the gift of fear

Hello! I am in possession of some…interesting…information regarding my brother’s new wife, and I’m not sure what, if anything, to share with my family.

My brother had a pretty nasty divorce a few years ago and hadn’t dated much since, so we were all excited to meet his new girlfriend earlier this year. Within the next three months, they announced they were pregnant and got married. While it’s definitely fast, everyone seems happy, so yay!

Here’s where it gets weird: I got an email (to an address using my maiden name that I rarely use) this summer, from a man who claims to be my new sister-in-law’s ex-boyfriend from her time in another country.

It’s a pretty rambling, incoherent email with some screenshots of text messages between them — where she is clearly trying to brush him off. He asks me to tell her to “apologize” to him and “recognize what [she] did to me” by ending their (alleged) long distance relationship in favor of my brother. He knew about their marriage and the baby on the way, and knew that I was my brother’s sister. I was so disturbed by the email, and I responded, angrily, to say leave me alone and leave my family alone.

About a month later, he sent another email-o-nonsense Again, I responded, saying he was to stop contacting me, and I set up an email filter to send everything to the trash.

My husband and I talked about it, extensively, and decided to keep it to ourselves. The text message screenshots he sent me weren’t incriminating at all, and the only thing my sister in law was guilty of (if even that) was texting short answers to his questions.

However, I get another email this week. It’s from a different email address, but on the same topic, and the content of the message makes me think it’s the same person.

Now I’m struggling with my self-imposed vow of silence to my family. I see that this person viewed me on LinkedIn — and I’m connected to my dad on LinkedIn, and my maiden name is pretty unique. I’m worried he’s contacted my parents, and I have to admit this is setting off some alarm bells about my new sister-in-law.

However, there’s a baby on the way and they seem happy, and I don’t know if saying something about the emails helps anything except not having to keep this secret anymore. I do know that my sister in law has changed phone numbers recently with the explanation that an ex had been contacting her frequently.

Also, I know I shouldn’t respond, but man, these emails piss me off.

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Iain Glenn holding some kind of lute-thing.

“What rhymes with Khaleesi? Greasy? I like the way you try to make Peace-y? Let’s live together, I’ll sign that Lease-y?”

Ever since I saw the fake Skyler White from Breaking Bad letter to an advice columnist, I’ve been a wee bit jealous that no one has tried to troll me like that. So Indiewire and I are trying out a thing where we construct letters from television characters and then I answer them.

I know there are 10,000 fanfic lovers who read this site regularly, so consider this a call to you. Binge-watching Orange Is The New Black? Texting your friends with “Sestra!”/”Brother-sestra!” after every episode of Orphan Black? Wondering how the Lannisters are going to sort out their big pile of Family Stuff or how Sansa is going to handle her creepy Uncle Peter on Game of Thrones? (We’ll save the FITZ IS CREEPY AND NOT ACTUALLY GOOD AT ANYTHING stuff for the start of next season of Scandal if you don’t mind, but we will get to it). If you’ve got an idea for a letter related to a current (currently on, up-to-date with what is happening on the show) TV show? Send ‘em with “for Indiewire” in the subject line and we may see more of these.

In other news, a while ago my friend and Wardrobe-producer Dimitri William Moore brought me a story by one of his friends about the thin illusion of privacy we have when online dating. Together with some friends, some talented former students on camera, lights, and sound, and two great Chicago actors, we adapted the story into a short film. We shot it in few hours one morning at Hamburger Mary’s (eat there!), and thanks to the kindness of their staff, the whole thing cost whatever you’d pay for a big assortment of bagels from the bagel place next store. Post-production moves slowly when everyone is working for free and doing awesome stuff like having adorable babies, but I’m pleased to say, that film is finally ready!



How long would YOU stay sitting at that table? Tell us in the comments.

Hi Captain,

I have a friend. He’s a reasonably good friend and has been there for me during some tough times. Which is why I feel guilty about what I’m about to say.

For the last year or so, we’ve spent a lot of time together chatting and hanging out. We had some sexual tension and a very brief romantic fling before deciding it was not to be. I am way happier now that we’ve decided this, but he – was and probably is still – a bit upset about it. So I have a lot of guilt over that. We chat quite a bit on FB and via text and at the moment it’s pretty constant throughout the day. However, the more we talk the more I kinda think – while I want to be friends, I want to pull back a little. Well, a lot.

The thing that is getting me down the most is that he’s so negative. Every message is about how much his life sucks or how much something hurts or how much he hates his job or his parents or how everyone else is stupid… Like I genuinely can’t remember the last time I had a positive comment from him. I know his health isn’t great, so he is being genuine. But it’s just so wearing.

