My father died several years ago. Mom and I have always been close, partly because I am the only daughter—I have three brothers. Since Dad died, Mom and I have become even closer, talking on the phone almost every night and sharing confidences. She never talked to me about her love life, but I just assumed this was because she didn’t have any. It turns out that I was very wrong. Since about a year after Dad’s death, she has been dating women on a regular basis, and now she is in what she calls a very serious relationship.
I am totally fine with this. I am glad Mom has somebody, and am actually kind of relieved that her lover, Glenda, is a woman and not a man, mostly because women tend to live longer. The one thing that bothered me just a little was worrying whether Mom had been unhappy with Dad all those years, and whether he had known it. But she reassures me that she is (or was) bisexual and that she and Dad had a loving and fulfilling life together.
Not, as I keep telling her, that her kids have any right to be fine, or not be fine, with her choice of life companion. Mom has all her marbles, and then some, and I have no reason to assume that anybody is taking advantage of anybody else. The problem is that Mom is very worried about how my brothers are going to handle this, and insists that I do not tell them.
Although I disagree with her not wanting to tell my brothers, I can kind of see her point with my oldest one, who has become less and less tolerant with age. I could actually imagine him breaking with Mom over this, and being really mean and Cotton Mather-ish about the whole situation. I can also see him being heartbroken, which is what worries Mom. But am pretty sure my youngest brother would learn to deal with the situation eventually. And as for my middle brother, I am convinced that he would be nothing but happy for our mother. Besides, the three of us all live in D.C. and he is as close to Mom as I am, in his way, so he would feel totally betrayed if he knew she confided in me but not him. As it happens, I don’t see my other brothers very often—they both moved away to New York, and hardly ever visit—but I see Jeremy, the middle brother, all the time, and we both see Mom quite frequently. I am not looking forward to misleading him. What should I do?
—Closeted by Proxy in Close Proximity to Cleveland Park
Do not out your mom.
Although I can envision some future scenarios where you might have to—if, say, she has given Glenda a health proxy and there are decisions to be made—at this point the choice has to be hers. You are grown, and apparently fledged, so your mom’s relationship with Glenda does not, or does not have to, affect your daily life or legitimate future needs in any important way. And your mom’s anxieties about coming out may not all be warranted, but I doubt if they are crazy. So you should honor them. It is true that by telling you she has placed you in a difficult position, but her position is the one that matters most here: the risk is greater for her, and it is her life. And aren’t you glad she confided in you? I know I would be.
What you can do is try, gently, to persuade her to tell your middle brother (whom I will call Middle) herself—or deputize you, if that would be easier for her.
I see no need for anybody to rush off right now and tell the other two bros, who are not only problematic but also out of town. Besides, your mom’s spilling the beans to Middle would be a reasonable second step in a process that might, because gradual, end up being less fraught and difficult for her. When and if your mom did get around to telling her two New York sons, she could then do so with an equal number of informed, accepting children at her side. (In this case, you and Middle would probably be able to paper things over with Oldest and Youngest by stressing that you saw your mom and Glenda regularly and put two and two together. There’s no need to tell them, ever, that your mom did the math for you.)
Or, depending on how she thinks Youngest is likely to respond, your Mom may decide to tell him individually after she tells Middle, saving Oldest until last so that he will be well and truly outnumbered by people who have come to accept the situation.
Assuming your mother is willing to tell any of her boys, these gradual outing options strike me as better than waiting until she makes some major announcement, or there’s some unforeseen circumstance, where all the bros find out at once, with Oldest ranting and raving and denouncing, Youngest vacillating, and Middle asking your Mom how she could have told you but not him and why she put him in a class with clueless Youngest and homophobic Oldest.
If you cannot persuade your mother to open up to Middle, you are indeed in an awkward situation. Still, unless there is something I don’t know about, I am afraid you must do your best to protect your Mom’s privacy until she is ready. If the situation becomes increasingly awkward for you, and especially if you start to worry that it may affect your relationship with Middle far into the future, you are certainly justified in pointing this out to your mom. No undue pressure, though.
