Dilemma about a discovered letter
October 3, 2023 11:35 AM   Subscribe

We are staying in our friends condo for a month. The fiancée of their son lived here on her own until he (the son) ended their relationship. While I was unpacking, I found the first two pages of a letter written by the son to the fiancée, explaining why he had broken it off with her. These pages were not in an envelope. They were in a paperback in the drawer in the bedside table.

Yes, I know that I should not have read it. That is not my question.
My question is what do we do with these two pages now?
I can put them back where I found them. However I know that there will be others staying here after us. They will be other friends of the owners, then friends of the son, then the parents themselves. If I found the partial letter, so will others, and if I were the son, I would not want that to happen. Eventally the son is going to find it himself and he is going to think/know that (many)others have seen it. I think he would be deeply embarrassed. Therefore I think it kindest to throw it out.
My husband, on the other hand, says it is not our right to make such decisions and we should write the son and ask him what he wants done with the letter.
We are looking for an answer that seems right to us both.
Metafilter, what do we do about this letter?
posted by uans to Human Relations (39 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'd give them to the friends who invited you to stay in the condo. It's their condo, they are responsible for its contents. (And if the son wrote it there and left it there he must not be too fussed about keeping it from them.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:37 AM on October 3 [2 favorites]

I lean towards your husband's point of view in this instance. It's emotionally frought and could be difficult so the son deserves a chance to decide how he wants to handle this.
posted by Alensin at 11:40 AM on October 3 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: What if it was the fiancee who left it?
posted by uans at 11:40 AM on October 3 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I would put the pages back in the book and put it back in the drawer. or on a bookshelf, and just leave it alone. It is not your business, and it's not problem you need to solve.
posted by maryellenreads at 11:42 AM on October 3 [87 favorites]

If it’s inside a paperback, inside a drawer, I don’t think the owner on refinding would assume that everyone had read it.

In your position, I’d put it back and butt out.
posted by penguin pie at 11:44 AM on October 3 [20 favorites]

I think both of your perspectives are reasonable, and also that the thing to do here is put it back and pretend you never saw it.
posted by wormtales at 11:47 AM on October 3 [24 favorites]

The letter belongs to either the fiancé or the son, depending on whether it was ever sent.

If it shows signs of ever being in an envelope, I’d ask the fiancé what she wanted done about it; if not, I’d ask the son.
posted by jamjam at 12:02 PM on October 3

I'd just put it in an envelope and send it to the son, as with any other forgotten item of his I had reason to think he might not want his parents involved with. Include a note saying that you came across it and it seems to have been from him to the former fiancée, so that if rereading it would be upsetting, he doesn't have to.

If it was the fiancée who left it, well, she left it at his parents' condo after they broke up: I wouldn't personally have any expectation of getting anything back under those circumstances. It also seems highly unlikely that she actually wants such a letter. I don't think there's really any better answer in that circumstance than to quietly throw it away, but you wanted a compromise, so then I think looking towards the much lower-potential-drama options of contacting the son makes sense.
posted by teremala at 12:02 PM on October 3 [8 favorites]

I think the unspoken rule of moving into others’ space is that everyone pretends (or acts) as if all the personal items have force-fields around them, and if you actually do peek in the closets or look at things stored in books, you memory-vault it. So I’d just put it back, or maybe hide it on a bookshelf and pretend that even if I read the book, I certainly never opened the envelope. I’d expect anyone else finding it to do the same.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:11 PM on October 3 [35 favorites]

At first I was going to say throw it out, but after thinking more about it, I agree with maryellenreads to just put it back. Perhaps they, or the son, know it's there?
posted by Saucywench at 12:21 PM on October 3 [3 favorites]

I'd join the recommendations of others who suggest putting it back where you found it, and also putting the incident out of your own mind. It's is hard to determine what others might feel, think, and react, so best to leave it as you found it.
posted by ragtimepiano at 12:28 PM on October 3 [6 favorites]

IMO this is the very definition of "not my circus, not my monkeys." Put it back, forget about it, and don't borrow trouble by imagining what other future residents may or may not do and how other people may or may not feel about it.
posted by wintersweet at 12:31 PM on October 3 [22 favorites]

Unless it has really, genuinely potentially damaging info in it - outing re. sexuality, physical
or mental illness, crimes committed etc - then put it back in the drawer and leave it be. An engagement that is broken is already receding into the past; in fifty or a hundred years we will find letters like this and marvel at the vivid traces of other lives once lived. The only power this letter has to hurt those involved in its genesis is in the slight embarrassment of knowing someone else has read it. So don’t do that.

