I just found out my cousin murdered his wife - now what?
July 11, 2007 11:35 PM   Subscribe

I just found out my cousin was convicted of murdering his wife. Now what?

My aunt and uncle sort of stopped saying much about one of my cousins years ago, except to say that his wife had died of cancer and a sibling had adopted his kids. We sort of wondered why they would need to be adopted just because the mom died, but they didn't explain, and that side of the family is very closed. We thought maybe it had to do with a mental illness. When my mother asks how everybody is, they just say "he's fine."

The other day I was looking around online and I almost fell over when I saw that he had been convicted of murdering his wife. I then found all the newspaper articles about it. It was not premeditated, but he dumped her body in the ocean, and it's never been found. He's now out of prison.

Needless to say, my family is stunned. We don't know if they have kept in contact with him or want nothing to do with him. I tend to think that it's the former, but I really don't know.

My question is - should I (or my mom, who is in regular contact with my aunt) say something to her along the lines of "I was doing some genealogy stuff on the computer and found out about John (not his real name). We're so sorry. Is there anything we can do?" with the thought that we could offer them non-judgmental support? Or should we just pretend that we don't know and not say anything?
posted by la petite marie to Human Relations (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Are you prepared to welcome John into your lives, and maybe let him couch surf at your place while he looks for work? Are you prepared to be supportively in agreement if they flatly state that he is innocent, and look at you expectantly to nod in agreement when they state that he was framed by the police and prosecutors? What I'm saying is that your non-judgmental support might be tested more quickly than you suspect, and perhaps you could find ways to be supportive without bringing up what you know. If you really can offer non-judgmental support to all of them and treat John as if he has atoned for his crime, then maybe you should let them know.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:48 PM on July 11, 2007

Actually, I forgot to say that he pled guilty, if that makes any difference.
posted by la petite marie at 11:52 PM on July 11, 2007

There are some occasions on which it is better if nothing is said and some things are done. Find a way to help this family, say nothing but never pretend you don't know.
posted by Rubbstone at 12:05 AM on July 12, 2007 [4 favorites]

Wow, this is an amazing ethical problem. I'd second Rubbstone's opinion, especially not feigning ignorance. But maybe I'm uptight and afraid of getting involved.
posted by bluejayk at 12:10 AM on July 12, 2007

i don't think that anything should be said. after all, their m.o. to this point has been to dodge the question so it is obviously a subject about which they have no desire to speak to you or anyone. in a way, who can blame them really?

i think the only way in which you can mention to them that you know what's what without affronting them (whether warranted or not) is if they happen to bring it up. at that point i think something brief along the lines of "i've [recently] become aware of what happened and if there is anything you need, please let me know" and then let it drop.
posted by violetk at 1:43 AM on July 12, 2007

except to say that his wife had died of cancer and a sibling had adopted his kids.

If they want it to be secret, I would act as if it still were. You don't have to lie. Just don't mention him. I'm sure they won't. And if they ever bring it up, just tell them the truth: that you've known about him since July 2007 or whenever it was but you saw that they weren't ready to talk about him, etc.

If it were me, though, I'd be wary of reacquainting myself with the cousin. Besides being a murderer -- though perhaps that was a one-time insanity and is no indication of his current state -- he may have big post-wife, post-children, post-prison, post-normal problems that I wouldn't want to deal with. It depends on how close you were, I suppose. But sometimes a shared burden just squashes you both.
posted by pracowity at 1:43 AM on July 12, 2007

I have a (distant) cousin with this same description except that the news coverage of the murder was fairly public and no one is trying to keep it a secret. My cousin is in a long term facility and will not be getting released unless something dramatically changes. This was, of course, devastating for the family in many ways but people have decided how to deal with it in different ways.

I was not close to him and so haven't had to make any really tough decisions but I write to him and try to keep him as in my life as any other family member at that level of relation. I have other family members who have really tried to help the guy out, visiting and sending stuff to him, etc. Many people just make an effort to keep his parents/siblings in the loop of whatever family events happn and let them decide how much to share and/or talk about.

If your cousin is recently out of prison, that may be a very stressful time for both him and his family members. Being out of society for a long time (much less in a prison setting) is destabilizing. Trying to find work and setting up your life again is rough. Your cousin's family may be doing a lot of work being supportive and supporting or they may not. If you're at all close to them and your cousin's release was at all recently, a note asking how they are, what they have been up to and whether there's anything you can do to help -- from you or your mom -- is probably appropriate. I wouldn't worry about the "we're so sorry" part unless the crime was the defining point of the split between them and John in which case, for some families, that sort of event is like a death and can be treated similarly.

