Advice for discovering something unpleasant about a deceased loved one
September 21, 2020 1:57 PM   Subscribe

I had a very good and relatively uncomplicated relationship with a parent who I loved very much and died not long ago. I recently discovered something very unpleasant on their computer and I’m really struggling with reconciling this with the parent I loved so dearly and was so close to.

(I guess what I discovered is relevant here. It was a collection of porn involving animals. I wasn’t prying - I now use this computer as my own and it came up on an automated cleanup search for old and unused files).

Part of me knows that this doesn’t affect what was our relationship but now, every time I think of my parent, all I feel is distress, sadness and anger because of my recent discovery. It has completely obscured my good memories and thoughts of them.

Does anyone have any perspectives or experience that might help me here? Please no judgment of my parent, I am doing enough of that myself right now. Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
All real people have unfavorable things about them, probably you too. The most influential and loving people do. Sexual things seem to induce the most shame and disgust.

It could be that this person was only curious about something and it could be that they struggles with something.

What you can do for yourself is talk (with a close friend or professional) about what this discovery means to you. What worries you or scares you about it? What are those feelings telling you about yourself?

Uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Can you be grateful for what they show you? And then can you use them to take you to a stronger or more joyful place?

Possible example:
A person who I want to honor and remember fondly did a thing that I can't honor or remember fondly.
Thank you for showing me that I can love someone, even when I don't love every word or action.
Thank you for showing me my fears around legacy.
Thank you for allowing me to experience the true depth of a person.
posted by jander03 at 2:14 PM on September 21 [7 favorites]

I'm sorry to hear that. First, I would really strongly suggest working with a therapist about this. Others might have better suggestions, but I might look into ACT - acceptance and commitment therapy - it's sort of an offshoot of CBT that seems like it might be useful.

Secondly, I think it's really hard to reconcile the (understandably) very rigid moral framework that we as a society have about types of illegal/exploitative pornography with the compulsive/irrational nature of what people feel. Because this person has passed away, and therefore there are no direct interventions with them available to you, it might be useful to try to reframe this as the burden of mental illness that this parent faced, and to see if you can feel sympathy with them for this hidden struggle. (And that will be hard, so I would suggest trying to do it with professional help, via therapy.)

FWIW, I think this is part of the failure of our society to reconcile that behavior can be both necessarily criminal to protect victims, but also the product of mental illness that needs and deserves treatment.
posted by mercredi at 2:17 PM on September 21

I'm sorry you're dealing with this.

A few years ago this thread about a survey that claimed to reveal Americans' true wishes by looking at their porn interests definitely changed the way I think about porn. This comment by Pater Aletheias has stuck with me: it points out that sometimes porn is not at all about real life, and is about a contrast with real life and things that are forbidden. Maybe thinking about it that way would help?
posted by medusa at 2:17 PM on September 21 [16 favorites]


This is something a therapist can help you work through. I was dealing with some intrusive thoughts after a loss earlier this year, and my therapist had some good advice -- chiefly, to recognize and remind myself that these thoughts will fade with time.

Time helps so much with things like this. This is the most recent emotional moment you have with/about your parent, so it's the strongest. In the growing distance of time, it will shrink in relative size. You'll still recall it from time to time and wince with that pang of disgust, but you'll be able to glide away smoothly to other thoughts and not dwell on it.
posted by katieinshoes at 2:33 PM on September 21 [2 favorites]

Many people, myself included, have sexual fantasies that we would never actually want to experience in real life. Moreover, these are fantasies that we simply have in many cases. For me, at least, being kinky is not something that I chose exactly. It’s more like I was wired for kink but then got to decide what, if any, behaviors I was willing to engage in. If you have not deleted the pornography, I strongly encourage you to do that. I also encourage you to do one or more rituals of any sort to help you process this discovery in addition to seeing a therapist, if needed, to help resolve your distress.

