#1057: “Hey, so my cousin’s prankster husband threatened to burn my sister’s arm with his lighter at Thanksgiving. How do we get through Christmas together as a family?”

Dear Captain,

My sister and I need some help with a potential situation this Christmas. My mother’s extended family has Christmas at her house every year on Christmas day and my sister and I usually stay with my parents in the days leading up to Christmas.

However, at Thanksgiving we ran into a situation. My cousin Amy’s husband Dan is demonstrating inappropriate behavior. In the past, he has come up and hugged us without asking or anything like that which we have dealt with by staying away from him. However, at Thanksgiving he thought it was funny to flick his lighter on and hold it under my sister’s arm. When she told him to stop, he did it again. She told him to stop a second time and he did but then he tried to hug her like he hadn’t just attempted bizarre act against her. I am apparently the only one who saw this and I got us out of there quickly. I mentioned it to my parents but as far as I know, no one has done anything about it.

In the past, anytime we have said something against any type of behavior, everyone shrugs it off as harmless and “he was just playing.”

We know we are going to be sharing the same space with him for a couple of hours on Christmas day, do you have any advice on what we can do?

Thank you,

Worried Sister

Dear Worried Sister,

Here’s what would happen in a just world:

Your parents would un-invite Dan from Christmas right now. “Your prank with the lighter at Thanksgiving wasn’t funny and it won’t be tolerated. Why don’t you sit this Christmas out and we’ll try again next year.”

Your cousin Amy would also have a talk with Dan right now.Stop your boneheaded behavior when we visit my family. It isn’t funny.

Do we live in that world? Not yet. Soon, maybe. In the meantime:

Tell your parents exactly what happened at Thanksgiving. Then tell them that you dread holiday celebrations at their house sometimes because it means dealing with Dan. Tell them that this Christmas if Dan does even one inappropriate thing, y’all are out of there and you will not go quietly. There will be a scene, the word “FUCK” may be yelled in front of family and Santa and the elves and the baby Jesus and everyone, the cops might be called to report assault, and you will be done with holidays at their house for a good while. If they want to speak to Dan about his behavior ahead of time, great. If they want to uninvite Dan, great. They are the hosts, they are your parents, and you need them to handle the situation and be able to give you assurances that “Dan’s just gonna Dan” will not be the the rules of the holiday this year.

If your parents tell you to calm down and that “he’s just playing” and “he doesn’t mean it” or ask you to be the “bigger person” and let it go, ask them some questions. Such as:

  • Ask your parents why an asshole who holds an open flame against their kid’s arm in their house “for fun” is a more important and desirable holiday guest than their own kids.
  • Ask them why he doesn’t “joke” or “play” with men like this – I don’t see the story where he did the lighter thing with your dad’s arm, for example.
  • Ask them why they don’t treat you like they believe you or take these stories seriously. If it’s “not a big deal” why can’t he just fucking stop it then?
  • If they tell you not to “ruin Christmas” by bringing up this issue, ask them why it’s okay for your Christmas to be ruined over and over again by Dan and his weird hugs and his threats of fire.
  • Parents: “But we need to all celebrate together as a faaaaaamily…” Your sister: “Yeah, I like that, too, but not when a member of the family assaults me with a cigarette lighter.” Keep naming the thing that he did.

Be a united front and talk to your folks together. It is okay to make a giant stink about this. If you do decide to brave it out and go, follow through on what you told your parents you would do if Dan bothers you. Leave. Make a scene on your way out. Yell: “WHAT THE FUCK, DAN?” Do not hug him or get within touching distance. Shrink back if he tries to touch you. Sometimes it’s good to practice saying stuff ahead of time since in the moment the pressure to be quiet and go along can be overwhelming.

You have not done anything wrong and you should not be worried about losing access to your family’s holiday celebration because of some asshole.




318 thoughts on “#1057: “Hey, so my cousin’s prankster husband threatened to burn my sister’s arm with his lighter at Thanksgiving. How do we get through Christmas together as a family?”

  1. I don’t think it counts as making a scene if you tell your folks up front what the consequences will be for not protecting your sister – but then again, I always thought “making a scene” was something more spontaneous.

    1. I 100% agree with you that the most important thing is to establish consequences for Dan’s behavior.

      But I think there’s two kinds of making a scene: The kind we’re always told “not to do” or to “stop”, which is a lot like improv and may or may not be appropriate given the situation (e.g., an overstimulated child throwing a tantrum isn’t fun for anyone but can be an expected consequence; a woman standing up and saying “JESUS FUCKING HAPLOID CHRIST, DAN, GET THAT FUCKING LIGHTER AWAY FROM ME.” is, technically, “making a scene but is totally justified in doing so). This kind of scene is slightly more frenetic and attention grabbing.

      But also there’s making a scene that’s more like a scripted drama: still a scene, still likely to evoke emotion, but — as a general rule, calmer and more thoughtful than the first kind (e.g., any of the scripts provided by the Captain up there). Slightly less frenetic, and often the sort that, while the people inside it may tell the ‘instigator’ “don’t make a scene”, really only the people involved would know about it.

      And, I mean, in real life it’s all going to end up improv after the first scripted statement because we can only control our reactions to others and not their reactions to us. Still.

          1. I know where I first encountered it, and maybe this was your source as well: The Straight Dope column: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/30/why-do-folks-say-jesus-h-christ The first line of the answer had me snort-guffawing so much in the bookstore that I had to buy the book the column was compiled in so that I could read the rest without alarming anyone around me. I’ve been a devoted Doper ever since.

            And to the OP, don’t worry about returning the discomfort to the source. The good Captain’s scripts are excellent and show precisely who is creating the problem. Talking clearly and directly to your parents before the occasion and making sure they’re going to prioritize your and your sister’s safety and comfort over some jackass’s idea of a lark is vital.

          2. One of the best Mark Twain stories was when he was a boy and working for a printer along with another boy. They had a problem typesetting a particular sermon pamphlet and abbreviated it to “J.C.” The printer sternly advised them that they could not abbreviate the name and must reset the type to show the full name, which both boys knew would take most of the day. Mark Twain told the other boy to go ahead and go swimming and that he would reset the type. He reset the entire pamphlet to show the name as “Jesus H. Christ” and left the completed job, and his resignation at work.

      1. “Consequences for Dan’s behavior” is key!

        Dan, doing something “funny”/stupid, you yell so everyone in the room hears “Dan, what the hell?”
        Dan – probably laughing because he’s so funny
        You – “Seriously, Dan, what the hell were you thinking doing *insert dumb thing*?” (Loudly, again, so family hears)
        Dan – “Nah, lighten up, it was a joke.”
        You – “How is *insert dumb thing* a joke?” (still loudly)
        Dan – probably awkwardly silent / probably trying to brush it off / downplay awkward glances from extended family
        You – “Seriously looking for an answer here, Dan.”
        You again – “Remember Thanksgiving when you thought it was funny to try and burn Sister’s arm with your lighter? Your idea of pranks are not funny.”

        Now what’s the reaction from family here? Are they team you/Sister? Are they going, “what the hell, Dan?” Is Dan looking properly embarrassed? Then hopefully you and Sister and have a (hopefully only semi awkward) happy family dinner. But, if there are any/enough family members that are like “now now, LW/sister, it’s ok, it’s just a joke,” (and by “enough” I mean to your standards, whether that’s one or five or 20), I’d say it’s perfectly fine to say “Cool, I didn’t realize we were starting new family traditions where we hurt each other/make each other uncomfortable/insert your language here. Merry Christmas! I’m out.” Then you and Sister leave.

        Other advice – it sounds like you and Sister drive in with your parents? If there’s any, ANY inkling at all that makes you think your family wouldn’t leave hurriedly like this (my dad would never do this because it’s not proper to do to FAAAAAAAMILY), could you and sister drive in separately from them?

        Good luck, LW!

  2. Also, if they tell you not to “ruin Christmas” by bringing up this issue, tell them that he already ruined Thanksgiving by assaulting your sister.

    I’m so annoyed by the Schroedinger’s prankster of boundary pushers.

    1. “Schroedinger’s prankster” OMG. This is amazing.

      Also, this advice is sooooo on point. I’m gonna incorporate these scripts into my own holiday shit show.

      Thank-you to and Cap’n

    2. “Schroedinger’s prankster”
      Is he is, or is he aint?

      LW pretty clearly established him as ‘is’, and the parents agree – they just think its jolly, not dangerous.

      1. Is he is, or is he aint, actually trying to set me on fire?

        This is not a question you should have to ask yourself at a holiday gathering.

        1. Not a question you should have to ask yourself ever. Fire is not a toy or something you play with. Burnt skin is extremely painful and requires immediate medical attention. Injury, disfigurement, death and/or destruction of property – these are not ever funny. All it takes is a spark to cause catastrophic damage and loss. You have every reason to receive that as a threat.

          People who amuse themselves by purposely abusing position or proximity in order to make others afraid – whether it is through emotional discomfort, ensuing panic, or physical harm – are not safe people to be around. “It’s a joke,” is just recruiting others to bully the victim into acceptance, and gaslighting after the fact, so no one calls the bully on their shit. It’s not a joke when only The Joker gets to laugh.

          Teasing without first establishing trust is terrorizing.

          1. If this was my parents, the first tactic I’d try is asking very seriously for their promise to drive me to the hospital if the guy burned me or otherwise harmed me. “No, I can’t come unless I’m sure there’s someone who will drive me to the ER if it happens. I can’t take that risk.” See if that gets their heads out of their butts, go nuclear if it doesn’t.

            It probably would backfire though…

          2. This. When I was on a school French exchange, aged 14, I found my friend suddenly hitting me on the back of the head with a large book.

            Turned out a group of boys had dared each other to hold a lighter to my hair. They weren’t expecting it to catch and go up right away, apparently.

            These things aren’t funny. It could have been so much worse if my friend hadn’t spotted it and acted quickly.

          3. I’m reminded of the one time I tried “Light Speed Dating” at a comic convention. The guy running it would frequently interrupt things to do a bit of patter, tell some stories, I guess try to loosen folks up, but I found it really annoying and jarring. Something about him bugged me and made it really hard for me to want to be around anyone. Then he told this HI-LARIOUS story (cw/tw for child abuse).
            Bear in mind, he told this whole story like it was part of a freaking stand-up set.
            See, one time when he was, like, five or six, his father took him into town to a photo studio. And the photographer had all these props including some fancy costume-jewelry rings. And he was playing with them, and he took one and forgot about it until they got home and his father found it. And his father grabbed his arm, dragged him to the kitchen, turned on the stove burner until it was red hot, and slammed his hand down….on the cool burner. “And after that I never even LOOKED at something that wasn’t mine again. Ha-ha!”

            I think I made it about three more minutes before I bolted, halfway through the session. When I got back to the con floor, I ran into the girl who’d run the dating sign-up booth and I told her her partner’s idea of a “fun-ice-breaker” story and realized I was shaking and near tears. It still makes me a little sick to think of it. Because, yeah, ok, the kid didn’t ACTUALLY have his father slam his hand on a hot stove. But the idea that a parent would even WANT a child to think that they, their parent, the person who is supposed to care for and protect them, would do such a thing…it’s just disgusting.

            Fire and burns are NOT something to joke at other people with.

    3. What they said. This is assault. Threats of bodily harm are a crime. If done to a stranger they could be convicted. When someone violates your boundaries with the just joking excuse you can respond ‘well now you know I don’t find it funny I find it creepy so now when you do it it will be with the knowledge that I’m very uncomfortable.’ When he dies it again you can say ‘why are you so obsessed with making me uncomfortable didn’t I just tell you how uncomfortable I am? Can you focus your attention on someone else?’ Sometimes when I’ve turned it on people like him and called out their ‘obsession’ with me, whether it’s obsessive or not it makes others pay attention and makes his attention to you look different, stalky and bullying. Bc he’s a bully plain and simple. You can also try the ‘why don’t you threaten a man instead? Afraid of what they’d do to you? Wow big guy threatening a woman you just feel so proud’ etc… Bc calling out a bully’s essential lack of self esteem will get him where it hurts. Make him look like such a creepy bully. This is only if course if you’re forced to hang which I hope you can avoid!!! You don’t deserve this. And heck no don’t let him hug you it’s a dominance display the way you describe it! You can say no, I’ve done it, ‘no I’m not going to shake your hand you just violated my boundaries and it’s not ok. ‘ same for hugs… Keep repeating as needed, and when he tries to make it that you’re over sensitive say yeah I’m funny that way about men who assault me…

      1. Most bullies I’ve met don’t lack self esteem. They lack empathy.

        If they back down when I’ve called them out, it is because they’ve realized I’ve got more social clout than they expected, not because my courage showed up their cowardice.

        1. Yeah, most bullies I’ve known were quite confident, and fairly popular, at least in the sense of having social clout if not in the sense of being widely likely (though sometimes that too).

    4. And affirm that yes, indeed, you WILL ruin Christmas, thanks very much, and it would’ve been 100% preventable if parent’s hadn’t thrown you and Sister under the bus in favor of protecting their creepy asshole relative. If they are OK with some creep trying to BURN THEIR DAUGHTER they deserve to have Christmas ruined.

        1. Some people are far more worried about offending people who are more distantly related than people they are closer to. It’s like the closest people are safer somehow and you don’t have to worry about them so much, and instead you can inlist them to help you keep up good relations with, e.g., niece, or niece’s mom or dad.

          I don’t think my parents would brush over abuse towards one of their kids, but they will certainly expect us to make sacrifices to help them ‘make a good impression’ on nice people they are not quite as close to.

          1. I think it’s a fear of a ripple effect. Maybe the asshole is a cousin’s husband, but if you call them out/dis-invite them, you are also offending/judging/alienating the cousin… and then your aunt and uncle might get upset, which will upset your grandparents, and so on.

      1. I think you’re misinterpreting.

        From what LW wrote, I gathered that the parents didn’t observe the assault, and weren’t told immediately.

        Expecting your adult daughters to be able to fend off in-laws unwanted hugs isn’t throwing them under the bus.

        Time enough to revile the parents if they don’t stand up for LW and sister once they know.

    5. If they’re worried about Christmas being ruined: HE will ruin Christmas if he does anything. All YOU will do is make sure everyone knows he’s doing it. Your parents’ options are to protect their holiday by not inviting a known holiday-ruiner, or to invite him in spite of his history and risk him ruining everything for everyone. All you’re doing is taking ‘Let him do whatever, OP will absorb all his holiday-ruining awfulness so the rest of us don’t have to deal with it’ off the table as an option.

  3. Yes. He counts on you to “make nice.” So loudly call him on any inappropriate behavior like the creepy hugs. Scream if he lights a flame under your arm or any other behavior that is actually dangerous. Scream, back away, yell WTF. Call the cops. Raise hell, in other words. Your family may blame you for making a scene instead of blaming him for causing it. So what. He’ll stay a mile away from you from then on.

