Her dad was a con man

I can't help it if her father went to prison. Now she's trying to con me and I won't have it

By Cary Tennis
Published August 10, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I have a friend named N -- more of an acquaintance, actually -- whom I've known for a long time, but I've never particularly liked all that much. Her demeanor is very hostile, which began when she was younger. She grew up rich. Her father was a very successful businessman. As it turned out, her father ended up being a con man and was arrested for high-scale fraud, and is still in prison to this day. The family dynamic was destroyed. Due to this, when N was in her 20s, her mother and brother fled to a Southern state, leaving her with no family in the Northeast, not telling her where they were going. She's been searching for them, thinking that everything will be all right if she finds them. Clearly, they want nothing to do with her.

So this is the problem: N is extremely bitter and hasn't gotten over the bad things that have happened in her life. She's holding onto her pain and is sabotaging herself. My husband has known her more years than I have, and he says she's been this way the whole time.  She's got two children from separate fathers who won't help her. (I think she became pregnant to try to entrap the fathers, which never worked.) She's unmarried and gets no child support and she is struggling. She has been struggling her whole life, which I think has been self-inflicted. She blames God for her suffering, that she doesn't know what she did to deserve what her life is like.

N is a terrible mother. Her son, who is about 10 years old, is suffering due to her bad parenting. (She is relying on his future success so she can be taken care of, which puts a lot of pressure on him.) She's always needing money and has no savings.  She can't put food on the table on a regular basis. She's incredibly self-absorbed. It's always all about her. She called me up the other day to see if we still needed her to take care of our cats. (She does this when we're out of town, for which we pay her $30 a day.) When I confirmed that we still needed her, for the next 20 minutes she droned on and on, complaining how she was fired from her job for being rude, which I'm not at all surprised about. She starts telling me she needs an extra $300 that she doesn't have for her rent in full; she can't afford to buy food; she doesn't have any money saved up; she can't drive her car because she can't afford gas; she's going to be homeless (again); she can't afford to have a phone or an Internet connection; and so much more. The list of her problems and complaints go on and on.

I felt bad for her, so I invited her and her son over for dinner once in a while, which is not too much of an imposition since I make dinner anyway. But she tells me that she can't afford the gas to drive over to our house. She wants all or none. It's not enough offering her dinner for her and her son. She wants someone to take care of her. (She's told me that she's trying to hook a man of means to marry her, but without success.) I know that she wants me to feel so bad for her that I will offer her and her son to stay here, rent free, and store her belongings in the basement until she can find a job and afford to get a place of her own. My husband and I don't want to take any part in that and we refuse to be manipulated into it. If she can't help herself and be responsible, there's no point because she's just going to screw up her life (and her son's life) again. We don't want to be friendly with her, even though it's convenient that she can take care of our cats for $30 a day. But we don't want her in our lives. She tries to suck people into her misery. We can't take it. It would completely interfere with our lives and make for a tense environment.

I don't know what to do. I want to help her, but I really don't want to get involved. How can I help someone who won't help themselves? I feel like telling her that she's doing this to herself, that she needs to grow up, stop being so self-centered, stop blaming everyone else, and take responsibility for her and her son. Obviously, I can't do that because it would be cruel and make her feel bad, something that would humiliate her even more. But enough is enough. She's incredibly immature and hasn't learned anything from life. She's just gotten more bitter as time has gone on.

How do I deal with this?

Enough is enough!

Dear Enough is Enough,

Imagine being raised by a con man.

You go to Daddy for school money and he says, "Here's what you do. Say, 'My daddy already paid. He sent it in.'"

You say, "But Daddy, you didn't send it in."

And he says, "Now let me see you shrug. Like you have no idea. You're just a kid! Act confused. You're just a kid. You wouldn't know. Right?"

A con man is going to teach his kids the the con man's view of the world, which is that the world is full of suckers.

Then imagine how you would feel when your dad went to prison. You'd feel you'd been robbed. And who robbed you? Not your dad. It couldn't possibly be your dad who robbed you. It must be those awful middle-class suckers and politicians, those lily-white lawyers with their hypocritical standards, hiding behind white middle-class morality while doing their own kind of sanctified, government-approved grifting.

What kid is going to admit to herself that her own father screwed her over, robbed her of her childhood, condemned her to a life of scraping by, begging and swindling and selling herself? You would have to be a rare child to admit the devastating fact that it was your own father who robbed you.

You would believe the catechism of the outlaw victim -- that society robbed you of your father. That all the straight suckers out there robbed you of your father. That it's all those middle-class suckers who were to blame.

It's not her fault she was raised by a con man. That doesn't mean you have to let her con you. Keep your distance. This person is trouble. She was raised to be trouble.

Such situations are not so unusual. South Florida, where I grew up, was full of "wealthy businessmen" whose resumes included prison and murder, upright citizens making their millions on drugs and guns, shady characters sunning themselves on Hallandale Beach, swindling Holocaust survivors out of their condos, spreading the gospel of a quick buck, cheap cons and grifters flooding the winter beaches and stinking up the poorly air-conditioned bars every bad-luck summer. The small-time mafiosi and seasonal grifters plying the short con on Collins Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard and Las Olas were, frankly, sort of romantic, and the smugglers whose business exploded in the 1980s were definitely romantic. But it was crime and people went to prison -- people like our old friend Gar Hogan,  sentenced to 28 years in prison for the crime of viatical fraud. It was a fascinating case, the Gar Hogan case. The world of white-collar crime  in general is fascinating, but it wrecks lives and mangles psyches.

Maybe it would be charming to have a con-man father if your con-man father was Nicolas Cage.

But this con man just left a needy, screwed-up kid trying to make it the only way she knows, which is to whine and moan and con other people into taking care of her.

She's traumatized. She's emotionally arrested. I have compassion for her. But dealing with her requires the kinds of behaviors you have demonstrated: creating boundaries or, more colloquially, not buying her bullshit.

Maybe one day there will be something you can do for her. But letting her victimize you will not help.

It's a crying shame. If there is any blame I suppose it should go toward her family and her father's family and families like them, because criminals do not appear out of nowhere. They are raised in families and societies that preach the gospel of victimization and revenge, fear and distrust, quick fixes and sly moves.

So keep your distance. Show compassion but hide the silver.

Cary Tennis

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