My mom's younger sister, Goneril, is 74 and a psychopath. She's a black hole into which reality disappears and is pulled like taffy into impossible and ever-shifting shapes. She'll swear, shout, and cry, pretend to be injured, insult you, sweet-talk you, make small talk, and hit you up for money, all within the space of 10 minutes. When I'm around her she makes my head spin.
She's had a hard life, too -- her gambler husband ran off in 1963, leaving her with a $40,000 debt (which in those days was big money), and she waited tables for 20 years to pay it off. Then she waited tables for another 20 years and went to Vegas six times a year on the proceeds. She filled the rest of the time playing off against each other her children, her grandchildren, her siblings and her friends in the most toxic way I can imagine.
And now she has no more money except what she can charm from other people.
That's not quite the problem either.
Goneril has a son who is a junkie, Lenny. He is trying hard to go straight but is not quite getting there, and in between cleanups he also sells. When he's not homeless, he stays with Goneril, who has been evicted from three apartments in the last three years because of him. The last one was five months ago.
The other two of her three children refuse to let her live with them because they say she'll break up their family. She regularly maneuvers her grandchildren into situations where they have to lie to their parents. She tells lies about her son to her daughter and her daughter to her son, and her children to her grandchildren, and backs them up with screaming certainty, until nobody knows which way is up.
Here's the problem: Last month, she showed up at my mom's, with a suitcase. She said her son had kicked her out (which he had, saying she couldn't come back until she was willing to be civil), and could she please stay the weekend until she was able to find a place to stay.
My mom is 82. She's getting weaker by the year, but she still stands up for old folks and pregnant women on the bus. She doesn't lie, doesn't cheat, doesn't steal. She doesn't even borrow money. We get on each other's nerves sometimes, but she's been a steady source of unconditional love all my life.
She's the most gentle person I know. She's also probably pretty lonely. She spends the evening with us maybe twice a week, and we help her run errands several times a week, but that's still a lot of other hours to fill. Most of her evenings are spent watching television. She's had a tough, spare life, but through very hard work and a lot of self-denial she's been able to raise two children by herself and have money left for retirement. She didn't graduate from high school. Her children graduated from college. Her grandchildren all have graduate degrees. We've been proud of the honest work ethic she instilled in all of us.
She also helps people in need. That's part of the way she's made. Even if I were an ax murderer, I'm pretty sure she'd take me in.
Anyway, it's been a month, and Goneril is still there. She has the bed and Mom sleeps on the couch. Mom pays for everything. Lenny's children, who are all healthy 20-somethings in the most employee-friendly job market in our state's history, are beginning to call my mother and show up at her apartment, crying and begging for money because they say they can't find a job.
Mom has never borrowed money from us; she had a horror of being beholden to anyone. In the last month, though, she's borrowed from us three times for a total of more than $1,100. She's also been lying to us about where it goes. Lenny has started hanging out at the apartment, and she's been lying about that, too, and when we keep talking to her she prevaricates: I'm so tired, I'm an old lady, why can't you just leave an old lady alone, I didn't know you two were so mean.
Goneril is clearly there to stay. She's moved all her stuff in (telling Mom that her son wanted to charge her rent for them).
When we've visited the apartment and told Goneril that it's time to move on, she threatens to kill herself. She says she'll just go and sleep on the beach. She says she's always thought her sister's children were so nice, but clearly we're evil, because why would we do a thing like this to our own mother, who has taken care of us and loved us all these years, she's her own free person, and we want to take that away from her and control her life and tell her what she can and can't do: just because you finished college and she never finished high school, just because you live in a fancy house and she's been stuck in this apartment for 40 years, you think you can look down on her like this? I have to stick up for my sister, she says, because nobody else will.
Then she peeps at Mom to see if it's all sunk in. It has. And nothing we say to the contrary gets heard.
It's very clear -- to me, anyway -- that Goneril is trying to isolate my mother and live off her until Mom is broke -- and also evicted, because Mom's landlord has got wind of the whole thing and is planning to send word that she needs to get her sister out of there or else. Goneril has always been jealous of her "good" sister and has consistently done everything in her power to take away what Mom has that she doesn't: a loving, united family and a stable, solvent life. Mom knows all this and doesn't care, because sisters are sisters and she's doing what is right because Goneril needs help and nobody else will help her.
My brother and I want to intervene. We've tried. We started out trying to treat everybody as reasonable people, but now in some ways we've sunk to Goneril's level: We talk, we reason, we cajole, we get stern, we cry, we give her guilt trips. We scheme among ourselves. We're desperate. Once we parked outside Mom's house for three hours, secretly watching her door.
We've entered Gonerilworld. We've always prided ourselves on being straight with each other, but we're getting, for our family, positively Machiavellian. And every time we make a plan about how to get Mom to do what we want (even if we believe that what we want is right), we are treating her more and more like the incompetent fool Goneril says we're making her out to be.
Last time we saw her, she told us to butt out and get out, so we left. This woman hates confrontation of any kind.
Right now she lives in a pretty basic apartment in a safe part of town, but the landlord is my brother's old friend, and he has been giving her a big break on the rent. There's no way she could afford anything nearly as nice if she had to leave. And of course Goneril would go with her everywhere until it was clear that my mother had no more left to give. My mother's about to end up broke, evicted, and possibly homeless.
Aaagh!! She's 82! She's my mother!
The law is no help, God is no help (none of us are religious), and obviously so far we haven't been any help either. Do I just go Zen, sit and watch it all rain down? Or do I somehow stuff my mother into a gilded cage against her will in order to give her protection she's made very clear she doesn't want?
Is this a practical question or an existential one? I don't know.
Is it possible to preserve someone's life for them, or in the act of doing so, do you take it away?
And how do I make my sweet-faced old aunt get the hell out of Dodge?
Dear Prodigal Daughter,
This is deeply disturbing. I am involved in caring for aged parents myself and am aware of the family conflicts that can arise.
I also feel bad because I do not have really good answers for you. I am having what I would call a "bad writing day." Now, on my own time, I might delve into why that is so and find out all kinds of things about myself. But that won't help you.
All I have for you is one clear thought: Your job in this situation is to win, not to maintain harmony. There are clear objectives you must attain. In their attainment you will probably encounter conflict and resistance, which may freak you out and make you feel crazy. But you have to protect your mother's finances and her housing.
I don't know how exactly you do that. But what you need is power -- legal power and family power. You need family people on your side. And you need the legal power to make decisions and enforce them.
There are various ways to do that. You may be able to attain legal power of attorney. You may be able to have a state agency intervene on your mother's behalf. Even if your mother objects to state involvement, it's worth a try. If a junkie is living uninvited in an 82-year-old woman's home, state agencies charged with protecting the elderly may be concerned. You may be able to become a signatory to her bank account. You may be able to convince some other family member to take Goneril in, as the lesser of several evils.
You may be able to do a lot of creative things. Every family is crazy in its own way.
All I know is that talking and trying to make peace will not work. You need to take action to prevent eviction and bankruptcy. Talk to state agencies, attorneys, other advice columnists, family members who are on your side, your husband, your friends, anyone. Come up with a plan. Execute it. You have to make sure that this aunt of yours is not able to take your mother's money, and that her junkie son does not cause your mother to be evicted.
Can you put them all in a freezer truck and haul them away? I don't think so. But you have to keep this catastrophe from occurring.
I think you can. It'll just be a little slice of hell in the doing.
But what are we here for anyway?
Gird your loins for battle. And may you prevail, sister. May you prevail!
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