I’ve tried making helpful suggestions (these go down like a lead balloon). I’m currently just leaving a while before replying (although that’s tricky cos he can see on FB when I’ve seen a message) and then saying something like “you poor thing” and either changing the subject or not really engaging further, unless the subjects shifts to TV shows or something neutral. Some days I just ignore messages altogether. But it’s getting to the point where I just don’t want to hang out with him any more – via chat or in person, because I just end up so depressed. But I don’t want to make him feel worse. I feel really guilty about all of this, because I know I used to participate in the negativity. Nowadays, I’m trying to be more positive – and seeing positive results from this – but I don’t want to just abandon him either like “my life is better now, yours isn’t, so bye!”.

The second thing is that he’s super clingy – and quite aggressive in his clinginess. He ends up scolding me about our friendship if I try to pull back a little. It starts out with if I don’t reply within an hour or so, I get a text asking if I’m mad at him. Whether I say no, or I try to be honest, he gets really really upset and starts attacking me – saying I don’t reply to him enough and when I do I’m being superficial and I’m not hanging out with him enough or when we do he feels like I’ve scheduled him in like everyone else and I’m making him feel bad… or else he brings up other stuff, about our brief fling or my new boyfriend… This sort of thing also happens if I mention something that I didn’t tell him about instantly – I get “ why didn’t you tell me?!” and then the rest of the guilt trip. If I get upset about what he’s said, he backtracks and tells me that I’m overreacting and that I “always do this” and I’m being ridiculous and that he’s just venting so “why do I always think everything is my fault?” This happens by text and in person – and in person he shouts. I’m really bad at confrontation, so as soon as he goes on the attack I forget all my words and just get upset.

I just find it all exhausting. I don’t want to be friends like this. But I feel really bad that I used to engage in all of this and suddenly don’t want to any more. I feel like a terrible friend and I’m just abandoning him when his life is still difficult and mine is getting better. I don’t know what to do.

Please help,

A Terrible Friend

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Thank you all so much for a very constructive discussion. At nearly 600 comments, the thread has grown beyond where I can reasonably keep up. So as of 5/14/2014 10:17 pm Chicago time, comments are closed. 


In this piece at Medium on “Cut-Off Culture,” “Emma” broke up with the author after four months of dating, asked for space, and then when they tried to rekindle a friendship after a year, decided it wasn’t really for her.

“After nearly a year of silence, I reached out to her and we began a series of conversations toward repairing our friendship. She said she had recently begun dating someone new and I think it was difficult for her to talk to me about our relationship. Her response was to withdraw again. There were misunderstandings and miscommunication.

She stopped responding to my email and when I called to inquire she blocked my number and emailed me to stop contacting her. Over a space of nine months, I wrote her two kind emails in the spirit of healing. Finally, she replied, “I do not want to see or hear from you ever again” and threatened to file an anti-harassment order against me. The open, thoughtful, communicative Emma I knew had vanished.”

She said,”Please stop contacting me.”

He sent two more emails. She got angry (and possibly afraid) and asked him never to contact her again.

Then he wrote an essay about it, blaming her for invoking his past with an abusive mother(!), making all kinds of assumptions about her “trauma,” and discussing his confusion with her choices:

When personal safety is involved, cutoff is warranted. But most times this isn’t the case. When it’s not, this kind of behavior dehumanizes the other and sends the message “your needs don’t matter, you don’t matter.” University of Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo told Psychology Today, “‘The pain of losing a meaningful relationship can be especially searing in the absence of direct social contact.’ With no definitive closure, we’re left wondering what the heck happened, which can lead to the kind of endless rumination that often leads to depression.”

Emma once told me, “You’re the first one to want me for me,” but her abrupt about-face might make you think I ran off with her best friend or boiled her rabbit … I did neither. In fact, to this day, I have only guesses to make sense of her hostility to me.

Because Emma’s withdrawal and eventual cutoff surprised me so much,I had a lot of intense emotions and questions about what she’d experienced and the choices she’d made. Rather than face my need for explanation and desire for resolution, she chose to withdraw.

Here is what the heck happened:

  • You guys broke up.
  • She didn’t communicate for a year, but eventually gave in when you contacted her. Unfortunately you wanted to hash out the end of the relationship; she didn’t. She was into a new dude and didn’t want to talk about old emotional business.
  • So she decided it wasn’t really for her. She tried a slow fade. After all, you guys weren’t really close anymore.
  • Then she TOLD you what was up. “I don’t want to talk to you anymore.
  • You kept contacting her against her explicitly stated wishes. Emails seeking “healing” are still unwanted emails.
  • She got angry and enforced the boundary.
  • You  happened to turn up at her work on a date and she didn’t like it.

