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Dear Captain Awkward,

I (she/her) have a Dad (he/him) and Mom (she her) who value their traditional culture and religion even though they did not raise my sister (she/her) and I to be very religious, i.e. we were allowed to go away to college, I was encouraged not to observe religious dress and they didn’t expect us to participate in daily religious activities (they didn’t either). You could say we were culturally faithful but not pious. They took a lot of crap from relatives who insisted they were making a huge mistake and would end up with kids who have no values or faith.

My sister married a guy who was of our background but even less connected to the culture and religion. My parents welcomed him though I suspect privately they were a bit uncomfortable because he drinks alcohol and has tattoos which are prohibited in the religion. Then my sister put up a Christmas tree (not Christians but her in-laws do Christmas). I happened to be there when they found out and it was like watching my parents take a fist to their face. My sister was their closest child, she could do no wrong in their eyes and they’ve always bent over backwards for her. After being so sure that they could raise us liberally while still upholding the culture and religion, they were devastated. No amount of me reminding them that she doesn’t consider it a religious act or framing it as a decoration has helped. They’ve decided they won’t go to her house until the tree is gone. My mom does daycare for my niece so BIL (he/him) drops the baby off at her house now.

I’ve tried to point out that they may regret this and harm their relationship with their only grandchild once she is old enough to figure out that her paternal grandparents happily celebrate Christmas and drink alcohol with her parents while her maternal grandparents make a stand every December, but they won’t budge. My sister is surprised they are upset and says a tree is no big deal which strains credulity in my opinion. I’m visiting and keep walking in on my mom just sitting silently with tears running down her face and my dad quietly counting the days until he can see niece again on daycare days (he is the only name/word she can say so far, total bff’s). I resent my sister for taking so much over the years (I was not similarly favored) and then so casually throwing us into this chaos. I am annoyed with my parents for not seeing something like this coming considering her husband’s background. Do I keep defending her, comforting them or should I just stay apart like normal?

Never thought I’d miss the days when they were a unit of three + me.


Sometimes the universe sends you a twinkling light display that says “STAY OUT OF IT” and this is one of those times.

I know things are tense right now but this is part of the process of negotiating boundaries. Your parents and your sister have learned some new things about each other’s priorities. Clearly the tree IS a big deal, to both sides. Your parents feel like their culture and religion are being rejected and erased by the omnipresent colonizer holiday, and they are learning the limits of their authority and influence over their formerly obedient child. Your sister wants to assert some “I followed your rules in your house, but I make my own rules in my house” independence and align herself more with how her husband’s family does things. Both parties assumed the other would a) automatically agree with them about everything forever and b) give in already, and nobody knows quite what to do about that now that the truth has been revealed. If either party wants things to be different, it’s perfectly clear what they can do to change it (ignore the tree and visit vs. take it down). But until someone budges, this is how it’s going to be. What do they want more, to teach each other a lesson or to spend time together? Being right can be damn lonely, but either way, it’s not up to you.

The good news is that nothing has been permanently severed here. Your parents are still seeing and caring for their granddaughter and on speaking terms with their son-in-law even though they are upset. The tree is most likely going to come down in a couple of weeks and everybody will be able to resume normal relations without anybody losing face if that’s what they decide.Questions like “how will we explain this to niece when she’s older” and “what will everybody think” are non-urgent side quests. Over time, your small niece will figure out that one set of grandparents really, really, really does not enjoy the trappings of Christmas and be absolutely fine. The relatives who want to judge your parents’ parenting will anyway, so just know that if they’d been incredibly strict and doctrinaire with all of you, everybody would blame that instead.

I think you are very smart and self-aware about how the history of sibling rivalry and parental favoritism is affecting you right now. It’s understandably tempting to enjoy the downfall of The Perfect Daughter a tiny bit while also being irritated that this whole month is going to be All About Her even when she’s not here and all about the $#@! tree even though none of you actually celebrate Christmas. Still, I don’t think there are any advantages for you in getting more involved or trying to mediate a conflict. Your best path is probably one of open, unambiguous retreat. Scripts:

