Living a lie

After 20 years of marriage my wife still thinks I graduated from Harvard, and I never even finished school. How can I tell her the truth now?

Published February 20, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

Others may be drifting through languors and malaises and a case of the vapors, but Mr. Blue is having the time of his life teaching a college composition course. Just so you know. Odd indeed that at this advanced age, once a week, I walk into a room and meet 120 bright and talented young people and get to discuss the terrific stuff they write. I'm in awe of their talent and energy. I seem to know a few things about writing as a result of hard work and failure and heartbreak, and it is a happy task to put this at the disposal of others. And to be an encourager, a new role for me. I want them to be hugely successful. I crave their success. I suppose that everyone who ever coached hockey or basketball or debate has had this same thrill. It's a great tonic for the vapors.

The tide of junk mail from irate Republicans suddenly abated and in its wake came a few pleasant letters from Republicans who said, "Don't judge us all by the extremists." These are the Republicans I know from my youth, those moderate, business-minded civic boosters and unapologetic patriots who were the linchpins and bulwarks of small towns across the Midwest, the enthusiastic backers of projects for the civic good, usually in partnership with the town liberals (the librarian, the bar owner, a lawyer or two, the Methodist minister, the banker's wife). These Republicans were uniters and diehard optimists and persons of compassionate conscience, inveterate doers of good deeds. They're still around, doing good deeds and working for their communities, but here in Minnesota their party got shanghaied by the religious right and they became the party that waved photographs of bloody embryos, and it took the moderates a long time to reassert themselves. When Republicans set themselves up as a religious party, they get very scary. Their strongest appeal is to common sense and decency and to civic optimism. Anyway, those are the Republicans I know, and the fine folks who've been filling up Mr. Blue's mailbox are another species entirely, characters out of Flannery O'Connor. Interesting folks but not ones you'd want on the school board.

A very tall woman writes, in response to Beaten Up, the 40-ish woman who is wondering if she missed the boat when she decided not to have kids: "We cannot all learn the same things at once in our life. Many of my friends who embraced motherhood in their 20s are now learning how to nurture themselves and commit to their careers. I, who really never wanted children, spent years learning to be comfortable with myself and how to entertain myself and take responsibility for my own happiness. Compared to many of my peers, I took things in reverse order. Shortly after turning 43 I met a wonderful man and have been in a good, solid, happy, comfortable relationship with him. I am finally ready for this, and I feel strongly that I would not have been able to have this relationship without those years that came before. A woman who doesn't want children has the privilege of taking her time and gaining some wisdom and, if she makes it so, having a very lovely life as she gets older."

A woman writes, in response to Can't Think Straight, who is expecting her third child and feeling seriously beleaguered: "She should seriously consider working part time. It is almost impossible to have a full-time career and raise three children properly without going insane in the process. Working part time allows me to have that 'sanity time' at work, spend enough time with my child and have some time to myself. If it is at all possible financially, she should scale back the work and spend more time with her children. They are only young once. And if she isn't feeling crazy, they won't seem so overwhelming."

Finally, a couple of technical writers injured by my jibe at technical writing cite some technical books that rise above the others: "John Muir's 'How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, a Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot' is a masterpiece of technical writing. Who can't love a statement like, 'The gradual progress that a Volksie bus makes in the mountains means just one thing: leave earlier.' Not to mention 'The Joy of Cooking,' still the best cookery book ever published, between quotes from Saki, the history of crêpes suzette and instructions for how to skin a squirrel. And there is 'The Elements of Style' by Strunk and White, which is itself a technical manual, surely." And the other writer cites "The C Programming Language" by Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie, "Numerical Recipes" by William H. Press et al., "Advanced Mathematical Methods for Scientists and Engineers" by Carl A. Bender and Steven S. Orszag and "The Texbook" and "The Art of Computer Programming" by Donald Knuth.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been married to a wonderful woman for 20 years. She is simply amazing: Ivy League grad with a seven-figure salary and a heart to match. So what's the problem? I've been living a terrible lie. Twenty-two years ago when we first met, I told her I was a Harvard alumnus. I guess at the time I just wanted to impress her and get laid. Little did I know we would fall madly in love with each other. Her family, our friends and even our children believe Harvard's my alma mater. Truth to tell, I didn't even finish college. In all these years I never found the right time to break it to her. She always seemed so proud of me. Now our 17-year-old daughter is applying to Harvard and has to list the name and the year of graduation of family members on the application. I've always stressed the importance of education to her and she has worked so hard to maintain straight A's. I fear my world is about to come apart and I'll be exposed for the fraud that I am. Mr. Blue, I'm in a real bind; please help.