What if Middle sees enough of Mom and Glenda to start wondering aloud about the situation? In this case, and if there is time, I would alert and consult Mom. And what if he comes out and asks you? You may want to warn your mother that, in the event that he does ask, you will not out her, exactly, but would rather say “Better ask Mom yourself” than tell him an outright lie.
In situations like these, especially when family members are both geographically and emotionally close, the truth sometimes just kind of seeps out. I hope that the community where your mom lives lets her feel relaxed enough that she and Glenda do not actually sneak around or create diversionary heterosexual narratives. If they spend a lot time together and openly enjoy each other’s company—especially if they issue joint invitations and see each other on holidays—your middle brother, at least, should eventually get the idea, as may various community members who are still in touch with Oldest and Youngest.
Let’s hope for some relatively painless truth-seepage in Mom and Glenda’s case. In the meantime, try to be understanding, gentle, and persuasive with your mother, and evasive, but in a respectful and trustworthy sort of way, with your middle brother if your mother decides she is not ready to tell him. And make full use of Caller I.D. where your other two siblings are concerned.
I have a lot of trouble with suspense, in life and in what I read. No matter how bad it is, I always feel better knowing how things come out. What I can’t stand is uncertainty. For this reason, I try to rack up as many spoilers as I can before I watch my favorite TV shows or go to the movies, and when I get a new novel, or even a biography or history book on an unfamiliar subject, I always read the last chapter first.
Everyone else in my book group says that I am reading books the wrong way. Some of them just think it’s just a silly quirk, but a couple of them seriously disapprove, telling me that it is disrespectful of authors to go against their intentions. They also discount my comments sometimes because of my not having read the book the way it was meant to be read. Since I am probably the least well-read member of the group, and have never studied literature except for survey courses, I wonder whether they are right.
Do you agree with my book group? Should I change how I read?
—Discounted in Des Moines
Are you an influential literary critic, or a reader at a publishing house? Do you tend to reject books because your experience reading them is colored by your knowing how they come out before you’ve started Chapter One? If the answer to either of these questions is “No,” I disagree with your book group. I do not think you need to change how you read, but you might want to consider changing book groups.
As for the issue of authorial intention, I agree that there is such a thing—and, obviously, most writers would like you to read the pages of their books in order. I am pretty sure that Melville knew what he was after when he decided against starting Moby Dick with: “Call me the only one who survives in this story except maybe the whale.” But this does not mean you have to knuckle under and do everything the author wants, especially if you would find the experience unpleasant—and perhaps read fewer novels.
Some people speak of reading fiction (and creative nonfiction) as a contract between reader and writer. This can be a heuristically useful way of looking at the processes of reading and writing. But the mere act of reading a book does not morally or even esthetically obligate anyone to read it in a certain way, not really. As with criminals and tortfeasors, writers take their targets as they find them. Some assault victims will be thin-skulled, or hemophiliacs. Some readers will be easily distracted, some very needy. Other readers will have special knowledge that enhances, or occasionally spoils, their reading experience. Still others, like you, may be anxious or impatient and need to start a book at the end to avoid being distressed.
Besides, the overarching intent of many writers of fiction, especially popular fiction, is to entertain the reader. I assume that they would want you read their books in any half-sensible way that made them enjoyable for you. Of course, I assume that most or all of the books your group reads tend to be on the literary end of the spectrum; but that works out, too—because, as a very rough and general rule, the more literary a book, the less important the element of suspense becomes, as it vies with style, character development, narrative voice, social relevance, theme, innovativeness, intertextuality, and all sorts of other stuff your book group probably talks about. Indeed, I suspect that, in many cases, your distinctive reading method could offer a valuable perspective on literary novels: you are, in a sense, both reading and rereading the story, meeting people and situations for the first time, but with a unique knowledge of how the future unfolds.
I hope your book group lightens up.
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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