What additional “closure” could she have given? What kind of explanation would satisfy? Breakups are painful, and we don’t always understand the reasons for them, but after a four-month romantic attachment ends I don’t think the person is responsible for all of your feelings literally YEARS later. And I don’t think there is any peace or solution possible here, short of “keep being my friend even when you don’t want to.”

Everything about this made my skin crawl:

Cutoff culture is violent in its own ways. The person cutting ties gets what they want, but the person getting cut off is left in a situation where what they need or want doesn’t matter.

Emma’s last note included the phrase, “Apparently, what I want seems irrelevant to you.” She didn’t realize the irony that what I wanted had long been irrelevant to her. Being on the receiving end of a cutoff, surrounded by friends and culture that just expect you to get over it, can leave you feeling utterly powerless.

You are not entitled someone else’s attention and affection! Avoiding someone is not “violent.” YOU GUYS WANT OPPOSITE THINGS. And yes, it is on you to take care of your own feelings here. It is on you to do what you can to heal and get over it. Talk to your friends. Talk to a therapist. Say the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear. Don’t force your ex to take care of you!

“If you’ve cut someone off, the ideal response is to ask what the other person needs to feel at peace and to try to offer compromise. Yoga teacher Sarah Powers says, “A lot of wounds in this world could be healed if we would say to the other, ‘I’m sorry I hurt you, what do you need now?’” Sometimes we cut off because we lack capacity. One can also say: “I can’t do this right now, but maybe can touch base later. What do you need in the meantime?” This is a place where technology can be helpful. Email can be used to communicate at a distance that feels safe.”

What compromise is possible between “I don’t like you or want to be in your life” and “Please stay in my life?” Why do you want someone’s grudging attention that you force them to give you? In the second to last paragraph, the author tells a telling anecdote:

The friend who was told to break up via “JSC” told me another story. One of her friends chose to have sex with a lover after breaking up with him; she said even in the midst of ending the relationship, she wanted to “be generous in spirit.” While I don’t necessarily advocate taking things that far (in part because it can create confusion), I embrace the sentiment.

AH HAHAHAHAHA “Good closure” with a “generous spirit” might involve still having sex with your spurned lover after you dump them while they heal at their own pace. Ok got it. He also invokes technology, and the act of blocking, as a catalyst for stalking, but not in the way you think. His reasoning is that if you block someone it will maybe force them to stalk you. “More than 3 million people report being stalking victims each year, the ultimate measure of collective cluelessness about ending love affairs well.” OR POSSIBLY IT’S ‘CAUSE OF STALKERS. LIKE YOU MIGHT SORTA BE.

The subtitle/logline of the piece is:

“Cutting off exes not only hurts our former partners but limits our own growth as well.”

Actually, this person knows nothing about Emma’s growth. When I cut off a former partner who stalked me, I grew just fine. I grew away. I grew alone. I grew free. I hope “Emma” did, too. Today seems like a good time for a reminder: You don’t have to be friends with your ex. And when you say “stop” and the other person keeps going, that person is telling you that you were right to flee.

P.S. He publishes excerpts from her private emails to him. NOT CREEPY AT ALL YOU GUYS.

P.P.S. Edited to add: This paragraph right here? Blaming male domestic violence against women on women making men feel powerlessness?

“I believe that most domestic violence is the result of men with trauma histories reacting to powerlessness in response to experiences with their ex, friends, or family. Certainly men are responsible for finding nonviolent ways to respond to feeling powerless, but culturally we need to understand the dynamics driving these kinds of situations if we’re to reduce them.”


Bubs and Johnny from the wire with the quote "Equivocating: you're doing it like a motherfucker."

Domestic violence springs from a sense of contempt and entitlement towards women. Men who abuse women don’t think that women are entitled to their own needs, feelings, opinions, and personal space. They think women exist to be emotional caretakers and nannies for men, and that when they fail to put men first, it somehow constitutes “violence” that must be contained and retaliated against. Sound like anyone we know? This is a chilling, MRA-style argument that makes violence against women the fault of women. “Emma”, wherever you are: keep running. Your instincts are in solid working order.

