When and How To Tell The Truth

This clipping is from The Ethicist, a column that appears in the Sunday NYT Magazine.   It’s a couple of weeks old but I haven’t had a moment to get to it.   Better late than never, I hope.

The idea behind this column is that folks send ethical/moral dilemmas and ask the columnist for advice.   I’ve never been sure what sort of authority the columnist has (and the preceding ethicist often gave answers I thought were wrong).   Anyway, here’s the question for the column at issue:

I didn’t find out for years, but I fathered a child with a woman in my neighborhood who was, and still is, married to another man. The girl does not know about any of this. Neither does the husband. At the mother’s request, I have had nothing to do with the girl, though I offered to tutor her. Does she have a right to know her true parentage upon reaching adulthood? Sooner? Over the objection of the mother? Only when the husband dies? Who can make these decisions and when?

It’s worth reading the response offered by Ariel Kaminer, the current ethicist.   Actually, if you read it, I’m not sure what I have left to add, because in this instance I pretty much agree with her down the line.

As an abstract matter, I’m a huge advocate of honesty.   Adrienne Rich’s essay “Women and Honor:  Some Notes on Lying” is a touchstone of my life.   And yet it seems to me that this is yet another instance where the passage of time, and the events that occur while time is passing, create all sorts of complications.

It’s easy to say that honesty all around would have been the best course.  But in this instance people weren’t honest all around.   In particular, it sounds like the mother of the child in question has lied or otherwise kept important information from coming to life.

Let’s agree that’s bad.  Let’s agree the whole affair while married thing isn’t so good either.   But time has passed and now there’s a young girl (age unclear) who lives in a family that is built on a foundation of dishonesty.   It’s all well and good to say that it’s likely that this is recipe for disaster–at some point the truth will likely be known–but none of that tells us what ought to be done and who ought to do it.

I agree with Kaminer that the man who posed the question here isn’t well situated to figure out how to proceed.    I worry most about the child and I hope that her parents (and I do consider the husband and wife raising her to be her parents, as does the law) are trying to find a way forward that would involve telling the truth.  (Of course, it isn’t at all clear that her father knows that there is truth to be told.)

There’s a broader issue here, too, beyond what to do in this specific case.   At one point Kaminer writes:

Abstract appeals to truth don’t amount to much in this case, since there is more than one truth at play: the genetic truth, in which you and the girl are as close as any parent and child; and the emotional truth, in which her mother’s husband is her father, and you’re just some guy staring at her from across the street.

Perhaps it really is time for a dual family system, one that can recognize (and give specified legal weight to) two different sorts of relationships–the social/psychological and the genetic.

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13 responses to “When and How To Tell The Truth

  1. Neither you nor Ariel Kaminer address the impact of continued secrecy on the daughter. I haven’t read Adrienne Rich’s essays (just her poetry) but I think you would get a better grip on this issue by reading ethicist Sisela Bok’s Secrets and another long essay, “Lying to Children.”
    Unless you’ve been a child whose parents have lied to you about your origins, you probably would not know how deeply such deception hurts a child. I’ve known hundreds of adopted and donor-conceived people who grew up in secrecy and were not told the truth until puberty or adulthood. I was 37 when I found out. Parents assume that they can lie effectively to their child, even about something as essential as this. Unless they’re sociopathic, they can’t pull it off. Children sense the lie; they sense something important is being withheld. Many of us began to pick up clues at an early age and by the time we reach puberty, we’ve accumulated enough unconscious signals to begin suspecting our paternity. Adopted people may be clearer about it since the genetic differences of two unrelated parents can be quite obvious, both in appearances and in character traits. When one parent is genetically related, then the result is often intensely baffling. When such children are finally told, there is a mixture of profound sense of betrayal about the years of deception as well as elation that long-held suspicions are confirmed.
    I don’t expect you to simply believe this since we cannot provide sociological data that would meet the scientific test (impossible to obtain control data from children/adults who remain in a status of deception). The infertility profession’s century-old presumptuous advice that the child should not be told have hurt unknown numbers of people, not just the children but the parents as well. Relationships between parent and child have been constricted by secrecy and marriages have also suffered when two partners disagree about disclosure.
    It is also unwise to conclude that years of deception make it desirable to continue the lies. I’ve interviewed hundreds of DI adults about their response to a late disclosure. The prevalent view is that it is mostly beneficial despite the loss of trust. Actually, these people had already stopped trusting their mothers years before disclosure. By the time of disclosure, a majority of the fathers had already divorced. Very few of those fathers who remain in the marriage have managed to have a close relationship with the DI adult (I stress that I don’t extend these conclusions to include the unknowable hundreds of thousands of DI adults).