If it does have genuinely damaging information in it, find a way to return it to the person who wrote it.
posted by snipsnapsnoop at 12:33 PM on October 3 [7 favorites]

If it’s inside a paperback, inside a drawer, I don’t think the owner on refinding would assume that everyone had read it.

Somebody working through their feelings in written form, whoever it is, might not have operational security front of mind but they're entitled to some dignity and maybe some help regardless.

I would put it in an envelope and close the envelope, then put it back where it was. At least that creates some expectation of privacy for the next person going through there.
posted by mhoye at 12:37 PM on October 3 [9 favorites]

Put it back. That way, you don't have to explain to your friends that you were digging in their son's bedside drawers and opening paperbacks that were not on display.
posted by nkknkk at 12:40 PM on October 3 [8 favorites]

Place the pages back in the book in the drawer.
The day before your stay concludes, call your hosts to thank them again, and mention that there seems to be personal correspondence in the bedside drawer? (You noticed while you were packing, if you have to say anything further.)
If they ask you to read it to them, open the pages, say "Dear Fiancée..." and hastily fold the pages back up. Then ask what they would like done with the sheets, if anything, before you leave; you could certainly place them in an envelope for safekeeping or mail them to ___ if your hosts wish.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:41 PM on October 3 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Get a clean box. Put in all the personal items from the nightstand drawer, top of the dresser, and similar places around the house, as if you're just clearing yourself some space to prevent your knicknacks from mixing with his. Include all contents of the nightstand drawer. Tape the box shut, label it NAME'S PERSONAL ITEMS and place it in the closet. (Make sure nothing you include in the box can leak and damage other items - like don't include lotion or stuff like that.)
posted by nouvelle-personne at 12:45 PM on October 3 [42 favorites]

I would send it to the author.
posted by tristeza at 12:45 PM on October 3 [2 favorites]

This is none of your business. Put it back, you never saw it.
posted by tiny frying pan at 12:59 PM on October 3 [13 favorites]

You are guests in the condo. None of this is any of your business. You put it back and never think of it again. You and your partner agree to this and pinky swear to wipe it from your minds and pretend it never happened.
posted by amanda at 1:03 PM on October 3 [8 favorites]

Further, I'll say generously, you think that there's some harm that might come of this discovery later. Unfortunately, without knowing who has read the letter, who has received it, why it was left in this place and who needs to know its contents...you have no way of knowing which path to turn down that will create a positive end point for this letter. In fact, I'd say you are just about guaranteed to make someone upset here not least because now they know you're privy to personal information that undoubtedly all parties would wish that you weren't. It's a monkey's paw situation, don't play that game!
posted by amanda at 1:07 PM on October 3 [3 favorites]

I'm startled that so many people are suggesting that the only consideration here is something like ownership-based secrecy. I find that so odd as to be disingenuous. Like, how many individuals here would want something personal, of theirs, being this available to read? I'm guessing fewer than advise that's the best option for your situation.

The suggestion to take the initiative to put this in a sealed, labeled envelope or box is a kind suggestion. That allows the owners to decide how best to proceed, and it frees you from having to be too direct about a personal, private matter. You, OP, are the only one who knows the details of this letter. If those details are worrying enough for you to ask this question, I think the most compassionate solution is to favor this act of gentle, quiet discretion. These are your *friends*. This isn't, like, a state visit to the consul general's house after their messy, public divorce.

