All in the family

My oldest brother is sleeping with a married woman, who happens to be our half-sister. Should I intervene in this perilous situation?

By Garrison Keillor

Published December 5, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have a huge problem. My oldest brother, who is widowed, is sleeping with a married woman, who is our half-sister. We grew up together, and the two of them have always been close. I have talked to my sister. She loves my brother very much, but she is not comfortable with the arrangement. I know her: She has always been his pet and could never say no to him. I can see that this is hard on her. I told him to stop, but he said he can't. Should I get my dad involved? My sister is the baby, his only daughter, and this will kill him. But I feel my sister needs a way out of this, and soon.


Dear Devastated,

You need to rescue your sister from this perilous situation, and the sooner the better. You feel she is weak and being used. So tell your brother to leave her alone. Order him to stop speaking to her, and tell him that if you don't, you and her husband and your father will punish him terribly. You will ostracize him and then you will Osterize him. He has no choice in the matter. He must stop immediately.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been dating a really fabulous guy for a few months. We never had sex because a few years ago he got a girl pregnant and now he said he's not going to risk it again. But he's very sweet and hilarious and smart, and I didn't mind too much because I was sleeping with another guy, whom I loved loved loved, even though he was completely inappropriate (he's gay, but still adores me even though I'm a girl). Last week, he was diagnosed with a seizure disorder and broke up with me because he says he needs to concentrate on his health. So I went back to the first guy, the one who won't have sex, and got really drunk and dragged him back to my apartment and we finally had sex. Then he freaked out and locked himself in my bathroom for 45 minutes. Now he says he's never going to have sex again, ever, but he also says he thinks I'm his soul mate and wants to spend the rest of his life with me. Meanwhile, I just want to be with the seizure guy, but he won't answer the phone. Is this the price of living in New York? I really like the guy who says I'm his soul mate, but I can't go without sex for the rest of my life. I'm trying to be very grown-up and rational about all of this, but I feel all crazy and worn out. What do you think I should do? Are all men this nuts?

Manhattan Gal

Dear M.G.,

Someday when you're 85 and feeling feisty, you'll tell your granddaughter this story over lunch, sipping your martini, and the dear girl will come away admiring you even more for the interesting life you've led. Meanwhile we have to figure out how to get you out of the interesting story and into a life that leads to the beautiful granddaughter. I don't think the seizure guy is the one who leads you in that direction. A man who won't answer the phone is not a good bet for the long term. He isn't even a good bet for lunch tomorrow. The bathroom guy seems more likely. Forty-five minutes locked in a bathroom is excessive, I agree, but evidently you had a big effect on him. Or the man you want may be neither of the above, may be someone else entirely. How you find him will also make a great story someday.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 46, happy in my marriage with a man I adore, happy with my life, my three dogs, my beautiful horse. But over the past few years I've lost both parents, a baby and one beloved animal after another. Every time I look at my loved ones, I think, We're all dying. I'm afraid to fly. I'm afraid to get on my horse. I'm afraid I'll walk out my back door and get creamed by airplane debris. My husband walks out the door to work every morning and I hold my breath, sure someone's going to call me to say he's lying in a coma. It's not that I have so much time on my hands that I can afford to dwell on this stuff. But this panicky thing starts fluttering in my gut every day, and no matter how much I try to reason it out, I live with this constant dread. This is getting way too morbid, and I can't shake it off. Any words of wisdom?

Trapped in the Mineshaft

Dear Trapped,

You and me, too, and a lot of other folks who haven't lost parents and a baby. Unwanted morbid thoughts like volunteer weeds crop up in our minds and we simply go ahead with life and let the thoughts fade. I mean, you can sit down and brood over such thoughts and create a whole story about your husband's coma -- see yourself in the puke-green waiting room, have friends come to comfort you like in the Book of Job, have Dr. Kreplach come in and explain everything, etc. -- or you can brush them away like a spider web, but either way, life goes on. I have seldom come to the end of a Jetway without thinking, This is the one that's going to be in the papers tomorrow. And then I board. As long as you can go about your life unimpeded, don't go to great ends to deal with this stuff. I think you should focus on what's good in your life and give your best efforts to enjoy your life and your loved ones, and let the morbid thoughts blow like chaff.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been married for 20 years, have three kids and lately I've been going through an awakening that has made my marriage even happier. This is due to an affair that my husband's brother and I started. He's been single for several years and needed sex and my husband proposed that I sleep with him and we were all game and it's been a fascinating, loving experience for all three of us. It's unconventional but doesn't seem wrong -- on the contrary, the intimacy, caring and adventure have opened doors to growth. I could even imagine being open about this with our family someday. What are your thoughts about this ménage à trois? We all three don't know what to make of this.

