My son is almost 30 and won’t leave home

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 4, 2007

I know I can’t support him anymore — I need to save for retirement. What do I do?


Dear Cary,

I’m a single mother with a grown son. I love him more than I can say. He’s a good person, a great guy in so many ways — smart, creative, kind to animals, etc. We get along well, have common interests and enjoy each other’s company. The rest of my immediate family is dead, and he is literally all the family I have.

The problem is that he’s turning 30 and shows no signs of wanting to leave home. He did move out and try the roommate route twice, but both times it did not turn out well and he moved back in with me. This wouldn’t be so bad — we do get along and all — but he doesn’t pay half the expenses, or even a quarter. In fact, he doesn’t pay me anything at all. My frequent requests for him to contribute to the rent and utilities often result in his losing his temper and yelling at me that all I care about is money. He spends his salary on himself: clothes, movies, computer accessories, you get the drift. It’s as if he still sees himself as a teenager with an allowance.

It’s true that he doesn’t make enough money to live on his own. We live in Los Angeles, and the cost of living is pretty high. He would have more options if he had a better job, and this keeps almost happening. And then it’s as if he sabotages the situation. Why? When I was his age, I was supporting myself and raising him, all by myself.

I saw a movie called “Failure to Launch” about this very situation. It was a comedy. But this isn’t funny. I keep thinking that this situation could be a lot worse, but it still just grates on me. The fact that he seems to feel it’s all right to sponge off me hurts; it shows a serious lack of love and respect for me. And yet, he does seem to love and respect me. I don’t get it. My retirement is approaching on little cat feet; I should be socking away any extra cash for myself, not using it to support him. I keep seeing my future self, living on Social Security and my small retirement account, and still supporting him. Or even worse, still working because I can’t afford to retire. I can’t stand it.

Where did I go wrong? What can I do? I can’t throw him out on the street; I just can’t. But not leaving the nest and learning to fend for himself in the world aren’t good for him. I know he wants to find the right woman and get married, too, but he rarely dates. Who wants a man who is still sponging off his mother?

Please give me some advice. I honestly don’t know what to do.

Forever Mom

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Dear Forever Mom,

There really is only one thing you can do. You have to kick him out. That is, in more gentle terms, you have to tell him firmly that he has to find another place to live.

It may be difficult emotionally. So take some time to prepare. Preparation is not the same thing as delay. It doesn’t mean putting it off until you feel ready. It means setting a date, making a commitment and then planning fully and well.

I suggest you begin by writing him a letter, explaining the situation much as you have explained it to me. You will want to tell him face to face about your decision. But writing it out will give you a chance to explore the issues; giving him a copy of it will ensure that you are both clear on exactly what the future arrangements will be.

Take a couple of weeks with the letter. Make a couple of drafts. Delete parts where you find yourself overjustifying, or attacking, or bringing up old hurts and slights. Avoid emotional pleas. Just tell him, as you have told me, that you cannot support him any longer, that you have to be socking away your cash for retirement and that you have set a date by which he must move out. Tell him the date. Make it stick.

You must be definite about the date by which he is to leave. You must be clear about the fact that he cannot return even if the roommate situation isn’t to his liking. You have to stick to your guns. His inability to make a roommate situation work in the past is a concern, but it is his concern, not yours. If he has to live with roommates, he will have to find a situation that works.

You are not just kicking him out on the street. If you want to assure yourself that adequate housing is available in your area, consult ads for roommate situations and do the math. Give him the figures if you like. If his income is not going to be sufficient, tell him that he is going to have to find some way to increase his income. If he needs a loan to make it through the first six months, suggest a way that he can get a loan. But do not make him a loan yourself. You must stop supporting him if you are to meet your own financial goals.

Do not forget to review the laws that cover tenants in your area. Even though this is a personal arrangement between you and your son, it is possible that in the eyes of the law you are considered a landlord and may have responsibilities in that regard. I don’t know about that, myself. I suggest you consult with an expert — either a landlord-tenant attorney or a legal aid agency qualified to advise you.

This is a tough situation. There is no reason for you to kid yourself. It could be one of the hardest things you have ever done. And you will miss him. It would be wonderful if he were to find self-sufficiency, form a family of his own and bring you into it, so that you have a place in a new family. That would be great for everyone. But whatever happens, know this: You are doing the right thing.

