A delectable dilemma presented itself while we were sorting through the generations of accumulation in my father’s storage unit. I immediately thought of you!
In an old chest was a box of papers and photographs from my great grandmother’s family. I knew my great grandmother, a crusty and opinionated octogenarian who was called by everyone “Great.” She died when I was 8. My grandmother and great aunt had sorted through their mother’s family mementoes and left a note on top of this box to say they had done so.
Under the note was a small sheaf of thin notebooks, bound in string. There was another note attached to those: “Last Journals of Edna Barnes Kent (my great grandmother). Destroy without opening. FKL (my great aunt’s initials).”
So, what’s a curious writer to do? The note of course intrigues me all the more. At the same time, I knew and was very fond of my great aunt, who died at the age of 96 in 1997, and hate the idea of disrespecting her request. But why would she leave these without destroying them herself? Then again, what if there’s some curse from beyond the grave?
No matter what I do, I realized that June would relish this dilemma and would no doubt have sage advice.
—Curious in California
Although I am thrilled to advise you on this matter, you might want to seek a second opinion before you read (or destroy) Great’s journals. I must confess that I started compiling my mental list of reasons for reading them as soon as you mentioned “a small sheaf of thin notebooks, bound in string.” When life hands you a mystery out of an A.S. Byatt novel, how can you pass it up?
My bias, then, is clear; but, even so, I think I can manage to list the arguments on both sides—or, rather, all sides, since you have several options: destroy without reading, read and then destroy, read and save, or save without reading.
Destroying the notebooks without reading them has in its favor that this is what your great aunt requested, and that privacy is always a value worth weighing. And yet, as you pointed out, if she really wanted the notebooks destroyed, why didn’t she just destroy them herself? One can imagine various far-fetched scenarios where some outside force prevented her–say, if another relative insisted on preserving them, and poor FLK had to slip her note into the box surreptitiously. But it seems much more likely that FLK herself was of two minds, and wanted to shift responsibility onto later generations. This alone, to my mind, means that you can consider the choice to be yours now, not hers.
Moreover, they are not even her journals. At this point you have no way of knowing whether FLK was acting at Great’s direction or following her wishes in asking that the notebooks be destroyed. Your great-grandma may have made a deathbed request that somebody locate her private journals and destroy them. On the other hand, she may have hoped that a sympathetic descendant, or even a larger public, would enjoy them or learn from them some day.
You (and your fellow sorters) are left with a mixed message from FLK, and none at all from Great, the actual journal writer. So there is doubt. And I almost always find it wise, when in doubt, to avoid taking irrevocable steps. If you destroy the notebooks, they are gone forever. At the very least, I would keep them—it sounds as if they don’t take up much room – and pass the decision along to yet-another generation, by which time all the individual egos involved will be long gone from this world, and the notebooks will be less and less like personal revelations and more and more like historical or literary, or just plain boring, documents.
But I’m inclined to believe that the principals involved have already been gone long enough for you not just to save, but also to read, the notebooks without any compunction. Great is three generations removed from you, and she has been dead for some (your age minus eight, anyway) years. It sounds as if her children are also gone—and perhaps their children, if you are the one going through the papers. At this point it is unlikely that any secrets or skeletons in the notebook would still hold any real power to hurt the living, or shame the dead. And if the books do contain such a monumental secret, whose power survives unto the fourth generation, then it may be time your family knew about it.
I hope you are being facetious or figurative when you mention fear of a family curse. At any rate, you’re on your own here: I rarely advise on supernatural matters. But bear in mind that, since you are not sure what your forbears really wanted, or whether they even agreed with one another, there’s no way to know what curses or counter-curses you might trigger, no matter what you do.
The longer I think about this, the more I am starting to convince myself that you have not just the right, but a positive duty, to read the journals. You appear to be a custodian of your family’s history, and you are a writer. Those notebooks may contain stories worth telling, in Great’s words or your own. Or there could be poems: for all we know, she may be her generation’s Emily Dickenson. Even if the journals consist mostly of mundane details about Great’s life, these may inform or enliven your writing, or help bring your family’s history alive. And if you find nothing in the notebooks but an old woman’s private opinions and emotions, you will still be free to destroy them at that point, or tie them back up again with a new note of your own.
I am sure that, once you have taken a look, you will do what is sensible and kind. Will you let me know what you discover? I hope that, at the very least, you find some new stories, felicitous phrases, and insights into Great and her world.
That is, I mean, ahem, if you decide to read the notebooks. I would hate to pressure you in any way.
