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Valerie L

Dear Captain Awkward,

A few months ago I moved to another country to attend graduate school. To make the moving process easier, I chose to apply for university accommodation instead of looking for private accommodation. The building is basically a fancy dorm, but it’s clean, in a good location, and I like most of the people that are on my floor.

Here’s my problem. When I first moved here I got to know three of my immediate neighbors, “Anna,” “Beth,” and “John.” These three are in their early twenties while I am in my late twenties, because I waited several years after undergrad to attend graduate school. We had a group chat and while we weren’t each other only friends, we hung out together quite a bit. As I got to know everyone better I learned that John is a big partier, and also likes doing hard drugs. I didn’t have a problem with this, even though I don’t party (or even drink) cause I’ve been working in enough places for long enough to meet a lot of people who do that sort of thing.

During all this time, Beth has been going on lots of dates. A few weeks ago, John got very drunk, and started complaining that he couldn’t understand why Beth was getting so much action and he wasn’t, and straight up said that he didn’t think Beth was pretty enough to warrant all this attention. At this point he had definitely been drinking a lot, but wasn’t blacked out. I called him out and said that he just sounded jealous, and he blew me off. He left immediately after this to go party some more. Right after this I ran into Anna and told her what John had said, and she was rightly pissed at him.

In the middle of the night, after I went to sleep, I was woken up by John yelling in the hallway. Beth had brought her date home, and John was at this point blackout drunk. He was yelling, referencing sex acts that she and the guy should do, and flicked her in the face. I told him to shut up, she told him to go to bed, and I wish I had done more in the moment but my brain wasn’t working properly cause I was still half asleep.

The next morning, I told him what had happened (he allegedly has no memory), told him he needed to apologise to Beth, and he immediately apologised. The thing is I have no desire to hang out with him anymore, and neither do Beth or Anna. He has continued to drink and party like before, and since I’ve seen how that can affect his behavior, I don’t think I would want to even if he stopped drinking. His room is right next to mine, so I can’t really avoid him. I am polite when he talks to me, but I don’t make plans. At 27 I feel no desire to hang out with people who act like that. Part of me is wondering if I am making too much out of this since it wasn’t me he acted this way to. I can tell John misses us, and that does make me feel guilty. Should I be working more to forgive him, since Beth says she has?


Dear Conflicted,

Let us pause for a few words from Nandor The Relentless: 

I so appreciate the solidarity you, Anna, and Beth have demonstrated, and I love how you phrased the last sentence of the letter: “Should you be working more” to forgive John? 

Even if I agreed that you should do “more work” (to be clear, I don’t), I’m curious: What would “more work” even mean? Ignoring John’s sexual harassment of Beth? Ignoring the part where he “flicked her in the face” because he was angry at her for dating someone else? [Is anyone else extremely glad that Beth wasn’t by herself in the hallway that night?]  Are you all supposed to invite him to hang out and pretend that nothing like this will happen again, even knowing that he’s changed nothing about his drinking habits? Or, perhaps, something else that rhymes with “If John has to face predictable social consequences for his bad behavior, does that technically make me The Rude One?”  

This holiday season, may I offer you the gift of Forgiving Without Forgetting? You can accept an apology in a way that forgoes the need for further apologies, explanations, or redress.You can resolve to be civil and polite as long as the other person remains civil and polite, and negotiate a “I won’t bring it up if you don’t,” truce.You can forgive someone for the sake of your own peace of mind, because you just want it to be done and over with, as it sounds like Beth has. Most importantly, you can forgive someone without taking on their redemption as your project and without granting them infinite opportunities to disappoint, harm, and upset you. Also incredibly important: You can forgive someone a different amount than somebody else does. Beth was the chief target of John’s behavior, and it should probably be her call whether to escalate stuff like reporting him to the dorm management, but you don’t ever have to accept him back into the group even if she eventually does. 

You’ve only known John for a few months. Friendships form fast in close quarters, but they inevitably change as everybody learns who they are most compatible with, i.e. even if John hadn’t done something objectively awful, it would be completely fair for you to reevaluate how much you want to hang out now that you know him better. It’s always a little sad when a budding friendship doesn’t really take off like you expected, it’s also sad when someone acts like a complete shitbeast and makes it really hard for you to be friends with them. It’s possible for something to feel sad and still be the right decision. “We used to be friends but it didn’t work out.” 

