My parents were divorced when I was young. At first I lived with my father, but he was verbally and mentally abusive. I moved back in with my mother when I was about 13, never to speak to my father again. I took to her new husband as my stepfather, and while we had some rocky times, I came to love him as a father. Over the years we've become very close and have a great relationship. I've felt he has taught me more about being a man than my biological father ever did. I looked up to him and still do; I have introduced him to numerous people simply as my father.
However, it has come to light recently that he is not who he has said he is. Now that he is in his mid-70s, we are finding out that he never attained the title he claimed at the company of his lifelong employment, never went to the schools he claims (MIT among them), and has many other issues. He was dishonorably discharged from the Army, but claims time in Korea and shrapnel injury. These are all lies. He is also a thief. He has made a habit of dining and dashing -- and shoplifting (including a lawnmower from Home Depot) -- and has nearly been caught a couple of times. He has a way of talking his way out of things, but has been 86'd along with my silently protesting mother from numerous restaurants in their hometown. I've also caught him in some minor fibs, such as calling me from one place and claiming to be at another. He has no idea about caller ID apparently.
There are also indications that these are not new behaviors. His children from his previous marriage do not speak to him. My mother has been with him nearly 15 years and has suspected things -- she recently told me about what she has discovered, as well as the horrible nature of their marriage, which is loveless and verbally abusive. She also suspects him of having an affair, as he has been overheard on the phone telling a woman that he loves her and wishes he were with her. He is planning a trip by himself to the home state of the woman on the phone. My parents generally winter near me, but this year he has told my mother not to come down.
I have looked up to this man for much of my adolescence and learned much from him. He has also done much for me and my sisters, helping us all with college and other life assistance. All of us children are long grown, so my mother needn't worry about us, but she loves him and wants to salvage their marriage. I also am torn by my great relationship with him and the facts coming to light about who he really may be.
My mother has sought my counsel, and I don't know how to respond. The issue of their marriage is for them to decide, but my own relationship with him is now at stake. Much as I value my relationship with him, I don't accept anyone two-timing my mother, nor verbally abusing her. I'm not sure I can look him in the eye anymore, and i can't confront him myself. I don't know how to handle myself or what advice to give to my mother. Any ideas here would be appreciated.
Facing a Fraud
Dear Facing a Fraud,
Since your mother has sought your counsel, I think you owe her the truth about what you have discovered. As much as she is willing to hear from you, you ought to tell her. Then leave it up to her what to do about it. Whether she can or should salvage the marriage is not clear. And it's a good idea to think about your answers to certain questions ahead of time. If she were to ask you whether she should divorce him, for instance, what would you tell her? Be ready.
Financial and legal matters that affect your future -- things concerning inheritance and so forth -- ought to be dealt with immediately with the help of a lawyer and perhaps also an accountant, to ascertain whether this man might be stealing or frittering away what your mother intended for you to inherit. During this period, perhaps the best thing you can do about your relationship with him is simply to avoid contact with him for six months or so while your mother decides what to do.
Despite your best efforts to confine your involvement in this matter to those questions outlined above, you may nevertheless find yourself drawn into a potentially overwhelming maelstrom of family passions. So allow me to expatiate a little, if I may. My own experience can be summed up thusly: If we do not possess the skills necessary to rush into a burning house and rescue the people, we're probably best off not attempting it. If we cannot swim, we should not jump into frigid surf to save a drowning man; we'll both go down. If we do not have the communications skills, the emotional fortitude, a clear sense of what we want to accomplish and how we will accomplish it, a defined exit strategy, and a readiness for coping with complete failure or, worse, an unforeseen family disaster brought about by our own well-intentioned efforts, we ought not enter the raging waters or the burning house that is our family hellhole.
This may not be a noble sentiment. It is one, however, informed by experience. So while I suggest sitting down with your mother and telling her what you know, and consulting with a lawyer and an accountant to make sure his dishonesty does not extend to stealing from your mother, I would be very cautious about trying to heal any family wounds or bridge any differences with your sisters over what ought to be done. Just talk to your mother and make sure she is protected legally and financially.
Nevertheless, as I said, you may find yourself taking an unplanned journey into the family hellhole, so you ought to prepare for it with rigorous self-examination. Ask yourself: What is the minimum I want to accomplish? What is possible and what is not possible? In what way might I make the situation worse? What are my possible hidden motives? Do I want to be the family hero? Do I want to get back at someone? How have I myself been injured by these recent revelations about my stepfather, and what unconscious recompense might I be seeking? What weaknesses of character do I have whose exposure might prove unbearable to me, should we begin in earnest to air our grievances? At what point might I find the whole exercise fruitless and walk out, having done more harm than good?
Such preparations will be most effective if they are structured. That structured approach might be in therapy. Or it might not. You might go to a therapist with this problem in mind and find you're talking about something entirely different. You could go to therapy to talk about your stepfather and end up talking about your real father whose disappearance you never mourned but who suddenly looms huge before you as a figure of tragic absence. You could end up talking about how deceit permeated your upbringing in ways you'd never considered before. You might find that what you're angry about is not the deceit itself but the uncovering of the deceit, that you cherished the burnished image your stepfather had built for himself and you blame him for allowing his image to be destroyed, that what you feel toward him is something like what one feels toward a parent who committed suicide.
So take care of the immediate practical matters first. Then, if you cannot avoid stepping into the terrible family hellhole of irrational passions, at least prepare for it as a person would prepare for a trip down the Amazon! Because there's no telling where you'll end up.
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