    1. Fantastic list! I would also add “push him away from you HARD in self-defense if he touches you despite your screaming/backing away”, if you feel comfortable doing so. I’m from a family that sounds similar to LW’s. Once I gave my parents a chance to defend me and they didn’t, I figured that anything legal I did to defend myself was A-OK. You shouldn’t have to do this, but try to make yourself someone that Dan doesn’t want to fuck with because it’s too much work and he might get hit. Then keep an eye out for if he moves on to a less hostile target.

      And if all of this sounds like way too much work than it’s worth, you’re right! You shouldn’t have to do any of this and Christmas might be less stressful away from the entire dynamic, with you and your sister and any friends in town for the holidays. I stopped going to holidays long ago, but being willing to get physical in defense of myself was what helped me back when I still attended. Good luck and I’m sorry you have to deal with this.

    2. Every time he hugs…. you scream very loudly “GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME!”. Every time he pulls the lighter trick “THAT HURTS! STOP!”
      Make a scene to ensure everyone knows what he is doing, when he is doing it, and that everyone can see he’s violating your spoken ‘no’.

      1. I really like this advice, and part of why is because it’s exactly how I talk to the small children I nanny. Very clear language for unwanted touch (“I don’t want a hug right now!”) and both loud and clear for anything that hurts, accidental or purposeful.

        “OW THAT HURTS, STOP” is a really good sentence to practice. It’s fast, it’s clear, and it establishes the problem to everyone around you. Even if people try to make excuses, it gives you a built in explanation –he may not have meant it to hurt, but it did and that’s why you said ow.

        Plus, then you get the enjoyable private moment of “I can’t believe I just had to use my two-year-old voice on a grown ass-man.” Which, depending on safety and company can sometimes be said in the out loud voice. (I’ve had friends point out when I was using my Teacher Voice on them, but hey, it works.)

        (With the small children, it’s typically non-malicious, so I usually follow the loud “OW STOP” with a “I don’t like when you [hit me with your hand like that]” or “I know it was an accident you stepped on my foot, but it still hurt and I want you to be more careful”)

        1. This also works pretty well for training most dogs. Most dogs who do more roughhousing with humans than they should are using a comparable dog as their fragility metric. I had a really loving, friendly, not easily trained jumpy dog that couldn’t be trained out of jumping up on people with infinite nos, knees, treats, “stay” exercises, or other techniques, but when I started yelping like she did when I’d accidentally step on her tail, she actually learned to stop.

          Because she had more empathy that LWs cousin-in-law.

      2. If the lighter makes a re-appearance I’d go with screaming something more specific than “that hurts!”. Label the situation loudly and clearly for everyone else to hear, no ambiguity: “WHAT THE FUCK, STOP TRYING TO BURN ME WITH YOUR LIGHTER, WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU.”


    The very first thing you need to do is stop and think if you actually want to be at the same table as this guy, ever. Family does not have to be a summons to be burned!

    If you do, I would recommend informing the general family that fire safety overrides the prankster’s fun, and you will treat it that way.

        1. me presses her hand to her chest

          Why, many bells down, how could you ever think the LW would do such a horrible, horrible thing?

          /fake outrage

          Yep, more or less exactly what I was thinking.

          1. I feel obliged to recommend against this. I’ve been present at a prank fire extinguisher spraying, and it resulted in things like ambulance rides and chest x-rays for the people who were closest to it. Mind you, it was a larger fire extinguisher in a larger crowd, and I don’t know what type of extinguisher it was, and so far as I know everyone fully recovered. But still! Not a good plan!

            Certainly something LW would be justified in daydreaming about, though. (And I do think everyone here is mostly daydreaming about it, but it’s the internet and tone is hard.)

        2. Whoopsie, I thought it was my purse fire extinguisher but it was actually my pepper spray. My baaaaaaad.

          1. Awesome daydream but that stuff really causes problems in enclosed areas, including for the spray-er.

          2. Except pepper spray is flammable and could damage the sprayer as well as the sprayed. 😦

      1. I mean it depends on how big your purse is, because some of the kitchen-size fire extinguishers are on the petite side.

        I really kinda want the LW/her sister to whip out a fire extinguisher and blast Dan with it if he so much as pulls his lighter out of his pocket now. I’m picturing a vaguely human-shaped cloud of that white dust, with just a pair of eyes, blinking cartoonishly, all surprised and befuddled.

        It would be festive! Like that fake snow-in-a-can you spray on your windows as decoration!

        1. Safety note: even if tempted, do not use fake snow-in-a-can as a fake fire extinguisher. That stuff is flammable, and you might get hurt.


          /safety note not guaranteed to improve safety. Safety note exists because sistercoyote feels bad for laughing. Do not taunt safety note. Do not taunt ancient internet meme.

        2. This would also be a fabulous time to throw a drink at him. You know, to put out the fire. As long as it’s not 100 proof or higher.

          1. THIS is the right answer. “OMG Sister’s on fire!!!!! …………………….. Well, ok, maybe she was ABOUT to be on fire, but you know, instincts being what they are… I’m sure the gin will dry just fine. Sorry not sorry.”

          2. Hey, as long as that gin is watered down with some melted ice or tonic, it should get below the flammable level. 🙂

        3. I would be here for the spray bottle approach like people use with misbehaving pets. A squirt of water to the face accompanied by a firm, “No! Bad Dan!”

          Okay, I maaaaaaaaaaay have done this to my ex once. It was actually hilarious, and remained hilarious when he did it to me a few weeks later. But we actually like each other as people…

          1. As amusing as this idea is, I suspect Dan would see it as humiliating rather than silly and it would risk an escalation.

            But, honestly, I love this idea.

          1. Better idea: one of those plastic lemons filled with lemon juice.

            “Oh, did that get in your eye? Oh, what a shame.” (said in a dead-flat voice, while thinking about all the better uses for lemon juice)

          1. OK, not so good then.

            Unless you could repurpose the bottle and fill it with something more harmless.

      2. They do. A co-worker once got one for our boss when he nearly lit the table on fire at the company holiday party.

  5. Oh, sweet Jesus, what a creep. I’m so sorry you and your sister have to deal with him, LW.

    I think Dan’s testing how much your family will defend you and your sister. If they don’t stop him from almost burning you, he knows he can do worse and your family will likely not step up.

    I respect the Captain’s advice. I will say that if I were the one nearly burned, I wouldn’t go back until the family did something about Dan. If you tell your family and they still give you the “Oh, let it go” garbage, I would not even go for Christmas or further gatherings as long as Dan is considered just a prankster. Again, that’s just me.

    Holding a lighter up to someone’s skin is way beyond a joke. Dan is not safe to be around. If you stay away, eventually he will choose another target in the family, and maybe then your family will finally get it. Which is still sad because they should have gotten it when you told them.

    I hope they’ve exiled Dan already and merely forgotten to tell you!

    1. “I think Dan’s testing how much your family will defend you and your sister. If they don’t stop him from almost burning you, he knows he can do worse and your family will likely not step up.”


      1. And he knows what he can get away with doing to his wife.

        And he’s showing his wife that nobody will believe her or defend her either.

        1. On that note, another potential script, if he does anything -in addition to variant of ‘FUCKING OW THAT HURTS YOU ASSHOLE I’VE TOLD YOU TO CUT IT OUT’, still at high-volume, ‘IS THAT HOW YOU TREAT MY COUSIN?’ A lot of families that will excuse Schrodinger’s Prankster and try to keep you from ‘making a scene’ when you’re standing up for yourself will suddenly be a lot more understanding when you’re standing up for a friend/relative. (In my experience, the former is judged ‘selfish’ and the latter ‘brave’.) It also gets you both a LOT of attention very quickly -many people will automatically clue in at hints of relationship gossip/marital strife

    2. Hear, hear. Name names. Email everyone in the family. Post it publicly on facebook and tag everyone in the family. Make it abundantly clear that Dan is a piece of shit and not to be trusted around other humans. “Here’s how my cousin-in-law Dan ruined thankgiving by intentionally burning me/my sister with a lighter ~as a joke~, everyone watch out for him.” If it gets to his work and he gets fired or has other consequences too damn bad, he should have thought about that before he went all Heatwave on his relatives.

      If he’s a missing stair for you, he’s a missing stair for other people, too.

      1. This. Somebody wants to use you as the audience for their nasty little bully games? You name the stench and the one who farted.

        “The one who makes the noise gets the punishment” is deeply ingrained in dysfunctional families, schools, and workplaces and IT HAS TO DIE.

    3. +N

      LW and their sister have a right to protect themselves from people who try to set them on fire. The best way to do this is to not be around the bastard in the first place. Family is important, your parents’ feelings are important, holidays are important. But none of those things are as important as protecting your physical safety.

    4. Dan is definitely testing your family. I’m worried about your cousin. If he’s pulling this kind of dangerous boundary-pushing on you and your sister, he’s DEFINITELY doing it to his wife. Use the Captain’s scripts, most definitely! But also, if you have a chance to talk to your cousin alone (without creepy scary Dan) consider finding out if this (or worse) happens at their home. Does she feel safe?

      Maybe let her know that this behavior is not okay, not just ‘pranks’ or ‘awkward social behavior’, but testing for abuse, and that you and sis are there for her if she needs support. I have a feeling she will as much (or more) than you someday.

      Not to belittle how horrible this! Just that this behavior is never in a vacuum.


    The very first thing you need to do is stop and think if you actually want to be at the same table as this guy, ever. Family does not have to be a summons to be burned!

    If you do, I would recommend informing the general family that fire safety overrides the prankster’s fun, and you will treat it that way. Loudly.

  7. I’m squicked out enough by the hugging—never mind the incident with the lighter—that I’d probably skip Christmas altogether if I knew Dan were going to be there. “Sorry, if Dan’s there, I’m not. I don’t feel like having to dodge his hugs a mere month since the last time I had to flee unwanted contact from him. Plus, there’s the whole time he tried to burn Sister.” Maybe the LW could visit her sister (or vice versa) instead? I would definitely recommend that for next year, if Dan’s weirdness continues without censure from anyone else in the family.

    As for this year, do not feel like you have to endure more unwanted contact (of any kind) from Dan. Loudly and aggressively announce that you do not want to be hugged or otherwise touched when he tries. Very often in these kinds of uncomfortable situations, we smile (however wanly) or try to play it off as a joke. Don’t do that this time. It will feel uncomfortable and rude, and that’s the point—you need your other relatives to see that you’re not happy about being around Dan. If you have other cousins around the same age as you and your sister, chances are he’s been weird around them, too, and you might find some unexpected allies in pushing back against Dan’s behavior.

    1. Good options–and I agree with the other commenter who suggested practicing. We are not trained to be loud and it helps a lot to practice it. Some years ago I took a self-defense class that involved a *lot* of shouting “NO!” I went to a friend’s graduation from the same course (where women who’d taken it before were invited/encouraged to yell “NO!” along with the students going through their paces). Right after that, I visited my family for the holidays for several days, and I found I didn’t do a single thing that visit that I didn’t want to.

      Maybe all women should spend an hour or so per week yelling “NO!” for practice.

      1. Nitpick: We are not trained to be loud

        This is not quite the same thing as “We are trained not to be loud”

        One allows for natural talent, one militates against it.

        1. I beg to differ. While you are correct that they are not the same thing, as a naturally loud female person I can most definitely say that we ARE trained not to be loud, and the social punishments can be severe (even, hypocritically, from equally loud people).

          1. Er, Elf, it looks like you read SylviaMcivers as *asserting* “We are not trained to be loud”, rather than as saying “I have a nitpick with the part of the comment I am replying to that asserted that we are not trained to be loud”?

        2. Yeah, I can’t count the number of times my mother has shushed me or told me to ‘tone it down’ or ‘be quiet’ or ‘don’t yell’ or…

          even now, and I’m pushing 50.

    2. +1000

      I would tell your parents, “If Dan is going to be there, I won’t be,” and stick to it! If they “forget” to tell you that oh, looks like he’s coming after all, whoops (something my mom would do), leave as soon as he walks in the door.

      You don’t have to put up with this crap, and neither does your sister.

  8. Ye Gods, it is officially that time of year on Captain Awkward. Best of luck to everyone dealing with difficult families.

    That guy is really funny. After all, burns are so *hilarious*. I can’t think of anything better than spending Christmas night at the ER.

    But seriously, if you and sister have to, blow off the family Christmas and spend it with people you both actually feel safe around.

  9. My mind, it is boggled. LW, if nothing else, I hope that this confirms that this behavior is OMG WTF BBQ and not “normal.”

      1. Pranks are things like filling the garage with happy balloons, or putting little Santa hats on all the stuffed animals in the house, or building a Nativity scene entirely out of the contents of the relish tray.

        Pranks do not involve OPEN FLAMES AND SKIN.

        1. What about filling a Nativity scene entirely out of skin?

          Or filling the garage with skin?

          Maybe I should rethink my pranking techniques..

        2. As someone who loves pranking her boss annually: 100% this. I have filled his office with balloons (note: NOT a prank if the person is allergic to latex tho, check first!), saran wrapped everything in his office including the door, covered every window and his computer monitors with colored post-its (with jokes on the computer ones), and this year I turned his office into a scene out of the Lorax, full of fluffy Truffala trees made of pool noodles and feather boas. All these things did not actually create an interference with his ability to work (we did not saran wrap the keyboard for this reason!) and I knew he would get an enormous kick out of.

          I…can’t even imagine how anyone brushes off *threatening* behavior as “silly pranks” 😦

          1. Pranks in my family involve things like wrapping up a squirt gun and a bottle of my mom’s favorite salad dressing for Christmas after she loudly stated after every salad shooter commercial that she didn’t want one, with a sticker on the squirt gun that says “salad shooter”. Nobody gets hurt or is threatened, Mom got another real gift she actually wanted plus her favorite salad dressing, everybody has a good laugh.

        3. A little village of tiny white pumpkins made up to look like the Children of the Dammed.

          McDonald Toys on co-worker’s desk. Watching him. Judging.

          Making me twitch by putting something of yours on the boundary between our desks (open plan) and my inevitable reaction of slowly pushing it back. (Not done more than once every month or two).

          Notice none of these had physical danger?

      2. My rule of thumb is: if the person getting pranked is not sincerely laughing, THEN IT IS NOT A FUCKING PRANK.

  10. I just want to add that making alternate Christmas plans also seems like a very valid thing to do if you would rather avoid this dude all together. It will not ruin Christmas for all time if you are missing from all or part of the celebrations; finding friends to celebrate with, going to the movies, or finding an open restaurant to hang out at with your sister are all things you could do instead, and if your family is not currently taking you seriously as to how upsetting and not okay it is for someone to threaten you with a lighter, staying away from the big family celebration may drive home just how serious you are about this. If you decide to still go, that’s great and I hope it goes well! But taking a break from tradition this year is an option too.

