Recently one of my siblings confided in me about the sexual abuse that our brother endured by a man when we were children. Our brother was prepubescent at the time. He does not know that I know.
Throughout our childhood, I never knew. I never made the connection between this childhood trauma and his lack of ambition or even his dropping out of school. Over the years, he has suffered from mental health issues and substance abuse and recently sought help.
I know the perpetrator because he also made a “move” on me. I was groped in my own living room when my mother stepped away for just a moment. I screamed bloody murder and kicked over a coffee table full of tea and dishes and ran away. This saved me. My mother was clueless about this man and made me apologize for my behavior.
As my brother and I are both now middle-aged, how can I — or even should I — acknowledge his painful past? Part of me wants to apologize. I have watched him struggle with relationships and insecure work while I live a rather happy and successful life.
Perhaps my sibling can tell him that I was told, and this would open the door to a discussion. But how would that help him after years of suffering and counseling? I was there. I am so sorry he suffered, and I never had a clue. Name Withheld
Your obliviousness to your brother’s ordeal is far from unusual. It’s difficult to estimate the prevalence of child sexual abuse — many victims, experiencing a sense of shame, remain silent — but a 2009 study in Clinical Psychology Review estimated that 7.5 percent of males and 25.3 percent of females in the United States experienced sexual abuse before age 18. (This paper reviewed 65 earlier studies.) Those of us who have never been told of a single case of child abuse among our friends and family must recognize how frequently sexual abuse of minors is successfully kept quiet.
So it’s entirely understandable that you misunderstood the symptoms of his suffering; it’s entirely understandable too that you feel awful about it. Certainly the consequences of abuse can be deep and persistent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that chronic abuse may make a child more vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder and to learning, attention and memory problems. It sounds as if your brother may have had some of these difficulties, which often continue in later life.
Still, he has chosen to keep his experiences private from you. Though he did nothing wrong, shame is not rational; it can even be described as a symptom of abuse. But it’s not for you to force an unwanted conversation on him.
At the same time, you can’t unknow what you know. You may well find it hard to speak candidly to your brother without revealing what’s weighing on your mind. So your plan to ask your sibling to tell him that you know is a good one. Your sibling should make it plain how you feel — and that you understand it’s your brother’s right to decide what to share with you now, if anything. If you and your brother do talk, make sure to do a lot of listening.
My wife and I bought our home two years ago from a brother and sister whose parents both died in the past few years. Two old friends of the parents, one a lawyer, executed the estate. After two rounds of bidding with several other prospective buyers, my wife and I paid for the home “as is.” The price we paid was well above Zillow’s valuation. Since moving in, we’ve discovered all the minor problems you expect to see in a 100-year-old property. We found the leftover paint and bald tires that sellers really should deal with but never do. And in a storage space under the stairs to the basement, we found four toolboxes full of collectible coins and bills worth almost $10,000. A couple of notes indicate that at least some items were gifts from the sellers’ grandparents. No one has reached out to say there’s been a terrible mistake. I’d like to sell the collection, make a $1,000 charitable contribution for good measure and keep the rest. Yet I can’t help feeling a little slimy. What do you recommend? Name Withheld
I can’t advise you about your legal entitlements and responsibilities. But this wasn’t abandoned property; it was mislaid property. It isn’t that the sellers failed to recognize its value, as sometimes happens with forsaken detritus; they evidently didn’t know, or remember, that it was in their possession. So the sellers hadn’t intended to convey it to you when they sold the house. While you may be within your rights to keep it, you’d do well to let the sellers know what you discovered, and let them retrieve the toolboxes. Maybe they could take away those tires and paint cans while they’re at it.
I don’t know if this is an ethical dilemma or a moral one. I have no children or siblings. I want to leave my mini-fortune to children of my cousins. Can I give money to one I adore without giving any to his chillier sister? Or would that be too mean? Should I give some to her or even make it equal? I don’t want my legacy to be hurtfulness, but I also don’t want to do what I really don’t feel. I don’t dislike her; I just don’t groove with her. Name Withheld
You don’t mention any needs here, so I doubt that’s relevant. I doubt too these children are expecting anything from you. In short, you don’t have a moral duty to either of these not-very-close relatives — first cousins once removed. I’m not saying you’re wrong to wonder about the effect of significantly different treatment. That’s what the family will discuss at your funeral. But I don’t see people getting terribly hung up on the special relationships involving the child of a great-aunt or great-uncle. It’s not emotionally fraught the way parental favoritism can be.
If you wanted to soften the sting when it comes to the chillier sib, you could give the children equal amounts of cash but leave your favorite a valuable something — say, your home, especially if your favorite has spent more time in it than his sister has. People think of meaningful things differently from money. In order to control the message you send, consider leaving a letter for your favorite cousin once removed to say what you’ve done and why. If you find the letter hard to write, you might reconsider your allocation.