I forgot to tell my wife I have a 12-year-old daughter

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUL 8, 2005

I fathered a child when I was a screwed-up loser and kept it secret all these years.


Dear Cary,

Boy, did I screw up.

About 13 years ago, I fell for a friend of my sister’s and got her pregnant. I was at this point in my life a loser. I had no job, no home (I was living with my father), no car, no license (never had it), no complete education, and absolutely no prospects. Her family, predictably, hated me.

After a couple months of unremitting and conflicting pressure from our families, she “realized” that I was a loser and she cut me loose. No contact, no nothing.

The last night that we ever discussed the baby was the night she gave birth. I got raving drunk and never discussed it again. My very WASP-y and remarkably repressed family followed suit (or was it I that was following suit?) Either way, the topic was off limits, that part of my brain and my heart was blocked off with yellow tape, and everyone moved on.

She married and her husband adopted the baby. I turned my life around materially and spiritually (education, wonderful wife, good job, house, etc.). I never tried to contact her or the baby. I told myself that I was only a “donor” and that I would only screw things up for her and the baby. Eventually, my wife and I bought a home not too far from my daughter and her family.

I dealt with the issue alone, fighting the late-night demons and doing everything I could to hold the situation at bay.

Years passed. A mutual friend of the family ran into the woman and told my sister that my daughter is 12 now and asking a number of questions. The resemblance is unmistakable and her parents have done a wonderful job (I am thrilled for them and her ). Faced with this, and only because I was faced with this, I decided to tell my wife about the situation.

Predictably, my wife is furious and feels (rightly) that I have violated her trust. We are just about to start a family of our own, and now everything in my life has been thrown into play. I don’t know if I would have been able to reveal this if not forced. Now that it is out in the open, the events are painful and crushing.

I’m scared, I’m confused, and I suddenly feel every bit as worthless as I felt all those years ago. I don’t think that my wife is going to leave me (we are looking into starting some kind of couples therapy), but I feel like I am still paying for not being good enough all those years ago. I am starting to get angry at those folks who are angry at me.

I have written a letter to my daughter’s mother and adoptive father, explaining where I am in my life and that we are very open to contact and a relationship, once rules and boundaries have been established; but my primary concern is my wife. I do not want to lose her (or her respect) over this.

Three days ago I had a normal life, and I feel like I am never going to have that again…

What a tangled web we weave…

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Dear Tangled,

I do not think you will lose your wife over this, or that your life will fall apart. You will get into counseling and learn about family systems and the keeping of secrets. You will work out some arrangement with the family of your daughter, and your wife will look at you with unfathomable anger for an indefinite period, and if you are good and do not completely freak out, eventually the normal life you had three days ago will return. But I hope out of this comes some thinking about how you have been living and where the secrets come from and who this person was who so many years ago fathered a daughter and kept it secret from his wife. I detect in your letter perhaps a lack of empathy for your earlier incarnation, and I would like to share a little about how I, who was also a bit of a loser and somewhat out of control, have come in middle age to regard my earlier self.

It has been helpful for me to see that I did some of the things I did because I was trying to do the right thing, strange as it appeared. It has been of great help to me to realize that I have often been an innocent actor, naive and lazy and deluded but not malicious. Like you I was trying to survive. I was doing what I had to do at the time. It has been helpful in considering why certain episodes went wrong to consider what I was running from and why I kept so many secrets and why the truth seemed unsurvivable. Was there some knowledge so corrosive that the silence in our household was a kind of insulation, a balm to naked skin?

What truth was so terrible at the time that it could not be uttered in the house? That you had sex without love? Is love a pair of handcuffs that must be worn every time? Is it a sin to do something simply because you really, really want to and it feels really, really good? Was it a sin to make love to your sister’s friend? Was there no one else around who could take you by the hand and show you what you then had to do? Was this all up to you? Are you the sole perpetrator of some crime? Must you punish yourself now for rest of your life?