You have no idea why or how that porn ended up on the computer. You have no idea what it meant or did not mean to your parent. Absent that knowledge, how does being trapped by thoughts about this discovery serve you or the memory of your parent or the very real love that you have for your parent? Your distress, sadness, and anger are based on a story that you’re telling yourself but you literally cannot know the actual story.

Your feelings are understandable but perhaps you can remind yourself, as my Al-Anon sponsor used to remind me, that there is no way of knowing if the story you have created is accurate. You don’t need to be mad at yourself for your feelings but you also don’t have to be stuck in them forever. I totally get that this is an upsetting discovery. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 2:35 PM on September 21 [15 favorites]

You might have more information on this that wasn't shared, but I do want to point out that people who download programs and files from the internet frequently end up with a cache of porn bundled alongside. If your parent was the type who downloaded stuff from questionable sources or thoughtlessly clicked on things, files could have easily been downloaded to a folder never even seen by your parent. My own beloved elderly grandfather accidentally downloaded some stuff onto his senior living computer lab's computer once (where it was found immediately, but still) when attempting to download a "new cool" Solitaire game.

I love all the advice already on how to manage this from a feelings perspective, but unless you know something else about how the files got there, you have no way of knowing for sure how your parent ended up with the porn on their computer. If it's so out of character for them that you cannot reconcile it with who you know, this might resonate with you. Even if they figured it out later on after they downloaded the new cool Solitaire game, they might have had no idea how to delete it, or were so embarrassed that they closed the folder and never spoke of it again.

Sorry you're going through this.
posted by juniperesque at 2:40 PM on September 21 [36 favorites]

Going along with the above, even if they intended to download these images, there are other potential reasons for them to be on a computer besides getting aroused by them. For example, there’s an ongoing joke about this particular topic in my family. My sister accidentally found a documentary about people with such a fetish on YouTube around ten years ago, and ever since then animal stuff has been kind of like a really inappropriate form of rickrolling for us.

There are lot of reasons why people consume porn. In college, some people I knew would take every opportunity to put porn videos on the vcr attached to the common room tv. Not because they wanted to pop wood in public, but because... I don’t know, they were annoying adolescents. Your parent isn’t there to explain their interest, so you have to jump to conclusions. It’s a reasonable conclusion to jump to. But that doesn’t mean you’re right.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:04 PM on September 21 [1 favorite]

Hey this happened to me! I inherited my dad's iPad and computer and his porn stash as well as his list of bookmarks. A surprise! But, ultimately, my dad was who he was, he wasn't into anything that was that out there and it wasn't my business if he was. The images were just random fantasy stuff and if I'm honest, people looking at my humble porn stash might jump to some odd and not-really-accurate conclusions about who I am (or was). I basically deleted everything, decided to leave it alone, decided it wasn't my business and mostly stopped thinking about it. It's definitely something that is weird and uncomfortable, but I think you can work through those feelings with someone you trust or a professional and figure out a way to get to a place of acceptance (and a note: acceptance doesn't mean you AGREE it just means you acknowledge that that is something true about the world) and then hopefully just kind of leave it alone.
posted by jessamyn at 3:20 PM on September 21 [6 favorites]

Three immediate thoughts:

(1) On the off-chance it's this, it may be of some relief: there's a fetish called "furries," which is very different in purpose, intent, etc. than what people would consider outright human-animal sex. This is a possibility if the porn you found has the animals looking almost cartoonish or human, such as standing on two legs, or wearing suits. (Think along the lines of how when Honey Bunny walks out onto the court in the original 'Space Jam'.)

(2) There may also be frankly just the intent of curiosity without actual intent to desire. People Google search nowadays perhaps just to satisfy curiosity ("I wonder what such-and-such looks like"), and we do not often think about how a third party might interpret our files, our search queries, our e-mails and posts.

(3) Looking at the language of your question, it sounds as if these came up while running one of those 'cleaner' apps that clear out Internet browser caches ("old and unused files"). If that is the case ... well, let's put it this way. Your parent might've gone to a 'normal' porn website like PornHub and there will be both lots of pop-up ads, and many of these websites will also have as part of their site's structure a bunch of 'categories'. These photos get cached in your browser's cache. If your cleaner app found the pictures there, then it could have been taken from either a pop-up or a category without your parent actively choosing them.

