safe. I was molested by a teacher when I was 4, raped by a teenager when I was 12 and raped again when I was 19. I turned to drugs and alcohol; I was self-destructive. I have been in a series of relationships that ranged from unhealthy to severely abusive. I overcame my addiction through sheer willpower. I moved home and stopped associating with my drug friends. I maintained rigid control over whom I associated with and did not allow alcohol in my presence.

I am in the process of ending my current entanglement. I was involved for 10 months with a man who had spent seven years in prison for, among other things, kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. No one, not even I, understood my attraction to this man. He became increasingly unstable, stopped taking medication he took for a mental problem, became an alcoholic, and developed a drug problem that escalated into using crack. This happened over the course of six months or so.

I was his caretaker. It was a process of systematically destroying my support network by isolating me from friends and family, and destroying my self-esteem with regular insults, spitting on me and humiliating me. He never hit me — he would cock his fist back and threaten to hit me, or punch holes in the wall. He was charming and manipulative. He would be abusive one day, and I would take him back the next. Sometimes it was a matter of hours. I don’t understand this. I don’t understand myself.

I have started having flashbacks from the rapes. I remember very clearly that I froze. I became utterly still, and silent. I remember thinking, if I don’t move, he won’t hurt me, he won’t kill me. If I stay still I will live. So I stayed still. I lived. I survived. I feel that way now — paralyzed with fear. I am afraid of him. He leaves messages on my phone, saying that he would never lay a hand on me, that he will kill himself if I leave him, that he only feels “safe” with me. Ironic.

Is my comfort zone a place of constant terror? Why did so many of my friends and family withdraw from me? My choice to be victimized must have hurt them, I know — but now I feel so alone, so terrified.

Two days ago he pounded on my door, smelling of liquor. I asked him to leave; he kicked in the door and threw me into a wall. I had a friend over in the living room, one of the few I have left — a neighbor who is very protective and a “big brother” kind of guy. My ex knocked him down and tried to choke him to death. Luckily, I own a pit bull. He did his job well and attacked my ex, chased him out the door and stood guard, with his ridge up. My ex was only recently bonded out of jail for possession and robbery, so he ran when he saw that we were calling the police.

I was pregnant by him, and lost the baby two weeks ago. I had left him already because of his escalating substance abuse, but because of my pregnancy he continued to contact me, occasionally to harass me, occasionally to beg me to come back to “be a family.”

I have prided myself on being relatively successful in life, despite the abuse and sexual assaults from my past. I am somewhat brittle, and extremely passive in my interactions with almost all men, especially men I am romantically involved with. I used to be strong, compassionate, intuitive, thoughtful — I worked to earn a degree in psychology and worked for a time at a forensic mental hospital. I enjoy being in a profession where I help others. I know that I am a strong person; I have fought to live my entire life. I don’t want to die; I don’t want to kill myself. I WANT TO LIVE, so badly that I taste it with every breath I take. But I have, instead, chosen merely to exist for so long.

I started therapy recently — this is where I was diagnosed with clinical and postpartum depression. My therapist said that I was, most likely, depressed before I lost my baby, but that the postpartum depression has pushed me to the point of being nonfunctional.

I feel as if I am doing this to myself in some self-destructive way. I won’t allow myself to consider suicide, so I choose passive methods, like “death by abusive, mentally unstable, crack-addicted boyfriend” — my sister accused me of this. Beyond all else I wonder why I still care for this man, why I worry for him and hope that he one day receives help and gets better. Why can’t I hate him?

Traumatized

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Dear Traumatized,

Did you ever have a string that was very tangled, perhaps so tangled you didn’t even have words to explain it? You just held it out to your mom, wordlessly, on the verge of tears. You were so frustrated you could hardly even say, Please untangle this. You just held it out to her, hoping something would happen.

Maybe she would help untangle it and maybe she wouldn’t. If she was going to untangle it, she wouldn’t be able to explain to you how she was going to do it. She would have to simply sit down with it and begin. There would be hours of concentrated effort, trial and error, struggle with string. She wouldn’t have any words or symbols for the intricate topology. She couldn’t say, Oh, here, dear, here is the mathematical expression that describes this particular knot. She couldn’t say, Here, you just push the button. Or, here, I have stronger hands, I can snap your snaps. She just had to sit down and start worrying it.