My god, the thought of pages from my journal during my divorce being misplaced when I was at my most insomniac, scatterbrained, exhausted, depleted, sorrowful, raw... I absolutely would not want those to be quietly, tidily tucked back into the book. I'd want them put into that envelope or box and tactfully drawn to my attention.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:14 PM on October 3 [13 favorites]

The ethical dilemma is between doing nothing and sharing these people possible further exposure. If I had left a intensely private letter in a drawer, I would much rather someone contact me and let me know they read it rather than ignore it and let possibly many more people read of my intimacies. The one-time embarrassment of knowing one person saw my private thoughts would be better than finding out many more people could have a year or two later.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:16 PM on October 3 [5 favorites]

I'd throw it out as a courtesy to the son's privacy.
posted by j810c at 1:18 PM on October 3

Quit going through their shit. Even if it was totally innocent, and you really were just reading the book, and 100% pure coincidence.

You never saw that letter.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:28 PM on October 3 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Just putting it back in the drawer and pretending you never saw it would spare you from embarrassment -- but at the very high cost of exposing the son to embarrassment. Based on your question, you are being genuinely selfless, and you're looking for the solution that is kindest to the son, not yourselves. Whatever you ultimately decide, I applaud you for giving such serious consideration to doing the right thing. (Also, to the people who are piling on you for stumbling on the letter-- if a friend is letting you stay in their condo for a full month, the very reasonable expectation is that you can put your stuff in their drawers. And if you open a drawer to put in your stuff and you find an old paperback book, it's no great sin to start reading it. Some folks are reacting like you snuck into a friend's bedroom during a party and started opening drawers, but this is a very different situation.)

Anyway, I think nouvelle-personne has a brilliant solution ; it gets that letter out of public view, but also lets the son believe that you never read it. My only tweak would be to leave the word "Personal" off the box label. If it just says NAME'S STUFF--GUEST BEDROOM, and you seal it with tape, that will be enough to stop people opening it casually. Adding in the word "personal" would hint that you know some of the items are of a personal nature, as opposed to just junk you wanted to clear out of the way.
posted by yankeefog at 1:36 PM on October 3 [32 favorites]

Response by poster: Yankeefog, thank you for actually reading what I actually wrote
posted by uans at 1:47 PM on October 3 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Thirding nouvelle-personne's perfect solution, I hope you follow their advice OP.
posted by MiraK at 2:23 PM on October 3 [2 favorites]

I'd be quite uncomfortable thinking that a house guest had decided to collect some stuff in my apartment, categorize it, and put it in a box somewhere! However, mhoye beat me to my solution: put it in a sealed envelope and put it back where you found it. This allows you to avoid admitting you read it (which probably would embarrass all), but significantly reduces the chances that anyone else will read it. When staying in a place for a full month, I really don't consider it snooping to look at an old paperback in an easily-accessible drawer, and if papers fall out, glancing at them is essentially unavoidable (what, are you going to avert your eyes like Indy and Marion at the end of Indiana Jones?). However, I think most people would be much less likely to open a sealed envelope; at most, they might leave it unopened on the counter ("oh, hey, I found this shoved in the back of the drawer, wasn't sure what it was, thought you might want to see if you wanted it").
posted by praemunire at 3:10 PM on October 3 [9 favorites]

Burn it. It’s not like the son can’t rewrite it if necessary.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:00 PM on October 3

Do we have proof the son wrote it?

Unsealed, left where someone else would find it, suggests to me that the last person to handle it wanted it to be found and read.

I don't know what's in it. You say it would be embarrassing to the son if it was found.

My thinking is either it was written by the son and left by the ex, to be found, on purpose, or written by the ex herself.

Don't mess with it. Don't send it back in case its a fabrication, and don't fuck about with sealing it boxes or envelopes or whatever. All these things will show that it has been read.

I am with you and would full on just destroy it. Either it was send in confidence to someone who was careless with it, intended for "other friends of the owners, then friends of the son, then the parents themselves" to find, or fabricated with that intent.
posted by Jilder at 8:46 PM on October 3

it gets that letter out of public view, but also lets the son believe that you never read it.
I actually had the opposite take, that it makes it seem more likely that the letter was read.

