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Heavy Meddle: In Which Steve Apologizes For Getting It Wrong

Steve Almond: My response in yesterday’s column was, in the words of several commenters, “way off.” (Jan Jacobsen/Wikimedia Commons)
Steve Almond: My response in yesterday’s column was, in the words of several commenters, “way off.” (Jan Jacobsen/Wikimedia Commons)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Dear Readers,

I’ve been writing this column for nearly a year now and in most cases, I think I do an okay job responding to folks, given the information I have to work with.

But my response in yesterday’s column was, in the words of several commenters, “way off.”

And one of the things I emphasize a lot — both to readers, and to my family — is the importance of admitting when you’re wrong and, even more important, apologizing in earnest.

Just the other day, in a moment of excitement, my older daughter (age 7) spit into my ear. Although I let my daughter get away with a lot of tomfoolery, this felt like too much. So I told her that such behavior wasn’t alright. And because she felt ashamed by my admonition, she looked at her brother and laughed.

Which is when I gave her a pretty stern speech about apologizing when you know you’ve messed up, and how I felt disrespected by her spitting and her laughter and had a right to be. It was a pretty rough little patch for us, but a necessary lesson.

And so I need to say to the author of yesterday’s letter, Rattled in Boston, and to my other readers: I apologize. I screwed up. My response, though well-intentioned, missed the mark. I didn’t really listen to what Rattled was saying.

I don’t want this to seem like inside baseball, so here’s what Rattled wrote:

My husband of 30 years and I get along really well, are still in love, and he is devoted husband and father to our grown sons. The reason I am writing is that my older son, who is in his mid-20s, has been dating someone quite seriously for about a year. His girlfriend is a smart, interesting and beautiful young woman who lives in another state and plans to move to Boston in the fall. Meanwhile, they visit as often as they can. She was here a couple of weeks ago and we were all at a family dinner. My husband was chatting with his brother on FaceTime and when my son and his girlfriend came in he turned the iPhone towards the couple and said to his brother, "Doesn't my son have good taste in women?"

I didn't say anything at the time, but the comment bothered me because I thought it reduced her to "object" status. Then, a few days later we were all sharing a meal together and the topic turned to her rather exotic looks and my husband referred to her as a "Persian Empress." Again I found myself cringing, even though he said it in a good-natured, humorous way and no one except me seemed to mind.

I might be too conservative, but it doesn't feel appropriate to me for him to be commenting on his son's girlfriend's beauty in this way. When I mentioned it to him he became very upset and said there was nothing wrong with it and my suggesting that there was made him feel extremely hurt. I know he would never do anything to hurt his sons or me, and I feel really bad that I upset him. On the other hand, his comments didn't sit right with me and still don't and I can't get rid of that feeling. So, I'm hoping you can offer some perspective on the situation. Thank you!

You can read my original response here, but the Reader’s Digest version is that I emphasized Rattled’s potential feelings of neglect rather than the fact that her husband’s comments were inappropriate and offensive.

A proud father, of course, has every right to express pride in his son’s choice of a girlfriend. But as commenters rightly noted, doing so in a manner that makes an issue of her ethnicity (referring to her as a “Persian Empress”), and that calls attention to her beauty — as opposed to the content of her character — is disrespectful. Whether it’s intended to or not, it fetishizes this young woman as an “exotic.”

It sends the wrong message to the girlfriend (you are of value for your physical appearance) and, perhaps more important, is sends the wrong message to Rattled’s son about the respect his partner deserves.

Rattled was asking me, in some ways, whether I could see this, because she was being made to feel, by her husband in particular, that her objections were overblown. They were not.

Had I read her letter more carefully, and been more thoughtful in my response, I would have figured that out and urged her to explain to her husband, as lovingly as possible, that regardless of his intent it was disrespectful for him to judge this young woman (or any other) in the way he did.

Rattled’s husband may not be able to see the error of his ways. That, too, is a part of marriage.

To be clear: there have been times when commenters haven’t liked my advice. That’s not the reason I’m writing this. I writing it because I missed the point of her letter, and made her feel judged rather than understood, and because when you’re wrong you apologize.

I’ll try to do better next time.

Your loyal kibitzer,
Steve

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