Ugly Family Secret: what to do?
January 6, 2013 3:36 AM   Subscribe

My Dad died in early December, and I've unearthed a nasty secret while cleaning up/out his house. What do I do about this? Importantly, do I tell my Mom, who is also elderly and quite sick? (mom is in a nursing home and has been essentially quadriplegic for about 20 years). There's no real 'right answer' but I'd like people's responses. Details below the cut.

I have found a number of sexually explicit letters to my father from one of my cousins -- who would have been in her early 20's, when she was away at university at the time. It's pretty clear from the context that they were sexually involved and that the 'affair/abuse' was consensual -- 'don't write me love letters' is a constant theme, and he was obviously sending her erotic gifts and clothing. I don't have his letters, only hers. Judging from the vibe, I'd guess that this must have started while she was a teenager; the worst thing is a birthday card for her 17th birthday, which jokingly declares that she can now 'play with the big boys'. It's signed, so I assume that he thought better of giving it or that she gave it back to him. I'm assuming that it started after that.

The cousin accused my Dad of this a few years ago -- but she did it by writing my mother a letter describing her giving my Dad a blowjob. The letter was pasted on either side of a piece of cardboard, and hand-delivered to the front desk of my mother's nursing home; the intent was to have every person who handled it read it, thus humiliating my mother. She didn't attempt any thing as aggressive with my Dad.
Understandably, she has refused to speak to or have any contact with my father for years, and she really, really hates my Mother (who knows nothing about this, obviously -- I've asked leading questions) and me.

This is all really revolting, as I loved my Dad and don't want to find out this sort of shit about him; he's gone from beloved father to douchbag. While she wasn't a minor, it's still grossly abusive -- he was in his 40's, and she was in her early 20's, and he was in a position of family trust. I've found lots of evidence of other sexual affairs, but they don't bother me as much as this one: both parties were adults, and nasty and upsetting as some of the stuff is (god, when one girlfriend broke off the affair he went ballistic, classic insane ex behavior that lasted about three months) they're a question of adultery, not sexual abuse.

So: what do I do? I'm wondering about talking with the cousin about this, but I don't know how she'll react. I have to deal with her, as some of the estate is linked with her family (Dad owned property with his sister, her Mom, who died last year -- and Dad was barred from the funeral, which gives you an idea of the antipathy that exists). I'm distressed that her obviously real accusation, however distressingly made, was completely denied, falsely. But what do I say?

And I don't want to be a target myself: this woman tends to say it with lawsuits, and I really need the inheritance not to be locked up in the courts for years -- Mom needs the money for her care, and I've recently been diagnosed with a genetically aggressive form of melanoma that will kill me if it spreads -- so I'll need money to go to the states for quick treatment if it does. The estate is really a question of life and death for both of us. If she knows that, I'm afraid she'll launch some claims on it.

And do I tell Mom? She's asked why I'm asking about my cousin.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (44 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I would not say anything to anyone, especially to your mother. What good would it do? The cousin has already told her about it, in the most offensive way possible.

Your cousin is no doubt feeling tremendous guilt over her own complicity. She was an adult through much of this time, it appears.

When your mother passes, consider suggesting to her and her siblings if any (perhaps through the respective lawyers rather than by direct contact) that the parties should plan to disengage themselves in an orderly fashion with respect to any property that is co-owned.
posted by megatherium at 3:56 AM on January 6, 2013 [12 favorites]

Holy crap. That's terrible. Let me address a few strictly legal points before delving into more personal advice. IAAL, though IANYL.

First, get this anomyzed. Mods?

Second, your cousin can theoretically file suit against the estate to recover for your dad's alleged misconduct. Whether this is going to be a problem for you and your mother depends a lot on how your dad handled his assets. If they're in some kind of trust, there may not actually be anything in the estate. Assets in trust ought to be safe from this kind of claim. But just in general, suing estates is doable, but it's a little more involved than suing living persons. You're going to need to talk with your estate attorney immediately.

Third, as long as this alleged misconduct began after your cousin was above the age of consent in your jurisdiction--16 in many parts of the US and Canada--then the type of claim your cousin can bring is pretty sharply reduced from the worst case scenario. Child molestation? Awful. Huge damages, almost de facto liability, and extended statutes of limitations. But an ongoing sexual relationship between adults? Even if it's non-consensual, that automatically reduces the severity of the claim. Acquaintance rape is viewed by the legal system as being less serious than the sexual abuse of a child. It also brings it within the normal statute of limitations. In most jurisdictions in US and Canada, that's two years for this sort of thing. So if this has been going on for a while, your cousin may have trouble recovering for any alleged misconduct that happened more than two years ago. And if the last incident of alleged misconduct occurred more than two years ago, the whole thing might be barred. The law does not permit people to sit on claims indefinitely.* Again, you're going to want to talk with your estate attorney immediately. Even if he's not the guy that would wind up defending any claims your cousin brings, he is going to be your go-to guy for matters touching on claims against the estate.

