My mom’s big sister, Aunt Barb, loves to criticize me. She is never openly mean, but always “helpful,” and in fact many of her worst zingers take the form of backhanded compliments. She will tell me that I have a beautifully proportioned figure, and so imagine how great I would look if I could just lose 10 or 20 pounds. Or that she always regretted that my parents didn’t force me to practice more, because there is a real chance I inherited my grandparents’ musical talent but now we will never know. The other day she told me that I am a nice person inside, but should pay attention to the way my face looks “in repose,” because people might think I was angry or unpleasant. I am pretty sure this was her way of saying that I should smile more because I have Resting Bitch Face.
I’m a rising junior in college, where I now live in a year-round university apartment with three other students. But my school is not far from home, so when Aunt Barb flies in from Phoenix to stay with my folks every six months or so, I always give in to my mother and come over for dinner, which is what happened last week. This is when Aunt Barb gave her opinion about my face in repose, whatever that even means.
For some reason that was the last straw, maybe because she seemed to be objecting to me for just being me. We were all sitting at the dinner table at the time —my parents, my younger brother Jason, and Barb. Mom stared down at her plate. Dad pretended he hadn’t heard. My brother took the opportunity to snag the last ear of corn. I looked at them all and this strange calmness came over me, at which point I said: “Listen, Aunt Barb, we are both adults now. I never make negative remarks about you, so stop making them about me. In fact, don’t make any remarks about me at all.” Then I stood up, kissed my parents, said I had an exam coming up, got into the old car my parents let me use, and drove back to school.
Now my mom says that Aunt Barb’s intentions were good, and that I was cruel and rude, and should apologize. Mom also tells me that Barb burst into tears after I left. She also reminded me that Barb is not some stranger, but a close relative who considers herself a sort of second mother to me. She says Aunt Barb is part of that village it takes to raise a child.
What should I do? I do feel bad that I left poor Mom to cope with Barb—I am sure that Dad and Jason escaped to Dad’s man cave the minute the tears started —and I told Mom I was sorry for deserting her. But my aunt has no right to make comments like that about me. I do not think I was wrong to speak up, so why should I apologize to my aunt?
—Goaded in Gloucester City
You are right about your Aunt Barb’s barbs. They are destructive. If she shot them at someone over whom she holds less emotional power, her various jibes and insinuations might simply be annoying. Funny, even. But she does have power over you, as many older relatives tend to; and, as the law and my sense of ethics require, you have to take your victim as you find her.
As for her intentions’ being good, I’m not sure —to quote you —what that even means in this case. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that your aunt may not have any conscious plan to hurt your feelings or damage your ego when she lets fly with one of her zingers. She may just have gotten into the habit of trying to “improve” you, and never really reflects about the matter. But the fact is that she is abusing her supposed authority, and that the things she says would strike almost anybody as hurtful. To borrow, again, from the law, and perhaps P.G.Wodehouse, I believe in holding aunts responsible for consequences any reasonable aunt could have foreseen —and it is easy as pie to foresee that you’d be hurt, not helped, by sniping remarks about your facial expressions, weight, and lost musical potential. You held her accountable, and now she knows.
As for your aunt’s special status, I agree that there may have been situations in your life when she had more right to offer constructive criticism than some stranger or distant acquaintance. But none of your examples sounded the least bit constructive. They wouldn’t have passed muster even if they had come from your own mother, and even if you were still a little kid.
Yes, it can take a village to raise a child. But you are not a child, and officious belittling comments have nothing to do with successfully raising one.
I wish you could just laugh off Barb’s barbs. I wish we could all laugh when faced with criticism like hers. But it is totally understandable that you can’t, so I think you were well within your rights when you objected to her negative comments.
I also believe, although without quite the same complete sympathy, that you were justified in asking her not to make any remarks about you, even positive ones. Given her history with you, I can see why you might worry that even comments she genuinely considers complimentary, or harmless and funny, or fond, might not come out that way. And, to go a step further, I agree with Alice when she tells the Mad Hatter that people “should learn not to make personal remarks…It’s very rude.” Even neutral or positive remarks can be intrusive. Obviously this is not always the case—it is almost always fine to praise a bride and groom, a baby, or a performance. But it’s wise to think twice, and make sure that the circumstances and your relationship give you the right to speak, before commenting on almost anything else, about almost anybody else. Barb clearly lacks a sense of boundaries. Asking her to avoid personal remarks entirely seems fair on your part, although not exactly saintly.
If apologizing to Aunt Barb depended solely on whether she should have shot those slings and arrows, and whether you were right to oppose them, I would give you the all clear and tell you not to even think of apologizing. I do not think it would be morally wrong of you, strictly speaking, not to apologize, or even to discuss the matter again.
But, depending on the circumstances, it may be unkind of you. Or tiresome. Apologies are not always simply about who’s in the right. It’s one thing if Barb is just a mean bossy woman who takes time off from her rich, full life so that she can gratuitously insult and intrude on younger people for kicks. It’s another if she is idle and lonely, your family is central to her existence, and she really does believe that she has the right—or, God help her, the duty!—to offer her opinions. Think not just about rights, but also about Aunt Barb’s life and her motives (and about your own fragility, of course) before you decide what to do.