Content but questioning

Dear Content,

I have no thoughts at all about this. If you don't know what to make of it, I'm sure I don't have a clue. If I were your brother-in-law, though, and sitting across the table from you at Christmas, I'd rather you didn't stand up and make an announcement about you and Bob and Bubba. Call me old-fashioned. I'd just rather not know.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My boyfriend is not physically attracted to me. He says he loves me and doesn't want to be in a relationship with anyone else, but he has certain standards of beauty and I don't meet them. This has gone on since the beginning -- eight months (we now live together). Every so often he gets attracted to someone else and starts distancing himself from me. Then things get so lousy between us. But in between his infatuations we have a great, loving relationship. This up-and-down is not good for my heart. I don't want this constant threat that he will leave me for someone he finds more attractive. At the same time, I love him as I have never loved a man. I don't want to leave him. Do you have any suggestions? Will it ever be different?


Dear Uncertain,

I have one suggestion and it's the thing you don't want to do. The gentleman has sold you a situation created for his amusement alone, in which he gets to keep you as a steady squeeze and enjoy other women on the side. This is unlikely to change and it can't make you happy. The road to happiness leads through the briar patch. You put your things in suitcases and boxes and you put them in the car and you drive away, and it's very grievous and hard, and then it starts getting easier.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been married for nine years now, and my wife and I have settled into domesticity. A few months ago, I started chatting with a woman online and we found we both happened to like writing erotica for each other. We've done this several times a week for a few months now.

In the meantime, my marriage has been all over the map. Simple domestic quarrels are a weekly occurence, but the joys of children and everyday have not diminished at all. And the sex has been incredible. We have been like college kids again, feeling playful despite the need to keep the children out.

My writing partner and I have met, and put plainly, we find each other more fun via writing. Does it seems bizarre that stirring my imagination online is making me better at home?

Don Giovanni

Dear Don,

It's an unusual arrangement, to be sure, but bizarre? I don't see anything bizarre in the proposition that fantasy can jazz up your love life, and if you need this invisible reader to inspire your creation of fantasy, and if she derives the same pleasure from you, then who am I to question it? This does strike me as a partnership made of tissue paper, though, and eventually you or she will tire of the amusement -- she will notice your frequent use of the word "manhood," as in "His manhood stiffened as he pressed against her pliant flesh," and you will tire of the way her males moan and the two of you will part ways. No author is endlessly fascinating, especially not to a fellow author.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My husband and I have been together since we were pups, and in the blindness of my love, I overlooked the fact that he is a raving alcoholic, a compulsive overeater and a control freak with low self-esteem. Our life together rode the waves of his addiction, summit to trough, and I grew more and more depressed until, a year ago, I finally entered counseling. It saved my life. I even told my husband I was ready to walk out the door unless he straightened out. He is now in recovery. I feel that our relationship is growing stronger.

My problem now is that I am realizing what different people we are. He tends to lash out at those who make him feel bad. He realizes that this is dysfunctional, but he cannot change his behavior overnight. I have to coach him at every turn, reminding him what is and isn't appropriate behavior. Sometimes he manages to keep himself in check, other times not. When I try to mention his behavior to him, he snaps at me more often than not and denies there's any problem.

We've been together for 10 years, and frankly, I'm tired of his bad behavior. Although I love him and know he's trying, part of me just wants to throw in the towel and find someone nicer. The problem is that I also love him very much and I don't really want to go.

The Camel's Wife

Dear Wife,

Don't go. If he could deal with alcoholism, then he can deal with this too. I don't understand what "lashing out at people who make him feel bad" means exactly -- irascibility or lack of cool or what -- but it's way down the ladder from addiction, in my book. Don't throw in the towel with a man you love very much who is making progress.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm an artist in my early 30s. I've known since childhood that I am gay and after years of torment and extreme self-denial, I came out in my early 20s to myself and my friends, and a short time later, to my family. About eight years ago, I met the man of my dreams and we've lived together since then. Here's my problem: My parents are quite hostile toward my homosexuality, and as a result, toward my partner. I can deal with this, though it hurts me, because I devoted most of my childhood and adolescence to supporting them through their various life dramas, including illnesses, alcoholism, financial collapse and so forth. My father never showed me a great deal of love -- hardly any, really -- but I love him, as I do my mother, and I've made my peace with both of them. Still, I refuse to deny who I am.