In any case, this sort of thing is messy. Being compassionate and showing compassion for the family in ways that you think are appropriate to your family's general level of closeness is probably the right thing to do. If you want to help John out, think ahead of time about setting boundaries of comfort for yourself in case it turns out to not work out the way you planned. (just because you write him askign him how he's doing does not mean you have to let him move into your house, etc)
posted by jessamyn at 5:43 AM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Are you prepared to welcome John into your lives, and maybe let him couch surf at your place while he looks for work?

I think the poster wants to non-judgmentally support the aunt and uncle, not the convicted cousin.
posted by mendel at 6:08 AM on July 12, 2007

The genealogy reasoning is a pretty good one, if you feel you need a backstory.

You could offer to let his kids spend time at your house. I imagine sudden adoption of several kids isn't easy for anyone.
posted by electroboy at 6:49 AM on July 12, 2007

He pled guilty

Be aware that there are reasons for pleading guilty to a crime that you didn't commit, including lack of a good alibi, mistaken identification in a lineup, etc. A trial and conviction could mean a substantial sentence. If a plea-bargain is offered with a lesser sentence, it might be a reasonable choice. So, sure, maybe he did murder his wife, but just because he pled guilty doesn't make that a certainty.
posted by exphysicist345 at 8:31 AM on July 12, 2007

Thanks to everyone for your comments. You've given me some really good advice.

just because he pled guilty doesn't make that a certainty

Sorry I wasn't clear - he confessed to everything. There's no question he did it.
posted by la petite marie at 9:15 AM on July 12, 2007

Most of the comments seem to assume that he has just recently been released, but I saw you actually said, "He's now out of prison." That could be "just now" or "now and for some time." If I were you, my actions would depend on how recently he was released.

If he was just released, then certainly it could be mentioned in the next correspondence with your aunt: "We heard that John was just out of prison. How is he doing? We're here for you if you want to talk about it..." Etc.

If he's been out for some time, it's more likely that your aunt's family is still choosing not to talk about it. I'd proceed under that assumption, respect their wishes, and wait until they bring it up.
posted by Robert Angelo at 9:28 AM on July 12, 2007

Should have previewed: I said "most of the comments," but should have said "some"
posted by Robert Angelo at 9:31 AM on July 12, 2007

He's been out for at least since 2005 and probably earlier, judging from the sentence he was given, based on no previous history of any violence or illegal behavior. (Sorry I didn't give all this info in my original post. I was really tired.)
posted by la petite marie at 9:46 AM on July 12, 2007

Why is it any of your business to acknowledge your cousin's situation to your aunt and uncle? I'm of the mind that if they needed your support, they would have told you what happened when it did.
posted by rhizome at 11:00 AM on July 12, 2007

"I think the poster wants to non-judgmentally support the aunt and uncle, not the convicted cousin."

Yeah, but if the subject is broached, the aunt and uncle may request help with the cousin's problems. That's part of why I favor not bringing it up.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:42 PM on July 12, 2007

I would say nothing. If they want to keep it a secret then I don't see why that shouldn't be respected. I think people are entitled to their secrets if it isn't hurting anyone. The public shame of having a murderer for a son must be pretty horrible on top of having to take care of his kids and him being in (and now out) of jail. This may not be the healthiest way for them to deal with it, but ultimately if they want to pretend the wife died of cancer then let them.
posted by whoaali at 3:43 PM on July 12, 2007

This might be a really extreme example, but a post-high-school friend of mine whom I was in a band with was the great-nephew of John Wayne Gacy. To say his family is embarrassed by that and dodges the subject matter would be an extreme understatement. He wouldn't even let me go into his house if I was wearing a shirt that portrayed violence in some way - for fear that his parents would ream his ass about "breaching the subject".

He told me that at the only family reunion he ever went to, so much as saying the name "John" made everyone go quiet (despite there being a few Johns in the family since JWG).

Again, extreme example, but my understanding is that families tend to strongly avoid any discussion of it, even within their own family. If they bring it up - then I think that's the invitation. Otherwise, I'd leave it left unsaid. Every family has their secrets.
posted by revmitcz at 3:58 PM on July 12, 2007

Thanks to all of you. You've brought up some things that I never even thought about, and reading your comments has convinced me that we shouldn't say anything about it. Your example, revmitcz, speaks to this very strongly. Thanks to everybody for helping me to think this through.
posted by la petite marie at 5:18 PM on July 12, 2007

« Older Malthusian Gerbil Nightmare   |   I want to be a flight attendant but need... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.