It has been of great help to me from time to time to conjure up this innocent being, this young boy who was simply trying to express love and wonder, and later this young man who seemed to be in trouble but was not robbing houses or hitting people on the head. I suggest you do not hate this younger man, this fuck-up, this version of yourself. I suggest, instead, that you learn to love this nasty little fuck-up that you had to leave behind. I suggest that you offer a hand of forgiveness to this nasty little fuck-up. He was a guy trying to figure it out. He was a guy trying to get along. He was a guy trying to live with whatever it was that hurt. What was it that hurt? Who ever knows what it is with a young guy that hurts so much? We don’t talk about it among ourselves, although always there will be a stoned glance or a touch between young men, high on this or that, that says I know the crazy hurting thing too, it’s a motherfucker. So you followed the trajectory of your hurting and you got drunk the night your daughter was born.

Fathers have been getting drunk and leaving town for centuries when their babies are born: In spite of our storied propensity for engendering life, we do not always welcome it when it arrives, we kind of wish it would go away, we want to be left to our tools and our greasy hands and our shade trees, our violent metal and brief explosions, our gray primer and rust, our certainty of objects. The birth of a child means more life, more crying, more questions, more hunger, more lying and walking away, more required courses, more questions we cannot answer, more tests, more tedium, more teachers, more classroom sitting, more desolate afternoons, more diapers and howling, more unbridgeable gulf, more rules, more discipline, more silence. We do not like life in a lot of ways. For some of us men we like a few books, we like a little racquetball, we like maybe a sauna and some swimming, we like a long drive down a leafy road in a good truck, but we did not sign on for the entire program and it tires us out, frankly, and after the truck is parked we just want to lie down and go to sleep, and it is like this day after day for many of us men, which is why we father kids and go off into the woods, never to speak of it again until it comes up by a careless word or two in the supermarket, and there we are again, saddled with ourselves, bending under the incomprehensible load of what we have done — given life to a child who now looks out at the world and says, I don’t know, man, what you’re all so fucked up about, this looks pretty good to me. Just wait, we say. Just wait.

What I mean is, you need to conjure up some compassion for the teenager you once were, this wayward loser without a home or a job. You need to do this in order to stop hanging your head in shame for having been simply young and confused and unsure what to do. My sense of it is that your keeping of secrets arises out of intense shame. You need to replace that shame with some compassion and respect. To do that you need to go back down some of those same old roads and find out what you were really looking for back then.

I can’t do that for you. But my guess is that you were looking for a way out of WASPish silence, the long tradition of family secrets, the code your family lived by. You were looking for a more authentic way of feeling and being. Making love and getting drunk seemed like ways to get to something real. But at the crucial moment, when your waywardness truly bore fruit, it was a forbidden fruit it bore, so you turned away in fear. You turned back to what you knew best: the keeping of secrets, the silent bearing of shame.

Now, as an adult man, it’s time to pick up where you left off. It’s time to finish what you started — not with teenage acting-out but with a sober acknowledgment that wild, untamable passions are as important to your life as oatmeal for breakfast and plenty of life insurance.

You’re married now. You’ve got a house and a job. You’re safe. It’s time to hold your head up and acknowledge who you were then and who you are now and make the best of a pretty good situation.

I hope you get a chance to tell everything. Sometimes, after a life of secrets, telling everything helps.

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I’m lonely

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Cary’s classic column from

I’ve kept my HIV-positive status to myself except for one time — and that person doesn’t communicate with me anymore.


Dear Cary,

I really like the humane advice you give and I need some myself.

I am HIV positive and have known this for 15 years now, ever since I was in my mid-20s. Since I have never had an associated illness (never even a symptom), am doing well on the available medications, and do not fit the profile that many people associate with the condition, hardly anyone knows about my status.

This is how I want it. I vowed from the beginning that I would live a “normal” life as long as possible. I am also very aware that telling people puts a great burden on them because they have to live with upsetting knowledge, and I also fear distorting friendships by having people feel sorry for me (which I dread), or people sticking around when they really don’t like me just because they feel somehow obliged to.