As to what you do now? Doesn't sound like your mother is entirely with it. I don't see any particular need to distress her with this. Definitely consult your estate attorney, but I wouldn't really talk to anyone else (other than maybe a counselor) at this point. Too much potential for drama and unpleasantness, but personal and legal.

*The theory here is that if you know you have a claim, either bring it now or don't, but we're not going to let you hold that over someone's head for the rest of their (or your) life. Even tortfeasors need to be able to move on. And the longer a claim sits, the less accessible the evidence becomes. It's better for everyone that claims be brought promptly. This has been a feature of the legal system since at least Roman times.
posted by valkyryn at 4:01 AM on January 6, 2013 [17 favorites]

Don't talk about it with your mother. What would you hope to achieve for her? All you can do is distress her. And don't talk to your cousin about it unless you are certain the fallout will be ok. Which seems unlikely. If you have to absolutely - I don't think you are morally obliged to, on balance - unravel your financial connection first.
posted by londongeezer at 4:04 AM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

I’m so sorry for you. What a mess.

Before you do anything, consult a lawyer. Find out exactly what sort of a threat your cousin may pose. The rest of my advice assumes the legal side is squared away.

First things first- it seems clear to me that you do owe your cousin an apology, if I’m reading your story correctly. You’re a bit fuzzy with the details, but if you’re saying that your cousin accused your father of this and was called a liar and that is why she hates you and your mother, then my gut says you’ve indeed unintentionally wronged her. Despite her nastiness, bitterness, and anger, she should at the bare minimum have the story set straight and be believed at last. I would do this personally, one on one, with a minimum of fuss and with dignity. She may be a nasty person, but I do think even a nasty person deserves that much.

As for your mother’s involvement, it seems that your cousin nastily tried to tell your mother this as a sort of revenge- your mother already knows that it is, at least, a rumor. To my mind how she reacted to this first rumor will tell you what you need to know- if she reacted with extreme shock, disgust, and denial, then I think you should protect her from ever knowing the truth, as she is old and it very well might make her sicker. You should also protect her from any further contact with your cousin.

However, if she reacted previously with a sort of hint that she already knew, or might not fall to pieces were it true (and many women in olden days “knew” all along and just maintained silence) and IN ADDITION you think she’s the sort of person who really needs and wants to know the truth, and values it above all else…MAYBE consider telling her.

I personally would strongly learn towards never telling her and letting her live the rest of her life in peace. Her specific character, however, makes all the difference here. Would she really, really want to know? You know her best.

I'm thinking the best course of action might be to settle your fathers financial affairs without letting anyone know about the letters, and then possibly even wait for your mother to pass- or at least wait a few months to a year- and THEN "find" the letters tucked away somewhere and have the conversation with your cousin?
posted by quincunx at 4:11 AM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Hide those letters away and never speak of it. Don't talk to the cousin. What are you hoping to learn? That it was weird and fucked up? We already know that much. If you don't bring it up, she might forget to sue you and whatever else you fear. Don't tell mom. It'll be needless pain.
posted by amodelcitizen at 4:18 AM on January 6, 2013 [11 favorites]

Mod note: OP, I have gone ahead and anonymized this post for you. If you have any questions please contact us. If you need to make a reply in the thread, you can do that by contacting the moderators here, and whoever is on duty will post an anonymous reply for you.
posted by taz (staff) at 4:20 AM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

what a horrible thing to find out. i hope you are coping and have someone you can confidentially process this with as i'm sure it is quite difficult. personally, i don't think i'd tell your mom since she's so elderly and sick. also, she has already been presented with the accusation by your cousin. i also think once you have worked out all the estate stuff it would be good to tell your cousin about finding the letters. while what your dad did can't be undone it would greatly help your cousin to heal to know that she is believed. you said you are assuming this happened once she was over the age of consent but it really may not have and she might well have been a minor.
posted by wildflower at 4:29 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

it seems clear to me that you do owe your cousin an apology. . .

this puts you as having been squarely, if unintentionally and totally understandably, complicit in the abuse and its coverup

This is why you need to talk to an attorney before you offer any apologies, or even discuss the issue with your cousin. Under most rules of evidence, admissions of parties are admissible in court, even when offered out of court. Apologies can easily be construed this way, especially if they're accompanied by specific admissions of fact.

