Whose baby pictures are they?
April 22, 2006 4:37 PM   Subscribe

My parents divorced when I was a toddler, with virtually all my baby pictures plus many hours of movies (including birth, first steps, etc.) going to the non-custodial parent. For a variety of painful reasons, I have been long estranged from that parent, as well as that entire branch of the family. And that is of the good. Yet it would mean so much to be able to fill in the blank slate of my childhood with images and sounds. Am I wrong for feeling as though morally this collection belongs to me? Does a child, especially an estranged child, have the right to ask for their baby pictures? And how, precisely, do I ask such a favor of a person from whom I want absolutely no other contact?

Keep in mind that there are no mutual contacts whatsoever, no one who could serve as a go-between. There's one address that looks current, so a letter is probably the only way to even broach the subject.
posted by nakedcodemonkey to Human Relations (12 answers total)
No, you're not wrong, yes, you should be able to ask, and very, very carefully. Without knowing anything else about you and this parent, or the cause of the breach, I would suggest being very straightforward about this: "I would like the photographs. I would not like any other contact with you. Please do not consider this an overture. If there is a financial problem, contact X service to have them copied and send me the bill." However, realize that you're opening a can of worms with this. There will have to be some degree of interaction and, possibly, negotiation involved-- after all, you have to give them your contact details, at which point you can't stop them from sending you letters asking how you're doing, wondering what's up with your life, reminiscing about your childhood, or screaming at you for being an awful offspring. You don't have to read/respond to their overtures, of course. But in the absence of any other avenue, you have to be aware of that possibility.

You could always have someone query for you by proxy. "Hi, my name is X, and I am a friend of nakedcodemonkey's. Nakedcodemonkey doesn't want to talk to you, but..." etc., possibly with the codicil, "Please be aware that I will not be passing along any information from you other than the pictures, should you send them. This is the way nakedcodemonkey wants it." That will at least spare you some of the stress of unwanted contact.

Either way, though, you can't control your parent's reaction to this. It doesn't matter if you're in the right or not-- they may choose not to give them to you, they may choose to try to foster further contact, etc. I would advise thinking carefully about what you would and would not be comfortable with before trying to get in touch.
posted by posadnitsa at 4:47 PM on April 22, 2006

Be prepared for the possibility that they're lost.

I would guess that you'd have better luck asking for the chance to copy them than to take them. This parent may quite rightly feel that this is all they have of you, whereas you've got you; why are you trying to take away that last little bit? (Not my mindset -- just one I could imagine your having to reckon with.)

I would hope, though, that anyone with a shred of rationality and human decency would have trouble denying you the chance to copy them. Particularly if you emphasize that this overture is being made by innocent you, not by your perhaps reviled parent.
posted by Aknaton at 5:16 PM on April 22, 2006

No, the pictures don't belong to you. They never did belong to you and it's likely they never will. They belong to the parent to whom they were given. I doubt the parent would surrender them easily. This is the sort of thing that people are very possessive about. Your only hope is to politely ask for copies. If copies aren't possible, ask for a few originals. Offer to compensate the party for their time and effort. Keep your tone professional and light. Don't let your emotions intrude. Keep it short, simple, and to the point.
posted by nixerman at 5:16 PM on April 22, 2006

Well, you know what kind of approach would be most likely to yield results with this person better than any of us, but if it were me, I would definitely *not* include phrases like "I would not like any other contact with you" when asking an estranged person for a favor. Just keep the request simple and polite, without anticipating future problems. "Hello. We haven't spoken in a while, but the topic of pictures and movies of me as a baby has come up recently, and I thought I'd ask if you still have some of those. If so, I'd like to know if you'd be willing to give some or all of them to me, as I have none. You can contact me at [...]. Thanks in advance for your consideration."

And then see what happens from there. If you don't hear anything, follow up with another letter/phone call in a few weeks or a month. Then, if there's still no response, decide if you want to try a more direct approach like a surprise visit - again, being super polite the entire time.

P.S. Sure, you certainly have a "right" to ask, but the key here is getting results. As a practical strategy, asserting a moral claim as your first move when your position is weak seems questionable.
posted by mediareport at 5:22 PM on April 22, 2006

Ditto mediareport. This is a delicate request, and in my opinion, beginning simply and positively is the best way to yield results. I respect your desire to not interact with the estranged side, but they not only have what you want, thereby holding the cards, but they also have their own claim on the items.

Be cool, to the point, and as said above, super polite.

Best of luck!
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:31 PM on April 22, 2006

Am I wrong for feeling as though morally this collection belongs to me?

The collection absolutely does not belong to you, as much as a biography written about you you by someone else means you own the copyright to the works -- no such luck. It seems peculiary to "feeling morally" has anything to do with rights, when morality has nothing to do with possession.

Does a child, especially an estranged child, have the right to ask for their baby pictures?

Everyone has the right to ask anyone for anything, ever, so yes. It is fully within my rights to ask if I may dance upside down on your ceiling, doing the charleson, while eating a banana-flavored tenderloin named Beatrice on a rainy Tuesday.

And how, precisely, do I ask such a favor of a person from whom I want absolutely no other contact?