    1. This is also a great option. Any city of reasonable size has at least a movie theater and a Starbucks (where I live, the baristas love working on Christmas. Nice tips and, I presume, a break from the faaaaaaaaaaamily).

      1. Heck, depending on where LW and her sister are, and how much they have to spend, the Disney parks (and possibly other amusement parks, IDK) are open on Christmas.

      2. Check the hours of the specific Starbucks, though. In the middle-sized city I’m now living in, some of them are closed on Christmas and New Year’s. Ditto the movie theatre: “Chinese food and a movie” may be a cliche, but that doesn’t guarantee that any specific restaurant or movie theatre will be be open.

  11. If ever a person deserved to have a drink tossed in their face…it’s Dan. Especially if it’s a full glass of water. Especially if you shout, “FIRE!” before you give it the heave-ho.

      1. Ah, but the fire extinguisher makes that great, loud SHOOSHING noise, which is definitely a pro. On the flip side, the full glass of water will leave him with a cold, waterlogged crotch for the rest of the holiday party.

        I swear I don’t normally advocate for tossing things at people. I swear.

          1. And would have the benefit of being somewhat cartoonish, as well.

            LW, I hope you understand this is all whistling in the dark (except having water to hand to put Dan out if he’s on fire or playing with it) because Dan is horrible and awful and we’re all scared for you and your cousin and your sister.

    1. What if its a bit of xmas brandy and it catches fire. oops.
      no don’t do that, fire can travel back up a long the splash route to the cup, dangerous.

    2. Hah, agreed! Having a glass of water in hand at all times while Dan is around might drive the point home, too.

      “Hey, LW, why are you clinging to your water tonight?”
      In total deadpan: “Just making sure I have an effective defense in case Dan tries to set fire to Sister again.”

    3. Better do this every time he reaches into his pocket too. Might be for a lighter. It’s for safety. You never know.

  12. Please keep in mind that depending on the race of LW, their family, and/or Dan, as well as everyone’s disabilities, calling the cops can easily end up creating more violence than it prevents, up to and including death. More than once people have been shot by police they called for help.

      1. I understand Eye’s point.

        However, as someone who has way too much experience with DV, assault, and torture cases, I firmly believe that the cops are going to end up being called out on Dan eventually. It’s a matter of where and when.

        What this guy is doing isn’t a prank. It isn’t even abuse. He’s actually trying to torture them.

        This is some very, very serious behavior.

        Someone is going to get maimed or killed if he’s not stopped.

        No, I’m not being overly sensitive on this. Men who use fire or hot objects, men who bite, men who use other types violence that requires them to be within inches of their victim are a particularly nasty breed of abuser. They won’t stop.

        There are different types of abusers. There are those who want control. There are those who enjoy the pain of their victims. Dan is the later.

        1. Nonetheles, it might well be safer for LW, her sister, and the rest of the famiy if the “where and when” was “not when they’re around.”

          1. This. There are countless stories of police violence missing its target and hitting bystanders instead (and sometimes it’s even harder for these people to recover civil damages, for Complicated Reasons).

            And that’s assuming, if the police are called, that they determine everyone else doesn’t appear to be a threat and are only concerned with the pyromaniac with no boundaries. If Uncle Loudmouth is tipsy and argumentative, Uncle Loudmouth might have a pretty bad night, too.

          2. (like, definitely LW and any victims of abuse should do what they need to do vis-a-vis calling law enforcement to keep themselves safe, but it sounds like some people are suggesting “call the cops if he hugs her or threatens her with the lighter again,” which (a) the cops won’t actually do anything about, because it is extremely difficult to get someone arrested for a misdemeanor the cops didn’t witness, and (b) given all of that, may carry a risk of collateral consequences for everyone else at the home that outweighs the likelihood that Violent Cousin will learn anything more than “the police didn’t seem to think I’m doing anything wrong, I can continue!”

          3. True, but if Dan escalates his behavior much more, they may not have a choice. There’s a point at which allowing a violent person to remain on the premises (or trying to remove them yourself) is more dangerous than what the cops might do when they show up. Where that point is depends a lot on the location, race, socioeconomic status, etc. of everyone involved. It’s not a great calculation to have to make, for sure, but it’s a calculation LW and her family may find themselves making if he’s allowed to keep coming around.

  13. It’s awesome of you to write in and support your sister. The fact that you witnessed what happened and the two of you are on the same page about means it’ll be that much harder for others to dismiss what you say about Dan. There’s two of you who know the truth, vs. one of Dan, who everyone already knows is prone to this behavior since there’s a whole tradition of saying “that’s just Dan being Dan.” Make a scene if you need to, and it’ll have that much more impact if you’re both doing it. Maybe putting Dan in his place can be your new holiday tradition.

  14. I will double-down on the Captain’s suggestion of making sure you keep naming what Dan did. It’s very easy to dismiss or minimize the statement “after what Dan did at Thanksgiving,” but it’s much more difficult to dismiss “when Dan tried to burn Sister with his lighter at Thanksgiving.” I’ve found that, the few times I’ve had to confront someone about the behavior of a mutual acquaintance, the conversation is a heck of a lot less likely to get derailed when I remove euphemisms.

    1. This!

      No euphemisms about Dan’s shitty behavior. Euphemisms allow people to minimize and slink away from any responsibility to condemn the Dans of the world.

  15. LW, if you and your sister do go and Dan is there,I highly recommend not simply yelling “WTF, Dan?” but adding his specific behavior. “WTF, Dan, WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO BURN ME/MY SISTER WITH A LIGHTER?” “WTF, Dan, TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF OF MY [SPECIFIC BODY PART]”, etc. It may be counter to your instincts – which is why the Captain’s advice to practice this in advance is so useful – but I have seen this technique in action and it can be very helpful because it forces people to look over and see what’s happening.

    1. Re the hugging/touching: The command for a dog that has no boundaries is, “OFF!!”. Off the couch, off Aunt Susie, off the counter- you name it. If Dan can’t manage common courtesy like a civilized person, perhaps some obedience training is in order – surely he can learn to behave as well as the dog, and “OFF!!” Is really easy to self install as a reflex.

      A dog who does something dangerous gets told, “NO!!” Very sharply. If said dog is an adult, a sharp yank is included. Then it is crate time for a while to settle down.

      Dan needs a yank on the collar followed by expulsion from the house over the lighter crap.

      Bad behavior escalates if not corrected.

      1. I can and have backed a poorly-behaving person up like a bad gelding, by saying “Errrrnh!” and stepping towards them with my arm out. Every single time, this person has backed up.

        If you can train a dog (who can kill you with its teeth) or a horse (who can kill you in oh so many ways) to act respectful of your space and your body, you can train a person in the same way.

      2. I have absolutely no objection to Dan getting his collar yanked — or even felt, as the Brits call being arrested — but while some perfectly decent and kind people have been taught to train their dogs that way, it’s neither standard nor especially effective, and it sometimes leads to dogs who now have the original behaviour problem plus fearfulness plus damaged tracheas.

      3. Dan, being an adult human being, is responsible for his own actions and changing him in any way is beyond LW so what I am going to say next does not concern the Dan situation – but as a volunteer in an animal rescue organization and a person who fosters homeless and often sick and mistreated cats and kittens I just cannot let this be: punishing pets for bad behaviour is a very inefficient (and in my opinion unethical) way of teaching.

        Positive reinforcement is the ethical, efficient way. The idea is very simple in short: a pet gets rewarded for doing things which are wanted and gets ignored if the behaviour is not what is wanted (unless, of course, if the behaviour is dangerous; then the pet must be gently stopped).

        English is not my native language so my usual sources of information are in a language which most of you do not probably understand so I had to google. Here is a link to Victoria Stillwell’s pages where you can find more information on this subject. https://positively.com/dog-training/positive-training/positive-reinforcement/

        Sorry for the derail, back to Dan.

  16. I am not a lawyer, but “IT’S A PRANK BRO!” doesn’t seem to be a defense anywhere, especially where possible bodily harm is concerned.

    I really identify with OP because I was terrorized by the son of my godmother at family gatherings growing up, to the point where I developed a phobia of balloons ( he popped them next to me one time when I was little). I’m better now, but I really wish my folks would have demanded that he stay away until he behaved himself. His mother happened to be a close friend of my mother, so that didn’t happen even if she was aware and disapproved. He eventually ended up as a sex offender, so he got what he deserved.

    OP’s family should shut that shit down yesterday.

  17. I just can’t believe people shrug and don’t care that someone is putting a lighter to someone else in their home. I just don’t get it. And I don’t get an adult thinks that is any way funny behavior.

    I am sorry and totally concur with Captain’s advice. I do think you should give your parents an opportunity to disinvite Dan and I do think you should make the mother of all scenes if he pulls any shit. What an absolute fuckturd. I have to wonder if he targets the sisters or if everyone (every female) gets this sort of treatment. Why can’t this staaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhppppp already????

  18. Regarding Dan’s unwanted hugging, “No! Keep your hands to yourself, creep” loudly and clearly makes it plain to everyone what the stakes are.

    Raise a ruckus. Return the awkward to sender.

    You and your sister should plan for what you do if your parents do not believe you and double down on the faaaaamily and so forth. I suggest no-showing in favor of a movie and Chinese food, elsewhere.

    Best wishes to you both. Put yourselves, your feelings, and your safety first in this.

  19. Speaking from unfortunate experience, if this is a pattern in your family, I doubt the scripts will get you far. But leaving WILL. If no one will listen (likely), get up and LEAVE. Cut contact for awhile. That is more likely to work.

    And always remember: You don’t HAVE to go to family Christmas, or stay the whole time. You can absolutely go home and have a relaxing Christmas by yourself.

  20. I seriously hope we get an update on this particular situation! I really want to know what happens!! Asshole does not even begin to describe this cretin.

    1. LWs don’t owe us updates. They will provide one if they feel like it but there’s no need to pressure them.

  21. >>Ask your parents why an asshole who holds an open flame against their kid’s arm in their house “for fun” is a more important and desirable holiday guest than their own kids>>

    Work it into a game of charades! There are so many delightful ways to act out the phrase “toxic patriarchal nonsense.”*

    * this would be the answer in my family; ymmv.

  22. Dear LW,

    This was a serious and horrible event.

    Consider approaching your parents, both you and your sister, and telling them that you’re scared to be around Dan. Something like
    Mama, Daddy, we both have always hated the way Dan hugs, but we love Amy, so we tolerated it. Thanksgiving though, with the cigarette lighter? He has gone beyond annoying. He’s flat out dangerous. Neither of us can bear being near him.

    Yeah, I know, it’s Christmas. Please, don’t invite him.

    I promise you, we will both leave if he touches either of us.

    Dear Invisible Pink Unicorn. He’s awful

  23. 1) If parents can be universally understood to have one basic job, it is TO NOT LET PEOPLE LIGHT THEIR KIDS ON FIRE. I hope your folks wake up and realize the situation, and straighten up.

    For me, I would just tell them I will not be in the same place as Dan at all. They can work the scheduling out if they want to see him so badly. But I am old and have already outlived a lot of assholes in my family, and IDGAF anymore.

    2) I hope your cousin is okay. If this guy thinks it’s “funny” to threaten to burn his wife’s extended family in public, I shudder to think what he does to her in private. Maybe when you have a sufficient boundary in place for your own peace of mind, it would be a kind thing to reach out to her directly and make sure she has a lifeline, should she need one.

    1. I’m going to park my THIS right here. “Mom and Dad, you can either have your child at Christmas, or the guy who tried to set your child on fire. This doesn’t seem like a difficult decision to me. I WILL NOT BE THERE IF DOUG IS THERE. He’s not ‘playing,’ he’s trying to hurt people, including YOUR CHILD.”

      This guy isn’t a “prankster.” He’s a sadist. And writing off his behavior as “just playing” is dangerously underestimating what’s he capable of and assigns his victims the weight of “being good sports” and “having a sense of humor.” It’s a gross, backwards cycle that needs to be interrupted.

      1. This. And I mean, I come from a family where roughhousing between the adult siblings is normal holiday behavior, and we all have pretty dark senses of humor (there was a long, involved discussion about cannibalism with many horrible jokes around the Thanksgiving dinner table this year, to give an example). And this is still way beyond the pale. Roughhousing is one thing, as long as everybody’s on the same page. But trying to set someone on fire is never okay, my god.

  24. A prank is entertaining and harmless, and part of a mutual game between friends who take turns pranking each other. My friend and her dad used to try to out-prank each other every April fools. One would put sugar in the salt shaker, the other would put shaving cream in a toothpaste tube, and whoever got pranked would laugh and congratulate the other ruefully before gleefully plotting revenge.

    Threatening to burn someone’s arm isn’t a prank, it’s a threat of violence.

    Hugging someone who you know doesn’t want a hug isn’t a prank, it’s rude and invasive.

    Targetting someone multiple times without their being visibly amused or retaliating in kind isn’t a prank, it’s harassment.

    Your cousin’s husband is not a prankster, he’s an asshole.

    1. “Threatening to burn someone’s arm isn’t a prank, it’s a threat of violence.”

      Actually, I’d call it TORTURE.

      It’s not even typical abuse. It’s something far beyond that.

      This is scary stuff.

      He’s an abuser who gets off on intimate, close-proximity torture.

    2. This here. My brother and I like to prank one another. The pranking has involved plastic Jesus statues, grass skirts and Mardi Gras beads, tacky posters, and the piece de resistance was a rainbow unicorn bedspread.

      It has never once occurred to either of us to set another person on fire. Because what in the everloving fuck?

      1. There was, once, a guy who thought it was very funny that he set THE END OF MY PONYTAIL ON FIRE.

        He is now, as of Monday, starting a 45 year active prison sentence for harm he did to a child under his care.

        1. Given that the hair is attached to your body, this is HORRIFYING. And your second sentence certainly telling.

    3. This. He is not a prankster, he is a harasser. Burning someone with a lighter is not funny. You should all stop refering to this type of stuff as pranks. Calling it pranks and calling himself a prankster is how he gets away with hurting people.

      I one had a boyfriend of a close friend come up behind me and put a knife to my throat as a joke. That wasn’t funny to anyone but him but because he was calling it a joke we didn’t know how to react. I’m still sensitive about people touching my neck.

      1. Oh my goodness! That’s horrifying. Threatening the life of someone with a knife is never funny. Calling it a joke is master class gaslighting. I hope that person is out of your life permanently.