These on top of what everyone else has said about what fantasies mean and don't mean, and so on.
posted by metabaroque at 3:34 PM on September 21 [3 favorites]

Parents, like most humans, disappoint. And I can see it being a specific bummer if they had a stash of images that are in a sense animal abuse. If you can, mourn whatever changed in how you feel towards your parent with this new information. Maybe it was there by accident, maybe not. It's an unknowable thing.

You say you had a relatively uncomplicated relationship and one thing about complicated parental relationships is that you spend a lot of time processing your feelings of disappointment about that parent. This might be a new feeling for you!
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 5:24 PM on September 21

Somebody I know had a similar experience, although the downloader was not deceased. It turns out that there are sites where pornographic images and videos can be downloaded as a large batch in a .zip file. Sometimes the people who host or share these files include images that are unpleasant or illegal. Even if the description of the batch of images indicates one thing, these other files can be included.

I'm not sure if this provides any comfort, but it really may not have been intentionally downloaded.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 6:46 PM on September 21 [1 favorite]

Just to throw out another scenario: depending on who might have had access to your dad’s computer, the sites might have been accessed by someone else. Years ago we found some porn on our first home computer (before we knew about password protection) and eventually discovered that a contractor working in our home had been surfing the net when we weren’t there.
posted by serendipityrules at 7:15 PM on September 21 [1 favorite]

So my extended family had an annual extended get-together where all the adults would--apparently and completely unbeknownst to innocent little old me--get together and gossip about their sex lives the whole time.

Anyway, when I finally made appearance back at the gathering after more than a decade of absence, and after I had a partner myself, my "old" aunt let me in the secret of what they'd actually been talking about all these years.

My general impression of this group, FWIW, would be: Older, conservative, religious, rather straight-laced, pretty boring. Aunt herself was all this and, if possible, all to the Nth degree.

Also, she was "old" - by which I mean, old enough that at the time I would have assumed (incorrectly! completely incorrectly!) that she would be so "old" as to have no particular interest in sex whatsoever

In reality she was (counts furiously on fingers) actually several years younger than I am now as I type this. Believe it or not, "old" people--whether you mean people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, whatever--are by and large still quite interested in sex.

However, if you're 20-30 years younger, and particularly if you're their child, they're not always going to share this with you. Nevertheless, it's completely 100% normal.

Anyway, Aunt's sage advice about people's sexual outlooks, apparently gleaned primarily from some decades of intense discussion of the topic with the various above-mentioned "conservative" and "conventional" and "highly conservatively religious" relatives was exactly this:

"You know, when it comes to sex, everyone has kinks--everyone!--and everyone's kinks but your own are really strange."

Which I took to mean not as some sweeping denunciation of everyone's deviant sexuality, but rather that:

* People's particular sexual turn-ons are in fact far more widely varied than we usually give them credit,

* This is completely true even for groups seen outwardly as completely conventional, religious, nice, conservative, whatever words you want to use to describe groups you wouldn't expect to be sexually adventurous.

* We're apt to judge from our own personal viewpoint and relatively narrow range of personal sexual experience and interest, and in particular things we're not interested in ourselves are immediately and instinctively labelled as wrong, evil, deviant, impossible to understand, etc etc etc.

* In actuality this very wide range of sexual interests and "kinks" (as she called them) is completely normal. However, we don't usually talk about it outside of certain specific situations

* Many of your closest friends & family are likely not aware of your own particular kinks at all, especially if they haven't had a reason to know your sexual side.

* Now turn that around: You are very certainly not specifically aware of the specific sexual kinks, turn-ons, hang-ups, and interests of most of your pleasant and beloved relatives. You don't have that sort of relationship with them and so, appropriately, they just don't bring it up.

So I don't know if that helps or not. A parent's sexual side is not usually something that comes up as part of their relationship with their children. The fact that it didn't is probably one of the signs that your parent was in fact a good one and your relationship with him was in fact a good and very normal one.