My father refuses even to mention my partner's name, while my mother is iffy; sometimes friendly, sometimes cold and often phony and condescending. On more than one occasion she's forgotten his name! I know their cultural background (middle-class evangelical Protestant) is a major part of the problem, but I feel they should get beyond this and at least show me respect, as I do to them. It has created a tremendous rift between us. I don't want to hate the people who gave birth to me! Help!


Dear Saddened,

You're grown up and you've made your own life and made your own family with your lover. Your parents are in the background. Don't make them the foreground. Let them be vaguely benevolent figures whom you maintain a sweet but distant connection to and let them think whatever they think and feel what they feel. Be grateful for what you have and don't worry about them until it's time to pick out a nursing home. And then find one that's staffed by gay guys.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 58-year-old college professor, happily (mostly) married with two angelic children and a job anyone would envy. A few years ago I had a beautiful female student who adored me. Once she grabbed my face in her hands and kissed me on the mouth. Recently she got a job at my university. It was great to see her again, and we started running together from time to time. Amid great conversation, flirting erupted, in which I had some part. And then the kiss came back, and I am afraid it was not as innocuous as the first time but something more akin to what got the president in all that trouble.

I made clear to her that I am not in love with her, though very fond of her. She insisted that she knew that all along. But then it happened again, and then it happened again, and on one level I am sitting here hoping it will happen yet again. But I am also reeling with guilt that I am risking my happiness and the well-being of my family for a moment's ecstasy here and there.

I feel like a creep, and I am afraid that something will slip, but I am a very passionate and sensual sort of fellow and find it hard to resist this delightful and undemanding woman. Any advice for the terrified two-timer is welcome.

Old College Try

Dear College,

Ah, you sensual fellows and your delightful undemanding women. You are floating down a lovely river on a raft and not hearing the cataract just around the bend. Consider this scenario: Your wife learns everything and confronts you and you must leave your angelic children and go live at the Y, and your lovely devotee grows cool toward you, now that the affair has lost its illicit edge and you've become a sad guy in a rented room, and she takes up with a happy guy her age (the little vixen!); meanwhile your college notifies you that you've violated strict policies about intradepartmental sex, and offers you a severance package that you can't turn down. After a few years of shipping your résumé around and pleading and begging, you settle for a job teaching business writing at night at a community college. Meanwhile, your wife remarries, and your kids adore their stepdad and are wary of you, their minds having been poisoned by your bitter ex-wife. You grow old and gray, hoping for another magical young woman to plant one on you, but in night school, your students are exhausted working secretaries more interested in moving up to Human Resources than in having sex with a sad and aging prof. Your overcoat becomes shabby without your even noticing it. Sitting alone one night, eating your Spaghetti-O's and watching one sitcom after another, it suddenly dawns on you: I could have just said no.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have a wonderful boyfriend who eats with his mouth open and smacks his lips. How can I tell him to eat with his mouth shut without offending him or hurting his feelings? He hasn't met my parents yet, and I would like it if when we have dinner with them, he would chew with his mouth closed.


Dear Aghast,

None of us is perfect, all have their flaws and some grown-ups have flaws that one associates with small children, and you simply must draw a deep breath and say, "Charlie, I think the world of you and I'd never want to say a word to hurt you, but the truth is that I don't like to sit and eat and look at the food in your mouth as you're chewing it." Charlie will be stung, of course, and say, "Oh, I'm sorry," and will attempt to chew with his mouth shut. If this little exchange makes him like you less, then he's much too insecure to embark on a romance.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 26-year-old woman, and it's been two and a half years since I've dated. Until recently, this hasn't bothered me. On the few occasions when I've gotten to feeling lonesome, I've been able to tell myself, "Snap out of it, silly," and get back to enjoying life. However, in the past few months, the bouts of loneliness have become more frequent and intense. It seems like almost every day I get a tight feeling in my throat and a stinging in my eyes, brought about by some ridiculously mundane thing like seeing a couple holding hands, or reading about a 50th wedding anniversary in the newspaper. The internal pep talks don't work anymore, and I feel like I'm walking around with a little black rain cloud hovering over my head. Do you have any ideas on how I can lift myself out of the doldrums?

