Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Themes of This Blog Seen In Newspaper Advice Columns – Part I

Carolyn Hax

In this series of posts, I will show how several of the issues I discuss in the blog show up in letters to newspaper advice columnists. These columns have historically been written by women, but some men are entering the fray. The first ones were seen in Britain and the writers were referred to as agony aunts.

Of course, some of the published letters may me fakes, and the prejudices of the columnists determine which letters they publish and which of the many that they receive go unpublished. Nonetheless, as I have mentioned in previous posts, in order to have a wide readership, they must bring us problems that resonate with a fairly wide readership. This provides another source of information about human behavior for any mental health professional aware of the fact that the entire world of their patients does not consist of what they see or hear in their offices.

One other important point: there is always way more to the writers’ story than they possibly could tell in a short letter, even if they wanted to.

 I follow Jeanne Phillips (Dear Abby), Carolyn Hax, Amy Dickinson (Ask Amy), and Marcy Sugar & Kathy Mitchell (Annie’s Mailbox).

I will underscore each theme with a title reflecting the blog subject that seems to be discussed in the letters, which will also be a link to a related post. I’m not putting the columnist’s responses in the posts, as I will either give my own take or list any questions that the letter would raise, and lead me to ask, if I heard the story in a therapy or patient evaluation session – the “holes in the story,” as it were.

Most formerly abused adults have covert protective feelings towards their abuser, no matter how bent on justice or revenge they seem to fancy themselves. This particular letter writer admits to these feelings here anonymously, but not to people who know her in her actual life.

2/21/13.  Dear Carolyn: My father was an awful dad. He was the first person to ever call me a “b----” (I was 9) and was absent when he wasn’t antagonistic. Bad, bad Dad. The thing is, I’ve always toed the party line, always said the very best things about him publicly. I lied with a smile for decades and continue to now that it’s pretty clear his days/hours are numbered. I’ve contacted extended family and old colleagues to let them know this great man is ready for the last bits of adulation they may offer. I represent him within our small community and receive and share the sadness of his demise. He’s still so hurtful to me in every way imaginable and yet here I am, being a sucker until the very end. How do I deal with all of the self-loathing for having essentially been complicit in his bad behavior? I can hear (the imagined?) tsk-tsking from your readers (and from you, Carolyn, because you lost a mom who was clearly amazing and devoted). I’ve decided not to speak about any of this as my last gift to him, but it’s costing me. I’m just so angry at myself. How do I deal with it? I genuinely wish him no ill will; I’m just torn up by the lack of justice here. Not only will he never be held accountable for being so unrelentingly selfish and cruel, but now I’m burdened with these feelings that I fear would only make me sound petulant and somehow ungrateful. Moreover, he honestly wouldn’t know what I’m talking about because he is so utterly convinced of his own blamelessness. Help. - Anonymous

Another aspect of families protecting abusive members (the protection racket) is seen in cases in which an entire family pressures the daughter of an abusive father, say, to let him babysit her kids. In a sense, the family is banding together to deny the earlier abuse ever took place, so they must pretend letting him do this is not dangerous. Therefore, they gang up on the protesting parent (I call ganging up in this manner clustering). 

A certain percentage of people in the situation of trying to keep their kids away from dangerous adults actually give in to the family pressure and expose their kids to the risk. And almost all of them have difficulty dealing with the pressure. Here are three examples:

2/22/13. Dear Carolyn: I grew up with a mother who was profoundly manipulative, volatile and mean-spirited. My siblings and I all have anxiety disorders for which we have sought counseling. I have distanced myself from my mother and have a happy life with my husband and 4-year-old daughter.  I have begun allowing my mother limited contact with my daughter out of my mother’s desire to have a relationship with her. I am comfortable with where the boundaries currently are, but my mother is not. She continually pushes to have my daughter for weekend visits (she lives several hours away). I do not believe she would overtly harm my daughter, but she can fly off the handle when upset and has very different ideas than I do about what is acceptable behavior from a ­4-year-old.  My family seems to think I am being unreasonable to hold my mother at such distance. My sister has no personal relationship with her but does allow her to babysit her children. Am I wrong not to allow weekend visits, or am I being realistic? - Anxious Mother