I am not normally a fan of half-apologies, but in this instance, and if you are so inclined, you might try writing Aunt Barb a little note saying that you are sorry about leaving the table so abruptly, that you love her, and that you are looking forward to seeing her the next time she visits. (With any luck, that’ll be when you take a semester abroad.) I suggest that you write, instead of doing anything in real time, so that Barb won’t have the opportunity to set you off with some new put-down or guilt trip —and, of course, so that nobody talks about the precipitating incident itself. But since Barb also sounds like the kind of person who will parse your every written sentence, I suggest that, if you do decide to write her, you keep your note short and clear, and that you close with something like “I hope this settles the matter for you, as it does for me. Thanks for your concern and love.” A parting shot like that may not shut her up, even temporarily, about either the specific incident or your overall need for improvement, but it’s worth a try.
Whether you decide to apologize, half-apologize, or do nothing, you should also talk to your mother. It doesn’t sound as if she is paying much heed to your side of things. You’ve given me no reason to think that your parents are anything but fond and proud of you, so perhaps your mother just has very high standards of hospitality, or deference to elders, or general forbearance. But when the visiting elder in question is not just being boring or giving general offense, but actually singling you out for criticism, your mom should at least listen to your concerns, if not actively support you.
Perhaps your mother is in complete sympathy with you, but just wants to get her big sister off her back and have peace in the family. No doubt she has her own issues with Barb. I hope that, even if you cannot totally agree on Barb-control tactics, you and your mother can at least commiserate over a mani-pedi or something.
I also hope that this blows over with minimal fuss on all sides. Aunts can be a trial. I was blessed with several splendid aunts, but I also had one whose unsolicited advice about my clothes, friends, and most basic life choices still haunts me sometimes. Although she died almost twenty years ago, there are moments even now when I have to hug somebody, or play Bob Marley really loud, to drown out her voice. Whatever you do in terms of apology or other rapprochement, make every effort to disregard what Aunt Barb actually says.
La Wally’s response:
If she wants to, the niece can apologize for the way she said it, but not for what she said. And she does not even have to do that.
I belong to a gym near my office and work out there several times a week. I try to go in the late afternoon when the bustling gym is as quiet as it ever gets. The cavernous locker room is sometimes almost empty, but one guy is almost always in there at the same time I am.
This man—I don’t know his name, but I will call him Bob—has struck me as a bit odd since the first time I really noticed him, which was about three months ago. One odd thing is that he spends so much time just hanging out in the locker room after he puts on his clothes. (He has nice clothes, which is not surprising given how upscale and pricey this gym is. I would never have joined up if there were anywhere cheaper within walking distance.) He used to just sort of sit and fuss with his gym bag. But lately he has taken to shouting at himself in the mirror and pacing furiously up and down the rows of lockers, muttering and punching the air.
Seeing how well-tended he is, and how much this gym costs, Bob must have a home and some resources, and probably a job. I don’t think he has ever damaged anything. And though he does object when I sit down or put my towel on the far end “his” bench—which is over six feet long!—he has never said anything really aggressive to me. In fact, he has never said anything else to me at all. But he does not seem well.
What should I do?
—Waffling in Washington
Do you think that Bob is degenerating to the point of becoming a danger to himself or others, as the mental health commitment statutes say? If so, you should definitely speak to someone in authority at the gym at your earliest opportunity. We live in a time and place where a man who shouts at mirrors might one day whip out a gun and shoot himself, the mirror, or some third party. Bob’s loved ones might also need to know that he is acting out in public and may be off his medications or otherwise heading toward a crisis.
But if you have no reason to think that Bob is anything beyond unhappy and very strange, I’d be more circumspect. Keep an eye on him for a while longer. Then, if he still appears to be going downhill, seek out someone at the gym who seems experienced and reasonable and knows the clientele. This might be another gym member who has been around for a while, but would more likely be a manager or supervisory-level employee at the gym. Talking to another member has the benefit of keeping the matter unofficial for the time being; consulting someone who works at the gym has the benefit of seeming less like gossip —and it takes the matter out of your hands.
If you do speak to the gym management, try not to say anything that might get poor old Bob summarily booted out of the place. For all you know, the opportunity to lift weights and shout at himself may be his only relief from a stressful job and home. Be calm and noncommittal: “You know the guy who usually comes in at about 4:00? Big white guy, maybe fifty, bright red hair, nice suits? What’s the story with him? He seems a bit upset lately.” If you are lucky, you will get an answer that explains the situation. “You must mean Tim Wickersham. One of our oldest members. He’s had a bit of a drinking problem since his wife left him, but we’re keeping an eye on him.” If the employee can’t or won’t answer you, assume that they will ask around or look into the matter, and let it go, for now.
By the way, I am assuming that your main concern is Bob’s welfare, not your own comfort. Not that there is anything wrong with your objecting to being rattled by some guy who runs around shouting in the locker room at the fancy gym that costs you lots of money. You have a right to some calm and order while you are dressing and undressing, and maybe trying to concentrate or achieve mindfulness or pump yourself up or cool yourself down or sculpt your mustache or whatever else reasonably sane people do in locker rooms. You have my permission to complain to the management even if all you are after is peace and quiet, not help for Bob. On the other hand, I would not put you at the top of my mensch list.
One more suggestion: find another bench. I assume that there are several of them in that cavernous locker room.
With luck, Bob will get some help, if only from the passage of time, and will subside back into a mere oddball, and then into a normal harried financier or lawyer or neurologist, while you keep up with your regular workouts and develop an imperturbable psyche and spectacular quads.
La Wally’s response:
I have no idea. Is Wawa just being nosy, or does he actually care? And if he tells the people who run the gym, what can they do? I’d just let the weird guy be —or start up a conversation with him, for God’s sake.
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 [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
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