That is how I feel about your story. I feel as though you have handed me a tangled string. I feel that it is important, surely; I could hardly ignore you standing there, trembling, bruised and afraid. So I will sit here and tug at it wordlessly while you wait. Images will eventually come to me; they always do; but they may not make sense to anyone but me. The images are cryptic; they are my private language. Sometimes I need to translate or you think I’m speaking gibberish, or that I’m playing with you. I’m not playing with you. I’m doing my best to respond. But the responding is often tangled like the string. So I will speak as plainly as I can right now, in the beginning, before the images take over. For there are certain things that are certain.

I think you need to make a whole new life pretty much from scratch. How is that for startling clarity? Your new life will have strict rules, like in a recovery house. The rules are there to keep you from getting hurt. You need some rules, or you might wander into traffic or into a crack house; you might fall off a cliff or a curb. So you get a set of simple rules and live by them. You sit at the feet of your therapist as she works to untangle the string, offering help as you can, but mainly staying out of trouble and being patient, because it’s going to take at least all afternoon. And you spend time with others like yourself, listening to their problems and trying to help.

You need the strict rules because you’re in the grip of a crazy machine that wants to repeat the injuries. You don’t need to know why yet. You just need to follow the rules. But here is sort of why (the images are starting to come now, as they always do):

It’s not just the ball of string. It’s you. You’re all beat up. Your mom looks at the string and then looks at you and suddenly she sees you’re bleeding. How did this happen? she screams. And you say, You did it, you did it.

Maybe she did it and maybe she didn’t, but you need help and she patches you up. But some of the cuts don’t heal; some of the bruises remain, glowing under your translucent skin like stigmata. Remember that bruise on your arm in the shape of a hand? Remember how strange you found it, as a child, that bruises persist as they do? Cuts and bruises are our early journal entries, written on the child’s body; long before we learn to think and remember our injuries, they persist in the muscles and on the skin where we can observe and touch, as though touching our own memories. So we understand very early the persistence of injury. And we learn early on, too, that the sites of our injuries are strangely alluring.

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When you get bruised, you’d think you’d try to protect the injury, hold it aloft, maintain the bandages, wouldn’t you? Why do we pick at scabs and test our bruises against hard surfaces, as if remembering were a pleasure, even when it hurts? Why that peculiar interest in the wound itself, in its persistence? We rub the affected region. We replay the injuries, as though there were pleasure in remembering the pain. There seems to be a pleasure in simply remembering. If not a pleasure, then what? A drive, a compulsion, an urge: the urge to rub the affected region.

So we rub the affected region. We rub the affected region with abusers and pimps, with cops and prisons and whores and needles, the way a child tests a bruise against a sharp tabletop. We return to the source of our injuries, and we get injured again! Why can’t we learn?

At the source of our injuries, strangely enough, there are people hanging around the street corner with medicine. Isn’t that interesting? You rub the affected region with the pimp who bruised it, and the pimp’s got some rum, or some heroin. Here’s a houseful of people all rubbing their affected regions — rubbing them with each other, rubbing them with hammers, rubbing them with money.

In other words, again trying not to be so cryptic, you bring your story to somebody who will be like your mommy — your therapist — and you bring it like a humble and baffled child bringing a tangled wad of string. And then your job is just to stay in your seat until the thing is untangled. It may take years. But you keep to your routine. You stick to the basics. You eat well and stay out of the old neighborhood. You avoid rubbing the affected region. You stumble and fall and get up and keep going. One day you notice the stigmata are gone. The air smells fresh.

Something breaks and the lump is free. All that untangling must have weakened the fibers. You don’t even mind that the string is broken. You didn’t need the string anyway.

When it’s untangled, you have a new feeling. You take your first deep breath in centuries. Suddenly you have to get away. You jump in a car and head for the desert where there’s nothing, no scrap of memory, no parolees and no junkies, no men who remind you of your teacher, no men who remind you of your dad, no lures, no tripwires, no three-card monte games, no crap shooters in tiled elementary-school bathrooms, no blood on the walls: just desert sand and cactus.

You get out there and build yourself a lean-to and watch the horizon.

You have a long life yet to live.

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Why am I attracted to my stalker?

Dear Cary:

I am writing to you for writing advice, more specifically, if it’s ever a good idea to write a fictional story based on an event that has happened in the author’s personal life.

Let me be more specific. For the past six months, I have been the victim of cyberstalking. It began as a flirtation in an online chatroom and transformed into an obsession with me that involved the predator changing identities seven different times in an attempt to gain control over me. What makes it more interesting, perhaps, is my occupation. I am a psychologist.

