Heavy Meddle: In Trying To Protect My Niece, I Lost My Only Sister

An allegation of molestation becomes the dividing line for a family.
An allegation of molestation becomes the dividing line for a family. (Watari/Unsplash)

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Dear Steve,

A few years ago, my niece, then in her 20s, told me that her father had molested her for years, ending when she was about 9. I am very sorry to say that at first I didn't understand what she was saying — not just because she phrased it very obliquely, but also because her father, my sister's husband, was someone I would have trusted with my life.

Once I got it, though, I became convinced that she was telling the truth. So did the lawyer I helped her find, and the police detective who interviewed her at length. (He told me later she was one of the most believable witnesses he'd encountered in 20 years.) When my niece told an exchange student who had lived with the family during the time of the abuse, that young woman broke down crying and said that she had witnessed the abuse and had immediately told my sister, who angrily denounced her for saying "such horrible things after all we've done for you."

Ultimately, the police decided not to pursue the case; they emphasized, however, that they absolutely believed the abuse occurred. So do I. But here's the thing: My sister still does not. As a result, she has told me that she can no longer have a relationship with me. That causes me great pain, even though I kind of get it: He's her husband, she doesn't believe it and I do, so that's that.

My question for you is this: Should I continue to try to convince her that it's true? I have been pretty blunt about what I know, but I suppose I could do more. In the face of her denial, though — which is so extensive that she even says she does not remember the angry confrontation with the exchange student — I don't know that it would change anything. And there's a part of me that wonders whether my really forcing her to give up that denial would, frankly, destroy her. She's built her whole identity around being a great wife and mother. But I also worry that, if she ever does come to believe it, the pain of having denied it for so long will be worse, and will keep her from reaching out to me even then.

Most of the time I am just grateful that my niece has come out of this ordeal healthy and well (though she has understandably cut off contact with her parents), and I accept that I just cannot fix this relationship and try to focus on the rest of my life. But she's my only sister and I miss her. Beyond that selfish motive, I worry about her. She posts a lot on social media about her blissful life, but I just can't see how she can be truly happy. So: Do I try to make her face a horrible truth in hopes that it will lead to a more genuine life? Or do I give up, tell myself it's her choice, and accept the loss of my only sister?



Dear Sisterless,

This is a wrenching circumstance. I feel awful for your niece, for you, and for your sister. I think you already know the answer to your question. You believe your brother-in-law molested his young daughter for years. Your sister categorically denies this. I can’t speak to the validity of the underlying claims, but they are of a magnitude that would appear to forbid reconciliation.

This is one of the tragic side effects of alleged sexual abuse: it tears families asunder. You hear this over and over again, from both survivors and the accused. What you regard as a compassionate effort to help your niece achieve justice registers to your sister as an unbearable betrayal. Conversely, if you had sided with your sister, you would be betraying your niece and (I imagine) your conscience. There is no good choice to make here.

But it’s important to recognize that you have made a clear choice here. You mention helping your niece find a lawyer, and it sounds like you were familiar with, if not actively involved in, an attempt to have your brother-in-law criminally investigated. I’m not citing this as a criticism, merely observing that you’ve become an advocate for your niece. This is why any attempt to convince your sister to face this “horrible truth” is likely to fall on deaf ears. If she’s going to reckon with allegations against her husband, it will have to be when she’s ready to do so, if ever.

If she’s going to reckon with allegations against her husband, it will have to be when she’s ready to do so, if ever.

In the meantime, I would avoid looking at her Facebook page, or the other records of her on social media. I see no good that can come from this. The righteous anger these attempts summon is, more likely than not, a defense erected against the despair of your shared crisis. That’s what you have to confront, to the extent you can: the terrible sorrow of a family torn apart, of your having to choose sides, and of losing your sister in the process.

The sad truth is that there is no guarantee you will be able to mend this rift. You can only be as patient and forgiving as humanly possible. Amid all this tumult, try to recognize that your sister is a victim of circumstances she did not create. Either her husband is being persecuted for crimes he didn’t commit. Or she is choosing to believe him innocent. The latter choice doesn’t make her blameless. But it’s also not a choice she authored.

I wish I had better news, better advice. Perhaps other readers will offer wiser counsel in the comments section. But from where I’m sitting, you’re best to accept, as best you can, the loss of your sister, while maintaining faith that she may find her way back to you some day.

Onward, together,

Author's note: I hope this response doesn’t come off as too bleak. But I’m not sure what else to say. Allegations of this sort almost inevitably become a fault line within families. What do you all think? Please offer your advice in the comments section below. And for heaven’s sake: send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven’t!  -- S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

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Steve Almond Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond’s new book, “Truth Is the Arrow, Mercy Is the Bow” will be out in 2024.



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