Can I Contact My Sister’s Grown Children Without Going Through Her?
My sister has been estranged from our parents for decades. She later cut herself off from my brother and me when our children were born, because we refused to cut off all ties with our parents. She believes that my father — who was her stepfather — sexually abused her. While we couldn’t confirm her recovered memories with our own memories, we didn’t deny them. Even if there was horrible behavior like that, and not the more ordinary types of neglect and abuse that we do remember and could confirm, we wouldn’t choose to never see or talk to our parents again. I attended a therapy session with her and was only given this extreme choice. I’m younger, so my memories are those of a small child, and it is important to me to be true to what I do remember.
My sister got married and had children of her own. During this time, I’ve occasionally contacted her but have never been able to come to an agreement that is mutually satisfactory. She told me that her children know nothing about any of us and think her parents are dead. At this point that is now true: My father died 10 years ago, and our mother died recently. Neither ever met my sister’s children.
Her children are adults now, and it seems like a good time to again try to end the estrangement, but I’m not sure what is the best way to proceed. I have tried to respect her wishes by not going to her house or writing to her children secretly. I do know where they are and could reach out to them by email. My children would also like to get to know their cousins. In the spring, I emailed my sister and encouraged her to coordinate a first meeting of our children, but received no reply.
Is it ethical for me or my children to get in touch with my niece and nephew without going through my sister? Name Withheld
I have a big scar on my forehead. Somehow it isn’t very noticeable, so it’s easy to forget about, not least for me. Still, when people ask me about it and I tell them the childhood incident that explains it, I expect that they’ll file it away as a fact. Were my younger sisters to respond with a courteously noncommittal “We believe that you believe it,” I can imagine being put out. If I’m telling them what happened, I would want them to respect the expertise of my experience. My word should suffice.
For your sister, of course, the emotional stakes are vastly greater. She told you what she believes was done to her, and your agnosticism entails an absence of faith in her. When you refused to cut off your parents, she saw you as siding against her. Your inability to accept what is, to her, a critical fact about her childhood — about her existence — surely struck her as hostile, which is why she didn’t want you in her children’s life. Nondenial is far afield from acceptance.
But there’s another complication here. You refer to your sister’s “recovered memories,” and I assume you chose those words with care. Recovered memories aren’t memories that, even when you put them out of mind, were always available to you. (I’ve never not remembered how I got that scar, although a year or two could pass without my thinking about it.) Rather, in the course of intensive therapy, such memories emerge like gravestone rubbings. Unfortunately a substantial body of research suggests that therapeutically facilitated memories of trauma do not necessarily correspond to actual trauma. The stone may, in fact, be blank; the grave may be empty.
Almost half of patients whose therapists mentioned the possibility of repressed memories came to remember, or think they remembered, abuse.
There was a time, appallingly, when patients who had always known they’d been sexually abused were encouraged by therapists of a certain school to think that they were merely imagining it. Recovered memory, as a clinical practice, veered far in the opposite direction: Patients who never knew they’d experienced such abuse were coached into having memories of it. This practice seems to have peaked in the early 1990s — about when your sister began to cut herself off — but persists in various forms. (QAnon, curiously, has revived specific tropes of satanic ritual abuse that became a notable recovered-memory accusation three and four decades ago.) A recent large-scale survey found that almost half of patients whose therapists mentioned the possibility of repressed memories came to remember, or think they remembered, abuse they hadn’t previously known about; in more than 40 percent of those cases they cut off relations with family members.
What you’ve experienced, then, falls into an established pattern. It’s clear both why your sister was antagonized by your careful agnosticism and why you can’t responsibly commit yourself further. Your sister, you acknowledge, may well have been sexually abused. But she needs you to share her certainty and you are unable to offer this. That’s why I’m not optimistic about your being able to end the estrangement. It has done too much work for her. To protect her core beliefs, it seems, she deceived her children and kept them from others who could dispel those deceptions. However misjudged, those kinds of decisions are hard to walk back.
What’s beyond debate is this: Now that your niece and nephew are adults, their mother has no right to dictate what relationships they may have with you or your children. You sought out her participation here. At this point you are perfectly entitled to contact them, and to tell them what you know about the relatives she hid from them.
I’d encourage you, though, to think about how this revelation will affect your sister’s relationship with her children. You represent a buried secret whose exposure she must have long been dreading. When her deceptions are exposed, she will no doubt feel betrayed by you, but her children will no doubt feel betrayed by her. It would be terribly sad if your establishing ties with her children led them to cut ties with her. Assuming that you do get in touch with your niece and nephew, help them understand that their mother could not have made her decisions lightly and deserves every consideration. There’s been too much scarring in your family already.
I have an old friend who raised several children as a single mom, is a cancer survivor and isn’t wealthy. When I learned she was struggling to make ends meet, I spoke with her about her situation and then decided to send her some money. My intention was to give it to her, no strings attached. Recently, she came to visit my home, and, before she left, handed me an envelope. She told me that she was sorry she hadn’t gotten the money I lent her back to me sooner — that she felt awkward about it. I didn’t know what to say except thank you. But I really didn’t want to accept it. I’m in better financial shape than she is and I want to find a way to give the money back to her without insulting her. What should I do? JS, New York City
Consider the possibility that your friend understood your intentions perfectly well. Accepting the money allows your friend her self-respect; sending it back to her and telling her she was struggling under a misapprehension may not. The best gift you could give her, I suspect, is to accept the return of yours.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to email@example.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)