I'm sorry, but you need legal advice--possibly even representation--before you do this. It sucks that that's the way it is, but that's the way it is.
posted by valkyryn at 4:38 AM on January 6, 2013 [29 favorites]

The right thing to do is not always the most legally advisable, though you would certainly find out if there is meaningful conflict by discussing this with a competent estate attorney and figuring out what state the abuse occurred in as well as how early it started. It is wrong to be complicit in the coverup of abuse of children and it would still be wrong if you were to do so to protect the assets of an abuser that would otherwise be going to you.

For what its worth, I don't envy you.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:03 AM on January 6, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'm not saying don't apologize. I'm just saying to talk to your lawyer before you do it. You don't want to accidentally screw yourself over here.
posted by valkyryn at 5:26 AM on January 6, 2013 [11 favorites]

valkyryn's right: talk to your estate lawyer before you do anything else. Do not tell your mother about these letters; all it will do is cause her pain.

As for what to tell your mother, about why you're asking about your cousin: just tell her that, since the family finances are intermingled, you're just looking for information that will help you with clearing up the estate.
posted by easily confused at 5:54 AM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Just to clarify -- my cousin is in her 60s, a decade older than I am. The letters date to the mid 70's, when she was in her 20s and I was about 10. I was not evilly complicit in my father's sexual relationship with my cousin: how I could have been given our relative ages, is hard to grasp.

She sent my Mom the letter in 2006.

I won't contact her and will talk to the lawyer.
posted by taz (staff) at 6:05 AM on January 6, 2013 [15 favorites]

Mod note: And... since the OP has clarified the situation, let's please not pursue the issue of whether they are in some way responsible for enabling the apparent abuse, and concentrate on helpful answers. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 6:23 AM on January 6, 2013 [11 favorites]

Before responding to the OP, a question for the legally inclined commenters: will the estate lawyer be under any obligation to tell anyone what the OP tells her? OP does not mention whether she is the executor, though it sounds like she is.

OP, you should talk to a therapist maybe? This is a hugely upsetting discovery on top of what was already a difficult time for you. The estate lawyer will probably give you many restrictions on who you can talk to, and you need someone to talk to. Bottling this up forever is not a burden you should have to carry. On top of the burden of having to find some kind of resolution.

When/if you do eventually talk to her, try to be empathetic. I know her actions in the past have created problems, but she has been undeniably damaged by the experience.

I'm so so sorry.
posted by dry white toast at 6:32 AM on January 6, 2013 [7 favorites]

No one has mentioned this,
Please, do not destroy the letters. Keep them together and out of sight to you, if needed, they'll be available.
I'm sorry you're having to deal with all of this.
posted by jennstra at 6:51 AM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

None of this is your or your mother's rightful burden, although the two people whose burden it is/was have both endeavored to spread the pain. Your father had decades to hide or destroy this evidence, yet he left it for you to find.

But you are free to not react to this posthumous assault, and certainly not to make yourself more vulnerable to someone who wishes ill to your mother and yourself. You can never know what went on in your cousin's and father's relationship, but you have all the power now to not engage, not create more drama, and not blame yourself for other peoples' decades past bad behavior. Just look after yourself, and try to let go of this ugly residue.
posted by Scram at 7:06 AM on January 6, 2013 [7 favorites]

Just to clarify -- my cousin is in her 60s, a decade older than I am. The letters date to the mid 70's, when she was in her 20s and I was about 10.

This makes things a lot simpler, legally speaking. You'll still need to consult with your attorney. First, before anything else. But torts this old, even ones involving sexual misconduct, are generally barred by applicable statutes of limitations.

Those cases you hear about claims being brought decades after the alleged abuse? They all involve children and usually involve special changes to statutes of limitation created by legislatures specifically to address the problem of child sexual abuse. One of the big problems there is that a lot of children don't know they're being abused and so don't tell anyone about it until years later, long after the normal statute of limitations would have run. But it sounds both as if your cousin was an adult knew what was happening to her at the time. If this business concluded when your cousin was in her twenties, i.e., something like thirty or forty years ago, the odds that she can do anything about it legally are very low.

And it's cases like this for which the statute of limitations was created in the first place. Neither you nor your mother were involved in this misconduct. Punishing you now, decades after the fact, after your father has died, seems unfair, especially given that your cousin could have brought some kind of claim or gone to the police at any time.

Still: consult with your attorney before talking to anyone else. But if things are as I understand them, you may be able to move forward with that apology sooner rather than later.
posted by valkyryn at 7:07 AM on January 6, 2013 [11 favorites]

will the estate lawyer be under any obligation to tell anyone what the OP tells her?

On the contrary: assuming the OP and the estates are his clients, he'd probably be under an obligation not to. The duty of client confidentiality is a powerful thing, and it exists for these kinds of situations.