I would just put the book somewhere else, and let the hosts know that there were some personal items left behind by the previous occupants, and here's where we left them so that you might send them along/dispose of them. If they inquire further, you could be more specific, but I don't think you need to make a big hoopla of this.

I think the kindest thing to do is to give the owners a heads-up. If you don't have a good/close relationship with the owners, which I wondered about since you didn't mention contacting them as an option, then maybe this isn't the best idea. My advice is based on the fact that I think you feel so strongly about the contents of the letter because you read it; my assumption that you don't really have a connection to the son and/or would find reaching out to him directly to be awkward (that your primary relationship is with the parents/condo owners); and my feeling that it is not really your problem to resolve.

Destroying the letter does not sit right with me because it feels like an extension of the initial issue, which is that you found something and did something with it that you had no real reason to. (This isn't me crapping on you for reading it, because I think that's a natural reaction. But I think deciding to destroy it feels, presumptuous perhaps?)
posted by sm1tten at 9:22 PM on October 3 [1 favorite]

All these things will show that it has been read.

(a) The person who left it may not remember whether or not it was in an envelope.

(b) Even if they do, they won't know who found it, whether they actually read it, or when, thus casting a gauze of plausible deniability over the whole thing. Sometimes it's just better not to know.
posted by praemunire at 9:22 PM on October 3

Embarrassment passes. Being someone who pretends that reality is other than it is, who hides difficult things to avoid a moment's discomfort, or who prioritizes personal ease over kindness -- those do not pass so quickly.

Tell your husband that you are facing the truth that kindness requires courage and even risk, and that being a good person requires more than avoiding possible mistakes.
posted by amtho at 12:01 AM on October 4 [1 favorite]

I would put it back and file it away as a fun thing I ran into, if I ever want to become a writer.

If it wasn't sent, it doesn't count, and if it's still there for this long, it's clearly meant to be... forgotten.
posted by kschang at 12:51 AM on October 4

I think OP is trying to find a kind solution. (If they weren't trying to be kind, they'd just shove the letter back in the book and the book back in the drawer, as not their problem. Arguably that is an ethical response: OP did not create the situation, the future harm is speculative, and all OP is doing is restoring the status quo.) Depending on the circumstances, sparing someone embarrassment can be a form of kindness. Personally, I'd rather be able to come across it later and think "oh geez, Mom probably found this and stuck it in an envelope" than to be sure that "Person I Don't Know Very Well now has graphic details of my divorce stamped in their brain."
posted by praemunire at 7:47 AM on October 4 [3 favorites]

Unsealed, left where someone else would find it, suggests to me that the last person to handle it wanted it to be found and read.

Very possible, but such plans bear fruit much more often in fiction than reality.

I don’t understand the reasoning of trying to pretend that the damage hasn’t already been done. A private letter has been read, you can’t undo it. All you can do is prevent it from happening again.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:27 PM on October 4

I agree the suggestion to put a bunch of this person’s stuff in a box with the letter in there is a little heavy handed and if this context of you having found the letter wasn’t present, an otherwise little bit of a weird thing for a guest to do. In your situation I’d probably have read the letter too, if I was interested in what it said, but my motivations would have been ‘to be nosy’ so, no judgement, but I think you should probably own that that’s what you were being when you read it. It wasn’t your business to read the letter and it’s definitely not your business to take it upon yourself to destroy it - it’s not yours to destroy. The sealed envelope route seems the best compromise, so you can put it back where you found it where it can be retrieved by its owner without worrying someone else will read it.
posted by chives at 3:50 PM on October 4

Oh, there is so much "personal stuff" that you can find floating about in someone's house. Totally by accident, honestly I'm with you there.
Notes, gadgets, who knows what.
So much stuff. So much drama.
Don't overthink it.
No matter what it is, put it back exactly where you found it. Don't speak of it again.
Another "not my monkeys, not my circus" vote.
posted by TrishaU at 8:14 PM on October 4

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