9/9/13.  DEAR ABBY: My 61-year-old father was arrested recently for 30 counts of possession of child pornography. He has had a rough past -- he cheated on my mother and has had multiple stints in rehab for alcohol abuse. During my teenage years he verbally abused me. My mother is in denial about the entire situation and the fact that he is facing time in prison for his actions.  Nine months ago, my husband and I were blessed with the birth of our beautiful baby girl. I feel I must protect her from my parents and my father in particular. Some of my family agree with my decision, others disagree because I am my parents' only child. Am I wrong for not wanting my father and possibly my mother any longer in my life? -- TOUGH LOVE IN FLORIDA

3/5/13. DEAR ABBY: My father-in-law, "Earl," is an alcoholic and an avid gun enthusiast. He owns many weapons; I don't know the exact number. He has been accumulating ammunition at an accelerated rate because he's afraid that large clips will soon be banned. He drinks to excess and becomes belligerent and angry when drunk. Last summer, during one of his moments of inebriation, he shot a gun into the air as a "surprise" to the eight family members who were sitting within two to 10 feet of him. He takes pride in the fact that his guns are kept loaded, as "what good is an unloaded gun?" On two separate occasions, I know for a fact that a loaded gun was found unsecured in his home. When my husband and I travel with our children, ages 7, 5 and 4, to visit his family, we stay in Earl's home. I feel the combination of alcohol and loaded, unsecured guns is not safe for my children. I have suggested to my husband that we stay in a hotel during our visits from now on. The problem is, my husband is unable to stand up to his father. He told me that when he tried talking to him about his concerns, Earl called him a "wimp." Please tell me how to get through to my husband. I don't want to alienate his family, and I do want my children to have a relationship with their grandfather. -- GUN-SHY IN SOUTH CAROLINA


Annie's Mailbox 

2/27/13. Dear Annie: My daughter is a drug addict who is in and out of jail. Over the past 14 years, we have taken custody of her four children. Two of the kids are great. However, the other two are the problem. The oldest girl just turned 18 and moved out. This kid made our lives miserable. She saw counselors multiple times and began cutting herself, and we finally had to have her committed to a hospital. We did whatever we thought would work, but nothing did. She quit school and now lives with any friend who will take her in. Now, one of the other girls is 13 and doing the same thing. It's as if they lose their minds once they hit middle school. Her grades are down, she is getting into trouble at school, she cuts classes and has briefly run away twice. The other two kids are very involved with school and church and are as good as they can be. But, Annie, we don't want to handle the 13-year-old anymore. All of the counseling, the discipline, the problems, it's too much. My stomach is in knots trying to decide what to do. I am so tired of kids who think they know everything but are dumber than dirt, and all of the drama they command. My friends tell me to turn her over to foster care, but no one else is going to worry enough about her. My husband has had two heart surgeries in the past year, and my blood pressure is way too high, even though I take medication. Should I put her in foster care? — Helpless, Tired Granny

Some "More to the Story" questions: The letter writers say that they “tried everything” to discipline their daughter without success, and they seem to be having similar troubles with two of their grandchildren. What is entailed by their phrase “tried everything” – what specific things are those? Did they give up on a disciplinary strategy and go on to another one way too quickly? Did they try to micromanage everything in their daughter's life in order to save her from herself? Or did they perhaps bounce back and forth between over-involvement and neglect?

The writers’ ambivalence over taking care of children is palpable from the letter alone, which, if an accurate reflection of their feelings, puts them at risk of creating children with borderline personality disorder.  It is interesting that half the grandkids do not create any problems.  How do the writers, as well as the children’s mother, relate differently to each child? (I can almost guarantee that they do).  Does a given child remind them of themselves or another relative they had trouble with?  What do the mother and grandparents say to each other in the presence of the grandchildren?


  1. Dr. Allen,
    In the case of the daughter who is protective of her abusive, elderly father, it seems that even if she changed her behavior and stopped putting a positive public face on him, internally she would still be eaten up by guilt, ambivalence and god knows what else. How can she have a corrective emotional experience when, because her rather is incapable of seeing his behavior objectively, she can never communicate with him in anything approaching a truthful manner?

    1. Hi CB,

      I see the father's "denial" a bit differently than most therapists do. I think he knows very well what he did, and lies about it on purpose.

      You are right that internally the daughter would have trouble breaking the family rules for some of the very same reasons you list.

      Believe it or not, the father's defenses can be breached, but the techniques are not obvious and are different for every family. It is a difficult order. Some therapists can teach these techniques; unfortunately, most don't know them.