Thing is, John knows exactly why he’s unwelcome now, and he has many choices about How Not To Ruin Future Friendships With Alcohol And Misogyny. I hope he makes good ones, starting with leaving all of you the hell alone, but that is not my concern. 

My project is making sure that you, Anna, and Beth know that your instinct to avoid someone who followed up his mean, sexist comments by cornering your friend after a date and putting his hands on her in a drunken rage is valid, reasonable, and good. The “He doesn’t really meeeeeeeeean it, he’s just insulting and assaulting you because he liiiiiiiiiikes you” message was trash when you were five, don’t let the grown-up versions (“How can it be his fault if he doesn’t even remember it?” “How will he learn if you don’t personally help him through…a bad thing…he did to you?” ) lure all of you into the flaming dumpster now. 

In conclusion, it is perfectly fine to wish John well, maintain perfunctory politeness for the sake of hallway harmony, lock your doors, and keep right on keeping your distance from #ThisFuckingGuy.


Valerie L

Hi Captain,

About 5 years ago I (she/her) helped a coworker Lauren (she/her, fake name) get out of an abusive situation. As I got to know Lauren, it became apparent she had no family support. As a traumatized teenager with 2 kids, she needed lots of help and I often gave her small amounts of money.

Years go by. She only reaches out when she needs cash. During COVID her requests escalated.  I’ve offered other forms of help (driving her places to apply for benefits; getting her kitchen set up so she doesn’t have to rely on takeout; etc) and Lauren refuses. I was poor for years and I know that there are practical ways to reduce expenses and that they are not always doable or the long term way out.

I recently had a baby, I’m frustrated with Lauren, and I want to stop or drastically scale back on giving her money. However, I know I’m the only person she can ask, and I don’t want to cut off that avenue completely. In the past when I’ve said no, I direct her to local sources of help.

I’ve saved for years. If I wanted to, I could set her up with a car, and apartment, and pay for a few semesters at community college. But then I’d be out of savings, and frankly, not sure it would help her long term.

I don’t think Lauren is lying to me about what she spends the money on and I know her need is genuine. But I’m just so irritated that she chooses a $20 Uber ride instead of a $3 bus ride and then can’t feed her kids. I feel like a condescending ass even typing that. Obviously the $17 isn’t going to magically make everything ok, but it will help her in the immediate short term.

I’ve never criticized her financial habits. I understand she basically has to live crisis to crisis, and it’s hard to think long term under those conditions.

So these are my questions: How do I compassionately tell her to only ask for help if she’s exhausted all other avenues, and to only expect $20 every 6 months? How do I deal with my guilty feelings about being able to do more and choosing not to? 


I think any kind of “helping” relationship works best when the person doing the helping understands their own limits and the person asking for help can be sure of where they stand. On the helper side, the help you can offer may not be what the person needs, but if you try to meet their need at the expense of your own capacity (or, let’s be frank, enthusiasm), it’s a bad bargain. When you need help, it’s vulnerable to have to ask, and there’s so much fear and shame on both sides of the transaction (fear of asking for too much, fear of being drained dry or not having enough to meet the need, fear of too many strings attached, fear of being judged, fear of being refused and having to start the whole humiliating process again while the crisis deepens). Ambiguity, shame, and guilt all breed more fear, so anything that lends clarity to the situation is probably useful, even if what becomes clear is “No, this won’t work.”

So, if what you really want is for Lauren to stop coming to you for money, it’s time to be honest about that. “Lauren, I’m sorry, I can’t help out with cash like I used to.”  It doesn’t sound like you have a friendship (“She only reaches out when she needs cash”) and when you do give her money you feel resentful and judgmental of her choices. Your financial priorities have undoubtedly changed with the arrival of a new baby and the chaos of the last year. If Lauren knows the answer is “no,” she can make another plan to get what she needs, and she can stop placing further pressure on your relationship. However, I do not suggest that you create additional conditions or strictures around asking for money in the name of compassion. This lady has enough hoops to jump through already to access help, so either say yes wholeheartedly, or say no.