The details of the stalking are rich, as are the life circumstances in which my stalking began. I am well aware of the potential effects of abuse and have enlisted the support of a supportive therapist to sort out my feelings, which are complex. This complexity stems from my poor decision to allow my stalker to engage me for a month, under the guise of gaining more specific information about his identity, thereby putting an end to this ordeal. Unfortunately and quite unexpectedly, I developed feelings for him and continue to struggle with those feelings.

When I shared the events related to this stalking, both friends and colleagues alike expressed a fascination with the details, often exclaiming, “You can’t write this stuff.”  So should I attempt to “write this stuff,” creating a work of fiction, possibly in the thriller genre, based on a life event that not only happened to me, but that has affected me emotionally?

My first career was as a writer, but centered on writing advertising and marketing materials. The only thing I have published is my psychology dissertation, which was praised for its ability to hold readers’ attention and was written in a narrative style intertwined with an academic style.

My mind has started to explore the possibilities of plot — both based on real events, as memorialized by every email and instant message transcript I saved, combined with a variety of possible fictionalized plot twists and turns I have imagined.

How does one begin a work of fiction? Should I buy a book on how to develop a manuscript? Take a workshop? Hire an editor? And if yes, how?

When one has an important life event occur that has all the makings of a great book or movie, should one keep it to themselves or attempt to share it? Or am I just dreaming grandiose author fantasies instead of dealing with my trauma?

I appreciate your thoughts.

Thank you.

Dr. Prey

OnlineWorkshopMay42015

Dear Dr. Prey,

I’ve been reading The Art of Thought by Graham Wallas and it occurs to me that the reason it has taken so long to write this response is in part because of the “incubation” phase of the creative act. I did write to you when I first got this letter, excited to respond, intrigued with the situation. Then I waited a couple of weeks and was not sure why. Then when I began to draft a response, I needed clarification on a factual question and so I wrote to you about that, and you gave the answer that was required.

As a courtesy to readers, I will just say that I was not sure what the word “engaged” meant. You clarified that it meant you met with him privately in an online chat room. You never met him in person. He did request a meeting, which you declined. You gave me some other details, too, and I must admit I remain fascinated by the story, but want to just limit this to the one unambiguous response that I am clear about.

Now I sit, having been immersed in reading about psychoanalysis on a level I’m not really equipped to understand, and I come to your letter after a good long swim and some quiet time cleaning the kitchen, and it hits me: If you wish to write about this, I think the best form is not fiction but memoir.

You may at first object that you wish to keep your anonymity. Yes, of course you wish to keep your anonymity. And you can. But what is necessary here is to uncover and reveal to yourself your hidden impulses. You wish to understand yourself better. You wish to know why you acted in the ways you did. I think if you ask yourself these questions, and tell yourself the stories you need to tell, then it will become clear to you. And I think the way to do that is in the form of memoir and journal writing.

If you were an experienced fiction writer it would be different. You would be familiar with the way you disguise your own deepest themes; you would know, in some way, what you are saying by your fictional account even as it remains opaque to others. And so that might be a perfectly sensible way to deal with the powerful psychic material that is at hand.

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That might still happen. You still might find what you need by writing fiction. But I have a feeling it would be like trying to express something on the violin, and not knowing how to play the violin. You would have to learn how to play it, first. Whereas, you do know how to write first-person expository prose. You do have a voice already. You don’t need to burden yourself with the conventions of an art form that takes years to master.

My intuition says that the more rough and ready, direct route of writing memoir is the best way to deal with this material. That will mean journaling and recounting the story, going deep and freely into your own most primitive reasons for doing the things you did. Do not worry about protecting yourself at first. Treat the writing as though it were a confession, in the fullest, most profound sense. Pour yourself into it. If it helps, in the realm of a confession, to tell it to some imagined wise confidant, then do that.  Tell everything you know about yourself. Tell the pain. Tell of the fear behind the pain, or the pain behind the fear and fantasize about the ways you have found to alleviate it. What is your big pain? What is your big fear? I feel confident that the series of actions you took is related to your core fear. This is a story that has probably been repeated in your life. So tell the story. Begin with your deepest fear or your deepest pain and just confess it all.

Of course I don’t know what that is. You may not know yet. It may only emerge as you continually ask yourself what it is. This may be a route to finding that out. I can’t even guess. But the mystery is there for you to solve.You can solve it in the privacy of your own writing, which is a soul-searching practice. You needn’t publish what you produce. But you could. You could publish it under a pseudonym or you could publish it under your own name. That would be up to you. But I urge you to first write it as though it will never be seen. Write it as though it is your own secret, agonized journey, your own revelation.

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