Things would be different if the abuse were ongoing. Attorneys have a duty to report information pertaining to future or ongoing crimes against persons. But the duty of client confidentiality attaches, among other things, to any communications related to conduct which occurred entirely in the past, criminal, tortious, or otherwise.
posted by valkyryn at 7:11 AM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I read the accusation of 'complicit' as in re. present-day covering-up, not enabling back when? A bit silly in either case. Awful that these things have been dumped on you, but, this isn't precisely your problem or issue. I do agree that it would be nice to be able to have a record-setting-straight word with your cousin when the legal dust clears. I am not sure that somebody who accidentally chances on information after a person has died has an obligation to do that, though.

The cousin is not a priori "undeniably damaged" -- what a thing to say! -- and if she is money isn't going to fix that. It is not your life vs her life.

I would not tell your mother. As for her wondering why you were asking -- tell her you had some concerns over approaching the cousin about the estate issues because of the thing with your father's being barred from attending the funeral last year and you wanted to get a better grasp of the situation?

Good guidance in messes often comes from 'But what would I want, if I was the other person?' And here you have: I loved my Dad and don't want to find out this sort of shit about him. Like you said, there isn't a clear right answer, but I would feel best erring on that how-would-I-want-this-if-it-was-me side, and I think you would really have preferred your life as it was without these letters; extrapolate that feeling onto your mother.
posted by kmennie at 7:23 AM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Start by disclosing to the person with the most legal obligations not to spread the information around, who has a decently low hourly rate & an obligation not to screw you up mentally. Make sure to ask them if they are any under mandatory reporter obligations (it sounds like you might not be in the US, hence my broad statements.)

Then talk to the lawyer handling the estate.

Only when you get a really clear understanding of exactly what can and will happen, do you start considering the question of talking to your cousin or her sister or anyone else.

Do all of that before destroying anything. The healthiest way to approach this is probably going in with the assumption that you'll never be destroying anything.

Given the circumstances, I would not disclose to your mother. She's very ill, near the end of her life, and has comprehension issues. It'd just be mean, and you might well be faced with an avalanche of questions & statements you can't possibly know how to respond to. It'd be traumatic for both sides.

By the way: learning really horrible or disturbing or simply transformative stuff about the recently deceased is super common. Therapists are used to helping folks deal with that. They're also good about working out how to handle complex social situations.
posted by SMPA at 7:32 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with what valkyryn wrote above.

Furthermore, I'm usually of the opinion that one should never participate in any cover up; I have gotten people quite upset because of that in the past. However...

Your cousin had the opportunity while she was alive to bring charges against your dad. She did not and he is no longer there to defend himself. Yes, you found some letters which give one side of a story, which could be then "embellished" by your cousin with no chance for rebuttal.

I would definitely not disclose it to your mother.
posted by aroberge at 7:59 AM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

OP, I'm really sorry. I cannot even imagine what it would be like to deal with this.

I don't have any useful advise from a legal POV, but I had one point of confusion - you wrote:

It's pretty clear from the context that they were sexually involved and that the 'affair/abuse' was consensual -- 'don't write me love letters' is a constant theme, and he was obviously sending her erotic gifts and clothing.

It seems like the cousin was telling him not to write love letters, which seems to contradict the usage of the word "consensual." I wonder if you meant to say "non-consensual?"
posted by bunderful at 8:22 AM on January 6, 2013 [6 favorites]

Cover your ass legally before doing anything. Depending on what that legal advice my take on the matter would be not to tell your mother. Though I am suspecting if your father kept letters around she knew. Nothing is to be gained by dredging it up at this point in her life.

I would talk to your cousin, who honestly to me just sounds like she wants someone to hear and believe her. Despite her age being over just over 16 and legal does not mean you are suddenly able to handle being used for a sexual relationship by an uncle how ever "legal" the relationship is. Incest is incest. If you add possibly groomed before hand, by the sounds of that creepy ass birthday card. I think the worst part would be having people tell you, you were lying when you know it was the truth. If you are covered legally to tell her that I hear you, I know what happened and I believe you might help the poor woman out. It might also help you get some closure on what happened. You don't have to talk about it in detail with her, you don't have to hear her rant for hours or tell you details you don't want to know, but secrets can fester and acknowledging it, no matter what your cousins reactions might be, would well be the right thing for you, to help you move on.
posted by wwax at 8:24 AM on January 6, 2013 [6 favorites]

This is all really revolting, as I loved my Dad and don't want to find out this sort of shit about him; he's gone from beloved father to douchbag.

This doesn't have to be the case. People are complex, multi-sided. You have no idea why your father behaved the way he did and you never will. Those acts don't negate who he was to you--they complicate them, certainly, but people aren't black or white, they're black and white. Don't just know this, accept this.