        1. I don’t remember exactly but I think it was supposed to force me to “loosen up” or something, because I was shy. I don’t know, it doesn’t make any sense. We were 15, he was trying his best to be though(er than his big brother). They broke up shortly after but not because he was scary as shit. He didn’t end up murdering anyone though and from what I’ve heard he’s got a kid now so I hope he’s a better person than he was. I’m quite happy to not have had any contact with him since school ended many many years ago. That same friend now has an absolutely lovely boyfriend who doesn’t go around pulling knives on people for fun. So we’re good.

      2. Okay, upthread I was going to post a rant about how calling it a prank or a joke doesn’t make it one, and we wouldn’t, like, excuse someone who punched someone else in the face, would we? And then this. Apparently some people do think something that under other circumstances would land them in jail *is* a joke.
        That tiny little *whif* noise? That was the last flicker of my faith in humanity going out.

  25. If your parents insist on inviting Dan, and there are enough people who don’t want to be around Dan, maybe you could have your own Christmas at your own place?

    I once had a guy try to set me on fire at a costume party. My costume was homemade, made completely of cardboard and newspaper. This dude grabbed a small stick out of the bonfire, and held it up to one of the fringes of my costume. I heard a noise behind me, and spun around. I saw what he was doing and hit him as hard as I could with the mostly empty wine bottle I happened to be holding.

    He didn’t go to the hospital, and I was not on fire, and the bottle didn’t break. And now I always win at Two Truths and a Lie.

    1. Jesus buttmunching christ. I’m glad you’re ok! And I am so glad he got what he deserved too.

      1. Oh yeah…I don’t recommend the wine bottle solution in casual circumstances, but it’s something to consider in emergencies. I was mostly drinking cans of beer in those days, so it’s really lucky I even felt like wine.

    2. Holy shit. I’m glad you’re OK. I would consider that attempted murder. There was a horrible story I read a few years back where that kind of thing got someone killed, and I am definitely not going to google it again right now, and I don’t recommend that anyone else google it either. *shudder*

      1. Nothing. Nothing whatsoever, other than some bruising. He was drunk as a skunk, possibly high, and I was tipsy. I don’t even know that he felt the pain as much as he felt the impact.

        People seemed to consider it a fair deal, even though he started it. I mostly let it go, other than occasionally people would say “Blah blah blah, you know Bob,” and I would say “Yeah, he tried to light me on fire at (party place)” and people would laugh and say “Oh yeaaaahhh, and you whacked him with a wine bottle. What a night, I miss (place)”

        The worst part, which I hadn’t mentioned, is that we worked for the same company, but different departments and eventually different locations entirely. I never reported it at work, because of our work culture and the futility of it. I do know he was very nearly fired for theft once, but somehow got out of that as well. He might still work for them, I quit a couple years ago.

          1. I would be very surprised if he had a clear memory of it, and he might have been blacked out entirely. I’m sure people told him I hit him, but that he was being a shit. He was actually strange but nice the rest of the time I knew him.

  26. My step-grandfather was a holiday or any day abuser. Poked us with the tines of forks, knife points, hot spoons from coffee and on and on.
    When I got married, I refused to invite him or my grandmother to the wedding. Took a lot of crap for not inviting them but fuck it, he had ruined enough days for me. While this was years ago, when the old creep died, there was no funeral, no memorial, nothing. Finally, the truth won out, no one cared for him.
    None of this is fun or funny. What concerns me is if no one calls Dan out – what will his escalation be. Because we all know, he will escalate. He figures he has gotten away with near burning a child. What ‘fun’ thing will he do next.

    1. “He figures he has gotten away with near burning a child”

      Is there somewhere where they say it was a child? They talk about spending a few days at their parents’ house around Christmas, which sounds more like an adult going to visit family for holidays.

      It doesn’t need the extra horror of being a child to be sick…

  27. In addition to all the excuses Captain Awkward listed, we can add “I don’t see why we can’t all just get along.” In practice, it usually seems to mean “I can’t be bothered to think through what led up to this point and want it to go away without me having to do anything,” or “I want you to do all the emotional labor to make things (seem) fine again and save me the bother of introspection or difficult feelings.” The best way to respond to this garbage is generally, “Well, what’s your best guess?”

    1. Exactly this.

      LW, do not hesitate to bring this stuff out into the light. “Mom, I get that you hate conflict, but I’m not going to let Dan hurt us to keep the peace.” “Dad, I completely get that you want a big happy family thing. The problem is that Dan ruins them.”

    2. Thanks for this comment, Argablarg. It’s clarified something I’ve been pondering.

      I’ve taught my kids I’d prefer a “scene” than trying to fix what some evil piece of shit broke. Make noise, name the behaviour, call it out. No one deserves to be treated like this. Shame & fear is every predator’s ally.

      LW, it’s awesome you know what’s acceptable behaviour & you & sis are doing it for yourselves, against the indifference of your family. Stay strong & true. 😊

    3. “In addition to all the excuses Captain Awkward listed, we can add ‘I don’t see why we can’t all just get along.’ ”

      Yup. That is my family’s approach. The Christmas I stepped between my father and my little brother, to break up a wildly uneven physical fight, the room was full of my extended family. I was the only person who thought that acknowledging what was happening, let alone stopping it, was preferable to pretending that it wasn’t happening.

      It was incredibly lonely and disheartening to realize, at 21, that none of the people I loved and cared about were going to back me or my brother up, and that my father could physically harm my brother in front of witnesses with no consequence. Sometimes you determine that people care more about conflict avoidance than they care about you, and that is pretty hard to take.

      As far as I can discern, my brother and I are the only people who remember that event, because we are the only ones to whom it had any significance.

      1. That sucks so much. You have my deepest sympathy, and internet hugs if you want them.

        Your father and extended family are not ok and not right.

        1. Thank you– internet hugs gladly accepted. I am Christmas-ing with my housemates and church buddies again, and my mom, whom I dearly love and would love to see if she and my father weren’t a package deal, is “but faaaaamily”-ing me, and I sometimes need to remind myself that I have good reasons for wanting to be very far away.

      2. I had a similar experience, where I had to protect my sister during an explosive and traumatic argument with my father in our late teens..and we hated each other at that age! My older brother just sat there and let it happen. It made the pit of my stomach drop out to realize I couldn’t trust a person I’d always assumed would be there to protect me and my sister, because that’s what big brothers are supposed to do. But nope. Turns out he avoids conflict at all costs. My mother did at the time, too.

        It’s a hard lesson but an important one, figuring out whether you can truly trust someone stand up for you. And as traumatizing as it was at the time, I think it was cathartic too. It was the first time I stood up to my dad, and it was empowering to know I could count *on myself* to intervene.

        I’ve never really though about it before but I really wonder how my parents and brother remember that night. It’s probably just a blur.

  28. I barely made it through the letter — what I want to know is, what is Dan doing to Amy behind closed doors?

    I ran into a Dan one time — a mutual friend had regular parties full of really mellow scientist types. This Dan2 first started making plausible overtures of friendship towards me, including inviting me to a dinner party, but then promptly segued into having to interrupt and make big fussy “jokes” about how I was so full of myself if any of the interesting things I’ve done in my life came up in conversation. This culminated at our mutual friend’s house when he literally slapped me in the face to “jokingly” shut me up because he wanted the attention a couple of people were paying to me (or my attention — who knows).

    Suddenly it was very clear why Dan2’s wife had acrimoniously divorced him and his adult children were all not speaking to him.

    So the Dan in this story — if this is how he acts in front of others, what is he doing to Amy at home?

  29. Giving Dan a huuuuuuge benefit of the doubt – it does seem possible that he is profoundly awkward, has never had appropriate behavior modeled for him, and genuinely does not know any better. In that same vein, I want to remind people that there is actually a step between “soft no” and angry yelling. That step would be saying things like “Dan, we do not have a hugging type relationship. Stop doing that.” or “Dan, threatening to burn people with your lighter is actually really scary and inappropriate. Stop doing that.” If you’re lucky and he honestly wants to make a good impression, he’ll be embarrassed and stop doing that shit. If you’re not so lucky, you can escalate to “I SAID STOP, YOU CREEP!”

    1. “Giving Dan a huuuuuuge benefit of the doubt – it does seem possible that he is profoundly awkward, has never had appropriate behavior modeled for him, and genuinely does not know any better.”


      If this were true, why does he a) only target young women b) not stop when it’s clear that the person doesn’t like it? He’s not “awkward,” he’s an asshole who takes pleasure in pushing people’s boundaries, and it’s actually okay if a person who is being threatened with fire skips straight to yelling even if that hurts Dan’s feelings or embarrasses him.

      1. Not only that, if he was only socially awkward, the rest of the family would be on board with the 2 gentle corrections to stop it already given. If it was only a matter of a grown-up acting like a child, then the family already would know not to let him play with matches.

        I do see how people like Dan present something of a conundrum. If they’re going for an emotional reaction, and if the target gives a soft “don’t do that,” then they increase the obnoxious behavior until they get the loud emotional reaction they were looking for. The target screams ACK YOU LIT ME ON FIRE; the Dan gets what he wanted, and the target feels like she lost. If the target quietly removes herself so she’s not in danger and not getting lit on fire, then she’s also lost. That’s why it’s important to let the larger group know calmly. I can understand why it’s hard to think of it at the time, but from the moment of the first unwanted hug, the target needs to step away and say publicly “I didn’t want that hug. Don’t let there be another one.” At the first lit match, “No, don’t do that” followed by a public “Dan just lit a match under my arm.”

        It’s not a matter of calm + no publicity or loud + publicity. The trick is to find the way to calm + publicity. That’s the only way to find out if you’re in a room full of Dan supporters or Dan complicitors.

    2. If it were just hugging, maybe.

      But he used fire on someone he was sitting very close to. That’s not awkwardness. That’s torture.

      1. Not even “just hugging” makes the above plausible. LW described a certain type of low-key, deliberate creepy behavior before she ever got to the low-key, deliberate set-folks-on-fire thing.

        The plausible deniability and the “but did you use your words in the right way maybe he is just Awkward and Well-Meaning” tendency of society to give unwelcome actions the benefit of the doubt is what guys like this operate on. If the person is truly just awkward, everyone taking it seriously and saying No Do Not Again will get through immediately and result in some needed awareness of others’ boundaries and introspection.

    3. The vast majority of children in today’s society have gone to daycare, Kindergarten, elementary school, church, community activities, and many other places where rules like “not setting anyone on fire” are enforced. Almost certainly, Dan has spent time under the care of paid professionals whose entire job consisted of saying things like, “Dan, look at her face. Is she having fun? That’s a sad face. She does not want to be hugged by you,” and “Dan, do not light other people on fire.”

      I specialize in treating neurodivergent people with complex trauma and am fully aware of how many skills deficits people can reach adulthood with–and yet, unless his upbringing involved literally no contact with anyone outside a small group of people who let him run wild, he has in fact been told before that hurting people is socially unacceptable and not funny. He may not have believed it, but he has certainly been told it.

      The important thing I’m picking up on is not “uncomfortable hugs”, it’s “hurting other people for fun”. Even people with disorders like Autism Spectrum Disorder that make social processing difficult have a basic inherent aversion to causing other people deliberate pain, and the fact that Dan doesn’t have that aversion is deeply troubling. It says to me that no, actually, granting him the basic benefit of the doubt could be deeply dangerous.

      Also: As much as I might have empathy for someone whose life experiences led them to believe this behaviour was appropriate, the people he is physically harming here have NOT been hired to monitor or remediate his behaviour. It is not their obligation. They don’t have to do that before publicly yelling at him.

      Anyway, even if they want to remediate his behaviour, like, if that is a thing they have decided they want to do, then they either need 1) his respect, or 2) the ability to enforce negative consequences on him. He is an adult man who hurts other people for fun; the wide probability is, he does not empathize or get embarrassed easily and will not respond to mild social reproof. If they don’t have those things, then he will not listen to them.

      I mean, it’s unlikely he will listen even if they do, but it could be actively dangerous for them if he does. My experience with adults who hurt other people for fun is that they think mild social reproof is amusing, and go out of their way to provoke it because it’s attention, even if it’s negative, and they like it. So if Dan wants to provoke this response more, he will keep finding other ways–and probably escalate those responses, because that’s how these things go. And you DO NOT want to get into a prank war with someone who doesn’t mind hurting other people.

      If he were doing something mildly socially inappropriate–something that would be pleasant under some circumstances, but not this specific one (“Dan, this gift is lovely! But I don’t feel comfortable receiving $200 when I only got you a card.”) your advice might be good. But no one who has dealt with a human before can expect that any other dinner party guest would enjoy being burned on the arm. It indicates that he is so far off the “socially awkward” radar he’s actually in a completely different world, and one where responses to him need to keep his targets safe, and be so overwhelmingly negative that he won’t perceive them as rewards.

      1. Thank you so much for your entire comment, but especially this part:

        “the people he is physically harming here have NOT been hired to monitor or remediate his behaviour. It is not their obligation. They don’t have to do that before publicly yelling at him.”

        Absolutely completely entirely emphatically yes. Speaking from almost a decade of experience, treating this guy with gentleness and the benefit of the doubt will not change his behaviour. It will only let him try to convince you that his behaviour is your fault because he “didn’t know any better” and “you didn’t tell him burning people was wrong so how was he supposed to know”. And I guarantee his behaviour will get far far worse.

        If they haven’t figured it out by adulthood, it is nobody’s job to teach shit-stains how to be decent human beings. They already know how. They just don’t care.

        1. Terry Pratchett once wrote of a character, “They had an inbuilt resistance to rules. This didn’t just apply to the law; but to all the invisible rules that most people obeyed unthinkingly, like ‘Do not attempt to eat this giraffe’ or ‘Do not headbutt people in the ankle because they won’t give you a chip’.”
          “Don’t light people on fire, even a little bit” isn’t like “don’t turn right on a red light”, or “don’t get super drunk at the office Christmas party”; it’s not something you need to explicitly learn or, for most people, could be overlooked as a temporary failure of good judgment. It’s a complete breakdown of rules you really should have internalized at quite a young age (I’d say well before age ten or so).

          1. And even Pratchetts Nac Mac Feegle noped out of fairy land because of the propensity of the true fairies of the Discworld to hurt people for fun. Dan is like the Pratchett fairies: terrific, meaning “provoking terror.”

      2. “The important thing I’m picking up on is not “uncomfortable hugs”, it’s “hurting other people for fun”. Even people with disorders like Autism Spectrum Disorder that make social processing difficult have a basic inherent aversion to causing other people deliberate pain, and the fact that Dan doesn’t have that aversion is deeply troubling. It says to me that no, actually, granting him the basic benefit of the doubt could be deeply dangerous.”