Academically Challenged

Dear Challenged,

It isn't a terrible lie in my estimation. It seems rather endearing, actually. But tell the truth, and do it immediately. Don't let yourself get trapped in blind alleys of coverup and stonewalling. The way to keep your dignity is to go to your wife, say "I have something to tell you that isn't pleasant and that I feel terrible about," and then tell it straight out, no self-justification. She'll be terribly relieved that you're not announcing a big romance with a cocktail waitress and she will take your un-Harvardness as something she can live with pretty easily, I'll bet. Don't beat up on yourself. You're not a fraud.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My father is a severe alcoholic and has been for about 10 years. He lives about 500 miles away, and I am his only child. He's 53 and never remarried after he and my mother divorced 20 years ago. He lives alone in an apartment and is financially stable, but he was fired from his job about six months ago because of drinking. He has no friends and no hobbies and does not enjoy life at all and refuses to stop drinking or get professional help of any kind. He has been arrested several times for public drunkenness and has lost his driver's license, so he no longer has his car.

Several months ago, I found out he has a degenerative liver disease from drinking. Every couple of weeks he becomes very ill and vomits repeatedly all day and night. Sometimes this goes on for days at a time. When he is not sick, he calls up and leaves disturbing messages on my answering machine, about killing other people and about killing himself. Lately the messages have focused on his own suicide. He describes in detail how he will kill himself and sometimes he says: "I'm going outside to kill myself right now!"

I cannot even describe how sad and painful this is for me. I love my father very much. I want to do the right thing here, but I don't know what it is.


Dear Anguished,

It must be agony for you, but there is only so much you can do for him. The term "involuntary commitment" springs to mind. Consider the phone calls a cry for help and try to force him into treatment, using law enforcement officials if necessary. Call up the county social services or human services department where your father lives. Ask for the alcohol assessment division (it may be called something else) and tell the folks there his story, including the phone messages, the suicide threats, the threats to kill others. They will take these seriously, especially with your tapes from the answering machine, which is the evidence they need to enforce the involuntary commitment and alcohol treatment that are your father's only hope for recovery and survival. Do not discuss this action with your father or use the threat of this action to try to change his behavior. Just find the agencies, and start making the phone calls tomorrow. Good luck.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Since the birth of our daughter five years ago, my husband and I have been more like roommates, and cranky roommates at that. I entertain thoughts of separation, but I'm not sure what would be best for her. My husband and I are civil, but there is just nothing there anymore. We tried counseling in the past, but he thought it was a waste of time. For most of our marriage (19 years), he was either struggling to save a dying business or too depressed to work. He's working now, and seems to be happy with his job, but sometimes my resentment comes dangerously close to the surface. My main concern is our daughter. I just don't know what would be best for her. Do you have any words of wisdom?

Happy Mama, Unhappy Wife

Dear Happy,

My wisdom is so small and ordinary compared to your situation, and all I can offer is a note of hopefulness: You guys have come so far and endured so much and have a fine history together, and there is reason to believe that you can enjoy making love again. The alternatives are so dismal, to start with. The whole dreary story of divorce and trying to rediscover yourselves is -- O dear, what an epic of sorrow that can be. I suggest that, first, you forgive your depressive, indolent, hurtful husband. Don't make an announcement; simply do it in your heart and do it for yourself alone. Second, seduce your husband by showing him respect, which evidently he doesn't deserve, but give him respect as if you only knew about his good side. Laugh at his jokes (such as they are) and touch him gently when you speak to him. The retreat and passivity you see are the result of his wounds -- at work, among relatives and friends, and (yes) yours, accidental and intended. Loss of status is emasculating to a man, and if his wife seems to have echoed his humiliation, it'll be a challenge for you to excite his libido again. But it can be done. And it's no more difficult than a divorce.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Two months ago, after battling depression for several months, I decided to see a therapist, and through work, I was referred to a woman described as a "family therapist."

I have visited this woman four times, and each time I leave feeling worse. She never takes any notes during my visits. So the first half of each session is taken up with me reminding her who I am and what my problems are.

She seems to have decided that most of my problems are due to perimenopause. I am 40 and it is certainly a possibility. But my internist says my estrogen levels are normal and that perimenopause has not really begun for me. I keep telling my therapist this and she tells me that I am having trouble coping with life because of the "fluctuating estrogen" level. I don't like or trust her and would like to switch to another therapist. I mentioned this, as tactfully as possible, during my last session with her, and she said that it would be very disruptive and would interrupt my healing process. She said I needed to feel pain to heal my life! Should I just run now or does she have a point?