It seems that your father was capable of goodness--at least when it came to you. Perhaps he was a good man who did evil things and some people are right to condemn him for it because it appears to be a conscious choice against his nature. But what if his nature was evil and the effort was to do the good things he did with you? What if that's how he spun against his drive? Is that not commendable?

Like anyone, you hope to be remembered for the good you did, the love you shared, the compassion you felt, and the effort you put into doing right regardless--or in spite of--everything else. So does your father. His relations with your cousin were awful, but it was his cross to bear, not yours. It's done. It's over. You gain nothing by shouldering it. Put it behind you and find it in your heart to forgive him and hope that the people you leave behind are also capable of forgiveness. We all need it.
posted by dobbs at 8:32 AM on January 6, 2013 [8 favorites]

she really, really hates my Mother (who knows nothing about this, obviously -- I've asked leading questions) and me

This isn't your, or your Mother's, burden to carry. Your cousin should have approached your father for closure instead of targeting your mother and you. I see a cycle of abuse here (with her abusing you and your mother) and I think re-opening this will not be healing for anyone. Yes, she was probably wronged forty years ago, but she also has to take responsibility for her choices in the more recent past such as her actions to humiliate your mother instead of approaching your father. She was looking for closure from your father (who I assume was the one that denied it happened?), now he is gone she is the only one that can give herself closure. Approaching her now, while her own grief/emotions over your father is still so raw, would not turn out well for anyone I suspect. If you are going to talk to her I would wait at least a year after his death to give her time to process all her feelings.

It actually reads to me that she was ultimately rejected by your father, or he refused to leave your mother for her, and she has carried a grudge as a scorned woman all this time, still trying to break up the relationship between your parents even recently without actually engaging with your father (risking messing up a possible reconciliation). You also need that year to grieve because it sounds like she may say inappropriate/distressing things to you ( you really want to discus your father's sex life?) and you need to know where you are comfortable shutting the conversation down. Actually, a third party like a therapist should be with both of you to keep the conversation productive if you choose to talk to her.

She sounds like she is coming from a traumatised place but you don't know that your father was the sole cause of the trauma; that she began an incestuous relationship as an adult speaks to an upbringing of possible abuse/crossed boundaries in the larger family. I suspect that if you were to look deeper, your father would not be the only abuser in your family, and was possibly a victim himself at some point.

Give the lawyer a head's up and move as much as the Estate forward without the piece involving the property she is tied to. It depends on jurisdiction but I believe sometimes you can get partial disbursements out of the settled parts of the Estate so if she does file suit you will at least have some of the proceeds for your and your Mother's medical care.

I am sorry you are having to deal with this, grieving your Father, and parenting your Mother as well. You will emerge a stronger person, as hard as its now to go through.
posted by saucysault at 9:17 AM on January 6, 2013 [17 favorites]

I can't speak to any of the legal aspects of this, but I had a friend go through something similar when her father, who she adored, was arrested and jailed for soliciting a minor for sex online.

She went through a period of defensiveness, and denial, but ultimately came to accept that her father really was a person capable of such things--how could she deny it, when the proof was staring right at her? And she's been in therapy, and it's been very good for her.

It seems like you still haven't fully processed this evidence, arguing instead that the victim's relationship was consensual (it sounds unlikely, if she was asking him not to write love letters) or that her method of contacting your mother was inappropriate. As a third-party, uninvolved observer, it seems fairly ugly to pin this all on the victim, a child, who was engaged in a sexual relationship with a relative before the age of seventeen. She has a right to seek peace and remuneration however she sees fit, frankly.

As for you, I'd recommend therapy to help you sort through your grief of not only your father's death, but grief for your image of him. Your father was not the person you thought he was. Accepting that will take time, and help.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:49 AM on January 6, 2013 [15 favorites]

Is there a chance that your cousin fabricated all of this and your Dad kept the letters because he didn't know what else to do? That birthday card seems borderline weird, but right now, all you have is her letters to him. Who knows what he was sending, or not sending? The way that your cousin accused your Dad of this several years ago - the double-sided hand-delivered cardboard to the front desk, etc., seems troubling to me.

I think there is no profit in doing anything at this point, and certainly not saying anything to your fragile elderly mother about it. If your Dad were still alive, I'd suggest having a conversation with him to see if there is an explanation for this - for example, that your cousin is mentally ill, and that your Dad is only one of a number of people she has done this to. But, I would only suggest that to put YOUR mind at ease.