As you write your letter and think this through, other small details of the arrangement may occur to you. That is good. No detail is too small to consider and agree about. I suggest, for instance, that you explicitly insist that he perform the physical move himself, or enlist moving help on his own. If he needs furniture and you have some pieces you wish to let go of, offer him those specific pieces of furniture. If he needs dishes and cookware and you have some extra, set some aside for him. But make it clear that once he has moved out, what remains in the house is your property, not his. Tell him that he should not just come around whenever he feels like it and remove random objects.

These are small things, but they are important. Making all these conditions is a way of creating your new independent relations. It will be difficult but it will accomplish the necessary thing: Your son has to separate from you. He has to become independent so that later in life, when the conditions of dependency change, he can offer support to you.

Write your letter. Cook him some dinner. Tell him he has to move out. Give him the letter. Tell him you love him.

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I’m still angry at my father — what happened in my childhood?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, NOV 1, 2005

I have certain hazy memories that give me the creeps, but I really don’t know the truth.


Dear Cary,

I’ll try to make this short. I’m a 27-year-old man. I’ve blown every good relationship I have ever been in. Sometimes I wonder if my inability to commit comes from my father, who was married three times and is an extremely self-centered person. I idolized him at a young age, but I can say my hatred for him has been growing at least since I turned 13. I should be over it by now. But my father is incredibly needy and lonely and sad; my brother has distanced himself and gotten married, and I’m increasingly left with the burden of this incoherent, drunk and stoned child who can’t even pay his own bills.

At the same time, since I was 14, I’ve had this suspicion in the back of my mind that he sexually abused me. I never talked about this fear to anyone, and I’ve always thought that this was something I probably invented or a convenient excuse to be annoyed when he tried to hug me. I always figured I’m just a cold person who doesn’t like being touched (though it doesn’t bother me when my mom hugs me.) I just figured I hated him so much for so many reasons, that that was why it bothered me for him to hug me. But I can’t get rid of this idea. I took showers with him until I was 8 or 9 years old. Is that weird? But I remember my mom walking in and out of the bathroom. So nothing could have been happening, right? I don’t know why I think this.

I don’t want a reason to feel sorry for myself, I really just want to know whether a person can make up these feelings.

Crazy?

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Dear Crazy?

First of all, you are not making these feelings up. Your feelings are real. On the other hand, they are not facts. They do not prove what happened or did not happen.

Your feelings may be connected to some traumatic event or series of events. Or they may be the result of a pattern of bad parenting that left you anxious, confused and afraid. Whatever the reason, the important thing, it seems to me, is that you have some feelings that are rooted in childhood that you now are being called upon to understand and deal with in adulthood. You are feeling just as powerless and yet full of rage toward your father today as you did as a child.

A competent psychotherapist could be of immense help in working through this. I suggest you contact one.

I don’t mean to discount the importance of knowing whether you were abused by your father, and I don’t think a therapist would, either. Knowing the literal truth about our past can be powerful and transforming. But your quest would not end with that revelation. For what if that truth cannot be known? It is sometimes the case with childhood memories that you will never truly know the literal truth of what happened. Does that mean you are doomed to your current unpleasant state of mind? I don’t think so. Nor do I think that if you did know with certainty exactly what happened that you would therefore suddenly and miraculously be cured of your difficulties.

So how do you deal with these feelings, if the literal truth of what happened might never be known? One way is to fashion a narrative that is true enough for your purposes and then behave according to what you know did happen. You could say, for instance, I am feeling this way because I was raised in a chaotic, uncertain environment where physical and sexual boundaries were not clear and where my own power was marginal or nonexistent.

Does that seem to fit the facts? Having fashioned a narrative like that, you can then make some common-sense observations: For one thing, you are normal. You are feeling the way anyone would feel had they been through what you have been through. For another, you can now make sense of some of the specific feelings you are having.

For instance, perhaps you fear being in a close and powerless position relative to your father; being in such a position, because it repeats a lifelong pattern, may cause you intense anxiety and emotional pain. So being hugged by him, being in a car with him and having to depend on him for things may all bring up those old feelings. It’s also possible that being close to anyone may trigger those same feelings.

As you start observing such things, you may find it useful to define what is going on, to say that you are in the process of forming some adult boundaries; you are paying close attention to how physical proximity and intimacy make you feel; and you are noticing some discomfort in certain situations. In that connection, you can say, Aha, I’m a child of an inappropriate father! So I have to be careful around inappropriate behavior! I have to be careful when I become intimate with someone — because I can be flooded with feelings of vulnerability or fear!