  2. Perhaps I did not make my view clear. I think it is wrong to lie to a child, just as I think it is wrong of the wife to lie to the husband. I do not doubt that it does great harm in many (if not all) cases. Part of the point of the Rich essay is also that lying is an essentially selfish act–we lie to save ourselves the trouble of dealing with the problems telling the truth raises, and that’s true here, too. But it is also true that the lie has been told and retold for a long time.

    I do not say that because I think the passage of time negates the need to tell the truth or minimizes the harm. In some ways it magnifies the harm. But the passage of time is important to me. The child–whose welfare I consider paramount–has a life she has lived and a family she knows.

    It’s fine for me to say she should be told the truth–and I think she should be. But I think the man who wrote (who does not know her) is hardly the person to accomplish this task. He has absolutely no sense of the context in which he’s delivering the information. He’s not a friend or even an aquaintance. I think quite it possible that while it would be better for her to know the truth, learning it from him would do more harm than good.

    As is so often the case, it seems to me that the devil is in the details. She should know the truth–but who will tell her? How and when? If I could speak to the mother I’d say pick a time–and make it soon–where in an environment you choose, at a time you choose, you can introduce the topic. Because the alternative is probably some rude awakening, which is doubtless worse.

  3. What he should do is warn her that he’s going to file a suit to establish paternity so he can start supporting his daughter and visiting with her and including her as part of her own family as she should have been from the very beginning. Its most definitely his place to tell his own daughter the truth, he has a duty to her and none to her Mother. Also its not just the Mother who is taking advantage of the child’s step Dad, its him too. He does not have to stand by and let the step father pay to take care of a child that his wife had while cheating on him. Its not his responsibility and its not fair to him. The man that wrote the letter is just as much at fault for lying to his daughter and his daughter’s step father at this point as the child’s mother.

    Its unfortunate that the law is so backwards they probably would not correct the record and disestablish paternity for the step father so that the father could establish his paternity and start supporting his child as he should have been doing all along. He owes his child his financial support as well as his physical protection and guidance while growing up. He owes nothing to his daughter’s mother other than to treat her courteously.

    If the step father wanted to stay married after learning of the affair and wanted to legitimize his relationship with his step daughter and the father was willing to sign the forms the step father could adopt the man’s daughter fair and square and of his own free will. Or he could just live with her as a step father and the child would benefit from her Father’s support even if she did not want to see him at this time in her life.

    If he remains chicken, cowardly and bullied into not taking care of their child, then he should not let that stop him from providing for her now. He should add her to his will and take out a life insurance policy naming her as the beneficiary – even a little $10 a month one would give her 15K if he passed away. If that happened before she turned 18 he should instruct someone to put it in a trust for her until she’s an adult. He should put letters and birthday cards etc in a safety deposit box and he should give them to her on her 18th birthday. He should explain that he wanted to be there for her but the Mother forbade it and he was trying to respect her wishes because the court would not give him custody as long as she was married. He should tell his entire family about her so he can say in all honesty that they’ve all been waiting for her 18 birthday to welcome her into the family any time she wants. I’ve got too many friends whose fathers sat by and let other men raise their kids because that is what the mother wanted. The kids resent the hell out of them and their mothers for that. Its chicken sht. 2 of my friends Dad’s I found and my friends have changed their names to what it should have been all along. They love their stepfathers and it does not change how they feel about them but they want their own name and family too.

    • I share your concern for the child, but what I take from this is that you are quite sure that it would do less harm to the child for him to leap in and just tell her–even though he has no idea (as far as we can tell) about the specific situation–than it would do to let the situation continue as it is. I am just not so sure of that. There’s at least a fair chance that the apparently stable home this girl has known for years would explode, right? You’re sure that’s less damaging than not knowing the truth. I cannot share that certainty.

      This is not the same as saying it was okay to lie in the first place. I feel the need to deal with the actual reality that exists–people did lie. I don’t think we have the luxury of being so pure as saying the lie must be undone at all costs. I suppose if you actually met the chlid you would feel obliged to tell her immediately? Because after all, if telling her the truth is more important than any of the consequnces that might flow from it, why should a complete stranger hold back? I am always uncomfortable with set-in-stone convictions that aren’t particularly supported by strong evidence and take no account of situations.