Semi-Sad Sack

Dear Sad,

Loneliness is a vicious circle: It leads to melancholia and self-pity and that makes us poor company and we insulate ourselves with work and family, and the insulation becomes a substitute for life. And the insulation leaks, and cold drafts blow through. If you let this melancholia get worse, you could slide down the slippery slope into depression. You lift yourself out of the doldrums by changing your routines and throwing yourself into new situations and meeting new people. Take a trip to Iceland, take up folk dancing, take a class in creative writing, volunteer at the children's hospital. If the black cloud follows you into this terra incognita, you should seek advice more professional than Mr. Blue's.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 37-year-old female with a wonderful husband, four great dogs, a cute little house and great friends. I work in the computer industry surrounded by immature men in their 20s. I do more than any of them, but I do my work without fanfare so few people know how much work I do around here. I hate the place. I've saved hard and can afford to not work for a while. I want to quit my job so I can garden, read and, hopefully, someday computers will be fun again to me again. Please tell me I can.

Seeking Permission

Dear Seeking,

Permission granted. You can and you may and I hope you will.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have a wrenching choice to make. Ten years ago, I fell in love with a man whose attentions were otherwise occupied. I breezed on and built an extraordinarily, blessedly happy life with someone else. I was never able to stop (for 10 years!) full-soul yearning for the One True Love, but my Dear Companion has never imagined himself underserved in the devotion department. And with good reason. Darndest thing, though: OTL happened along and fell madly in love with me.

Loyalty and cozy happiness or crazy love and the yet-to-be-imagined? This is killing me.

Blue Lady

Dear Blue Lady,

How did OTL fall in love with you without your assistance? Did he simply ride in out of the sunset and leap from his horse and throw himself at your feet and smooch your ankles? Or was there a little byplay, some flirting, some encouraging glances? The yearnings don't mean much to Mr. Blue. We all yearn, it's surface static. It's when we pick up the phone, or pick up the perfumed paper and write the note, that we start digging the hole. The yet-to-be-imagined can easily turn into the unimaginably-wretched-why-did-I-ever-do-this. Most of us, given the choice between yearnings and blessed happiness, would choose the latter. There is no such thing as an OTL except in romance novels. Everyone has many many potential true loves, and if you've found one, you don't need to find out about the others.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've written my first novel, and naturally there are some autobiographical elements. The two main characters and their relationship are based -- loosely -- on a relationship I had that would be recognizable to anyone who knew me or him. Here's my issue: He has cut himself off from me since our agonizing breakup. Our relationship was a secret from his family and most of his friends. If I use things that he said to me in real life, or things we went through in real life, am I betraying him by writing about it, albeit in fictionalized form? What are the rules when it comes to basing characters on real people? I believe in trust and I don't want to betray what we had, or make him hate me. I also fear litigation. Can a writer use her real-life friends in a way that's fair? Do I owe it to him to show the manuscript to him for his approval at any point? I know his reaction would be an angry one, though he is portrayed well -- portrayed humanly -- and I haven't said anything damning about him. Am I a moral outlaw? What does trust mean once a relationship is over?


Dear Struggling,

If you don't write about people you know, you will have a brief career as a novelist. Most fiction comes from life, and some novelists are more adept than others at disguising people. If your purpose is to sting the old boyfriend and get in the last word, you should be especially careful about covering your tracks. You can be sued for libel, of course, but every real person you have ever known will appear some way or another in your fiction. They don't have any say over how you transform them, so there's no point in showing the manuscript to them, unless you want to torture them. The moral justification for using the boyfriend is the creation of art. If it's a good book, good, and if it's lousy, then you're on weak ground. It's hard to predict how people will react to seeing themselves in your writing. Some may be flattered, some will be angry. Most people, offered an unflattering portrait, will simply not see themselves at all.