You are not alone in this. There are many, many people in the world today who experience fleeting memories of early experiences that leave them briefly paralyzed or panicked or suffused with sadness. These feelings are real, and their sources are real, though not necessarily in a literal sense. In other words, you felt what you felt as a child. What you felt was real and true. And how you felt as a child affects how you feel today. But though you may feel a murderous rage today, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you were threatened with murder as a child; you might have responded to a cue from the environment in a way, as children do, that was greatly amplified. You were not an adult, who can weigh the relative significance of threats and respond appropriately. So you may have experienced many things as a child that felt dire and life-threatening.

But you are an adult now. So your task, I think, is to remain open to these feelings, not to deny them, but to work to get to know them, to get used to these feelings, to try to understand their language. Your feelings are, after all, not just a distraction; they are also a source of intuitive knowledge about what is actually happening around you. There may be times in your life when people actually are too close, and you are right to feel uncomfortable. As you come to know and understand these patterns of feeling, ideally you will extend your new understanding to other people who have been through similar experiences.

You cannot change what was done in the past. But you can change how you are feeling in the present.

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My son eloped and cut me out

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 17, 2012

I only got a generic notice, as if I were just a bystander, or an acquaintance!


Dear Cary,

It’s my turn. I need advice.

I opened my mail earlier this week and found a wedding announcement — from my son. My son, whom I raised alone since he was 3 (he’s 30 now).  My son, whose selfish temper tantrums through high school stopped me from dating women (and therefore, anybody) for years. Whose tour of duty in Iraq I gritted my teeth and “supported” him through despite my soul-level objection to his joining the Army.

The same son who, after he got his head right, volunteered — practically begged — to officiate at my wedding last year to a very sweet woman who rode out his homophobia until it was gone.

The son (my only child) about whom friends marvel, “You guys are SO close! It’s heartwarming.”

He married his girlfriend of five years, which is whom he SHOULD marry — and I’ve encouraged that for a long time. But eloping with no discussion with anyone (family, anyway) is disappointing, to say the least. There were no family issues going on about them; everyone on both sides was hoping for and expecting them to marry sometime soon. I’m sad that they’ve just taken a little jaunt downtown and gotten married in secret, taking away from everyone the opportunity to participate and celebrate. Certainly they have the RIGHT to elope — but everything legal is not also a good idea.

All of that one could get over, and I no doubt will, but to just simply have been on the address list for a photocopied announcement — that’s too much for me. I got the news along with anyone else whose address they had — high-school classmates, work friends, former employees. It’s not like there was any other unhappiness going on; in fact, he called me “just to say hi” the same day they mailed the announcements, but without responding truthfully to “What’s new with you?” I’m overwhelmingly sad at having been held at arms’ length over this, and he is royally ticked off by my telling him — carefully — how hurt I was to get this notice in the mail. I was clear that I am happy for him to be married to this woman, and I sincerely hope it’s forever, but I feel like they just went off on a lark (“Hee-hee, let’s go get secret married and not tell ANYBODY — they’ll be SO surprised when they get the note!”) like teenagers, with no thought about the broader meaning of joining together publicly, of themselves as not just independent beings, but also part of a larger community of family and friends.

My friends are shocked, some even angry, and I feel hurt, hurt, hurt and sad, sad, sad. Slapped in the face. The wind knocked out of me. In light of my generic notification, I picked out a generic “congratulations” card and signed it with my first and last names (instead of “Mom”).  I have to see both of them this weekend at a family birthday party (and I can’t disappoint my young niece by staying away). I don’t know how I can do this without crying. How? How do I deal this weekend, and how do I get out of this mire of sadness I’m stuck in?

Sign me

The Generic Person Formerly Known as Mom

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Dear Generic Person Formerly Known as Mom,

You sound like a good and well-meaning person who was hit hard by something and had no defenses against it. Sometimes something will just bring you to your knees. You aren’t expecting to be so deeply affected by something, and you aren’t expecting someone to do something, and then when it happens you have no defenses.

Having no defenses can be a good thing. Sometimes it’s the only way to truly feel something. In fact, I tend to think we often live in awful unreality, that we glide over tragedy and fate too easily, that we are glib and casual when we would be better served if we were grave and formal and silent, for daily we walk amid miracles and crimes.