  • “What do I think? I think that if you’ve already explained to [other party] how you feel, that’s about all you can do. I know you love each other very much, and I trust that you’ll figure it out before too long.” 
  • “It’s clear that this is really important to both of you, and I hope you and [other party] can find a way to talk about it that isn’t so painful.” 
  • “What do I think? I think that it’s not my Christmas tree and Sister is not here, so could we talk about something else? How is [massive subject change] going?” 
  • “You never take my advice about anything, so why would you start now? It doesn’t matter what I think.What do you think you’ll do?” 
  • “Nice try, but you could not pay me to get in the middle of this fight. If you need me, Niece and I will be in the other room watching Moana for the 300th time.”
  • You don’t have to pretend a neutrality that you don’t feel. “Jeopardizing [free daycare from trusted family][a close relationship with your favorite daughter] over an awkward centerpiece is not the choice I would have gone with, but it’s not mine to make. I love you and I hope you all figure it out.” 

Make it clear that you won’t be a go-between, and change the subject early and often so that you’re not getting sucked in to giving The Problem Of The Tree even more attention and time. If you live with your parents, it sounds like an excellent time to get out of the house for some long walks or to see other relatives and friends so your parents can cry in peace and you’ll feel less pressure to do something about it.

May this all get resolved before the assorted birds, rings, and milkmaids wreak their terrible vengeance upon the earth (and our ears).

Jennifer/The Captain here with a content note: This post is about professors who abused their students by creating a cult-like environment. It also contains a mention of sexual assault.

I was too furious to form coherent words, so I turned answering duties over to a friend-of-the-blog, author Amy Gentry. I can think of no fiercer and better advocate for the Letter Writer.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I am a 25 year old woman about to finish a three-year professional degree. I had a pretty intense undergrad experience. Or, I thought it was intense, but I am starting to think maybe it was worse than just intense, and I don’t know what to do.

From about week 3 of my freshman year at age 19, two professors in my program (married, basically the program’s center of gravity, both regarded nationwide/even internationally as Important Leaders In The Field) adopted me into the fold of their “favorites,” which basically meant “if you do exactly what we say you’ll get one of the best jobs in the country when you graduate.”

They controlled pretty much every hour of my life for two years straight. In week 8 of my freshman year, they told me I couldn’t go home for fall break to visit my parents because of a project they wanted me to work on, and made me convince my dad to drive home without me. They had me come over to their home to work on projects and wouldn’t drive me back to my dorm until late at night. They coerced me into skipping classes so often I had to repeat a class once because my attendance record was so bad. Once I tried to say no to them when they attempted this, and one of them emailed the class’s TA behind my back to tell them I couldn’t come because I had to work on something for him. They made fun of me for going to church until I stopped going. They invented all kinds of scenarios that pitted me against my classmates for no good reason. They told me my parents wouldn’t understand the program and I shouldn’t talk to them so often. They would talk about their best students and how they would work for more than 24 hours straight and how great that dedication was. They talked me into taking an unpaid internship out of state I couldn’t afford because one of their friends ran the organization. When I mentioned interviewing for an internship at an organization they didn’t have connections to, they told me they knew somebody who worked there who said she wanted to kill herself after five years in the job. They created arbitrary deadlines I’d have to drop everything to meet and then say that we actually had months to work on it anyway. I wasn’t getting credit or pay for a lot of my projects. I got about four hours of sleep a night for two years straight. After a year of that my thyroid failed and I gained a bunch of weight and my hair started falling out and I stopped having a period. One of their other students sexually assaulted me at the end of my sophomore year and I reported it (and that was a whole other nightmare, the university admin tried to get me to either shut up about it or drop out) and those two professors never spoke to me again.

But they loved me and cared about me. They fought for me at every turn when they could. They gave me opportunities I never could have imagined, and they encouraged me, and told me I was talented, and acted as mentors and parent figures when I was isolated from my own family. They put in good words for me with organizations and introduced me to powerful people in the field and entered my work in contests that won me thousands of dollars. And lots of their other students still basically worship them – they got almost every graduate of that program with a job in that field their job – so it seems like maybe I’m overreacting. Whenever I worried about whether I was cut out for the work or if I should leave the field, they were so quick to assure me I had a place no matter how I was feeling and that my work was important. They gave me space to rest when it all got too intense. They wanted me to succeed. I wanted and still want them to be so proud of me.