Dear Captain & Co.,

I’m in a wonderful relationship, but we’ve got a Darth Vader ex-girlfriend lurking on the sidelines. When we first started dating she behaved horribly: showing up on his lawn screaming suicide threats when she found out I was over, harassing him for months, hacking his email to get my phone number to send me threatening messages, etc. She backed off after he threatened to get a restraining order.

BF left a lot of his things at their apartment. He couldn’t face making a second trip to get everything when he initially left, and then was too afraid to ask her to send it to him. He was also just trying to get his life back together, as you do after escaping an abusive relationship. Then the whole mess above happened.

He’s joked that losing that stuff was a fair price to pay to get away from her. But lately it’s clear he wants it back. (He also has a narcissistic mother who’s gotten rid of a lot of his belongings without his permission, so I think a lot of it is about gaining control over his property and life.) The stuff in Darth’s possession is mostly memorabilia and collector’s items. We’re pretty sure she still has them because she latched on to his interests during their long-term relationship. But we are both at a loss about how to approach her about it.

Their relationship was extremely toxic. Darth has Borderline Personality Disorder. I hope she’s gotten help, but the Darth my BF knew was volatile, argumentative, irrational, manipulative, and occasionally violent. He is extremely wary about contacting her. We don’t want to trigger her or become a renewed target, especially since we’ll be at the same smallish convention in a few months. Because of her BPD, she probably still views herself as the abandoned victim. Six months ago we saw her at a concert and the way she reacted made it clear she wasn’t over him. According to the grapevine, her current boyfriend is an emotional prop she openly resents, so it’s possible she’s not over him even now. Contacting her might end up being fine… or it might make her act out in any number of ways.

What should we do? Any scripts or advice on enforcing boundaries, minimizing contact, and controlling possible fallout when attempting something like this would be really appreciated. BF doesn’t want trouble … he just wants his things back.

Is the value of the stuff such that it would be worth hiring a lawyer to deal with the entire thing from beginning to end, from sending the request to potentially taking her to court if she doesn’t comply to actually picking up the stuff? Like, it’s $50,000 worth of stuff and you think it would take $10,000 of lawyering to get it back, and you have the $10,000 lying around and you also have a free year of your life to spend on this problem?

Because my recommendation is: Buy new stuff.

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Dear Captain,

There is a a guy at work I’ll call Barry. He and I have been friendly in the past, and then it got weird. He once gave me a MacBook, which was a gift way above and beyond the level of our friendship. We never saw each other socially after work – we were strictly work friends. He has a girlfriend. I have been in a relationship with a man for over 3 years whom I love dearly, and have made no secret of this. When he gave me the computer, I tried to refuse politely, but the way he framed it was “oh I have a ton of these because of my job, it’s just been collecting dust in storage, and your laptop died, so here, please take it.” I reluctantly accepted. I realize now this was a huge mistake.

Over the course of some months, it became clear he was romantically fixated on me. Not interested, I tried to lessen contact – no more conversations beyond, Hi, good morning, <work thing>, etc. If he started talking about his relationship, I excused myself. In the past, he’d cornered me and gone on at length about his relationship problems. The level of detail eventually made me uncomfortable. Well, backing away only made him come on stronger. He started interrupting me at work to compliment me – my dress, my weight, my typing speed. Constant complimenting that was, honestly, bizarre. We’d been Facebook friends. After one last incident in which he complimented me on being a “natural” poet VS an academic poet (I hold an MFA in poetry), I unfriended him. It was because of that remark, plus the cumulative effect of all the weird complimenting and aggressive Nice-Guying at me.

He has been avoiding me since then, which I am 100% fine with. As awkward as it is, I am happy with the outcome. Only, today, a month after the unfriending, I overheard him talking to someone about the poetry compliment on his phone. He has an extremely loud voice and leaves his office door open – across the room from me, fifty feet away, with 12 coworkers in between us, and he knows we can hear him. He was going on in detail about how amazing my poetry is (he’s read ONE poem of mine on Facebook), how he “doesn’t understaaaaand why I am not talking to him! And why can’t she take a compliment! She is crazy!” etc.

My questions: do I confront him? Keep waiting for it to blow over? Do I return the computer? Returning it now will be awkward. But everything about this situation is awkward, so I am not sure if that matters.

-Angry Academic Poet

Dear Angry Academic Poet:

I am cringing on your behalf. And my skin is crawling. And the little hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. You’ve got a favor-sharker (I gave you a laptop you didn’t want and complimented your poetry DAMMIT I was being NICE DAMMIT you OWE ME) here and those are hard to shake loose even when they aren’t in your workplace where you have to see them every day. I’ve been on the receiving end of stuff like this, and in my experience the ones with girlfriends are worse because they use it as a shield, like, they creep on you when they think no one is looking but when you speak up they get all self-righteous, like “I have a girlfriend, I couldn’t possibly also be creeping on you, lol ur fat” and you have to dig down and say “So you won’t be walking me to my car or trying to give me backrubs or listening in on my phone calls or making comments about my body anymore? Phew, that’s good news!