I was at my locker this morning at the gym, next to a Russian man, and I said, “Excuse me,” so I could dial my combination into my green padlock and open my locker. I looked into his face as he turned, and I saw pain and sorrow and anger; the look was so open as to be startling; he was not guarded and bland or shallowly comical like so many of the American middle-class men who frequent the gym; I saw his face and I thought of what horrors he had endured, what secrets he had, what awful things he had lived through. His face was grave and true. It humbled me. I sat quietly and waited while he dressed.

So let’s just talk about emotional pain, and the dignity it involves, and its power. Let’s not talk yet about why your son did what he did or any of that. For starters, let’s say that emotional pain comes from an injury not to the body but to the soul, to our self-esteem or confidence or sense of who we are. In this case, it seems that your sense of  self in relation to your son was injured. You thought your son held you in a certain regard but his actions seem to show that he does not.

Let’s again delay talking about why your son did what he did and keep talking about you.  Let’s talk about your sense of yourself in relation to him. You have been his loving mom. You have been the most important person in his life. Being his mom has been one of your greatest roles. It has been a constant buoying force in your life. It has filled you with contentment and joy throughout the day. It has served to bolster your self-esteem and standing among your friends. Think about how important his place in your life has been. Just allow yourself to look at it. It might seem that to evaluate it like this might diminish it, but it won’t. It will just help you see in how many different ways your relationship to your son has been central to your self-esteem and well-being.

To be somewhat glib, let’s say that emotional pain goes away when the injury heals. In this case, your sense of self in relation to your son was injured. So how can that heal? Your son has suddenly moved out of your sphere and you are going to have to adjust. You are going to have to find new sources of joy and self-esteem. You might begin thinking about how your role in life will now change. You might begin thinking about how to let go of your son and find other sources of joy and contentment and pride day to day. You might also think about how to have a better relationship with your son, on these new terms in which he has moved out of your sphere of influence.

Let’s also now consider what your son might have been thinking and feeling. He broke some rules. He did something heedless but also romantic. I wonder how he sees rules. It is possible that he does not take certain rules very seriously. You say he joined the Army and went to Iraq. The Army has a lot of rules. Perhaps his tour of duty in Iraq left him with a feeling that some rules are important because they protect life and limb, and others are civilian rules that are not about life and death and so they don’t matter as much.

I don’t know if you pray or not, but if you do, it might not hurt to pray for your son. That might just mean conjuring him up in your thoughts and wishing for his happiness. It might just mean having him in your thoughts in a kind way. Pray for him to be happy and to be safe and to endure and prosper.

You might also pray for him to gradually acquire the wisdom to see how his choice hurt you so deeply; you might pray that he will acknowledge that one day. I think he will. I think he will one day see that it hurt you deeply, and he will tell you that he didn’t want to hurt you. Pray for him and love him. You will all get over this.

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No gifts, just pay my bills

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 13, 2012

Instead of unwrapping new gizmos, I’d like help with my debts


Dear Mr. Tennis,

I have a fairly simple holiday question to ask you. But I fear that even though the question is simple the answer, or advice, may be much more complicated.

So here goes…

In all of your intuitive sagacity do you believe that it would be bad form to ask family members if they could contribute to helping pay outstanding debts (i.e., bills) instead of giving presents? A little clarification may be in order (I told you this would be sticky). Now this would not be the same as asking for money outright, which would be pretty ballsy and probably not welcomed warmly. No, this is more like saying, “I would really enjoy getting some new-fangled electronic gizmo or the entire set of Robogeek I-XII on Blu-ray… but this year what I really need is leg up to get back on my feet, so to speak.” Cash in hand says to me that it says to other people that I may take this to Vegas for partying and bail money or that groceries might not be the only bags I purchase with this money. Also, a check is usually something from grandparents or for an unrelated celebration from an entirely different sect. I am a decent person and I am fairly responsible but times are tough and the bestest gift I can think of is the gift of freedom. Clearing up that debt gives me the freedom to visit and do more of those things I had to politely decline so that I could spend more time at work slaving away to make more money to eventually have more time to do more things with family. Deep breath … OK. You can see how this could foul up a person’s “rasoodock” and lead to unwanted existential angst in the middle of a time of good will and good cheer. The holiday season is a time for charity but where the line should be drawn is kinda blurry. Or maybe it isn’t.

Thank you for your time and consideration, sir.

No Presents of Mind

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Dear No Presents of Mind,

If it is bad form to admit to family members that you have money problems, then I’m all in favor of bad form. If swallowing your pride in order to try to pay off your debts is bad form, then I am all in favor of bad form.