      • Your so provincial and old fashioned its beyond belief. Your so concerned with keeping up appearances and not upsetting the apple cart. Lets suppose her stepfather is a fantastic guy that loves her dearly and would never let anything come between him and the little girl he’s raised since birth. If he is that great at raising kids, he won’t let a little thing like a divorce get in the way of his continued relationship with that child. In fact I’m quite sure (sadly) that courts would be reluctant to correct the record (you have taught me that). Its unlikely that they’d disestablish paternity for him and establish it for the father so that responsibility could finally be with the proper person. At least the step father would have an opportunity to decide for himself whether to stay or go, like I said if he’s that bonded to the child he will be just as good at it divorced as he was married. The father would then no longer be party to defrauding his child, the step father and the government. The child would know the truth, have an opportunity to pursue a relationship with her father and the rest of her paternal family if she so desires and at least she’ll know she meant enough to her relatives to fight for and not just walk away saying “oh its all for the best”. If her stepfather is a really stellar guy she’ll have a chance to see his dedication to her despite blood ties and she might even tell the court she wants to live with the step dad full time. That has happened and you wrote about it here on your blog.

        The father of this child is knee deep in actively deceiving his own child, the state and federal government, the step father and his entire family. He is no stranger he is a perpetrator. Its not like he’s a nosey neighbor telling the kid and has no stake in the game. [That describe’s me not him. That’s what I do. Yes, I’m totally fine with it. “Surprise your adopted! Your Mother and whole family are waiting waiting by the phone for your call. Got a pen?”]

        • I don’t believe I’ve ever been called provincial and old-fashioned. Should I be charmed or offended?

          Though I may in fact be provincial and old-fashioned, I don’t think that explains the difference between us here. Rather, I think I see a world of variations and textures where you tend to see black and white. I’m not sure what to call that.

          Neither of us know any of the particulars in here, though we can certainly speculate. I think that what we do not know is important–that it matters. I cannot say what the relationships in the child’s home are like. Neither can I say what would happen if truth were told. I cannot say what is better for this child at this point, even though I can agree on the harm done by the lie.

          it strikes me as quite remarkable that knowing so little you are so sure you know the best course of action for this child. It’s actually a little scary. It suggests to me that no information about the details of the situation could convince you that perhaps it was a bad idea for the man who wrote to talk to the child. I can only say that this seems to me to be acting in serious disregard for the well-being of the particular chlid whose life we are talking about. This isn’t a generalized question about what would have been right or wrong at the beginning–this is about a real person in a real life. I find it very hard to offer definitive advice even to friends I know well. Are you always so sure you know best what people ought to do?

          (FWIW, you need some apostrophes in your comment.)

          • Not having gone to school I would not know where to put if I saw it. An apostrophe that is.

            You are super old fashioned. I do not presume to know what is “best” for anyone, but I can spot a situation where someone is being treated unfairly, unjustly or is being played for a fool and I know that if I am in a position to let that person know what they have every right to know, and I do not, that I then, have dirt on my hands as well. Their truth is theirs to deal with, theirs to manage and so long as the truth is told not with malace or an intention to slander and defame or belittle then the messenger has nothing to worry about and they did a good thing. Of course learning an unpleasant truth sucks its aweful and your world can feel like its coming crashing down but the father has an obligation to look after his own child even if she does not want to see him ever. He should be putting money away for her letting her know that he is there and that she is welcome in the family if she ever needs anything. That is is job and he needs to do it. How will that harm the child? Why does that have to undermine her relationship with the man who has been raising her? It does not have to destroy that relationship at all, in fact she may never want anything to do with her father – but it should be her choice and its his job to make sure that his child has that choice and its his job not to allow some other man to fork up her whole college tuition when he could go halvsies with bio dad. So while I can’t say I know what’s best I’m well qualified to say what is unfair and he’s treating his child and his ex-girlfriend’s husband unfairly. Marriage is a temporary relationship it always ends at death while parenthood is always permanent.

            So do you think in other situations where we see people being treated unfairly that the people dishing out the unfair treatment should continue to do it? The shock of suddenly being treated fairly and told the truth may just be too traumatizing for them so its safer to simply maintain the lie. Its for their own good. Yes, at least their reaction to deception is a known quantity. It reminds me of how my mother use to say ending apartheid was a bad Idea because the shock of all that freedom would cause utter chaos. Imagine what an embarrassment it was growing up with that mother in San Francisco. She’s blood I’m related to that attitude. The truth they can’t handle the truth, but they seem to tolerate lies just beautifully.