But I had to leave it all behind after I was assaulted, and they act like I don’t exist now, and so many people love them, and they didn’t do anything illegal. But I break out in a sweat when I get emails from professors in my graduate program and I’m really scared to even go to office hours and I can’t figure out why. Once a professor at my graduate program said students could call him by his first name and it’s like I physically can’t do it. And whenever I’m not working or if I turn in something a little late I feel like I’m going to be obliterated. And I feel guilty about going to bed before midnight, especially when I usually can’t sleep anyway. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. They gave me every advantage in the world and for some reason I still just couldn’t hack it. Every time I see them promoting the work of current or former students I feel sick. Especially because I’m never among them. I live alone now in a different city but it’s like my head is full of loud static all the time. It was never like that before.

What’s going on? What do I do? I graduate in May and I feel like I’m about an inch from a nervous breakdown I don’t deserve to have. I have no idea how I’m going to perform well in the job I’m supposed to start next September when I can’t even get to all my classes every week because I keep having to throw up in the school bathroom out of anxiety. I’m not even on the same campus I was at in undergrad. Should I tell the school about the kinds of things they say? Every other graduate, at least from when I was there, would tear me down in a heartbeat. I feel like you’re supposed to report teachers who abuse their students but I don’t think that’s what happened to me. What would I say? They had high expectations and I took it all too seriously. I tried to read about abusive relationships online but everything was about sexual abuse or domestic violence, so maybe this wasn’t that bad. I know this is way more than 400 words but it’s like I sat down to ask a question and all of this came out of me at once.

– Burned out before I even got a real job

Dear Burned Out,

Hi, I’m Amy, an ex-academic who wrote a novel about academic abuse! You didn’t write to me for advice, so first off, thanks for the opportunity to respond to your letter.

Burned, I’m so sorry this happened to you. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t your fault. You got targeted by a pair of sadistic abusers who groomed, gaslighted, exploited, and betrayed you when you needed them most—all within a power structure that allowed, and still allows, them to do so with total impunity. No wonder you feel burned out. Someone took a blow torch to you, my dear.

But I also want to say, right up front, because it’s important: Congratulations! You are graduating with an advanced degree from a professional program and walking straight into a job that Mr. and Mrs. Internationally Recognized Leader in the Field did not get you, because of course they didn’t! They are scam artists who only wanted you to succeed as long as you were absolutely dependent on them, so they could take all the credit for your success. When you actually needed something real from them (support after a traumatic assault!), they responded by kicking you to the curb. But you made it. You were told you needed them to succeed; that was the first big lie.

Let’s start by puncturing the myth these sentient piles of steaming bullshit have created around themselves. You say, of Dr. and Dr. Very Important Con Artist, that “they got almost every graduate of that program with a job in that field their job.” Look closely at that sentence and see the invisible “failures” who slipped through the cracks. Where are the students these professors bullied out of the program? The ones who had mental breakdowns because of their abuse? Where are the students who decided to hell with this whole profession, I’m going to take up pottery (more power to ‘em)? And finally, where are the students who, like you, got jobs in the field without them? They’re all hiding in that sentence, ghosts you’ve been taught not to see, crowding around the big lie.

You didn’t see them or hear about these casualties and all-too-common exceptions because your professors abusers didn’t want you to. Their ex-students were too busy paying hefty therapy bills and learning how to throw pots to come back and tell you what a crock of shit these people are serving up. Even if they had, you’d already been prepped with the idea that anyone who leaves or is pushed out “couldn’t hack it”—a lie you internalized so thoroughly that even though you’re technically a success, you still feel like a failure. (Believe me, I feel this—I still sometimes catch myself telling people I “dropped out of grad school,” when what I did was finish my degree and choose a different career.) Your only information came from the indoctrinated, who had to try to recruit you to team They’ll Get Us All Jobs to validate their own life choices and justify their misery.

It’s no coincidence that this type of predator targets new arrivals. When you hit this program—at 19, no less!!—they were falling all over themselves to get to you first, because their entire deal is convincing literal teenagers to serve their needs through a combination of love-bombing, scare tactics, and psychological and physical abuse.*

*Yes, sleep deprivation counts. As does kidnapping, which it sounds like these two came very close to when they held you at their house against your will. Maybe it’s true that “they’ve done nothing illegal” (a low bar!), but they’ve certainly flirted with the line.

“But they loved me and cared about me.”