So I actually got to thinking about how you would make it possible for people who want to give you gifts to help you pay off your debts instead. People might want to do it anonymously. They might not want you knowing the exact amount of money they sent. So could people send money to your creditors? Well, they could, but it would have to have the right account number on it. Do you want to give out your account numbers? Maybe not.

So it could get complicated. So I made some calls.

One guy I talked to, a press contact at the American Bankers Association, suggested that maybe people could write a check to the lending institution you wish to receive the money and send the check to you and then you could fill in the account number. So the check would be payable to, say, Chase, or American Express, or PG&E, and then you would put your own account number on it. Of course, that means you would know who was giving what, so it wouldn’t be totally anonymous. Or maybe, I thought, they could send it to an intermediary who would do this final step for you, so you would never really know who contributed what. Different lending institutions might have different policies. You might call your creditor and set up a way that people could send checks to them and identify your account.

I’m sure there are variations on this and other ways to go about it, like using a crowd-funding site such as Indiegogo or Kickstarter, or setting up a PayPal account that people could send money to. Have a party and collect cash in a hat and send it to Mastercard. There are lots of ways to go. You could easily over-complicate it. But basically I’m all for it. Especially if it’s in bad form! Let’s try to use this holiday for some rational economic improvement!

I am all in favor of being honest about your financial situation, and trying to do the thing that makes the most sense.

This could be a gift you would remember forever.

Good luck and happy holidays.

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Holiday nightmare: Here it comes again

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Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY,  DEC 4, 2011

How can I make this year’s gathering tolerable, at least?


Dear Cary,

So, this is a boring question but a timely one. It’s That Time of Year again, when the secular and religious Christians descend upon the homes of their relatives to give gifts no one wants or can afford, and to torment each other emotionally.  

I am dealing with the Ghost of Christmas Past That Won’t Go Away. My childhood was horrible. The holidays generally involved going to my paternal grandmother’s house for the obligatory exercise in guilt and the giving of gifts that no one ever liked and which were always wrong and not good enough. My family didn’t like me, and they had severe problems that I won’t go into, but suffice it to say that these gatherings were damning, draining, discouraging and demoralizing. So much so, that once I got into my 20s I quit talking to my relatives for seven years and moved 3,000 miles away. They were not invited to my wedding. They never met my children.

Anyway, my grandparents, uncles and father have long since died. I have abandoned any semblance of Christianity — no trees, no Easter eggs for me — and have instead become interested in the religious tradition of my mother’s family. I still have a cousin from my father’s side who lives about 40 minutes from me. Every year, she invites me and my husband and kids over to her place for Christmas Eve. She is one of those highly repressed, chronically nice yet inwardly seething people who always tries to do the right thing and resents the hell out of the world for not appreciating her, but she’s too polite to go on direct attack. I feel she wants to go through the motions of maintaining the myth of family connection, as if that group were less horrible than they really were. She’s a very nice, good person who has been generous with my kids, and is reliable. She’s done a lot of stuff for me over the years, but I never felt like it was for free, thus I don’t feel safe with her emotionally. It doesn’t feel like an emotionally honest relationship. There is a subtext, but I don’t know what it is.

None of us can afford to spend a lot of money on gifts. She can’t, and I can’t. Nobody can. But I am afraid that we will be invited, and my kids will want to go, and I will feel obligated to go over there, even though I am probably not wanted anyway, and we will all give in to the pressure to shop in order to go through the ritual of giving gifts nobody wants or needs.

What is the deal with the competitive gift-giving thing, anyway? In my family of origin, it was supposed to prove that people cared because they couldn’t express caring in any other way but through money or gifts. They couldn’t say anything nice, they couldn’t be affectionate or warm — they were all bundles of grudges, resentment, suspicion, insecurity and bitterness.

Miss Manners would be appalled, so I’m not asking her, I’m asking you: How can I get out of this event? Is there any nice way to say to my cousin, to acknowledge, that none of us can afford to go through this charade? And then just not do it? Because what I wish is that anything anyone would spend on me they would simply take for themselves and buy something they really want and enjoy rather than give me something I don’t need or want and resent me for it. Do you get that receiving anything from anyone in my extended family carries the burden of resentments and unmet needs and accusations? It’s a drag. Why do we keep doing it?

You may wonder why I don’t invite my cousin to my house, which could be an option if my place were not such a dump — broken plumbing, holes in the wall, non-working electricity, a neighborhood eyesore, broken oven, rotting doors, chunks of house falling off, etc. Far from the Better Homes & Gardens image our grandmother lived by. No dining room, no place to sit. I hate the Holiday Season and wish I didn’t have to do this stuff anymore. Frankly, it would not surprise me if she really doesn’t want to do it, either — but how to address the issue? Or just make other plans?