It hurts when you want to be friends with someone more than they want to be friends with you, but when someone is giving you clear “go away” or “stop doing that thing” signals, throwing a tantrum in a public way is not the way to handle it. If he really wanted to fix the situation, he’d talk to you directly. “I feel like I’ve offended you in some way. I don’t want to make it weirder, but I would like to apologize and find a way to work together without it being awkward.”  Which would open you up to say “I enjoyed seeing you at work, but it was a mistake to mix work friends and real life friends/I am cutting back on social media/I would rather just keep work at work. I’m sorry that hurt your feelings, I hope we can still be good colleagues” or whatever. Even if you don’t talk it out, if he can be polite and work-friendly, you can do the same, and it can blow over that way.

If he does not go gently into that good Work Colleague category, here are some recommendations for stuff you can do to protect yourself and minimize this dude’s inappropriateness, or at least how much it is allowed to affect you at work.

Step 1: Print out and save every weird communication from him in a folder in case this becomes an HR issue, and document all past stuff. If he chills out and leaves you alone, it won’t ever affect him and he won’t ever know about it, but if he doesn’t, it will come in handy.

Step 2: Say nothing to him about the comment you overheard. Assume he is either oblivious or that he wanted you to hear it. Same difference – engaging only confirms that you’re listening and paying attention to him, and right now you want to starve him of that attention so that his fixation will die. Just document the conversation the way you did when you wrote me and add it to your “weird stuff” folder. Let him save face, hope that it will blow over. It probably will, with time.

Step 3: The laptop…

I have so many questions about it, like, did he give you a work laptop for your home use? As in, you have a work computer that you use and this laptop? And he took this laptop from work? It sounds pretty possible that it wasn’t his to give you in the first place, and the laptop belongs to your employer. Even if it was his to dispose of, I would give it back to him. Wait until he’s out of the office to physically put it in there, and send a note like this from your work email address:

Hey Barry, I’m all sorted out laptop-wise, so here is the one you lent me. Thanks so much.”

The non-creepy response to that, by the way, is “Ok, thanks! Glad you were able to put it to use” and then stowing it away where it goes. If this is all a big misunderstanding, if he just genuinely wants to be friendly and kind and doesn’t understand, this is where he could show that he respects the boundary you’re setting by respecting the boundary. Returning the item and saying that you are returning the item is pretty unambiguous. If he sends weird emails back to you or insists on a conversation or makes the laptop into some emotional issue, document the shit out of everything like you’ve been doing. If he insists that you keep the laptop or makes any inappropriate or personal remark, I would say, ONCE, in writing, from your work email: “Your reaction is disproportionate and is making me very uncomfortable. Let’s close this topic of discussion and stick to work topics.”

Then do not reply to any communication that is not explicitly about work, while continuing to document anything untoward that he says or does. If it becomes an HR issue you want a paper trail of you being reasonable and professional and also evidence that you’ve asked directly for the behavior to stop. I don’t know what your workplace or supervisor is like, or when exactly is the right time to bring it to someone’s attention, but if things escalate and you have a conversation with your boss, try this: “Barry and I were friendly, but then he got very intense and made a lot of personal comments that made me a bit uncomfortable, so I’ve been trying to keep our conversation to work topics only. Have you ever had to deal with anything like this before? Do you have any suggestions for how I should handle things going forward?” You can reassure your boss that things will be cool as long as Barry keeps things professional, but it’s good to get his or her take on stuff like this in case things do escalate.

You can use a broken record approach verbally any time Barry breaks his Avoiding You protocol and lapses back into too-personal comments. “Thanks, but please don’t make comments about my body, I don’t like it.” + “Work question?” “Thanks, but I don’t actually want the laptop. How is Work Thing going?” Then document the comment and your response.

You are actually potentially covering his ass by treating the laptop like a loan, and if he’s too self-involved to see it, that’s his problem. You don’t have to help him save face with mutual coworkers, by the way. If someone asks “What’s with Barry? He seems weirdly fixated on you” you are allowed to say “DUDE SRSLY” or “I wanted to keep work at work, and he wanted to be friends outside of work”  you’re not the one making it weird. Witnesses to his weirdness and your professionalism are helpful to have.


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