        1. YES. Autism spectrum/social anxiety are not the same thing as nonconsensual sadism and/or sociopathic behavior. Can they coexist? Sure. But when they do, attributing the cruelty parts to the socially awkward parts does a disservice to the majority of socially awkward individuals who are perfectly non-abusive, kind people, who don’t really love that “bad at social cues” is often equated with “dangerous.”

      3. Thank you for this response, because I was struggling to articulate how much what wrong with that comment beyond “?!?!?”

      4. “…you DO NOT want to get into a prank war with someone who doesn’t mind hurting other people.”

        This is what bothered me about all the (probably joking) suggestions about throwing a glass of water or whatnot. Thanks for making it clear, and for the whole comment.

    4. “When she told him to stop, he did it again. She told him to stop a second time and he did but then he tried to hug her like he hadn’t just attempted bizarre act against her.”

      Sister did tell him to stop. Several times. He kept doing it. That is not “awkward”, that is an abuser.

      1. This thread makes me sad the more that I think about it. I don’t know anything about Andraya, except that her blog indicates she has ASD–and as I think back on that, I’ve started to get a little worried. so I’m not saying “This is what I think is going on here”, more like, “I’m afraid this is what happened”.

        I’m afraid that what happened is that someone who has ASD and trouble parsing social stuff has been told, about things like boys wanting to light you on fire, “You just have to understand, he has problems! He’s awkward. He didn’t know.” Or perhaps someone has found it difficult to differentiate between things people do that feel painful to people with ASD but are Totally Normal All The Adults In Your Life Swear, like holding eye contact or speaking very loudly, and things that can be reasonably understood to hurt anyone. So my fear is, that person has resolutely been socialized that Sometimes Other People Hurt You And You Just Sort of Put Up With It Because Socialization is Hard.

        And then, my fear is, they voiced that perspective here–and got absolutely dogpiled on about being WRONG and EXCUSING ABUSE–and I was part of that dogpile. So now I’m afraid they feel ashamed and like they failed at parsing social rules, because they swallowed stuff that has been absolutely toxic to them, and I was part of that.

        So as the days pass, this thread makes me fretful. Because I don’t know the truth here.

    5. Awkward? Awkward?! NO. Literally zero people, no matter how “””””””awkward””””””” have lived to adulthood without somehow figuring out that it’s not okay to torture people with fire. We will not be assuming that people with aspergers are incapable of understanding that it’s not okay to torture people, that is profoundly, immensely, unbelievably insulting to perfectly nice people who aren’t so great at reading social cues.

    6. If he is older than 7 and has not yet learned that realistically threatening to set people on fire isn’t something they will enjoy, then he doesn’t care.

      You don’t get to adulthood without knowing that unless you have such severe disabilities that you can’t live independently and require carers to supervise you.

      Let’s assume that there’s some alternate universe where a grown man can not know what fear or stress look like in other people. In that imaginary universe the kindest and clearest way to teach him is probably for every single person there to immediately react so_extremely_ strongly that that moment is burned into his brain forever.

      1. (Or where a grown man can not figure out intellectually that putting fire next to someone’s skin will scare or upset them – it doesn’t really matter what specific process you use to figure out safe and kind behaviour, as long as you do).

      2. “where a grown man can not know what fear or stress look like in other people” *

        *or if they have a disability that prevents their detecting fear and stress, not have developed alternate strategies to live safely as a human among other humans. Strategies including, but not limited to, assuming people don’t enjoy threats of violence unless they tell you otherwise.

        1. This. A lot of my friends and all of my cousins are neurodivergent and struggle with facial and tonal cues and body language. And every single one of them has decided upon a philosophy of “I am awkward and can cause people discomfort, even inadvertently, and therefore it is incumbent upon me to know the general baselines for our society and then build walls around those expectations such that I do not accidentally transgress.” My ex has Asperger’s. He genuinely can’t read people’s reactions, so the first thing he does when he encounters one he doesn’t immediately recognize from past experience is back off, apologize, and ask for clarification *even if he thinks there’s a chance it’s a positive response*. People who are ‘just awkward’ know they are awkward, accept it when they are told they are awkward or otherwise called out for making people uncomfortable, and try to fix their own behavior and any discomfort they may have caused. Abusers double down, call it a joke, blame their victims, or hide behind a shield of awkwardness that may or may not actually exist.

    7. They were really fucking clear with their NO’s during the lighter thing.

      Holy fuck as someone with NLD and who can be hella awkward this is bullshit. Awkward people are also targeted by the Dan’s of the world. Stop this enabling, erasing BULLSHIT.

    8. Dan is not awkward. Dan is an abuser, and giving him the benefit of the doubt that maybe he is “awkward” is giving him exactly what he wants as an abuser.

      Abusers and sexual harrassers and boundary pushers want to hide among the ranks of people with autism or social anxiety when they get called out on their bullshit. They want their groping and grabbing and emotional and physical abuse to get lumped in with people who have trouble with small talk, or who don’t pick up on facial expressions and minor social ques. They want the pass so that they can keep on abusing.

      The neuro-atypical person I know has trouble with conversation, and can’t easily distinguish between online players and CPU characters. He’s also mortified when he learns he’s made someone uncomfortable (which is not a regular occurrance, since he tends to avoid, rather than seek out, interaction.) He doesn’t need to be told not to hug people, much less not to set them on fire. Lumping abusive behavior in with neuro-atypical behavior does a disservice to that community.

    9. My friends whose kids have special needs and accompanying social deficits tell me not to hint.
      They tell me that if I need to correct their children, to be direct and specific: “Dan, stop doing that. It is not safe.”

      The target already did that. Dan ignored it. Deliberately.

      Defending yourself is the next logical – and, by the way, socially acceptable to reasonable people – step. And if one of my friends’ kids persisted in frightening or hurting someone, the parents would be 100 percent okay with the target screaming, struggling, physically breaking free, calling for help, etc. Even if that struggle resulted in “Dan” getting hurt or embarrassed. Because my friends believe that their childrens’ disabilities do not make it okay for them to torment others.

      People who are being repeatedly physically intimidated and threatened don’t need to give their assailant the benefit of the doubt.

    10. When someone pulls out a lighter, you only give them the benefit of the doubt if they’re next to the fireplace or grill.

    11. To give someone the benefit of the doubt, there has to be some doubt, which in this case there is not.

    12. No.

      A grown man who holds a lighter to someone’s skin gets “WHAT is the MATTER with you?!” said very, very loudly, and in the resulting stunned silence this is followed by “He tried to burn me with his fucking lighter!”

    13. You seriously think it’s possible that Dan has never had appropriate behavior modeled for him? I would imagine that not setting people on fire is a behavior he has in fact had modeled for him by EVERYONE in his life EVERY SINGLE DAY. It’s not that difficult to learn!

    14. I knew it wouldnt be too long before someone said ‘maybe he’s just socially awkward!’ because someone always has to say that in times like this (only when it’s a man though). Ok, look. Here’s my read on the lighter thing. This man may run in circles of men where things like that are what has become known in the UK as ‘banter’. It’s been on my mind because I read an article yesterday about it: it’s a long read but I will link it in case people are interested: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/30/the-age-of-banter (warnings for several mentions of rape and some parts that deal with antiblack racism and racism agiainst Chinese people.) I will keep using the UK term of ‘banter’ even though this letter is probably not from the UK, because I don’t know the word for it in other countries. (I guess Dan would call it ‘just playing’.) The idea of ‘banter’ (and I will never not use quote marks, because the new usage has ruined what was probably once a perfectly servicable word) is that you have to be up for anything, and nothing can be too much, because if it is then you can’t take the ‘banter’. The man who wrote the article mentions all kinds of things being ‘hilariously’ put into his beer while on a night out with men he was interviewing about ‘banter’, including small things he probably would have noticed by sight, but what stuck out to me was that they put two shots of vodka into his beer. Everyone here on Captain Awkward knows that is spiking someone’s drink, and drinking one kind of alchohol is not a license to put any other kind of alchohol in. If the man wanted to be drinking vodka, he’d be drinking vodka. But among these men, shots of vodka put secretely in the beer is in the same league as ‘haha I put my chip in your beer!’ (a bit gross but can be seen immediately and fished out).

      A theme of the article is how ‘banter’ culture among groups of men can escalate dangerously, until it becomes physical violent fights, even deaths. This escalation happens through pushing each other’s boundaries, just like Dan did by doing the lighter again after being asked to stop. Possibly he has done a similar thing with his friends. I’m sure the idea is that the top half of a flame can touch the skin for a small amount of time with no pain. As a kid my siblings and I used to love showing off that we could put our finger quickly through a candle and not feel it, because if you do it quickly it doesn’t hurt. But the difference is that we chose to put our OWN fingers through, we never picked up the candle and brandished it at each other, trying to force the flame to touch other people. I’m sure Dan planned on starting out ‘oh don’t you see, it doesn’t hurt! Isn’t that amazing? Let me try for longer…oh wait now it hurts? Oh come on, can’t you handle it? I’m just playing with you!’

      I used to be in a friend group with a man like Dan. He could be mean, and was demonstrably bad news, and yet for a while he had a kind of hold on us (we were all in our late teens). He also liked to do things with lighters, though thankfully not on other people (he once set one alight to see what would happen and it blew up, he threw it into a stone area where it wouldn’t catch and legged it). But sometimes he did things to people, including one thing he did to me that upon looking back I find horrifying. This guy was into body mods and had those stretched ear gauges at quite a large size, which you create by starting with small stretchers and gradually increasing the size. We were hanging out in a group, and I think at some point I had expressed a passing interest in having my own gauges one day, and he happened to have some small stretchers on him. Maybe we had agreed I would borrow them at some point and I would use them in the top hole of my set of 3 lobe piercings, but I was of the understanding that I would borrow them and put them in myself in my own time. Then I see him come to the side of me and suddenly he’s shoving one of these things into the pierce hole in my ear. No warning. It was painful, because it was a 2mm stretcher in a normal earring sized pierce hole which I think is something like 0.6. I guuuess you could say that he just wanted to rip off the bandaid and do it quick, but I was not. fucking. ready. And the stretcher he used was not even clean, how could it have been when he’d been just holding it and carrying it on his person for god knows how long? Fortunately I did not get infected. But I have to be honest, I think if he had just given me them to take home, I don’t think I would have ever put them in. I don’t think I really seriously wanted gauges at all. But I wasn’t given the chance to come to that decision.

      How could I have ever thought this was ok, and not horrifying? I did think it was ok, for years. ‘Banter’ culture didn’t exist yet by name, but that’s sure as hell what it was. This guy I knew was a ‘banter’ evangalist, and he got us all under his spell, just like Dan is trying to bring ‘banter’ culture into LW’s family. If Dan genuinely doesn’t know what he’s doing isn’t ok, it’s not because he’s a poor, socially awkward man. Men who do this are if anything the opposite, they’ve gone too far the other way, even.

      Maybe my reading is totally wrong, I don’t know Dan myself. But I think it’s something worth considering.

    15. I want to remind people that there is actually a step between “soft no” and angry yelling. That step would be saying things like “Dan, we do not have a hugging type relationship. Stop doing that.” or “Dan, threatening to burn people with your lighter is actually really scary and inappropriate. Stop doing that.”

      You mean like this?

      When she told him to stop, he did it again. She told him to stop a second time and he did but then he tried to hug her like he hadn’t just attempted bizarre act against her.

      Giving Dan the benefit of the doubt, he lacks empathy and simply doesn’t care in the slightest about the well-being of other people, as opposed to caring in the sense of intentionally trying to inflict harm because he enjoys doing so. Neither of those people are all that safe to be around, though correcting behavior in the former case is more likely, as such a person might be open to an appeal to self-interest if negative social consequences result.

      We don’t actually know from the letter than Dan only targets women (unless something was edited out) – CA is making an (entirely reasonable) assumption on that count – but we do know that he doesn’t take “no” for an answer, so it’s not a lack of clarity at issue.

    16. I really hate the “but what about the neurodivergent” argument to excuse horrible behaviour. There is no evidence from the letter that Dan is anything but a neurotypical asshole. Why bring up autism or some other disorder? Comments like this make life more difficult for actually neurodivergent people. Being an asshole is not a disorder. When someone is burning you with a lighter a “soft no” is really just not appropriate. When dealing with wierd-ass behaviour its always a good idea to ask yourself “would I or someone I know act like this” in this situation and usually the answer is no. People who like to abuse skate by on the good assumptions and benefit of the doubt of other people, and I’m really sick of it.

  30. I am 100% confident that this man is an abuser and a torturer. Period. Full stop.

    He will escalate. He escalated from hugs to assault. What’s next?

    My guess – he will seriously, seriously hurt someone.

    He’s not going to stop until he winds up in jail, someone winds up in the hospital, or someone winds up in the morgue.

    Please watch carefully if there are any children there – particularly if there are teenage girls. If he can’t get to the sisters, he will find another target. Why? It’s about his power and his amusement.

    He gets off on causing fear and terror.

    Don’t let him around your pets.

    He’s dangerous. Dangerous. dangerous.

    If the parents don’t disinvite him, he’s going to hurt someone badly in their home. [I hope they have good homeowners, because they are likely going to need it].

    There are some acts – including biting someone and lighting someone on fire – that are signs of some very deep, disordered thinking. The type of disorder that eventually lands someone in the hospital or the morgue. This is worse than him hitting someone in the face in anger. It’s worse than taking a Louisville Slugger to the side of someone’s head. Worse.

    This type of violence is more dangerous for two reasons (1) It’s intimate. He has to be very close to his victim to hurt them. (2) What he’s doing isn’t a prank, it’s TORTURE. He’s trying to torture them.

    (One of my courtroom psychologists says biting, using fire or hot objects like curling irons, etc. are always the sort of red flags that indicate to him that the person is beyond garden-variety disturbed.)

    Maybe this jerk is the small minority who isn’t as dangerous as I think. Are you wiling to risk your lives and the lives of the other guests?

    I know people are worried about calling the cops, but if something isn’t done to stop this man, the cops are going to be involved eventually.

    1. Yes. Another voice worried about his escalation. Because he will.
      It’s all fun and games until someone is in the hospital, that whole way of thinking sickens me.
      Dan – no invites, not ever again.

    2. I think this is why I had the heebies up above when someone suggested “hitting him where it hurts”. Because escalation with someone already willing to use fire is…well, probably not the best idea.

    3. I had a bone to pick upthread with an aside in one of your comments (“just hugging” – and looks like spam catcher ate it?) but I want to say that I really appreciate you contributing your knowledge to this thread and providing the information you did. This is vital and I (and likely others) am informed about patterns that I wasn’t before. Thank you.

    4. Yes, the whole scenario seriously scared the sh@t out of me! This behavior is just ringing all manner of alarm bells in my head, and I couldn’t even get through the ask, without screaming at my tablet. His behavior is just WRONG, WRONG,WRONG!!!