At the same time, as I’m sure you can imagine, it gets very lonely, and this includes time spent with support groups (which I have not found very useful in my case). Apart from the existential issues, there are the very visible and practical ones: You have to hide to pop all your pills, you have to take them with or without food, you get tired, your body changes in bizarre ways, you have to make up excuses at work for why you have so many doctor’s appointments. Just covering, lying and planning all this is exhausting.

It is also true that I do get very depressed, in a way that I don’t think I would if I was negative. Inevitably, friends notice this and it seems downright inexplicable to them, since on the outside I seem to have a lot going for me.

That’s my prelude. A couple of weeks ago, fed up with the constant dissembling and lying, I “outed” myself to a friend in an e-mail (we live some distance apart and all our communications are by e-mail.) This was an unusual thing for me to do, but I just wanted this person to understand me a bit better, in particular, understand why I get anxious and down when no obvious explanation exists. There is no question of any (sexually) intimate relationship between us — we have talked about some very personal topics in the past, and I decided to step out of my comfort zone and include this one.

Well, two weeks later, no response, whereas normally we communicate several times per week.

I feel awful. You feel so vulnerable when you disclose information like this — you only do so if you feel you can totally trust the person. I mean, trust the person to behave with compassion, solidarity and maturity. I guess the silence means I misplaced my trust. I am also angry with myself for my poor judgment, for making myself vulnerable to someone who obviously doesn’t share my own values about being there for friends in need.

Cary, are my reactions appropriate, in your opinion? Should I take this as a lesson to shut up in the future — once bitten, twice shy? I would also like to take this opportunity of conveying to your readers that should they ever find themselves on the receiving end of information like this, the worst thing they can do is withdraw in silence. If you can’t think of what to say, at least say that you can’t think of what to say.

Also, if ever this person does make contact with me again, what would be the best way for me to handle it? It is hard for me to judge, since I am so used to being the bearer of bad tidings and not the recipient (except from my doctor).

Wondering Alone

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Dear Wondering,

I applaud you for having the courage to out yourself this one time, and I’m sorry it did not turn out better. I think you have taken on far too heavy a burden of secrecy, and this painful first step should be followed by a second and a third, which should be progressively less painful, so that eventually you can come out of this mode of secrecy altogether. It is far too much work to hide such a thing; should the disease eventually weaken you, it will be an unsupportable burden. You deserve to live in a community of compassionate people who do not need to be deceived. The only way you can find such people is to trust them with your truth. Some may react badly. Most, I think you will find, will respond like human beings.

Not only do you deserve to be able to live honestly and openly with your disease, but those who truly care about you also deserve to know the truth. You can’t control what their reactions will be; that is the risk you must take to live in community with others.

I think your advice about how to accept such information is splendid. People often do the wrong thing when they hear such news. I think part of the reason is that we overestimate the amount of influence our behavior has on others. We think that if we say the wrong thing we will devastate someone else. We think if we reveal our disease that others will be incapacitated, unable to respond. And if we find a case in which that is so, we tend to see it as proof. But I do believe at the heart of this over-regard for others is a kind of over-regard for our own importance. The truth, I believe, is that while others are more capable of compassion than we might surmise, they are also not quite as concerned with us as we would like to believe. That is, we are not the center of their lives. So when we deliver such news it is often neither as devastating as we fear nor as earthshakingly important as we would wish.

Further, when, believing that we must control what is known about us, we habitually act with deception, we may hide the particulars but what we reveal is the pattern of deception itself; people may not perceive that we are HIV positive; they just perceive that we are deceptive.

I understand your desire not to become an emotional burden, but I think you have taken it too far, and everyone will benefit if you began confiding in others about your status.

And if that person you first confided in should finally get back to you, try to stick to the facts. Just say you noticed that after you said you were HIV positive, you didn’t hear anything for quite a while, and that it was hurtful, and see if you can have a frank and open discussion about it.

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