I got really drunk when a bunch of us were staying at a friend’s house and woke up with a really offensive tattoo. I’m 16 and still in high school and have no idea how I can pay to get rid of it. My parents will kill me if they find out. What should I do? Please answer right away.
—Screwed in Scranton
When you say that your parents will kill you, do you mean that they might actually do you physical harm, or kick you out onto the street? If so, keep your tat hidden and go get help from another adult you trust. If, as I strongly suspect, what you mean is that they will be very angry, and may punish you, for getting blind drunk and being part of something really stupid during an incident you can’t even remember, tell them and take your lumps.
Here’s why: you are right that tattoo removal costs more than most teenagers can afford, and it appears from my smattering of Internet research that you get what you pay for in terms of how thoroughly and safely the tattoo is excised. Your parents are probably your best shot at getting the removal done properly, either by paying for it themselves—let’s hope they can afford it—or by making your tattooist take care of the payment. If your tattoo is small and monochrome and located somewhere unobtrusive, I suppose you have a shot at keeping it hidden from your folks while you come up with the money to get rid of it. But your parents might still notice it, and so might other people you’d want to hide it from. Anyway, for all I know you may currently be sporting an intricate multicolor SM scene, or Nazi sampler, on some horribly prominent body part – in which case discovery is inevitable, and removal will be a longer, far more expensive process.
Let’s hope that the tattoo artist, and not your folks, gets stuck with the removal bill. (Insurance almost never covers tattoo removal, since it is viewed as cosmetic.) Tattooing a minor without parental consent is illegal in all 50 states. And if you were obviously incapacitated at the time, much less unconscious, tattooing you was an illegal assault for that reason alone. This gives your folks some legal leverage for insisting that whoever tattooed you pay, up front and in full, to have some reputable third party obliterate the tat. For this process I would recommend a doctor. I would also recommend that your parents call a good lawyer to protect your interests. Depending on the circumstances, the lawyer may in turn recommend that they call the police.
Of course, having the law on your side does not always mean you get satisfaction. I assume that at least one of your sleepover buddies knows what happened, and more or less where – but, given the circumstances, I doubt that it was a reputable professional shop. My fear is that the person who tattooed you is some sort of low-life in a creepy underworld establishment, which could get you and your family involved in major unpleasantness if you demand your rights.
My alternative fear is that your tat is the creation of some wifty free spirit, maybe an art student not much older than you are. Perhaps he or she freelances off the grid, or is learning tattooing for fun. This scenario makes sense because he or she could have made a house call to your friend’s place, or even been another guest at the sleepover, which is easier to believe, and slightly less scary to contemplate, than that you all went on a drunken toot on the wild side of town. But in my second scenario your free-spirited tattooist probably has little money and no liability insurance, and cannot give you any compensation—except perhaps by volunteering to be the one who removes the tattoo, which I do not recommend!
This is a separate issue from removing the tattoo, but it is important: one reason body art is regulated is because needles of any kind are dangerous. No matter who did your tattoo, call your family doctor – you may not need to involve your parents here – and see if you should be checked out for hepatitis, HIV, or other infections. And while I am dishing out advice on what you probably think are side issues, I hereby counsel you to take a serious look at yourself. If you have ever gotten this drunk before, or have the slightest reason to suspect that you will do so again, get help right away.
While you are at it, think about why the tattoo you ended up with was “offensive” rather than innocuous. Unless you were actually unconscious when it happened, and perhaps even then, you are probably complicit to some degree. Then take a look at your circle of friends. The ones you partied with on the fateful night somehow let you get into a situation where you became dangerously drunk, were stuck repeatedly with a possibly-unsterile needle, and woke up with something hateful—racist? obscene? belligerent?—as a permanent part of your body. All those Hangover movies notwithstanding, a lot can happen when you are blind drunk that’s even less funny than a godawful tattoo, and much harder to fix. STDs, unwanted pregnancies, gun violence, alcohol poisoning, and car crashes come to mind. Even if your parents let you out of the house in the foreseeable future, it may be time to move on where your social life is concerned.
One last thought: if the real issue, for you or your parents, is not the tattoo itself but its offensiveness, and if your tattoo is a small and simple one, I suppose you could try to figure out how to mask or transform it with more ink. This would probably be cheaper and a lot quicker than removal – but, unless your parents consent, it is also illegal, and you would run the same risks as with your initial illegal tattoo.
I hope that you see the last of your tattoo in the very near future. If your parents pay, offer to pay them back, and do it.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at AskJune@Cleavermagazine.com. Find more columns by June in her attic.