I'm sorry, OP, this is a really tough. Best wishes. I hate to resort to the standard Metafilter advice, but seeing a therapist might be good to help you talk through some of your feelings about this.
posted by arnicae at 10:27 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

1. I don't think you can make the assumption that the sexual contact started only after your cousin was legal age. I certainly hope there wasn't child abuse involved, but you have no proof of that. In terms of dealing legally with the estate, you may want to proceed with the assumption that the worst-case scenario may be the case here.

2. Once you get yourself legally protected or sorted, I do think you should apologize to your cousin for not believing her. Not being supported by friends and family is often actually more traumatizing than the actual sexual abuse, especially for children and teenagers dealing with incest. You have the ability to right your own wrong here (you are certainly not responsible for your father's actions), and I hope you can take it.
posted by jaguar at 10:28 AM on January 6, 2013 [10 favorites]

I don't think you need to leap to the conclusion that this was "grossly abusive"--young women have sex with guys older than they are all the time. The cousin angle is creepy and she sounds unhinged, but she's a full grown adult, in her 60s--for all you know she's developing early onset Alzheimer's, thus the weird letter to your mother. You are an adult, you've learned that your father was not a storybook Papa, and you have bigger fish to fry, in terms of your own health and your mother's care and the estate than worrying about what this woman might do. I agree about speaking to a lawyer, but frankly, I'd scan the letters to a disc, put the disc and the originals in a safety deposit box and not look at this stuff again. Tell your mom that the cousin's not being rational and you're not having any contact with her. The cousin can make noises all she wants, but she's got no case against you or the estate, I'd wager.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:28 AM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

(Also, the unhinged way your cousin is acting and has acted is actually fairly common among childhood sexual abuse survivors; many women diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder were sexually abused as children. Someone being mentally ill does not in any way mean that they weren't abused, and in many cases actually increases the chance that they were abused, both because trauma can cause psychological harm and because abusers target people who are less likely to be believed if they tell anyone and so mentally and physically disabled people are more likely to be abused.)
posted by jaguar at 10:40 AM on January 6, 2013 [20 favorites]

Give yourself plenty of time to process this. Work through it with a therapist if you can/wish. I'm so sorry.
posted by Neekee at 11:29 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I get the sense that there is a bigger story here. Something went down in the past in addition to the inappropriate relationship between your father and his neice. Perhaps she needed help and found no one believed her. Perhaps she was accused -- maybe by your mother -- of coming after your father. Something like that would make me spitting mad if I were in her shoes. But none of that concerns you. You have no action here that you must take.

So, I concur with the hive mind. Get the legal affairs settled. Discuss with your estate attorney and no one else. See that what you are owed is buttoned up and put all this aside.

However, were I in your shoes, I'd be curious what went down and if your cousin was wronged, I'd probably want to see that she got some sort of acknowledgment that she was wronged, you believe her and that you are sorry that things happened this way. However, it's not in your power to make justice here. And you are not responsible for your father's actions or anyone's but your own. I'd be curious what your mother knew and how she was behaving toward this neice. I don't know that I'd never bring it up but I would wait until the immediate dust around the estate has settled.

Don't destroy the evidence. Don't give it away. So sorry that you're shouldering this burden. What a thing -- take care of yourself first and your mother second.
posted by amanda at 12:25 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Everyone has spoken well to the legal aspect of your situation. These are just some comments regarding your cousin's possible perspective.

Agreeing with jaguar and saucysault that there's likely other gross things that you're cousin endured, leading her to have an incestuous relationship with a relative as a young adult. A paradoxical dynamic about sexual abuse survivors is that often they don't get angry at the abuser -- they get angry at all the people (especially moms) who "let" it happen and left them to fend for themselves against lecherous men when they were vulnerable and naive. It certainly sounds to me like she's got a lot of anger for any women from the family who she perceives as not having protected her. Perhaps in her mind that makes you and your mom complicit, even though in objective reality that's not necessarily the case.

However, there's been such a conspiracy of silence when it comes to child abuse in the older generations that it's possible your mom WAS aware, but being a woman of her generation, was not empowered to take any meaningful action about it. It could be that your cousin tried to reach out to your mom at some time for protection/advice/acknowledgement/support and was rejected. Push come to shove, you don't know what exactly went down, and even if you ask your mom directly about it, chances are you're still not going to know. You may not want to know, quite frankly.

It's pretty clear from the context that they were sexually involved and that the 'affair/abuse' was consensual...

Her desire to be loved and admired by an older man may have been consensual... It could also be that time has now become a bottomless well of shame and rage for your cousin, as she realizes how misguided her efforts to secure love and attention from an older man truly were (basically, how "stupid" she was to believe that anything your dad was doing was ever in her best interests -- imagine the self-loathing that comes with that). It could also be that your father's recent death triggered some of this dormant rage in your cousin, leaving her grasping at any possible way in which she might regain some personal power from the family of the abuser that she sacrificed from herself years ago. Your dad is dead now and she will never have a chance to confront him again -- that's a life event that is known to hit some survivors of sexual abuse quite hard, depending on where they're at in their healing journey.