      He is literally testing how far he can go in violating their bodies, and I’m terrified that he will escalate. He already has, going from unwanted hugging, to physical assault. And what is so insidious about it is that he does this in view of others, and tries to laugh it off as a prank, so he won’t experience any negative repercussions. That’s just terrifying.

      I’m really begging the OP to have nothing more to do with him. And loudly warn your family. Bring it out into the open and let it be known.

    5. Yes, the fact that it was fire really caught my attention too — right up there with kids torturing animals to death.

      1. Yep. I sympathize DEEPLY with all the vengeful fantasies people have offered but: never escalate a conflict with a person who tries to set people on fire.

        I can actually 100 percent guarantee that you will not win, and will regret it. Because if you were the sort if person capable of hurting Dan in a way that counts as “winning” this one, and who was willing to accept the collateral damage it was going to involve, YOU WOULDN’T BE CAPABLE OF UNDERSTAND WHY HIM TRYING TO SET PEOPLE ON FIRE WAS A BIG DEAL.

  31. PS. A quick google search of lighter + burning + torture yields some very interesting results that may help you frame how serious this jerk’s actions are in context.

  32. Taser! (oh, all right, stun gun.) “Just trying to keep up with Dan in the pranks category!”

  33. There’s a hierarchy of problematic “nonsexual” behavior


    Where do you really think Dan fits on this?

    *A lot of people I have come in contact with in court cases believe that torture is worse than murder. After the cases I’ve seen, I’d rather you flat out kill me. This isn’t an objective statement and a lot of people will disagree.

    I put “nonsexual” in quotes because I think this is gendered, but not overtly sexual.

  34. Hi – that sounds awful.

    What might also be helpful is saying to your parents what you want them to do. (Ie before this Christmas). This means having figured out for yourselves what you want them to do (or a few options that you think might work).

    Whatever it is that you want them to do it probably more likely to happen if you ask sooner rather than later.

    So what would work for you two?
    #disinviting dan?
    # them telling dan & amy “you scared the kids at thanksgiving – so no/nada/none pranks this Christmas & no lighters”
    #above + a general “no pranks ” dictate to everyone & other older gen family members for help policing it.

    Decide how you want your parents to act, tell them again what happened – if appropriate use the word “scared” to them – it’s powerful & using it to them also gives them extra power to try to change things, tell them the range of things that you’ve thought of that would work for you two, & give them a bit of time to choose an option.

    If there’s time talk quickly to some other cousins etc of your age & see if they’re creeped out too – if so then use the additional info in the talk with your parents (useful for counteracting the host/guest problem where your parents may see you as hosts-by-extension & that therefore your needs need to take the back seat to guests needs – if other (non-dan) guests have a verified same need as you then that argument is largely nullified)

    It feels really mean/hard to disinvite someone from Xmas – especially at short notice (breaks cultural hosting conventions) so try to give them as much time as you can to do the disinviting (or additional rule imposing).

    Best luck

    1. Yes – has he done things to other cousins that they’re too mortified and bewildered about to say? Are their younger and smaller people around who he may have also been targeting. He’s going after both of you – this doesn’t sound like the sort of thing where they limit their predation to one person to hide it from everyone else.

  35. yikes. I have dated every kind of asshole under the sun, and also read Captain Awkward for many, many years, and despite all the innumerable Darths in this column’s history, this is one of the letters that’s caused the most extreme immediate DANGER DANGER DANGER reaction in me ever.

    three things:

    1) there are already comments, and there are going to be further comments, saying ‘if he does this, who knows what he is doing to your cousin behind closed doors’. while true, and while if you have the emotional energy/time/etc it may be a kindness to reach out to her and gently check she’s okay and make sure she knows family are concerned/open/willing to listen, please don’t let commenters’ concern (or your own) make you feel like you HAVE to put up with this jerk just to keep an eye on them both, or like whatever he may or may not be doing in his own home is somehow a burden you need to shoulder or problem you have to fix.

    that might sound callous, but your safety and emotional wellbeing come first, and whatever he may or may not be doing where you can’t see isn’t something you can magically know or magically stop. stop him scaring YOU, and your sister. if you can, make it vocally, publicly known that his behaviour is Not Okay, No, Really, Not Okay, In Fact Totally Disturbing and Weird – because if your cousin sees or hears about your doing that she may get a much-needed new perspective on him – but don’t tie yourself in knots about what else he might be doing.

    2) almost as much as the lighter thing I was left with a deeply uncomfortable feeling about your letter including ‘he hugs us without asking’, because possibly I’m wrong but I feel like if you felt okay around this guy, unsolicited family hugs are kind of a usual, tedious but unremarkable part of family gatherings. at most you’d be like ‘oh look it’s Dan, The Hugger *rolls eyes*’ and not thinking about it in the same kind of terms as ‘and also he threatens to burn us’. the fact that you hate his unsolicited hugs this much is probably all your internal alarms going NOPE NOPE NOPE about him on a cellular level. please listen to those alarms, they are there for a reason.

    3) the thing I have noticed most often about people’s reactions when guys do shit like this is that what the dude is doing is SO bizarre, so flagrantly societal-rules-flouting, that like 90% of people simply genuinely do not seem to be able to accept that it can possibly have happened. even if it happens right in front of them, or the person telling them about it is a trusted family member whose word they would otherwise never doubt.

    it’s a weird phenomenon. a guy who hits a woman is something they know how to handle (even if they handle it badly) because they have a kind of social framework in which to put that, but a guy who does something like this, something creepy and abusive and WEIRD, people just…paper over it somehow?? their brains just seem to go ‘nobody would do that, ergo, nobody has done that, and this must be a joke/a lie/a misunderstanding/[awkward laugh]’ and that’s kind of the end of it.

    it’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes of abusers and the remaining 10% of us whose brains do not do this constantly end up in the role of that kid who’s like ‘guys the EMPEROR is NAKED. THE EMPEROR IS NAKED WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU’.

    so, the Captain’s questions for your parents are GREAT questions, but if your parents/family in general are like that 90% and just will not be moved from ‘ha ha, classic Dan/he’s only teasing/I’m sure he didn’t mean it/etc’, I can definitely recommend embracing your position as Shouter of ‘The Emperor Is Naked’. like the Captain says, make a scene, keep naming the weird things he does or has done and saying how weird they are, LEAVE and make sure people know why you’re leaving. abusive assholes rely on that 90% of people and the narrative they cling to, but they completely underestimate how much power we have when we vocally reject that narrative.


      >almost as much as the lighter thing I was left with a deeply uncomfortable feeling about your letter including ‘he hugs us without asking’, because possibly I’m wrong but I feel like if you felt okay around this guy, unsolicited family hugs are kind of a usual, tedious but unremarkable part of family gatherings. at most you’d be like ‘oh look it’s Dan, The Hugger *rolls eyes*’ and not thinking about it in the same kind of terms as ‘and also he threatens to burn us’. the fact that you hate his unsolicited hugs this much is probably all your internal alarms going NOPE NOPE NOPE about him on a cellular level. please listen to those alarms, they are there for a reason.

      Yes. Hugs are not an objective thing. They are highly contextual and the LW’s instincts on that point should be, not only respected, but taken as evidence of how fucked that situation is.

    2. I love this comment, kheldara.
      Thanks for all the awesome insights offered by the different commenters.
      Good luck everyone with the festive season.

    3. Substitute “Dan the GRABBER” for “…Hugger” and say it out loud and often. Because that’s what he’s doing — hugging is mutual; grabbing isn’t.

    4. YES, times five bazillion. People don’t see/accept/absorb things that are so far out of their register because they don’t want to or know how to see/accept/absorb them. They don’t know what to do, so they do nothing

    5. Another impact of the 3rd point which kheldara expressed very well is that this jaw-droppingly wrong situation might be hard and painful for YOU/your sister to keep believing, too. You don’t ever expect to have to say, “Mom, Dad, he held a lighter on me/my sister. And that’s bad,” aloud to anyone.

      I hope your parents get their act together. Frankly, they should have gotten this one before they took their show on the road and had children. It should not be on you to talk them through this, and if they choose not to listen to you that is so very much on them. I don’t want to devalue the good parts of the relationship you may have with them, but make space in your head to think, “Sometimes my parents are cool*, but they sure missed it this time!” The Captain’s techniques sound like great tools for you to remind them to be better.

      Even if they wake up tomorrow and ban Dan forever, though, the fact that your family ever responded this way is still a problem worth addressing.

      Consider pruning the time you spend with your relatives right now, so the relationships you want can grow back stronger. If your parents or your other cousins or that nice aunt you only see for a couple hours around the holidays are gonna to do the right thing, then you can always see them next Christmas! You don’t need to spend THIS Christmas sitting through brunch with Aunt Euphrasie waiting for Dan to show up, or for her to say how great he is, or how she’s noticed you being ‘weird’ around him, you know? You don’t need to make party small talk with Cousin Amy right now, while you have no idea what she does or doesn’t know. Next year you’ll know who in your family is safe and who deserves you.

      Right now, spend time watering your relationship with your sister! Spend some time looking at each other and saying out loud, “He tried to LIGHT YOU on FIRE.” “Dude. What the hell?” “Dude, I know.” It’s not clear if you’ve talked about the unwanted touching before now; it seems like you have an unspoken mutual understanding, but I encourage you to say, “Hey, sister, I’ve been uncomfortable for a while with how Dan touches me. I want to make sure he stops.” Give yourselves a chance to share this reality, so you can carry that extra certainty with you as a shield.

      Also spend time not talking about it. Someone upthread suggested going to the movies. Go sit in a theater or a cafe together, or curl up in the room you’re staying in in your parents’ house. Claim a physical space, and tell yourselves you have the right to be there and be comfortable.

      I’m so sorry that this is happening when you get together with your family at Christmas. Not because it would be less of an invasion at any other time, or because Christmas needs to be special, but because it sounds like you and your sister both want it to be nice, and you don’t deserve to get this. You don’t have to “see the bright side”, since this situation just sucks, but you can claim the gift of being great siblings for yourselves

      *if this is true

    6. (sorry if this is a repeat, I’m nervous with the nesting)

      Another impact of the 3rd point which kheldara expressed very well is that this jaw-droppingly wrong situation might be hard for you/your sister to keep believing, too. You don’t ever expect to have to say, “Mom, Dad, he held a lighter on me/my sister. And that’s bad,” aloud to anyone. The fact that you and your sister have each other is going to be so important for you.

      I hope your parents get their act together. Frankly, they should have gotten this one before they took their show on the road and had children. It should not be on you to talk them through this, and if they choose not to listen to you that is so very much on them. I don’t want to devalue any positive parts of your relationship, but try to make space in your mind to say, “My parents can be cool*, but they sure missed this one!” The Captain’s techniques are great tools to help you remind them to be better.

      Even if they wake up tomorrow and ban Dan forever, though, the fact that you EVER got this response means there’s a problem worth addressing in your family.

      Consider pruning the time you spend with your relatives right now so the relationships you want can grow back stronger. If your parents or your other cousins or that nice aunt you only see around the holidays are gonna to do the right thing, then you’ll see them next Christmas! You don’t need to spend THIS Christmas sitting through brunch with Aunt Euphrasie waiting for Dan to show up, or for her to say something about how great he is, or how she’s noticed you being ‘weird’ around him, you know? You don’t have to make party smalltalk with Cousin Amy when you have no idea what she does or doesn’t know, either. Next year you’ll know who in your family is safe and who deserves you.

      Right now, take some time for yourself, and spend time watering your relationship with your sister! Spend some time looking at each other and saying out loud, “He tried to LIGHT YOU on FIRE.” “Dude, what the hell?” “Dude, I know.” It’s not clear how much you’ve talked about the unwanted touching before now; it sounds like you have an unspoken mutual understanding, but I encourage you to say, “Hey, sister, I’ve been uncomfortable for a while with how Dan touches me, and I want to make sure he stops.” Give yourselves a chance to share this reality, so you can carry that extra certainty with you as a shield.

      Also spend time not talking about it. Someone upthread suggested going to the movies. Go sit in a theater or a cafe together, or cue something up in the room you’re staying in in your parents’ house: claim a physical space, and tell yourselves you have the right to be there and be comfortable.

      I’m so sorry that this is happening when you get together with your family at Christmas. Not because it would be less of an invasion at any other time, or because Christmas needs to be special, but because it sounds like you and your sister both want it to be nice, and you don’t deserve to get this. You don’t have to ‘see the bright side’, this situation just sucks, but you can claim the gift of being great siblings for yourselves

      *if this is true

  36. “Sometimes it’s good to practice saying stuff ahead of time since in the moment the pressure to be quiet and go along can be overwhelming.”

    THIS! Maybe you can make some kind of role playing with friends of yours. Try to make it a fun event. Experience with different escalations. Do agree upront what is okay in the roleplaying and what not! Declare some stupid as the “stop phrase”. So you can experience with yelling NO, but if you say “hushdipushdi” the other roleplayers will know to stop immediatly.
    You can gahter experience with “Dan” stopping at once at the first yelled NO and level up to whatever escaltion you and your friends can think of.

    If you might have issues calling the police. Maybe you could talk to a teacher, social worker or what ever is suitable (I don’ know your age) in advance for solutions what to do.

    1. I’ve practiced my lines so many times that when I need them they flow like they need to. This is good advice.

  37. This is a little passive-aggressive, so I’m not sure how effective it would be, but sometimes when I believe someone is capable of knocking off unacceptable behavior if they know how unwelcome it is, I will make sure to talk with someone else (preferably someone they don’t want to piss off who I’ve secretly unlisted as an ally, like my enormous biker-uncle) about that kind of behavior and how unacceptable it is. Loudly. In front of them.

    I’ll make free with the contempt and the mockery and the “those people who do [thing] are SUCH jerks. How could ANYONE think that’s ok, right?” and make my little circle of social affirmation where they can see. It helps me publicly label such behavior as worthy of ridicule and retaliation. Just labeling it as “threatening to harm people like it’s funny” is a powerful act. So I subtly pre-load the narrative on their behavior and warn them that I will retaliate.

    This really only works if someone actually cares about not incurring your retaliation or contempt. And some folks believe that you really shouldn’t matter and any attempt to claim retaliation or contempt makes you a upstart who needs to be shown her place. If that is the situation, this definitely will not work.

      1. They ‘stay with their parents’ in the days leading up to Christmas, so old enough to be out of the house. My guesstimate was 22 – 28.

    1. I had assumed youngish adults (that is, under 35). They don’t live with their parents, and I read them and Cousin Amy as (near) contemporaries.