Dreading It

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Dear Dreading It,

Here we go again.

I was at Salon’s panel discussion last night about the meaning of the Occupy movement and, more broadly, this moment in our social and political history.

Every now and then what we all know and have been repressing becomes visible. Someone does something and it catches on and things change. It is hard to know when such a moment is at hand.

But certainly now is such a moment. The moment is at hand to make courageous changes both public and private.

It is especially hard to make changes in family practices when there is no larger context for them. One risks being labeled an eccentric or a troublemaker. But when a large social context appears — such as when the feminist movement happened, or during the era of civil rights protests — then individuals in families have an opening. It is as though taboos are lifted and people may speak. That is when we may make changes — particularly when everyone has known the change needed to be made but no one had the courage or the opportunity to speak up.

Your critique of how your family celebrates Christmas is nicely linked to the larger critique of our general economic arrangements. If we can speak of the unfairness of our current system, and its waste and destructiveness, we can also speak of the unfairness of our individual practices, and how wasteful they are. We can do this with a clear conscience. We can do it in context.

It is a time to make changes, some large, some small. These changes may be “political” in certain ways. But what is great about the current moment is that when “political” movements take hold they always touch individual lives in important ways.

One interesting thing about the panel discussion last night was that those of us who have lived through previous social and political movements were able to acknowledge what we learned from those past attempts to change our society. One thing we learned was that a nonhierarchical, consensus-based approach leads to a more durable — if messier — group process.

It was refreshing to consider afterward the wonderful benefits of just leveling with people, of just telling the truth and being heard.

So I hope that in some way this holiday season you can tell the truth to those who matter to you, and that you can be heard, and that you can be yourself and be loved for who you are. My guess is that you are indeed loved for who you are. My guess is that this relative of yours who has invited you over has a real appreciation for you. But, like you, she must struggle to find an “appropriate” way to put her appreciation into practice.

There are many dangers in trying to “fix your family”! But there are ways to simply be present in it, and there are ways to appreciate the flawed but sincere ways that people come together this time of year and try to share what is in their hearts. That is what many people are trying to do, however imperfectly they are doing it.

One idea that comes to mind is for you to give each person an envelope with a personal letter in it; make it a card, as a nod to holiday convention, but put a longer letter in it, too, telling that person the truth about your experience, and inviting that person to confide in you, if he or she wishes, about his or her real experience of the world and of your family.

This could be done quietly.

You might have to give these cards at the end, as you are leaving. Or you might write them in such a way that you are comfortable with each person reading what is in it. If you write what you truly believe and are comfortable with each person reading it — that is, if you refrain from slander and venting — then it might indeed be an empowering act by which you cease this compulsive and harmful thing everyone has been doing for years while acknowledging the universal drive to connect with others at this time of year and celebrate our humanity, such as it is.

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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

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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.

My family gives me no respect

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUN 7, 2006

I’m accomplished and responsible but they treat me like a loser.


Dear Cary,

I have a great job, own my own home, car, dog and medium-size 401K, have put myself through college and law school. I am not a loser! So why does my whole family treat me like one?

My family is not a normal set of folks; we are in a whole new category of dysfunctional and it would take 20 hours’ worth of couch time to even come close to describing the crazy things below the surface. Anyway, the issue is that I want to be loved and respected. I am loved by some but respect is just not there.

My youngest sister is forever telling me how poor my judgment is, how bad my understanding of people is and how unprofessional I am, despite the evidence of my high-powered job at an internationally renowned organization. I have a résumé to die for. That is not just a boast but a statement of fact (OK, a boast, too. I need to bolster myself since I am not getting it from outside sources). She tells me that she has no faith in me, in my judgment or in anything about me, that my house is awful, my neighborhood sucks, my dog is poorly trained, etc. And this is the sister I get along with best.

My mother makes it clear that a woman of 39 (me) without a husband and without children is a loser by definition. I had a husband, a drug-abusing, foul-mouthed yet charming brute who almost bankrupted me, stole from me and my friends, cheated on me with other women and possibly men, and verbally abused me in public and private. Dumping him after seven years of marriage was the best decision of my life. I feel lucky that any of my self-esteem survived that one. Yet, here we are five years later and my mother still criticizes me for not keeping that guy! Her current advice: Find a man who wants American citizenship and trade my bed for a green card!