I'm distressed that her obviously real accusation, however distressingly made, was completely denied, falsely

Legally protect yourself, and when the legal matters have passed, just don't support the conspiracy of silence anymore. That doesn't mean you have to go out of your way to set things right (especially since this is clearly not your sin to own), but you can maintain a certain integrity about it. If you HAD known you surely would have done some things differently; if you HAD been raised in a family without these kinds of dark secrets blindsiding you from behind, you could have been in a better position to support her. But this is how the pieces fell in your particular family story and all you can do is move forward with what you know.

Just some thoughts for you, to help process. Take care, OP!
posted by human ecologist at 12:44 PM on January 6, 2013 [22 favorites]

Don't be so sure that your mom doesn't know. My family had a similar skeleton come out of the closet, and the mother in question feigned ignorance to protect her cherished ideal of her family.
posted by nacho fries at 1:17 PM on January 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm distressed that her obviously real accusation, however distressingly made, was completely denied, falsely

Was this accusation the blowjob letter? I'm not sure I agree that you owe her an apology - she sent a letter, some what, forty years after the event, to your mother, couched in terms to upset her. Of course you have no idea of what passed between these three people, you were a child at the time. Have you ever had a friendly relationship with the cousin? I don't think you owe her anything.

I'm in two minds about bringing it up with your mum. I think it possibly depends on how much she already knows about your dad, and probably she knows more than you think. But maybe these are matters it is better for you to keep out of as much as possible: it isn't your burden to carry, I don't think. I don't think you have an obligation to address this with anyone, unless you really feel you must.

But I do think you should discuss this very frankly with your lawyer.
posted by thylacinthine at 1:24 PM on January 6, 2013

I also don't think you owe the cousin anything.

After consulting with a lawyer, I wouldn't further touch this situation with a ten foot pole and a hazmat suit.

Everybody makes great points. It's true something truly awful happened, but you don't know exactly what it was. You will never ever find out now if your cousin was a woman scorned, an abuse victim, or a little bit of both.

She's already aware of the content of the letters she sent to your father because SHE SENT THEM.

I wouldn't blame you for burning those letters after your lawyer says it's OK to do so.

You said she had letters from your father, that this seemed to be a two-way correspondence? Then she already had, or currently has, proof of her claims.

I wish I knew why I don't have more compassion where I usually would be jumping up and down on your cousin's behalf, but I don't.

My gut tells me this won't help her, but I bet your lawyer's and therapist's professional opinion counts more here.

It's a very very good point that these letters might not tell the story you think they do.

Be careful.
posted by jbenben at 4:14 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

The OP did mention evidence of other affairs so it's unlikely this didn't happen, or that her mom was entirely unaware that some of it was going on, at least w others.

As for seeing the truth about those you loved, well...a great deal of my relationship with my deceased parents is the desire to do better as a person than they did. I think they felt the same about their own parents who also did good things and horrible things.

I am sorry you are dealing with this but I think you have gotten some good advice.
posted by emjaybee at 4:47 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

One way a therapist or counselor might be of particular value to you is in helping you decide, preemptively, what your boundaries will be with your mum, and perhaps other relatives, who may at some point want to get into all the details of the situation with you.

I'm thinking especially of a possible scenario where your mother may decide to get certain things off her chest, and choose you to be her confessor. This is a role you are under no obligation to assume; you can set that as a bright-line boundary, and stick to it.

In my experience, the bad actors wanted to seek absolution as they aged and confronted their mortality. This may be a non-issue if in fact your mom wasn't aware of whatever abuse took place, but is something to be mindful of.
posted by nacho fries at 5:41 PM on January 6, 2013

Despite the suggestive narratives being spun above about "women scorned" and "younger women dating older men": even if there was no sexual contact while she was a minor (you cannot prove this), even if you think it was consensual (you cannot prove this and it doesn't matter), there is no way that a relationship between a 40+year-old man and his at-most 17-to-20-year-old niece isn't incestuous and abusive. It just isn't. Your father abused your cousin, and it fucked her up. And even though the abuse continued into her legal adulthood, when it could look like a consensual relationship on her part, understand that she didn't get to choose to enter this relationship as an adult (ideally) would—"After mature reflection and/or time to think on my own, I know that an incestuous relationship with my uncle is what I really want, even if it is a terrible mistake." Your cousin didn't get to grow up and realize she'd been abused as a child; the abuse followed her into adulthood. And when she realized on some level how fucked-up what happened to her was, years after the abuse, she lashed out at the family who'd "let" her be abused or who'd "stolen" her abuser from her, and her family thought she was a liar. That undoubtedly fucked her up more. Your cousin is now a nasty, unlikable person, but it is unlikely that your cousin is no longer deeply fucked up by what happened (you didn't mention she was in therapy) and is therefore nasty by choice and temperament, rendering her undeserving of your empathy and acknowledgement.

