Can I help my cousin escape her squalor?

My mother's family is out of control. I'd like to rescue one promising member without being swallowed up

Published August 21, 2009 10:10AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My mother's family is very unstable, just one minute from collapse. All have been living on the dole for many years. Some of them try to get work cleaning houses and stuff like that, but no real "work" with benefits and such. Most of them are addicted to drugs -- alcohol, painkillers, other drugs (my mother hasn't divulged to me the extent of it, but meth is probably part of the picture). They even sneak and do these drugs during family visits. They gamble incessantly, spending what little bit of money they have on the slot machines at the gas station. When they lose that, they turn off the heat, turn off the electricity, and wait it out until they're back in money for a few weeks. They are frequently without phones. They often turn to theft. Many have been in jail for one reason or another: burglary, DUIs, possession. They are constantly bickering with each other about who owes who what, even while none of them have anything much. One of my cousins gave birth to a child, severely disabled because of her mother's drug abuse during pregnancy. The mother gave up the child to my grandmother, also on the dole. The mother left for many years, chose to live with a drug dealer. Now she is back and being supported by the same grandmother who also supports her disabled child. The child has no idea that my grandmother is not her mother.

These people are not idiots. On the contrary, they are magnificently creative, innovative people. Hilariously funny and wonderfully bright. They are also clever enough to be very deceptive. They often try to talk me into buying things from them, telling me they'll work on my car, attempting to swindle me. They beg for money, then use it in some way in which it was not intended -- gambling, drugs.

There are two bright spots in all of this: my young cousins. One is really doing well for herself. She got involved in church while in high school, and managed to get into a Christian college for free. She's very gifted, very dependable. I have another cousin, her same age, who has not made so many opportunities for herself. She is smart and graduated from high school, but has no plans for this fall. She will need to apply for college, apply for aid, and find some way to and from classes. I know she has no phone, no computer, and no car. She lives out in the country. Without the help of a dedicated mentor, I doubt she will be able to find a college or technical school, and I have no idea how she would study in her chaotic home. I doubt she will be able to find a job. If she did, she'd probably end up giving all of her money back to her family. She is a bright young girl and I know she is capable of more than just being a crutch for the rest of her family.

What can I do to help? I am afraid to talk to her about college options or any other options. I am afraid that she would be too ashamed and defensive to talk to me very seriously. Plus I live about three hours from her, and therefore cannot be there to help her very often, to give her a ride to the library or whatever. I think it would be lame to talk to her about college, but then not give her the tools to get there herself. I would give her money, but I don't have a ton to spare: I am 25 years old, and make very close to the cost of living for one person in this town. My husband is in law school, so we have a lot of debt and no second income. So we have little money to spare, except our savings. Additionally, I don't trust her family -- my family -- not to take that money and use it for something else.

What should I do? Delve in, at the risk of getting in too deep? Or let things take their course and wait for a better moment? I am afraid none will present itself and that it may be too late for my poor cousin.

Wanting to Help

Dear Wanting to Help,

As mentioned in yesterday's column, we like to help people, and people need help, but they can drag us into unfathomable quagmires if we do not know our own motives and their own designs. We must not leave people to drown, nor imagine that state power is a perfectable instrument of good which would, if given the chance, ensure that all lives are lived with equal dignity. We are on our own. But sometimes we can help. Every now and then we have a chance to change somebody's life a little bit for the better. When that chance arises we are better if we seize it.

What if you could persuade some teacher from her high school to take an interest in her? Perhaps he or she would agree to approach her and say, we know you have promise but we also know you have obstacles. Here is what we envision for you. Here is what we can offer.

If you can make no headway with her high school, then try local schools in the area that she might be able to attend. They may have outreach programs; there may be people there whose mission it is to find promising students and help them overcome the obstacles that stand between them and an education.

There may be a pre-law program at a local college. Perhaps your husband would know someone who might approach her about the idea of preparing for a career in law.

What this will require is that she be recruited or sponsored. That recruiter, or sponsor, might say to her, I know where you can go and I will support you in your journey, or, we have a place for you at our institution. Here is what you must do. Here is how we will help you.

If you can find a few people who at least have the standing and capacity to play such a role, consider sending this column to them.

In fact, I will now address that putative person directly as follows:

Dear teacher,

You have read the preceding, so you know the situation. So let me just address the dream. This is one of those moments when someone bright and talented needs to be rescued from the dangerous, stifling world that will no doubt bury her if she is not rescued from it. You are probably overworked and underpaid and have seen a few promising lives end in failure. The forces arrayed against young people are indeed great. By addressing you I am trying to do my little part, to advocate for this person whom I have never met, writing to someone whom also I have never met, just asking you to consider taking some small action that may change someone's life.

I have a sort of hero in my life, and her story is one of being literally rescued, or called, out of her life of squalor in St. Louis, out of impossibility, into a life of the school and the church. She was literally removed from her slum by a member of the church; she was educated and housed by the church; she went on to do great things, eventually leaving the church, becoming a writer, to educate many others and form a worldwide movement dedicated to the proposition that there is brilliance in all of us if we can just give it the conditions in which it can thrive.

So, dear teacher, educator, potential mentor, I am appealing to your conscience. I am asking that you become an advocate for this one young person. Please accept this request with the same seriousness with which you approach the calling of education itself, and see what you can do.

Yours truly,

Cary Tennis

There are of course things you can do personally, but you amply describe the perils and drawbacks of such a course, and I fully understand your concerns. I could easily add to them what I myself have learned about the pitfalls and unintended consequences of intervening in family matters.

So, maybe something like this appeal to a potential sponsor or recruiter will help. Let's hope that someone with standing will take an interest in your cousin.

Got strange, difficult, complicated family? Yep, there's stuff in here about that.

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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