      1. Another person assuming that sort of age range, and I think that it is significant. Since the lighter target was the LW’s younger sister, I wondered if she is the youngest female adult who can’t be counted as a child. I.e. the most socially vulnerable person there, because an adult she won’t get defended as a kid might (not guaranteed, but many people who won’t defend an adult from an adult will still defend a child). I also get the impression that neither LW nor her sister has a male partner present, and I bet that if one of them did, then that person would be a lot safer from Dan. Dan has very carefully picked someone the person thinks is unlikely to be able to strike back and who will be dismissed as over-sensitive if she complains, unless her parents go into bat for her. If LW’s sister isn’t the youngest female adult, then I’d also suggest talking to that person. Has she got horrible experiences with Dan that no-one knows about?

        LW, I agree with the Captain that you absolutely MUST tell your parents precisely what happened here. Tell them what happened. How you are having to approach Christmas not as something that you will enjoy, but as something you are worrying about how you are going to avoid being literally burned by Dan (and you might point out that a lot of Christmas stuff is pretty flammable). Have that whole horrible conversation that is outlined, because you do need your parents to have your back here, and since so far they have brushed you off I’m afraid that is going to take some tough words.

  38. I agree with the Captain’s scripts, and also think that it would be helpful for you and your sister to decide what you want as an outcome, and be very clear with your parents about that.

    “Dan assaulted and threatened sis, by threatening/attempting to burn her with his lighter, Also, he touches and hugs us without our consent. We don’t want to see him. If he visits, we will leave / leave for as long as he is there”


    “Dan assaulted and threatened sis, by threatening/attempting to burn her with his lighter, Also, he touches and hugs us without our consent. Neither of us is prepared to tolerate being assaulted or threatened. If you want to invite Dan, we need to know that you will make it clear to him before the party that he needs to behave, and we need to know that you will support us, and make him leave, is he does anything inappropriate”


    “”Dan assaulted and threatened sis, by threatening/attempting to burn her with his lighter, Also, he touches and hugs us without our consent. We don’t want to see or spend any time with him. If you decide that you want him to visit over Christmas, that’s up to you. Sis and I will spend Christmas at mine and will visit you some other time when Dan isn’t there”

    I also agree that it is really important to keep naming his behaviour. “Dan threatened to burn Sis” or “Dan assaulted Sis with his lighter” “Dan touched me without my consent”

  39. I stopped celebrating christmas at my mom’s, almost a decade ago, because her husband would do stuff like thins on me and whoever else unfortunate enough to be around. Or he would grow violent because “no hitting the kids during the month of christmas” culminated christmas eve or close to that day. Either I walked on egg shells the rest of my life or I walked away. I chose the latter. And loudly.

    With my toddler now in my life I’m so glad I did. He would do these things to her in a heartbeat and I don’t want to be the mom who says “Bent’s is gonna Bent” or “Stop making a scene”. Like my sister does to her kids.

  40. Why is it that so many Missing Stairs are dudes?

    I caused an Issue in my family by telling my siblings and cousins that my grandmother’s nephew was a registered sex offender and they should avoid him. Apparently, we should have respected his privacy (?!) and the wishes of my grandmother, because he wasn’t a danger to anyone in the family and he had already “lost so much” due to his actions. Without going into details, I can promise that it wasn’t a given that this was the case, and that he didn’t even get jail time, so …..

    I love the Captain’s response here. I might also add, depending on your relationship with your cousin, that it would be totally fine to ask her what the hell his deal is, and make it clear that Jim Is Not a Funny, Funny Jokester.

    1. “Why is it that so many Missing Stairs are dudes?”

      Because patriarchy. Because women still earn less and are still tasked with the majority of child-caring. Because police are disproportionately dudes. Because this society treats family violence as contained and less important than other violence. Because there are a lot lot of people (mostly dudes) who work in public policy who believe that society functions best when families are “intact,” and try to punish families for divorcing, even though their measures of “intact-ness” don’t take into account the well-being of women and children. Because if a disgrunted ex shows up at your new apartment or place of employment repeatedly and makes a scene, you might get evicted or fired. Because women are socialized to treat their relationships as a way of softening the effects of a wildly inequitable capitalist system. Because Dude is Not Always Terrible, and there are Very Real Costs to severing ties with him. Because you might recognize that someone’s behavior is awful, but that doesn’t mean you want them to go to prison or to be shot by a police officer.

      Sara Ahmed, in her fantastic essay on happiness and “feminist killjoys,” talks about what I call the “she who smelt it dealt it” dynamic of social relations: It’s not the person who says or does the sexist or racist thing at the family gathering who’s credited with introducing disharmony to the family unit. It’s the person who calls out the sexist or racist thing– who doesn’t let the *actual dealer* of bullshit keep their plausible deniability.

      1. I have a lot of thoughts about this, because I’ve wondered the same thing. I’ve encountered a few female Missing Stairs in my lifetime, but their behavior seemed to be more on the annoying/irritating side rather than the physically dangerous side. And most of the time, those Missing Stairs were just ostracized. We just stopped hanging out with them.

        I think it’s a really gross stew of entitlement and cowardice on the part of other men. Most of the men I’ve known are SO AFRAID to speak up when someone does something they think is gross or sexist because they assume that all other men think it’s okay, and they are SO AFRAID of having someone question their masculinity. Like, in a group of 6 men, 1 might tell a sexist joke that 4 other think is gross and 1 think is okay, and those 4 guys will be so convinced that everyone else thought it was funny that they won’t say anything.

        Also, all the guys that I’ve been in situations where they actually could have leapt in with their manly-man behavior and defended someone – like when someone was being gross at a bar or a party – all of a sudden they’ve developed selective deafness, blindness, and dumbness, and they didn’t see anything, nosirree!

        It’s not that I don’t think men care about their friends, it’s that I think woman are conditioned SO HARD to be the Keeper of the Feelings and men are conditioned so hard to pretend not to have any feelings, that women are actually way more likely to call out gross behavior, because it hurt someone else.

        If I had a friend who consistently made fun of another friend’s looks or something, I would stop hanging out with them because clearly they’re a git and they are hurting a friend of mine! Buy, I don’t know why, guys just seem so much more likely to align themselves with the person doing the injuring than the victim, and I truly do not get it.

        Personally, I feel like all that crap about men being ‘natural protectors’ is bullshit. Women have defended me more emotionally and physically than any man ever has.

        1. I think a lot of guys feel protective of their personal safety, whereas women already feel threatened so why not?

          My relevant anecdote:

          My husband is about to start taking public transit regularly for the first time in his life, whereas I didn’t even own a car until recently and I still take the train, I just drive to the train instead of walking.

          We were talking about things he can do if he does see a strange woman being threatened by a strange man on the night train home. He seemed increasingly anxious throughout the conversation and ended it with “I’m going to get punched on the train, I know it.”

          I said, “Have you been threatened, physically, since we moved to (city)?”

          “No, not at all.”

          “It’s a little hurtful to hear you say you’re worried you might get punched, when I’ve told you probably 20 stories about men following me, screaming at me, creeping on me, and yet I still take the train every single day.”

          He was appropriately horrified.

          He’s a really good guy, but he definitely has those privilege blind spots. Once they’re pointed out, though, he listens.

        2. I suspect when men call themselves “natural protectors” it’s because they like to imagine themselves boldly and ruggedly protecting women and children against, say, wild animals or natural disasters or, at best, the near-mythical back-alley sexual predator, rather than against guys a lot like themselves who are “just” being creepy assholes.

        3. Well, patriarchal men do protect their women… from other men. They are protective as long they themselves benefit from the protection. Naturally.

        4. Yeah, this has always beeny experience too. Even the guys who would never dream of treating someone like that themselves are full of compassion and sympathy for the guy who does.

        5. Yes, I have seen this too. Sometimes from women too, but from most men, even ones who would never in a million years act like that themselves. Somehow when they hear about a guy acting horribly and meanly they usually get full of compassion and sympathy – for the person deliberately hurting others.

      2. “the “she who smelt it dealt it” dynamic of social relations: It’s not the person who says or does the sexist or racist thing at the family gathering who’s credited with introducing disharmony to the family unit. It’s the person who calls out the sexist or racist thing– who doesn’t let the *actual dealer* of bullshit keep their plausible deniability.”

        See also: the reason so many Americans so ardently will argue that Obama was the one who caused racial tension. :/

        1. I was seven when I learned that the police are more interested in the accusation and the accuser than they are in the crime and the perp.
          Everything I have learned subsequently demonstrated that this is a widespread social dysfunction.

  41. I hate that so many of us have had to learn to navigate dudes like this.

    When I finally started confronting bullying and abuse, I learned a “lather, rinse, repeat” technique to deal with their defensiveness: just keep repeating variations of “Why would you do that?” “WHY?”

    Jerk: *holds up lighter* *pokes with sharp object* *sets off air horn behind you* *steals your slice of pumpkin pie and eats it in one bite while laughing*
    You: What the hell-? Dude, why would you do that?
    Jerk: Relax, it was just a joke!
    You: Why would you think that [name the behavior in all its glory] setting my hair on fire/destroying my dinner/harming my pet ferret IS A JOKE?!
    Jerk: Calm down, you don’t need to overreact!
    You: Why on earth would you do that? Why would you keep hugging and tickling me when I’ve asked you repeatedly to stop?
    Jerk: Jeez, you’re such a bitch! I’m just trying to be nice!
    You: Why do you think it’s being nice when you do something that hurts someone else? Why would you not stop when someone asks you to?
    Jerk: OMG, no one else makes such a big deal! Calm down!
    You: Why would you think it’s not a big deal to throw me in the pool fully clothed? Why would you think it’s funny to do that? Why?
    Jerk: Stop harping on it, okay? Fine, you’re right-
    You: Why do you think this is acceptable behavior? Why do you think it’s okay to treat people like this?

    Refuse to be deflected or put on the defense. Keep the focus on the crappy thing they just did and how no, it’s not cute/no big deal/a joke/acceptable.

    1. Yes, this. People seem to make excuses for jerks who behave like this and expect everyone else to just put up with it. Why????

      1. Because people want a solution that’s easy for them, and usually ignoring abuse is a solution that’s much easier for bystanders than actually doing something.

        1. +1000. That, and sometimes they’re just paralyzed by shock, and then don’t want to face that they didn’t act when it was necessary

  42. I’m a little surprised that nobody’s suggestions include talking to the LW’s actual family member Amy. It’s not even clear if Amy knows about the assaults. I’m not saying it’s her job to make her husband not an awful person but surely she should at least be alerted to her husband’s shitty behavior?

      1. I mean, I agree, but it still seems weird to leave her out of the discussion. Especially to let her not know that there are folks out there who see what he’s like and would be on her side if she wants to reach out.

        1. The discussion isn’t “How do we remove our abusive cousin-in-law from our beloved cousin.”

          The discussion is “How can LW and her sister make it through Christmas.”

    1. If this is how he behaves in public, I can nearly guarantee you that she already knows what kind of guy he is.

  43. I don’t really agree with the advice. Being ready to scream and call the police: this is like putting oneself again under abuse, and decide to react against it. But that should have been done on the spot. Now, the only reasonable thing to do is to flatly, irrevocably refuse to be in the same place as this creep. He is disinvited, or the sisters dont’ attend. I am really surprised their parents din’t react to such an abuse, but let’s say they didn’t completely realise what happened. The sisters must make their point, and the parents will back them, in my opinion: no Dan, ever, anymore. They are perfectly in their right, never to be in the same room as this guy. If they do comply, they send the signal: that was OK but not anymore please. But that was not OK. That was completely off-limits. So no Dan, or no family Christmas.

    1. No one, particularly not the Captain, is suggesting the LW should go in now with that attitude, but it is valid and, to the point, better that if LW and sister decide to attend an event with Dan again and if he acts up (which he will) they are prepared to do what it takes — including being ready to shout and/or call the authorities and/or walk right the hell out the door — before entering that situation.

      Personally, I think I’d be saying “If Dan’s there, Sister and I won’t be.” full stop but it has taken me a lot of years and therapy to be at that point with my family.

      OTOH, for all its brokenness (and my family is a clusterf*ck), I can guarantee you that if I went to my parents and said, “Hey, uncle dan/cousin david/brother-in-law phil just tried to set A on fire” their reaction would not be but faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamily nor I’m sure it wasn’t that bad don’t make a scene but okay, dan/david/phil get out and be glad we’re not pressing assault charges. Don’t come back.

    2. Yes. The only thing you can control is your own choices.
      I’m not a big fan of issuing ultimatums, because that puts the other person in a position of determining your behavior, and kind of walks into the conversation assuming it’s going to be adversarial. The more conditions and moving parts are up for negotiation, the more complex and dramatic the conversation is likely to get.

      It’s usually both stronger and more …relaxed (for want of a better word) to just say what you want.

      “MomDad, we’ve decided we aren’t going to spend time around Dan anymore. When can we see you to make sure he’s not there?”

      Do want: Time with parents.
      Don’t want: Dan.
      Those are the given circumstances. Permission, persuading, loyalty, choosing sides, etc are not required.

      It’s just a question of logistics.

      Now, if the parents are particularly unreasonable it won’t be so simple. But it’s a solid place to start.

      IME, conflict-averse enablers who let bullies take over, are just as likely to go along with healthy assertion. So if that’s the family dynamic you might as well just take your ground.

    3. I read the advice as “refusing to be around him is fine, but if you don’t feel able to do that for (reasons), making a scene is a valid option too”. and it is a valid option. it’s the option that might make the sisters feel able to actually refuse to be around him next year. if the captain just told them not to go, and they’re in a place where that doesn’t feel like an option, they’re left in the exact same situation as they were before but with added guilt when he does something and they “let” him by going to family Christmas.

      it took me years to reach a point where I just refused to see the weird relatives (verbal bullying from aunt & uncle from age 8, no parental backup). hearing “so just… don’t go?” would’ve made me feel even more hopeless. I had to go, because REASONS (some of which looked like “I wanna go! if I try harder to be good, maybe…”, some looked like “but baby cousin!” and some looked like “mum says dad won’t go alone so by refusing to go I’m stopping him from seeing his brother. that’s really selfish.”).

  44. Phew this letter brought back some memories. Nobody ever tried to burn me with a lighter (that is extremely fucked up, btw) but my parents glossed over a litany of horrible holiday behavior from boob groper uncles to physically violent cousins to my horrible relatives’ relentless public interrogation of my romantic life (which was also racist as hell – their favorite question was whether I’d kissed any boys of whatever race they were particularly afraid of that year, also keep in mind this started when I was in elementary school). I haven’t celebrated Thanksgiving with my family since I was 21. My husband and I used to alternate families for Christmas visits, then we had our daughter and things got a little more logistically complicated. But while I was reading this letter and thinking about my ghosts of Christmas past, I suddenly had the quiet and wonderful realization that I don’t have to celebrate Christmas with my extended family ever again if I don’t want to. (That decision is helped by the fact that 80% of them remain enthusiastic supporters of one current US president whose name I can’t bear to type.)