Like you, I live in this time of crowdfunding for basic necessities and mutual aid as the only aid that is ever coming to people in crisis, and it’s easy to get both overwhelmed and overextended. One thing I do, in addition to routinely supporting some fellow creators and making small contributions to a few local organizations every month, is have a little account that is separate from my main household, checking, and savings accounts. Every time I buy something with my regular accounts, the sum gets automatically rounded up to the next dollar and the change goes into that account. Every time I get paid from any source, a tiny percentage also goes into that account. From there, the account functions as “mad money,” where, I can treat myself to takeout, spring for that taxi instead of the two buses, or buy that ebook that just went on sale even though I already have so many books. It also functions as my “no questions asked” mutual aid fund, where, if somebody close to me asks for help, they can have whatever’s in the account, no questions asked. If the account is depleted when the ask comes in, then I don’t have it, so the answer is no.

We’re not talking princely sums here, mainly what’s useful for me is that I know I can afford to part with it without running additional calculations.. I don’t lend money as a rule, since if I can’t afford to give it away I definitely can’t afford to be without the money AND take on the additional mental & emotional friction of a debt. Starting when I went away to college, my Grandma Louise used to send me $5 or $10 in the mail, along with clippings from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette about the dangers of smoking or drug use or walking home alone at night, and strict orders to “treat myself to a little something.” The gift wasn’t just the money (or real-time documentation of 1990s moral panics), it was the explicit permission to use her gift to make myself happy. Grandma’s surprise gifts and this little account both remove friction. The question of “can I afford to help & how much?” is easily answered with a balance check, and the question of what it’s for is moot. Is it *really* an emergency? Is $20 or $40 just “a drop in the bucket?” Will the person make “good choices” with it? Don’t know, don’t care. Sometimes I have it and sometimes I don’t, and when I do, it’s a gift in every sense of the word: a) A gift to me, to be in a position to give for a change, and, b) Not mine anymore once I give it away.

Letter Writer, if you would truly be happy to give Lauren $20 every six months, what happens if you make that your plan? No to emergency requests, yes to tossing a $20 bill into a pretty card and mailing it to her now and then with some well-wishes, no strings attached. It’s easy to see how this relationship has calcified into only being about crises & helping over time, so maybe if you contact her when it’s not an emergency it will reset things a little bit. Or, put aside a few dollars in a “Lauren” fund every month without telling her. If she comes to you with an emergency, pay her out of that, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. If she doesn’t, at the end of the year, gift her whatever has accumulated, or roll it over until it’s enough for a down payment on a reliable car or somesuch. Lauren might be bouncing from crisis to crisis and unable to budget long-term, but you aren’t. Think of it as removing friction, where you can still help her to the extent you’re comfortable, in a way that’s sustainable and predictable for you.

It’s probably easier and less fraught than trying to set a lot of conditions around when Lauren is allowed to ask for help (only if it’s truly an emergency, only if she’s exhausted all other avenues, only if it will reflect well on her long-term planning skills). It’s a subtle distinction, and there’s no obligation if you’re truly really ready to be done, but transitioning “help” into a periodic gift that you give because you want to might make everything feel less fraught.

Valerie L

Hello everyone!

Last month’s indoor meetup went ahead successfully, so here we are again, back in the old venue.

Pandemic rules in England now allow us to meet up without restriction, although we still need to be sensible. So, here we go:

20th November, 1pm, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX.

The venue has step free access and accessible toilets. The accessibility map is here.

We will be on Level 2 (the upper levels are closed to non-ticket-holders), but I don’t know exactly where on the floor. It will depend on where we can find a table. I will have my plush Chthulu which looks like this:

Please bring your masks/exemption lanyards, and obey any rules posted in the venue.

The food market outside (side opposite the river) is pretty good for all sorts of requirements, and you can also bring food from home, or there are lots of cafes on the riverfront.

No need to RSVP, but please let me know if you want me to keep an eye out for you!

Other things to bear in mind:

  1. Please make sure you follow social distancing rules. This particularly includes respecting people’s personal space and their choices about distancing.
  2. We have all had a terrible time for the last year. Sharing your struggles is okay and is part of what the group is for, but we need to be careful not to overwhelm each other or have the conversation be entirely negative. Where I usually draw the line here is that personal struggles are fine to talk about but political rants are discouraged, but I may have to move this line on the day when I see how things go. Don’t worry, I will tell you!
  3. Probably lots of us have forgotten how to be around people (most likely me as well), so here is permission to walk away if you need space. Also a reminder that we will all react differently, so be careful to give others space if they need.

I will cancel this meetup if government guidance changes, so keep an eye on this space.

kate DOT towner AT gmail DOT com

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