            • I embarrassed my mom plenty too. I don’t mean to sound like I don’t care about her. I love my mom despite her prejudices.

            • I will assume here that the person you say is being treated unfairly/unjustly is the child? (I would not use either of those words to describe the problem here, for whatever that might be worth. I might instead say she’s a person who has been deceived.) I don’t think we disagree all that much about that.

              Where we part company is the next step–what do we do about it? And here is where I find your certainty chilling. Your sure that the best thing is just for the nearest person to march in and set everyone straight on the truth. I do not know the best way to correct the wrong that has been done. For me, it depends on the specifics of the particular situation.

              Haven’t we seen enough news stories about family members who, when confronted with unpleasant truths, snap out and start shooting to be just a bit worried about how and when the message is delivered? Would you really just knock on the door after dinner, invite yourself in and tell everyone the truth?

              • “I will assume here that the person you say is being treated unfairly/unjustly is the child? ” For Pete sake I can say over and over again that I think the step father is being taken advantage of and you just – what blink really long and skip those sentences? The law as it is enslaves stepfathers even if they love their wife’s children very much the responsibility is clearly being placed in the wrong hands and it results in loss all the way around, the father and father’s family loose out on the emotional experience of the father being involved in his child’s life, the child looses financial support of her father, the emotional experience of being raised by the father who created her among her own relatives, she looses inheritance from paternal relatives. The step father looses his money. The child looses the ability to make informed medical decisions as an adult and looses the ability to avoid having sex with her own paternal relatives and looses the chance to do so with people who are not her relatives but she thinks are related to her (I’m thinking like her stepfather’s sister’s child or grandchild someone she thinks is her cousin but is not) The list goes on and on.
                What does she gain from the lie? What does the stepfather gain from the lie? A father daughter-like relationship that they could just as easily have as step father and step daughter without either of them loosing anything?
                Julie I want to as an asside just mention that its not a good idea to start making broad assumptions that someone will react to the truth with a shot gun. You cannot take responsibility for another person’s reaction to reality. I stayed with an abusive boyfriend long ago because he would threaten to kill himself or me. My friends said you cant take responsibility for his actions so I finally left, beaten up. He called me at work told me he was going to kill himself that it was my fault and then the gun went off. He shot himself on the phone after telling me it was my fault. That was not my fault. I did not kill him by leaving him. You can’t live your life in fear that someone else has psychological problems and will react badly to the truth.

                • In truth I do have trouble reading some of the long sentences and paragraphs you write–it is hard on a screen (at least for me). Sorry.

                  Okay–the step-father. (By the way, we could have a discussion here about what makes a person a step-father, but that’s for another day. I don’t think he is a step-father. But let’s just go on.)

                  He’s been lied to and decieved, no question. Or we think no question. We actually do not know what he knows–we at best know what the wife told the other man about what he knows–and we know she is quite capable of lying.

                  But put all that uncertainty aside. I think the question of whether the man in question should go talk to the husband is a rather different question from whether he (or anyone else) should go talk to the child. Adults are, to my mind, in a different category. If the man who wrote to the paper wants to go talk to the husband, I really don’t object. I’m not sure it is wise (again, I’d like to know circumstances), but I don’t have the same feeling about it.

                  You seem somewhat fixated on the money part, so for what it is worth let me say that in law the husband’s obligation to support the child will be unaffected. There’s little doubt in my mind that he is the legal father of this child (I know you don’t like it) and thus has an obligation for support. And to my mind it is actually right (speaking morally, I guess) that he bears this obligation. He is (again in my mind–you will not agree) the only father this child has ever known. It may be that he wants to step out of her life when he learns that she was born as the result of an affair conducted by his wife. This would sadden me, but no doubt it is his right to do so. But I don’t think he ought to deny the reality of what he has meant to the child.

  4. I suppose this isn’t the question you were asking Julie, but how is the wife so sure that kid isn’t her husbands? If she was sleeping with both of them at the same time… and if she wasn’t you could bet the husband would be a little bit suspicious beforehand? or if it’s so obvious, like one man is white and the other black or something it kinda would be hard to hide from anyone invovled, but if its not so obvious how does she know? Or maybe the husband was infertile, and he thinks a miracle happened.

    • I wondered this myself. And it seems pretty obvious that the mother is the source of the information. For all we know, it might not even be true–she might have told him this in spite, as a way to torment him.

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