My father barely speaks to me because I dated a guy he did not like a year ago. Two of my sisters do not speak to me at all. I honestly do not know why but both claim to be angry at me. My brother thinks I am an irresponsible idiot. My last sister, who is the only one who acknowledges me as a fully grown and responsible adult, still tells me that my divorce from an abusive ex is a sign of my inability to keep a commitment!

For God’s sake, what is it going to take to get these people to admit that I am fine as I am and why the hell do I care! Are these people overly judgmental or am I insane?

Dissed by My Family

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Dear Dissed,

You are fine as you are. I know that. You know that. It’s the truth.
But your family is never going to give you what you want. That’s also the truth.

You will never be at peace with your family until you stop wanting what they will never give you.

It is easy to say, “Accept the way things are.”

But exactly how do we accept things? What is this action called acceptance? I would say that acceptance is knowing rather than wishing. You studied law. You committed many laws to memory. You may wish they were one way but they are the way they are. If you go into the courtroom and expect the laws to be different from the way they are you will not succeed. You must accept that the law is the way it is. You must know the law.

The same is true with your family. You must know your family as it is. You must study your family and know it thoroughly. That is your route to acceptance. Regard your family as a fact, immutable as the law. They are what they are. They behave in a certain way. The facts are unpleasant. But they are facts.

What happens to people who do not like the law and so do not obey it? They get their asses kicked.

You may not like what you know about your family but you must accept it or you will get your ass kicked. You will step into the ring expecting a kiss and get slapped. Don’t do it. Don’t let them kick you around.

You may find it hard to accept your family as it is. There are reasons for that. One reason is that in accepting your family as it is, you have to give up, or mourn, the ideal family that never was. You may have to go through a sort of grieving process. You may have to feel the hurt, the lifelong ache of wanting a family that is loving and kind and supportive and never getting it. It hurts. It hurts a lot. It hurts for a long time. But that is the price of knowing the truth.

I think the truth is worth it.

Here is a consolation: This other family, this ideal, imaginary family that you always wanted, this family that really gets you, that supports you, that appreciates you as you appreciate yourself: It is a real family, too. It is real in your mind. You can keep it, in fact. You can keep this imaginary family in your mind. This dream family is your family, too. It’s the family you deserve. It lives on a different street in a different neighborhood where only you can go.

Here is another consolation. Sometimes if you leave something alone long enough it begins to heal on its own and one day long after you have given up even thinking about it a gift arrives in the mail that is so delightful you break down right there on your doorstep because you had given up all hope of such a thing ever, ever happening.

I’m just saying it’s possible. Maybe one day if you leave this alone it may fix itself. But don’t hold your breath. Let it be.

Your family today is sad and difficult and dangerous. Remember that. Accept it. Don’t give them the opportunity to kick you around anymore.

Get what you need some other way. Get it from people who have it to give.

Help me be strong

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUL 28, 2003

I’m in love with a man I work with. We’re both married with kids but we don’t want to break up our families.


Dear Cary,

I’m in love with a man I work with. He’s married, I’m married, both of us have kids — hard to make it sound original. However, while I have vivid fantasies of being with him, I basically don’t want to cheat on my husband, I don’t want to break up my family, and I don’t want to break up his family. I have a lot of respect for his wife, and I want my kids to be with their dad.

Mr. Wonderful started working for my company a few months ago. I was largely unsatisfied in my job, then he arrived and we were assigned to a project together. My work life has totally turned around, I’m working harder than I ever have and loving it, and we do really good work together. We enjoy each other’s company, and both of us have commented on how well we get along for only knowing one another for a few months. We work hard, then take breaks to discuss politics, family issues, the evil of the SUV and G.W.’s war in Iraq, then back to more hard work. We’re accomplishing so much for the company, and I think the boss is pleased.

There’s a physical charge between us for sure. All that clichéd stuff — the brushing of hands, feet pausing together a moment too long together under the table, makes me feel like a cheap romance novelist just to write it. It’s fun, but I’m fully aware of the thin line we are walking.

To complete the scene, a description of my marriage is required — my husband and I, even when we were dating, have always had a rocky relationship. We were together and apart a lot before getting married, kind of rushed into marriage after a particularly dramatic breakup and reunion (the dozen roses a day for a week variety), and now have two kids under 3 and a lot of added stress to an already stressful relationship. We’ve done couples counseling for about seven years now, and while it keeps us going, it doesn’t feel like we make much progress toward real change.