    Good luck, LW, and hang in there!

  45. Ugh, why is it that the people who behave like this are always given a pass and have excuses made for them, while everyone else is expected to put up with it because “It’s just the way he is” or “Be the bigger person, take the high road, forgive forgive forgive”? Shouldn’t the needs of the many outweigh the jackass behaviour of the one?

    1. Why? Because enabling abuse cements social heirarchy.

      Imagine a white woman, 25ish, holding a lighter to a white man about her same age, ‘as a joke’. What reaction do you imagine?

      In movies, she’s straight to the mental hospital. A guy doing this would *probably* be the villain but he can also be the troubled sidekick who sacrifices himself, because he’s just that macho. See also – ‘guy who does that knife stabbing the table between the fingers trick’. There’s a reason it was the android who did it in Aliens.

    2. Right? Why is it never “that’s just the way I am and the abuser needs to be the bigger person and accommodate me”? Reminds me of a time I went roommate hunting and this guy had a baby gate up in the hall for his dog. I walked in, tons of barking. He handed me a dish of cut up hot dogs to give the dog and a list of complex instructions to get the dog to stop barking. I almost said, “Your dog is really good at human training.”

  46. Wow, this letter has been a real eye-opener. I read it and thought “Huh, that reminds me of the time when my family had an impromptu ‘contest’ to see who could keep those paper crowns from Christmas crackers on their heads the longest, which resulted in one of my aunts holding a lighter to the crown on the head of one of my other aunts (her sister) which everyone thought was hilarious and — Jesus Christ, my family super messed up.”

  47. I’ve said this in other contexts, sometimes saying “You knowI don’t like it” can help bring everyone else onto your side.

    In this case: “Don’t touch me Dan. You knowI don’t like it.”

    If LW and her sister lead with this as Dan approaches, every hug, every kiss, and certainly every lighter, is publicly proclaimed a problem.

    He’ll probably say that he didn’t know, to which LW and sister can respond: “You do now.”

    There’s a reasonable chance that for the rest of the party, people will tell off Dan as he approaches you two. “C’mon Dan! How often does she have to say leave her alone?” “Dan, I heard her, so you must’ve. Let it go.” Etc.

    1. That’s the approach I’d take, but I’d put a time frame on it.
      Full disclosure: I tend to jump from “Don’t make a scene” to “burn it all down” with no middle ground, if left to my own devices. It’s taken some work to actually use my words instead of smiling along because that’s what is expected of a well bred young lady.

  48. I’m so very sorry to hear you’re dealing with this situation. I agree with the Captain’s advice, and would also mention that it may be worthwhile to stay at a hotel (if you can afford it), so you have somewhere to GO if you need to leave on Christmas day when everything is closed.

  49. LW — First, thank you for being amazing about standing up for your sister.

    Second — it may help you to hear how I’ve dealt with a (milder!) similar situation.

    My brother’s FIL is a Trump Troll — old white dude who has had the women in his life saying ‘oh, that’s just Jimmy being Jimmy’ for his entire life. Last Christmas, he smacked me in the butt with a foam sword. (I firmly believe this was because I’m a liberal and he felt emboldened by Trumps election. He’s never done that before, always kept his trollishness to mild ‘joking’ verbal stuff.)

    I wrenched the sword out of his hand, glared daggers and handed it to his 5 y.o. grandson (my nephew) and said, “it’s wrong and bad to smack other people’s bottoms.”

    I turned to walk away and you know what he did? Of course you do.

    He grabbed the sword back from my nephew and smacked my butt again as I was walking away.

    I was, at that moment, so conditioned to ‘not spoil Christmas’ (I have a really… tense and complicated family situation) AND so unwilling to hit a 72-year-old man in front of his grandson that I merely kept walking and announced, in the next room, using my TOO LOUD voice “SIL, if your father touches my ass again, I’m going to break his arm.”

    “Go ahead,” she waved, with an indulgent smile. “He’s an asshole.”

    That was it. My parents, who were hosting, didn’t demand that he apologize. They didn’t say “I’m sorry this happened.” Nothing. I was once again dismissed as the loud and difficult daughter who was being too sensitive (that’s my family way of looking at me and I’m learning to embrace it) and Jimmy tried to hug me on the way out. (I did not let him.)

    So this year, I am not going to down for Christmas. I am not going down for MANY reasons (see above re: complicated family situation) but one of them is because my parents will invite him again. I will have to SAY something to him about not touching me again. And he is the sort of troll who will immediately do it, just because I told him not to. And then I’m going to have to hit an old man. (And, to be honest, I kinda WANT to provoke him and have an excuse to punch him, which is …. very very bad.)

    Now, these were two weak smacks on the butt. Not an OPEN FLAME ON BARE SKIN. And I withdrew from ever seeing him again. I feel like you have a way way way bigger casus belli here.

    I hope your family dis-invites this guy. And if they don’t and you and your sis are on your own that you have awesome friends who will have you over!

  50. I am having weird shudder-worthy memories of someone who I know, like, not a stranger, who thought that his mention of thinking about tying me up and putting me in the trunk of a car was, um, like a thing that it was okay to say.

  51. If you go:
    Role play with your sister as to naming the behavior very loudly if he does something to you, then role play naming it if he does something to her. Try every variation of this role playing you can think of, maybe including the names of any other cousins who will be there, in case he tries it on them.
    Stick close to your sister at all times. Hell, go to the bathroom together if you have to.
    Keep an eye on other vulnerable young women at this thing.
    Have a cell phone on you at all times. You can film him or you can dial the police.
    Think about going to the police, either before or after the fact. It is not your responsibility, but if you can do it then they have one more piece of the puzzle they can use. Document who and when you talked to, and what was said.

  52. To your parents: “So, you’re prioritizing his autonomy to make his idea of jokes over my right not to be burned?”

  53. I just want add two comments to all the excellent advice already given here, so:

    1) LW, Christmas with just you and your sister in pajamas and ridiculous slippers watching your favorite movies and eating microwave dinners without Dan The Guy Who Thinks Its Funny To Threaten People With Fire anywhere around could be a LOT of fun, if it’s even remotely an option for you.

    and 2) “You’ll have to choose whether you want your daughters or the man who threatened one of them with fire at Christmas. It seems like it should be an obvious choice, but we’re not going to be anywhere Dan is for a long time to come,” is absolutely a reasonable thing to say to your parents in the wake of Dan’s Thanksgiving assholery. Dan should not be trusted, at all, ever, from this past Thanksgiving until the end of time. He’s dangerous, and you have the right to skip events where he’s in attendance forever if you want to. That would not be an overreaction, it would be plain good sense.

  54. I work in retail and last week I saw a customer’s grown up son / other relative doing that same “joke” with a lighter she just bought. I simply didn’t know what to say. She shrugged it of about four times before he let it go.
    My brother used to do that as well at family gatherings.
    I just don’t get the fun part of threatening to burn someone. I also don’t get why this seems to be generally accepted behaviour.
    (Oh, and it was always the same gender constellation, in case anyone wonders.)

    LW, I think you are so cool for standing up for your sister, and for speaking up while your family prefers to ignore what happens. That takes a lot of energy. This “joke” is not a little thing, and it sure as hell is not funny.

  55. Can you low key check in with this dude’s wife? Because if he’s acting this cavalierly sociopathic in front of witnesses, I think it’s safe to assume he’s even worse alone.

  56. “Why Does He Do That?: inside the minds of angry and controlling men” by Lundy Bancroft is an amazing helpful book. Lundy Bancroft BTW is a MAN. A man who sees it, calls it out, and wants to change it. These books always seem to be written by women. It is in the library. Much insight, and helpful suggestions. They are not easy, but they are helpful. Not better than the Captain, of course, just said differently.

  57. LW, please immediately and repeatedly name what Dan has done to everybody who will be involved in Christmas. Everybody. Do not allow this incident to be pretended away or kept secret.

    You may have to make some hard choices, depending on how your parents respond. Here are some possible responses:

    “But it’s Christmas!” “Please explain how Christmas requires anybody to put up with Dan, who attacked your daughter with fire.”

    “But he was only joking!” “So, did you laugh? When you saw or heard about it? Was it funny, that he attacked your daughter with fire?”

    “But family!” “Are you saying that family unity requires you to allow Dan, who attacked your daughter with fire, into the house? Are you saying that in order to be a good daughter, my sister must constantly watch her back for Dan, who attacked her with fire?”

    If they get mad at you: don’t go. And immediately tell everybody involved why you are not going.

    Hopefully their response will not be any of the above, but will instead be, “You’re right. Dan is dangerous. He attacked our daughter with fire. He can’t come to the house anymore.” But it’s best not to live solely on hope.

  58. If you choose to never be in the same room as Dan, that would be perfectly understandable. And, as everybody has said, if you do go, it’s completely okay to make a scene and leave the second Dan starts acting creepy or assaulting you.

    One thing I’d add is, if you have the emotional energy and feel comfortable doing so, you could reach out to Dan’s wife. It’s possible (likely?) that she’s being abused. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that if she’s ever in trouble, she should reach out for help. And let her know that, even though Dan’s behaviour is completely unacceptable, you don’t want him to isolate her from her loved ones. Of course, all this will depend on your relationship with your cousin. And, above all, your first duty in this kind of situation is to yourself and your sister, to make sure that you are safe.

  59. I would file assault charges for Dan ‘jokingly’ trying to burn someone on Thanksgiving – TWICE. The statute of limitations can’t have expired, and there are plenty of witnesses. This would preemptively solve the problem of Christmas.

    1. This will be a waste of time, unless Sis is willing to spend a lot of time and energy insisting that the police and prosecutors actually arrest and file charges. Even then, it’s unlikely to result in any legal consequences. Much better (and easier) to just tell Mom and Dad ‘him or us, you choose.’

  60. Have you spoken with Amy about Dan? She may be trying to keep him around her family because she feels safer that way. Does he treat her like this? Do they have children? Pets? Is there somewhere safe she can go if she needs to leave quickly? Is she ‘stuck’ with him for reasons she feels are beyond her control?

  61. I come from an extremely dysfunctional family and my brother was a “Dan” and my family was full of excuse making jerkoffs. The only way to win is not to play. If the fam won’t exclude “Dan” you’ll have to exclude yourself, or run the risk of getting burnt (literally). I’m sorry, people are horrible including sometimes family.

  62. Reality check: In my lifetime, I have never had someone try to burn me with a lighter. Before this thread, I’ve never met anyone who has told me they’ve experienced that or done that. THAT’S HOW ODD THIS IS.

    You might ask your parents if anyone has ever tried to burn them with a lighter, or if they have ever tried to burn someone with a lighter. You might ask them how they’d feel if he did it to the dog or a 10-year old child. You might ask them what they’d do if something caught fire or someone was burned. You might ask them how they’d react if you tried to burn someone with a lighter at Christmas. Your parents need many gigantic reality checks.

    If you decide to not to spend Christmas there, you could tell them, “I’m afraid he’ll try to burn me or hurt me. I’m scared I’ll get hurt. It’s not safe to play with fire or startle people with fire. We’ve told him to stop several times and he does it over and over again. I’m afraid he’ll just keep doing it.” You could keep calmly repeating variations on the fucking obvious theme that his behavior is dangerous and hurtful. “What if someone bumps into him and he accidentally burns me or my sleeve catches fire? What if a paper napkin catches fire next to grandma and she gets burned? What if he thinks of a more dangerous ‘prank’ to play for Christmas? What if he’s doing stuff like this to his wife all the time and she’s scared?”

    When I was in high school back before kids were taught to be civil, a group of boys went through a phrase where they’d walk up behind a girl and grab the back of her neck, pretending to choke her. When one of them did it to me, I involuntarily screamed. I was so terrified of being choked that I was frozen in place, worried that if I tried to move it would get worse. The boy let go, and I spun around and started yelling at him — pretty much all the Captain’s scripts, but it was just instinctive and natural. “What are you doing? Don’t ever do that again! That’s not funny!” Rubbing my neck the whole time. About a week later, a different boy started to tiptoe up behind me to grab my neck. The first boy ran up to him and said, “Don’t do it to her. Seriously, don’t.” I heard him and spun around again. I yelled, “STOP CHOKING GIRLS. ALL OF YOU.” That gave other girls the courage to chime in, “Yeah, I hate it.” “Yes, please stop.” etc. The fad died that day. It still strikes me how my unfettered instinctive reaction led the charge to stop their scary behavior. It helped everyone — me, the other girls, and even them because it taught them how to act.

    God, I feel sorry for this guy’s wife. I hope she’s safe or can find her way to safety. I wish you all the best.

  63. Cut this fool out of your life NOW. He won’t get better. In younger years I almost married into a family headed by a “prank” loving asshole…he was at least 60 years old at the time and thought it was funny to pull people over backwards in their chairs (head meet hardwood floor), fling shoes across dining room tables (hot coffee in the lap is hilarious!) and throw lawn darts into people’s legs and backsides. The rest of the family was all “oh, that’s just dear old dad”. Story has a happy ending in that some time after I’d broken up with the son, prank-dad was severely stomped by a horse, which though it didn’t kill him, slowed his roll considerably.

  64. Hello, LW here. I want to thank everyone for their comments and suggestions. I have talked to my parents and found out that they did not know what he did at Thanksgiving. Apparently my mom thought everything was fine, then heard shouting and then realized we were leaving. She knows what happened now. I have also explained that we will not tolerate anything like that happening at Christmas and we will leave if it happens.

    We are going up a couple days before and are planning to leave mid-afternoon. So my exit strategy is to have everything packed in the car and ready to go before the extended family comes over. I also plan to make sure that the car does not get blocked in when the relatives come over.

    I will let everyone know what happens. My parents have been told to keep us far away from him.

      1. I’m wondering if it might be a good idea to take Dan aside when you first see him, and tell him something like “burning my sister with your lighter at Thanksgiving was over the line. Please leave my sister and I alone so I can enjoy these few hours with the whole family.”

  65. OP, I’ve dealt with problem people before (not as bad as Dan, but pretty sucky) and an attitude that has served me well is that I don’t want to be around these people and they are not my problem. As much as you might want to spend the holidays with your family, NONE OF THIS is your responsibility to deal with. You shouldn’t have to defend yourself against a fellow guest. I hope this works out happily for you and your sister.

  66. One quick thought to remove any and all “ruining Christmas” guilt – why is Dan spending all the holidays with the OP’s family instead of his own? I’m 99.99% sure it’s because his own flesh and blood are sick of his evil s*** and have uninvited him.

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