Be prepared for worst case scenario, as with everything. If you're prepared to accept that all of the materials were offered as a burnt offering to Amon Ra after thoroughly coated in the entrails of three llaamas and set aflame, knowing that they were merely thrown out won't seem quite so bad.

It is curious that you seem to be so unforgiving that "all I want is the goods and not the relationship," eerily similar to that of a streetwalker patron. If such contact is really that bad then any viewing of such materials is going to "morally" be associated with that person, interminably. You're going to have to buckle up and approach the person with interest in finding out those things from his/her mouth, because thrown out or not, he/she more than likely remembers the incidents personally unless having been exposed to some ilk of mind-erasing procedure. There can't possibly be such a degree of distaste for you (possibly the product of the imagination of some misleading relative) because of the very fact that such videos were even taken. I would suppose "morally" that your estimation of their current unchanged begrudgment toward you has, in fact, changed by now. Contact them with the intent of beginning a relationship first.
posted by vanoakenfold at 5:41 PM on April 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you want to avoid future contact, could you ask for them sent to a PO Box, or Poste Restante (sp?) somewhere?
posted by penguin pie at 5:43 PM on April 22, 2006

I should probably clarify my earlier answer (not that it wasn't long enough already!): my personal experience with asking for a favor (in this case, family medical history) from estranged relatives was that it was very, very hard to persuade them that this was not an overture which could lead to future contact, and we did end up having to be pretty blunt about it. On a gut level, I would suspect that a parent who is contacted by a child may want a level of contact which it sounds like the original poster does not desire, in which case it's a good idea to be prepared for how to respond to those overtures. Or whether you want to risk them in the first place.
posted by posadnitsa at 6:09 PM on April 22, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you to everyone who's responded so far. I'd been focused mostly on the practical/logistical problem, but you've brought up a lot of emotional pitfalls that I'd kind of swept aside. Manipulativeness is a definitely possibility, so posadnitsa thank you for pointing out the need to know my boundaries going in.

vanoakenfold, forgiveness isn't at issue. And the "goods"/prostutition analogy...huh? This isn't money we're talking about, it's the artifacts of a missing childhood. When you ask your parents to share recollections about your youth, those memories aren't "goods" brokered in exchanged for your love. Same here. I just want to have the experience that everyone else gets to have, of leafing through the baby book and laughing at how silly they looked or how cute or oooh doesn't little Johnny have that same nose that I did. It would also be a big deal to see my parents playing with their little BabyNCM, since by all accounts that was a time when they were a genuinely happy couple and adoring parents. :-)

Unfortunately, your response was based on several incorrect assumptions. For the sake of avoiding similar problems, a few clarifications:

1. I have no shortage of pictures of the folks, including some pics with harsh memories attached and some good. It's fine. There's no trauma in a picture, least of all in pictures such as these that hold no memories for me at all. People create chaos, not photos.

2. The parent in question, and several decades of direct experience, is solely responsible for my decision to cut off contact. As one might imagine, it's not a decision made lightly. So for the sake of further discussion please just assume that it is possible for an adult child to have valid reasons for finding it "of the good" to keep the relationship ended.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 7:08 PM on April 22, 2006

Can you use a lawyer or some kind of professional family mediator as a go-between? By using a neutral third party, you can avoid any kind of miscommunication about your desire for no further contact. And your privacy is maintained.

I do see the possibility of this person getting their dander up and becoming uncooperative if lawyers were in any way involved in any of the previous chaos. But if you choose a good one, maybe they can be persuasive enough.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:28 PM on April 22, 2006

I'm perfectly willing to assume you have good reasons to want no contact with this person, but you seem to be unable or unwilling to see things, however hypothetically and temporarily, from the parent's point of view. They are almost certain to have one of two responses: 1) What is this shit? Go away; or 2) Oh good, finally contact after all these years! When can we meet? The odds are vanishingly small that you will simply get a set of pictures in the mail with no further complications. I'd say nixerman's response is perfect, but you may have to do some serious emotional work before you're ready to take it. Bitterness makes it hard to be genuinely polite, which is what you're going to have to be.

It's kind of annoying that you work so hard at hiding the gender of the parent in question, making us do extra work over pronouns and such; would mentioning whether it's a father or a mother really rip some sort of veil away? Anyone who knows you knows who you're talking about; those of us who don't know you don't care one way or the other.
posted by languagehat at 7:05 AM on April 23, 2006

The pictures belong to your parent, not to you, and there is no way to ask a favor of any person without them expecting some kind of gratitude in return, regardless of your relationship.

It seems to me that if you deliberately cut this parent off, any kind of request will seem a) like an overture to reunion or b) like a brazen display of gall. If a), I suppose you could get the pictures then start ignoring them again. If b), I imagine they'd tell you no.

Either way, you can't get something for nothing, no matter what the something is, no matter who the someone is. If you don't want to be the kind of person who would pretend a reunion long enough to get what you want, then I think the best bet would be to enlist the aid of a neutral cousin-type intermediary. The parent may still think there's an overture there, but without direct contact, it's hard to respond.
posted by headspace at 8:26 AM on April 23, 2006

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