My husband is intense and exciting, but also is impatient, selfish and immature. My co-worker (C.W.) is kind and generous. While I really don’t want to divorce my husband, wreck C.W.’s marriage, and marry him (OK, I kind of want that on one level, but I don’t want all the drama that would entail), meeting him has made me realize that kind and generous men are out there, and if I were on my own I could probably meet another one. My husband and I are really trying to improve things, both of us agreeing to put effort into the marriage, but I’m not fully into it since C.W. is always in my mind somewhere.

The easy answer is quit my job and clear my mind; however, it’s a small town, C.W. and I are both committed to staying here, and it’s kind of the only (and best) game in town for both of us. I plan on moving on to something else (following a calling, but that’s another story) when my kids start school in four years, but for now I need this job.

I turn down C.W.’s requests to accompany him on errands during the day, but the occasional lunch together is such fun and so energizing, I’d hate to give it up, and then I’d also have to explain to him why. We have verbalized none of what happens nonverbally between us; it’s chaste as can be on the surface (though I do suspect a bit of office gossip). I’m struggling to separate the work and decisions about my marriage from the existence of C.W., but should I even try? Is it all connected in my feelings? Telling my husband that meeting C.W. made me realize that I deserve better treatment would not go over well, since I still have to go to work every day. I’ve been fibbing a bit, saying, “I’ve been recognizing my own needs more lately,” to explain my increasing dissatisfaction and crankiness around the house.

Does my husband deserve to be let in on what’s in my head? For the record, all of my friends, male and female, agree that my husband should be contributing to the family more, should treat me with more respect and kindness and shouldn’t be blaming me for everything the way he does, so I think I’m in the right in asking for better behavior from him.

Any insight you have would be welcome as I try to sort this all out.

Stuck

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Dear Stuck,

You’re at a crucial point in your life; you’re dozing off in the driver’s seat, about to run off the road, and it’s my job to jump into the passenger seat, slap you silly, wake you up and put your hands back on the wheel.

It’s not that far, really, to Albuquerque. You’ll be there by morning. Your husband will mature. Your kids will become more self-sufficient. You’ll have other crushes and other brushes with marital disaster, and you’ll handle them better with practice. But right now, you have to just wake up and stay on the road. Don’t blow it. You have no idea how messed up things could get. Just keep your hands on the wheel, keep your eyes on the road, and think of your kids.

It’s not surprising you’re tired and not thinking straight, with those kids waking you up at all hours and the job and the husband and the counseling and the work on the relationship and the secret crush. You’re probably just about done in. All the more reason to stick to the basics right now, and don’t complicate your life any further.
Don’t be telling your husband about what’s going on in your head. If, as you say, he is impatient, selfish and immature, he’s not going to be any help. It would just add stress. Instead, plug this leak at the source: level with your co-worker. Tell him that you know something is developing between you two and you’re putting a stop to it. Tell him you’re backing off and taking control for the two of you. Then do it. Be friendly but firm. Treat him like any other co-worker. If you find that hard to do, here’s a tip: Visualize how a woman would act if she wasn’t attracted to him, and copy what she does.

And then put more energy into your marriage. Rather than allow yourself to drift further away, reverse that: Give it all you’ve got. If you work hard, you can make it tolerable and secure while your kids go through those crucial early years. Here’s another idea that might help: Make a list of 10 concrete things you could do to cheer yourself up, improve your marriage and make life easier around the house, and then, one by one, work to make them happen. That should keep you busy and focused. Who knows, perhaps during the next few years, partly as a result of your hard work and partly as a natural process, your husband may mature, overcome his selfishness and impatience and become the man you would like him to be.

But if not, when the kids are older, and your individual finances are such that one of you could take care of the kids without undue stress, if you are still deeply unhappy in your marriage, perhaps it will be time to get a divorce. Just don’t do it now. The kids deserve a chance to get through elementary school without worrying about which parent they’re with on Tuesday and which house they’re sleeping in on Thursday. They started life with two parents and they’d probably prefer to continue life with two parents. So, for now, that’s your job. Keep your eyes on the road. Because, as they say in that Michelin ad, so much is riding on your tires.

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

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

Forgave but Did Not Forget

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Dear Forgave,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Somebody sent child protective services to my house!

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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

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Dear Pretty Good Mom,

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

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

I couldn’t live in a town like that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d tell them my story.

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

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

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

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

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