Dear Señor Azul,

I am married to a pretty wonderful woman. In addition to all the other fun we have, she's taken on the job of raising my children with me. Their real mother is a neurotic mess who can't take care of herself, much less the kids. I am successful and prosperous and I can't just let my former wife live in the squalor her own skills and ambitions consign her to; she needs a nice little place and a car that runs and some money to spend. The cost of bringing her up to par is chump change to me; I work maybe one day a month to help out my ex, the rest of my labors go to our lifestyle, our savings for old age, the kids' private schools, etc. But my second wife, the wonderful stepmother, cannot stand this arrangement. Every dollar I give my ex is like a pound of flesh carved off my wife's body with a white-hot knife! It drives her nuts, it makes her shrill with anger, runny with tears of hurt and frustration. How do I convince her that I need to do what I'm doing? How do I get her to see that it isn't costing her anything other than what she makes it cost by being so upset and negative about it. The court hasn't ordered me to do this, but to me, it seems the only fair way to go. Except that it's ruining my second marriage. What's the big deal ... why can't I give my poor, messed-up ex a few bucks every month without bringing the Wrath of God down on myself? Am I missing some fundamental emotional truth here?

Caught in a Leg Trap

Dear Caught,

You must stand up for yourself and defend your actions on grounds of basic decency and compassion. You're an ethical man and you must insist on following your compass. You can try to keep the peace by making the financial arrangements sub rosa, you can refuse to discuss this with your wife and give up trying to convince her, you can change the subject whenever it comes up, you can woo her with flowers and candlelight and oysters on the half shell and Frank Sinatra on the turntable, but in the end, stick to your guns. I don't know what the big deal or emotional truth is here. It doesn't matter. Do the right thing.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a pretty rockin' gal, 35, lots of fun, smart, witty, divorced for a couple of years now. After dating around a bit, I recently met someone special. He's 25 and he's swell. Really swell. We've been dating for four months, and we have fallen in love with each other.

My problem is that in my experience, Love = Hell. I don't think I have the tools to handle the logistics of being in a relationship, all the day-to-day stuff. But when I tell him how I feel, I get an angry, defensive tirade. Am I an overanalyzing hyperpassionate female prone to drama? Do two people who just fell in love need to talk about things in the relationship to lay the foundation for the future, if there is to be one? Or do normal people just let it happen? It is a staggering thing to find yourself wanting something that you don't actually believe you can ever have. If there is any way to avoid sabotaging this relationship, I want to find it.

Bad at Being in Love

Dear Bad,

It sounds like things got serious fast and you stopped rockin' and started talkin' and the gentleman was taken aback. He doesn't accept your equation of love and hell. He proclaimed his undying love and devotion and you asked him if that meant a joint checking account. Not a graceful moment for either of you. Still, that's no excuse for an angry tirade. The tirade should be taken seriously, as a clue that you may not have a future as lovers. Lovers need to talk a good deal, sometimes all night and into the dawn, but it must be a pleasure for them, a dance, a walk in the woods and not a form of combat. Do "normal people just let it happen"? Yes, there's an awful lot that can be allowed to pass without discussion; otherwise we'd be strangled by our fears and apprehensions. Maybe you're not ready for a romance. Maybe you ought to go on fooling around.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have met my soul mate, my greatest friend, the most wonderful man in the world. He told me he was in a bad marriage and had a 4-year-old when we met; two months later he moved into his own place, and in a month he will be divorced. A month ago I met his daughter and she and I became the best of friends. But his soon-to-be-ex decided that she must meet me for a cocktail before I can do things with the child again, that it ms a "mother's thing" to ascertain that the child would be in good hands. I believe the way she put it was "to see if she's normal."

My love asked me to do it to keep the peace; I find the request terribly unsettling and can't help but think that he ms being manipulated. Am I being unreasonable? Could anything good come of such a meeting?

Comfortable in the Background

Dear Comfortable,

Any future you may have with this man will include his daughter and her mother. Get used to it. The sooner you can get this complex but inevitable relationship pleasantly underway, the better for you. The mother is certainly reasonable to want to meet the woman who may take a large role in her daughter's future life, even though she brings a chip on her shoulder to your meeting. The child already likes you, which is a large point in your favor. Grit your teeth, smile and be relentlessly pleasant, no matter how you are received. If you boot it, something bad could come of the meeting: animosity that could make life with your wonderful man more difficult for years to come.

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

MORE FROM Garrison Keillor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Writers And Writing