Protect yourself and your mother as best you fairly, legally can. But your cousin may very well be legally entitled to a portion of the estate—perhap more than you're comfortable giving willingly—and if so, she should get it. And don't pretend this didn't happen by never talking to your cousin or family about it or burning the letters (Jesus Christ) and such. It's not your job to pay a pound of flesh and guilt for your father's sins and your extended family's probable complicity—you didn't know and you were too young to help anyway, it wasn't your fault. But it's also not your job to be your father's accomplice by covering up his abuse by continuing the tradition of silence and denial. Acknowledging the truth can't make your family anymore fucked-up than it already, always was.
posted by nicebookrack at 8:49 PM on January 6, 2013 [17 favorites]

I just wanted to note that there is no statute of limitations for sexual offences in Canada, per 1992 Supreme Court ruling, which noted the role of self blame in affecting victims in recognizing the abuse. There is only a statute of limitations for summary crimes and misdemeanors, and a limit of six years for debt. As the OP referred to going to the States for health care, I assume the OP is in Canada. However, the Criminal Code doesn't name uncle/niece as incest, although there may be other frameworks and I'm not entirely sure how they enforce the "blood relation" part of the law, as IANAL.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:15 PM on January 6, 2013

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks, everyone -- your comments have been very helpful, and I'm going to stop following the thread now. I'm particularly grateful to the lawyers. I'll definitely talk to the lawyer before I talk to my cousin -- which I'm going to do, but which I'll leave until after the estate is settled. And I won't tell my Mom; I'd like to, because this is very disturbing and I'd like someone to talk to, but that's for my own comfort more than anything else.

I've gotten the feedback I needed and I thank you all.
posted by taz (staff) at 10:31 PM on January 6, 2013

that there is no statute of limitations for sexual offences in Canada, per 1992 Supreme Court ruling

1. That's now how I read that case. The Court seems to have said that the Ontario Limitations Act applies, but that the limit imposed is "tolled," i.e., the clock stops ticking, when certain facts obtain. There is no indication that the Limitations Act does not apply to sexual torts at all, simply that various equitable defenses to the Act may be available in cases of incest. This is a very, very different conclusion than the one you've offered.

2. The facts in this case are sufficiently different from the facts in that one to make applying that ruling a less-than-straightforward proposition.

3. The Court was interpreting the Ontario Limitations Act, so unless the OP resides in Ontario, the case may not even be entirely on point. At the very least, some analogy to other provincial law will be required.

Observation: Citations to case law are rarely helpful on AskMe, for two reasons. First, this is not a forum for the provision of legal advice, i.e., applying law to facts. Second, even if it were, we do not have sufficient access to the facts to offer reasonably informed advice.

Conclusion: Talk to your lawyer.

posted by valkyryn at 4:28 AM on January 7, 2013

This is neither here nor there, but while you're talking to a lawyer, you should probably also make sure that your mother's will is complete and up to date.

Given everything else that's going on here, you really don't want to be open to an estate dispute.
posted by schmod at 7:56 AM on January 7, 2013

Your father behaved appallingly, and owed the cousin an apology, but he's dead, and I think the moral obligation died with him. Search your own heart; do you feel that the cousin is owed compensation? Is cousin in need of money? You need an estate lawyer, and if it were me, I'd put the money in a trust for your mother's care and your own, as well as any other children grandchildren, etc. And maybe for the cousin, if you feel that's right. As far as statutes of limitations, he can't be held criminally responsible for anything. Cousin might have a case for civil compensation, but that's what the lawyer is for.

It sounds like your Mom didn't see the nastygram on cardboard? I generally believe in honesty, but the perpetrator is dead, and your Mom is likely to be greatly hurt by definitive information that he was incredibly unfaithful and creepy. She almost certainly had opportunities to know the truth, and it sounds like she preferred not to know. You could ask her some probing questions, but I suspect you already know that she doesn't want to know.

This information is painful for you, and I recommend seeing a therapist, so you have someone to talk to about it, and that someone is bound by confidentiality. Also, your health concerns sound quite urgent, and you need help coping with all this. I wish you the best.
posted by theora55 at 9:03 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older How to make friends and influence smart birds   |   Recommend me a cheap email whitelist service Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.