Dear Depressed,

This woman is an albatross, not a counselor. Get a new one. This one is a bad recording. Find one who listens, who remembers who you are and what your concerns were, who makes suggestions that seem realistic and common-sense to you and that show respect for your values. Meanwhile, ask your internist to prescribe an antidepressant for a few months. It won't change anything deep down, but it will be a salve to your feelings until you have healed emotionally.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been seeing a writer, an unpublished writer. After three years with this man I find myself becoming insecure. This doesn't sit well with me because I'm independent, am successful in my own field (I like to think so, anyway) and have raised two teenage sons on my own. My lover and I have parted several times over the past three years, but each time we make up. He's funny, witty and intelligent and excites me no end. He tells me he loves me but is scared to go into a third marriage. I've gone through thick and thin with him. I've helped him with his young daughter and I believe his family likes me. He never seems to want to pay me a compliment or extend a kindness, and -- this was the reason behind the last parting -- he forgot my birthday (for the third time). He's a very sensitive person but not sensitive to my feelings. I don't know why, but I love him and can't seem to move on.

He tells me that "you can never marry a writer," but he hasn't written anything yet. I don't want to marry him; I just want to be with him. Should I move on or accept that his frustration with writer's block goes with the other good stuff?


Dear Stressed,

This guy isn't a writer, he's a self-centered sack of potatoes. His insecurity is a disease and he is passing it onto you. Don't even think about marrying him. His narcissism will only get worse, his wit will dim, he will go on forgetting your birthday. Be a friend as much as you like, but don't become emotionally dependent on this character. It'll only drag you down, and it won't help him. He won't change, and he doesn't want to marry you. Use your own judgment regarding what to do about this; you'll do OK.

Dear Mr. Blue,

It's the oldest story in the world. My husband left me two years ago for a woman 10 years younger. They are still together, and I can't get over my anger at them.

His new woman is everything I am not. She's pretty and petite, a smart natural blond who is athletic and good at everything. The worst part is that my two children adore her. They talk about her all the time: how pretty she is, how funny, how nice. I think my 8-year-old son even has a crush on her! It's all too heartbreaking.

I can't stand to see how happy my husband has become. He was never this happy with me. I am sure that he will marry this woman, just as soon as I release him. But I am putting off the divorce for as long as I can. Lately, my children ask me when I'm going to divorce Dad. I think they want my husband to marry his girlfriend, and it breaks my heart.

What would you do? Would you give the cheating husband what he wants, the right to start a new life with a new wife, or would you stick to your guns and put the divorce papers in a place where you did not have to see them?


Dear Heartbroken,

The villain threw you off the cliff and you lie broken and bleeding on the rocks below, and you happen to be holding a rope that's tied to the villain's left ankle. You can harass and frustrate him, but this is pretty meager revenge.

The issue isn't what to do with the divorce papers. What's important is getting you repaired, and that's going to take some work. You will be helped by an interested and professional counselor; you are surely depressed, and antidepressant medication will splint the breaks while they mend. Take care of yourself, dear, and just don't do anything to the villain that will hurt you. Revenge can boomerang in the most surprising ways.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 22, female, college-educated and independent, and have bounced between three jobs and a temp job in the past year. I tell my parents I have plenty of time to sort things out. But I don't know that I believe it. My friends seem firmly established in career or family or both, and I'm left floundering with countless dreams. I'd love to become a writer or teacher or own a used-book store or travel around Europe. So many fantasies, but how do I make them a reality when I only have $45 between checking and savings? And I haven't had the patience to write, and don't know that I have the strength of character to teach. My family loves and supports me, despite the exasperation they sometimes feel toward my choices in life. I sit here and wonder why I can't bring myself to move in the direction(s) of my childhood dreams. Am I hopeless? Am I a cretin of the lowest level? A gutless wonder who will never accomplish anything in her life for the fear of laughable failure? Please help me!


Dear Floundering,

It's perfectly natural to flounder at the age of 22 and I wish I could spare you the pain and humiliation, but a person learns so much through failure and floundering that she shouldn't be deprived of the experience. Failure isn't fatal. At your age it's a condition of life. Forget about writing. Put off the bookstore idea. Save up money for Europe. Try your hand at teaching, part time, as a volunteer. Don't try to be a success. You might succeed at it and thereby become stupid for life. In your 20s you should be trying things out that seem interesting or worthwhile. Some will turn out not to be worth pursuing; others will be (temporarily) great, and something will click into place that can sustain you for years and years. Just paddle your canoe up these little streams and poke around and you'll discover amazing things. Count on it.

By 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.

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