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Friday(ish) roundup: Fringe Advice Edition

Posted by Robin Abrahams  February 22, 2013 10:26 AM

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Oy, such a week. I am writing a feature for the Globe  magazine's upcoming Careers issue, and also working on a big project for my HBS job, and the deadlines began crashing into each other like the alternate-timeline universes in season 3 of "Fringe," with similarly devastating results. My apartment looks like a well-baked Walter Bishop ransacked it for hidden packages of Red Vines and Cheetos.

"Fringe" itself is just the right kind of junk food for the mind, perfect for unwinding after a long day. Any other fans among the reader base? I hadn't known the show was set in Boston--muchly at Harvard and MIT, yet. And Nina Sharp! How delightful to see a 60-year-old woman with charisma, style, power, and and wit on television, besides Hillary Clinton.

(She's also tempting me to return to my bob haircut. Sleek!)

On to other reading. Emily Yoffe, Slate's Dear Prudence, wrote a powerful article on what, if anything, grown children owe to their abusive parents:

What do we owe our tormentors? It's a question that haunts those who had childhoods marked by years of neglect and deprivation, or of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of one or both parents. Despite this terrible beginning, many people make it out successfully and go on to build satisfying lives. Now their mother or father is old, maybe ailing, possibly broke. With a sense of guilt and dread, these adults are grappling with whether and how to care for those who didn't care for them.
If you're in this situation--and perhaps even more if you know someone who is, and don't know how to support them--go read. It's an extraordinary piece. Emily takes a hard stance against the therapeutic culture of forgiveness with which I wholeheartedly agree:

Loved ones and friends--sometimes even therapists--who urge reconnecting with a parent often speak as if forgiveness will be a psychic aloe vera, a balm that will heal the wounds of the past. They warn of the guilt that will dog the victim if the perpetrator dies estranged. What these people fail to take into account is the potential psychological cost of reconnecting, of dredging up painful memories and reviving destructive patterns.

Not everyone deserves forgiveness. People who don't ask for forgiveness--and many, if not most, abusive parents won't, because they refuse to accept what they did was abuse--sure as hell don't deserve it. And "forgiveness" is not the only way to move on with your life. You can lay a ghost without that.

Emily writes:

I know from my own inbox that many people are looking for someone, anyone, to tell them they should not feel guilty for declining to care for their abuser. I'm happy to do it. In private correspondence with these letter writers, I sometimes point out that, judging by their accounts, there doesn't seem to be any acknowledgement of guilt on the part of the parent for neglecting to meet their most basic responsibilities.

I'll do it, too. And so will Margo Howard, and I know I can speak for her on this because the very first question she asked me was whether or not I thought children had the right to "break up" with their parents. I said I absolutely did, and we knew we were going to be friends right off. Because we know, those of us whose official first names are "Dear" or "Miss" or "Aunt." We read the letters, and we know. If you need some kind of Authority Figure Seal of Approval, a stamp, a blessing to walk away from the person who made your childhood hell, you've got it from Emily, and Margo, and me.

On similarly parental but slightly lighter note, Ask Well tackles the question of older parents who "don't eat well or exercise ... are poorly informed about good nutrition and the benefits of moderate exercise, or even what constitutes moderate exercise." Empathizing with the LW, I thought the advice was good and was surprised to see a huge amount of pushback in the comments from people who felt that by a certain age you'd bloody well earned the right to live as you want, and if that preferred lifestyle involved recliners and processed food, so be it.

Part of readers' irritation had to do with the parents in the LW's question being 65, while the accompanying stock photo showed a couch-snoozing couple who looked 20 years older than that. In a way, though--which isn't to say the NYT was doing this intentionally--that somewhat illustrates the point. Some people in their sixties are middle-aged--like Blair Brown or Hillary Clinton--and some are old. It's hard to watch parents make choices that are going to put them in the latter group rather than the former.

Finally, there's a new kid on the advice block. I've been withholding judgment on Troy Patterson's Gentleman Scholar on Slate, but after two columns, I think the guy's all right. His answer to a man who wrote in upset that a woman had rudely rejected his offer of a subway seat hit all the right notes. The Gentleman Scholar notes the difficulty of navigating in a world of one-off social interactions, and finishes off with this flourish:

Chivalry is an institution rooted in the medieval court, none too distant from that venue where Thomas Becket wondered about doing the right thing for the wrong reason. When offering your seat to a woman, you should not do so in the belief that she owes you a grateful smile. You should not do so with an eye toward earning the silent admiration of the Shady Grove red line. And you certainly should not have in mind a grand scheme to encourage women to wear foxily uncomfortable shoes more often. Some scholars of courtly love suggest that chivalrous acts be performed with the Virgin Mary in mind, but that's not my bag, and I can top them by supposing that the only person whose pleasure you consider when yielding your seat to a lady is that of the mother who raised you wonderfully.
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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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