Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “How Do I Counter My Sister’s Abuse Claims Against Our Father?”
My sister has become a personality in the media primarily due to her colorful past. She gives lectures and has a self-help book coming out soon. One of her minor themes concerns our deceased father and is particularly nasty. Although there is no way to positively refute statements she has made, neither I nor my two brothers and my mother believe my father capable of the events my sister describes. My father was a kind and giving person. He has living brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews who loved him dearly and would be very upset by my sister’s claims. My husband suggests I confront my sister, but that will most likely not yield a fruitful outcome or change anything. My concern is to protect positive memories. I propose to write about him myself, posting my memories on the Internet. I would not attempt to refute my sister, merely focus on my father and memories of him. This seems the least aggressive path and least likely to create any stir around my sister or her supporters. Since the Internet seems destined to live forever, at least an alternative memorial for my father would exist. Your thoughts are appreciated. NAME WITHHELD
My response: First I’ll congratulate the New York Times on picking a non-juvenile message—that is, one where the writer isn’t asking others to decide good, bad, right, or wrong. This person is asking for others’ thoughts. No asking if they are obligated. Usually they pick juvenile messages.
As for the issue, it sounds like you have no evidence. Your sister claims personal experience. She may remember and be reporting accurately, but you don’t know and it sounds like you have no way to find out.
In other words, you can only work with her. I would call it a negotiation and leadership issue. You want to influence her to behave differently, or to learn you’re missing something if you have a misunderstanding.
You don’t know your sister’s motivation. When you don’t know someone’s motivations, it’s hard to change them. If you guess or assume, you’re liable to guess or assume wrong. If you act on guesses or assumptions she disagrees with, no matter how right you feel, you’ll lead her to resist your influence.
Confronting and refuting sound adversarial. You’ll decrease your ability to influence her those ways. I recommend trying to understand her and to make her feel understood so she tells you she feels understood. My Make Them Feel Understood exercise would work, though it’s not the only way.
Once you understand her motivations and she is open to listen to you, then you can problem-solve dispassionately and act calmly to create the best outcome.
The key is to put her interests first until you understand her and she feels understood. Then you can communicate effectively and possibly influence her or respond in a more effective way than just reacting to what you see her do.
The New York Times response:
Amy Bloom: It’s great that you have wonderful memories of your father, and that many of your relatives do, too. This in no way proves that your sister’s claims are false. But if you wish to know, you could ask your sister about what she says took place, and you could find out more about it. Or, as your husband says, you could confront her, which you very sensibly suggest is not going to yield a fruitful outcome. I don’t think that there is any refutation possible about events that did not happen to you. Writing a lovely essay about your father and your fond memories of him is not aggressive. You don’t seem to be interested in a positive relationship with your sister, so you don’t have to concern yourself with her response. Again, I would just encourage you to be mindful of the fact that your feeling that he could not have done the things that she describes does not mean that they are not true.
Kenji Yoshino: I totally agree with the first bit: The dead are helpless in the hands of the living, so it strikes me as profoundly ethical to defend someone who is unable to defend himself. Writing a more affirmative account of your father is a no-brainer. But I question whether the least aggressive path is necessarily the most ethical one. This may be my Pollyannaish view of the value of direct conversation, but I think it might be more ethical to give your sister a chance to explain herself, to persuade you of the rightness of her recollection. I’m not assuming that the letter writer is correct in her own recollection.
Kwame Anthony Appiah: It’s worth bearing in mind that there are two relevant, important pieces of general psychological knowledge here. One is that abuse is much more common than people who haven’t experienced it realize. Somebody can be perfectly nice in all kinds of contexts and still be engaging in abuse. The fact that nothing happened to you and the fact that your father was a nice and decent person in many contexts unfortunately doesn’t settle the question of whether your sister is right. The second thing is that false memories are also quite common.
If you want to defend your father, as I think it could be honorable to do, you probably need to talk to her. That’s not going to improve your relationship, but it’s already at a pretty low state, as far as we can tell. You could say to her: ‘‘Look, the fact that I don’t believe it doesn’t guarantee that it’s not true, but the fact that you do believe it doesn’t guarantee that it is, and we, the rest of the family, who loved our father and don’t frankly believe these things, would like you to weigh seriously the possibility that you’re wrong.’’ Then you’ve done the best you can, and then you can go and put a memorial online.
Bloom: That’s fine. But I don’t think these things come out of nowhere. No one, she says, believes the father ‘‘capable of the events my sister describes.’’ So this has been in the family for a while. What the letter writer plans to write is not an argument about what happened. If it were, it would be even more important to go to the sister and say: ‘‘Please tell me more about it.’’ What this letter writer is saying is, ‘‘I’m going to create my version.’’ A perfectly fine thing to do, but a big piece of this letter is saying: ‘‘I don’t wish to engage with my sister, I don’t want to hear more about what she says happened and I don’t want to argue with her about whether or not it happened. I want to write about my memories of my father.’’ When a claim like this is made in a family, it’s important to hear what the person claims happened and try to listen. If this hasn’t happened already, I hope it does.