Earlier this year my uncle (mother’s brother) coerced my 85 year old grandmother (his own mother, who is increasingly blind and deaf, has been housebound and reliant on in-home care for the last few years, with some memory loss/mild dementia) into “lending” him a four-figure sum of money that represented a significant chunk of her overall net worth. He claimed he had a mortgage coming through in a few days and would pay her back then. That was several months ago and he has still not paid her back. My grandmother admitted to other family members, but not to him, that she didn’t want to give him the money and felt coerced but didn’t know how to say no.
Since then we’ve taken steps to protect my grandma and her finances (my mother now has power of attorney but my uncle doesn’t, her chequebook is no longer kept in her house, her bank have been alerted that she is at risk of financial abuse and have put a watch on her account for large sums going out), but there’s nothing we can do about the money she already gave my uncle; in the eyes of the law and the bank it’s assumed she’s legally able to consent to giving such a gift, though I have serious qualms about her actual ability to properly consent, the fact that she said she felt coerced, the ugly power imbalances in play etc.
My mother’s reaction has been disappointing but not surprising. I learnt at a very young age that I couldn’t rely on her to have my back if her own anxiety was in play, and in this situation she refused to intervene because she was afraid that her mother/my grandmother “would be mad at her for getting involved” and she prioritised wanting to avoid that conflict over actually keeping her vulnerable parent safe. She doesn’t approve of what my uncle did, but she’s been expressing this mostly in Marge Simpson disapproval noises rather than, say, actually having a conversation with him about the fact that he did something so gross and unethical.
No one, as far as I can tell, has actually called my uncle out about what he did. I know I can’t presume to understand someone else’s financial circumstances, but this is a man who owns and rents out multiple properties, who pays no tax because his job is overseas most of the year and who has non-vulnerable family members with significant savings – there are at least two other people in his life whom it would have been more appropriate for him to try to borrow money from, and it sickens me that instead he strongarmed the most vulnerable person in the family.
My uncle and his family still send me a Christmas gift each year, usually a small amount of cash. What he did to my grandma is a huge violation of my own ethical boundaries, and I feel really uncomfortable taking money from him. I’m also experiencing a strong desire to call him out somewhere publicly and make him suffer and feel afraid the way he made his own mother suffer and feel afraid, in spite of not generally being a vengeful person.
However, I’m a pretty reserved person and don’t generally share how I’m feeling, and the idea of making a big deal of this (either on social media or in person) is horrifying to me despite the fact that I feel like there should be more personal consequences for him as a result of his actions than he’s currently experiencing. I’m feeling strong pressure from my mother to keep my mouth shut about this, because she doesn’t want drama either, but the idea of him getting away with this eats at me. I also don’t know whether my aunt and cousins know that he did this, and whether they approve of his actions or not if they do know about it. On the whole they’re a more emotive/dramatic family than we are and I can see a public callout going wrong if they decide they’re on Team Uncle rather than Team Grandma.
So, my questions: are there any classy ways to make my disgust and disappointment clear to him? To refuse a cash gift at Christmas (I just cannot take money from someone who thinks it’s okay to do what he did)? I’m really torn between wanting him to suffer and really not wanting to make a scene. It’s been a bad year to be a man who abuses power, but I’m also really aware of the extent to which I’ve been socialised to give bad men who abuse their power the benefit of the doubt – part of my discomfort around calling him out is that small voice saying “well maybe there are extenuating circumstances you don’t understand and you should avoid making a fuss just in case”. But I really don’t think he should be able to walk away from this with his reputation intact.
What to do?
Fuck You, Uncle Dickbag
Here is where we differentiate between “solving the problem” and “making a tiny gesture that might make you feel better.” Your mom has taken every possible step to stop this from happening again. You can’t make her confront your uncle or mold their relationship into something that it isn’t. There is probably no way you can get your Grandma’s money back from him or get the family to react to him as you do. So what can you do? You mentioned his annual gift. What if you gave the money to your Grandma and sent him a nice note in a pretty card that said something like this?
“Dear Uncle & Family,
Thanks so much for your gift! I hope you don’t mind, I just passed it on to Grandma, so Uncle can subtract $X from the loan repayment he owes her. Merry Christmas!
Alternately, send the cash back with the card:
“Dear Uncle & Family,,
Thanks so much for your gift! It was very thoughtful, but I’m returning it so Uncle can put it towards paying Grandma back for that loan. Merry Christmas!”
Is it a little passive-aggressive? Sure.
Does it solve the overall problem? No. Not every problem is solvable and this one is pretty far out of your control.
Does it let him know that you know what he did? Yes.
Does it help you to not be silent about this? Maybe? I hope so? I think that it can be valuable to stand up for yourself and your values even if the world won’t change right that second, and that we get better at this with practice.
If there is backlash it helps to have a short, repeatable statement ready, something that truthfully names the behavior and that is hard to argue with: “Until Uncle pays Grandma back for that loan, I just don’t feel right taking money.” Keep the focus on you & your feelings – “You can do whatever you want, I just don’t feel right taking money from him knowing that he owes Grandma so much money.”