And so encountering that human sexual side in any way now is undoubtedly disturbing. Undoubtedly. It may take some time to process it.

But nothing you have posted above indicates at all to me that he was anything but a normal human with a normal interest in things sexual and whose interests lies somewhere within the fairly normal bounds of human sexual interests--which are far wider than most generally allow, especially for those people who we have judged as kind and generous and loving and nonsexual as far as we personally were concerned and whom we have not personally known the sexual side of.

Point is, if you give yourself some time to process this, you may come to realize that at very worse you're looking at a person with sexual interests (perfectly normal) that are wide-ranging (also normal) and that don't completely line up with your own (also normal).

Add to that the fact that this was found in an "automated computer clean-up" type activity, and that indicates to me that this was automatically cached type files rather than someone's intentional photo stash. What that means is that his intentions in viewing these files are completely unknown, whether he even viewed the files is completely unknown, whether he even knew the files were on his computer is completely unknown, etc.

Literally, he might have just clicked a link one day, "YOU ARE THE LUCKY ONE BILLIONTH VISITOR TO OUR WEBSITE@!!!!!!!!!111!!!" and that is literally all there is to it.

(I did this just the other day. I am a relatively computer-savvy person. I may have files like this, or worse, stashed somewhere on my hard drive now. I didn't personally see anything except fireworks GIFs and approx. 4000 "Don't you dare close this page!!!11!" pop-ups. This sort of thing can happen to literally anyone)

P.S. One thought on the practical side: If you're disturbed by this kind of unexpected find--as most of us would be--you might figure out some trusted and discreet person to systematically search the entire drive, generally clean it up, and for certain, get rid of anything of a disturbing nature permanently.

I totally wouldn't do this yourself, however. Some things are better left unknown. And I totally wouldn't trust it to someone like a relative or anyone who might blab to either you or other friends/relations later.

You could just start nuking things indiscriminately (copy/backup everything of your own--then reformat the entire drive) but there is always the chance there are old photo albums and such stored in unexpected places. So I'd be inclined to hire someone to go through the entire drive, save anything of possible sentimental value, nuke everything else.

One practical side effect here is this: Up to now, using this computer was a kind of nice connection with Dad and a reminder of your good relationship. But now, you're concerned about finding something unexpected and unpleasant at any random time. It probably makes using that computer kind of unpleasant all the time.

Perhaps your best move is just to get another computer that doesn't have those now-unpleasant memories attached. But perhaps it would be enough to simply take steps to ensure that there are no more surprises lying in wait on the computer.
posted by flug at 11:09 PM on September 21 [3 favorites]

I'm so sorry you're going through this. There is a wonderful piece on This American Life (called "Next of Kindle") where a man finds his mother's pornographic collection of books (I mean REALLY REALLY REALLY NSFW) and I love the funny attitude he approaches it with. It might be helpful to listen to as a way to reframe the situation.
posted by caoimhe at 6:05 AM on September 22 [3 favorites]

One Thanksgiving at my grandparents' house, we kids (a dozen of us) discovered Grandpa's stash of porn in his office basement and you can imagine the scene that ensued with all the aunts and uncles rushing down the stairs and Grandma snatching the magazines out of our confused hands and waving them around yelling. I was too little to absorb the subject matter of the magazines--may have been porn involving animals for all I know. And it doesn't matter. My experience of him (other than that Thanksgiving!) was as a wholesome and kindly grandfather, and that would be true whether the magazines existed or not. I'm sure the subject matter is really distressing to you, but most sexual fantasies are transgressive and most people never act on them. It's just unfortunate that you had to learn about this, but it doesn't actually change anything. I guess I'm kind of lucky that this happened when I was so little and wasn't a sudden reveal after his death because it feels like a big nothing to me, something that I just take for granted. But how and when I found out doesn't change any actual facts about his character. The same is true for you and I feel sure that with the passage of time you'll start to see it that way.
posted by HotToddy at 9:53 AM on September 22

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