This is the second big lie, and it’s so much more pernicious and harder to purge than the first. It’s the reason I felt compelled to write a whole (fictional) book about murdering professors.

In a pivotal scene, two students are invited over to the house of a married pair of superstar professors for dinner, where they are courted and petted and unsubtly pitted against each other. Here, protagonist Mac drunkenly ruminates on her own version of the Big Lie:

S]itting around the table, I felt for the first time how professors could be like family… They taught us. They mentored us. They fed us, mind and body; they protected us from catastrophe; they prepared us for the world ahead. When we were burdened with impossible tasks and surrounded with words as impenetrable as swarms of bees, they made the Program survivable. We loved them, in a way. We couldn’t help it. They were all we had.

This isn’t love. This isn’t caring. This isn’t mentoring. This isn’t teaching. It’s inappropriate intimacy, the pivot point between grooming and abuse.

And abuse is what happened here. Look at the words you use in your letter. They coerced you, controlled you, made fun of the values you held most dear, isolated you from your family, pitted you against classmates who could have been supportive friends, and deprived you of sleep, a classic abuser tactic that erodes your ability to think straight and resist. They tanked your grades on purpose, to the point where you were failing other classes, and oh yeah, also did their best to ruin your financial security—all so you’d have to depend on them, because they were all you had. When you said no to their controlling behavior, they took away your choice by going behind your back. If this is love, it’s the no-more-wire-hangers kind of love—narcissistic, self-serving, and abusive. You owe them nothing—not your job, and certainly not some kind of acknowledgment of their good intentions. Maybe they sincerely thought they were loving you when they held you captive at their house, kept you up all night, damaged your relationships with other professors who might have helped your career in less destructive ways. But your body knew this was abuse, not love. Love doesn’t make your hair fall out.

Frankly, even if none of this boundary-demolishing behavior had happened, these human hemorrhoids outed themselves as ruthless, cowardly jerks when they chose to freeze you out instead of supporting you after your sexual assault. They picked Team Rapist, and so did your flaming trash heap of a university. In the end, Burned, that’s the part that makes me want to burn it all down.

I think there’s a part of you that wants to burn it all down, too. Maybe the rage you didn’t allow yourself to feel when they were hurting you has been scorching you from the inside for so long, you think it might kill you on the way out. But as it is, you’re throwing up before class and feeling guilty about getting sleep. Scratch that guilt, Burned, and you will find the rage underneath. I’m not saying it won’t burn you; I’m saying it already has. It’s making success feel like failure to you. The closer you get to the degree and the job, the more forcefully that rage is going to want to come out.

I actually think it’s a good sign that you’re starting to feel some of these awful feelings. It means you’re finally strong enough to feel them, or will be soon. It’s great that you’re googling “abuse,” great that you’re writing to the Captain. You’re even tossing around the idea of reporting them, a great and hopeful sign.

Sidebar: Should you actually report them? Hmmm. Call me a cynic, but I have a hard time believing a university that messed up a sexual assault allegation so royally is going to change their stripes for you now. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do it; but think very hard over what you are expecting or wanting, and ask yourself whether there are other ways to get it that don’t involve putting yourself in the exact same position of not being heard and believed by these scoundrels.

Besides, Burned, they totally know.

Years after I separated myself from an abusive advisor and graduated from my PhD program, on my book tour for my first novel, I met up with an old (supportive, non-abusive) professor, and we spoke candidly about Abusive Advisor for the first time. Good Professor told me that everyone knew they were like that, but no one could do anything official because the students never filed complaints.

Although even at the time this sounded kind of bullshitty and victim-blamey to me, I was still haunted for a long time by the idea that by not filing a complaint, I was part of the problem.

Well, Abusive Advisor died recently, spurring a frenzy of adulation on social media and glowing obits in national news outlets, all of which made me feel triggered, gaslit, and low-key crazy. When I expressed this publicly, people began reaching out to me with stories, and guess what, plot twist! Some of them had actually filed complaints! The university had made these complaints go away, obtained written apologies in return for retractions, etc. Now call me paranoid (though, as the sign in my friend’s therapist’s office says, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you), but I suspect that, were you to dutifully file these complaints, taking on just one more job that your professors’ bosses and peers should be doing themselves, you’d get a heaping helping of re-traumatization and not much else from these motherfuckers.

That said, if it will help you heal, do it. Just remember that you can wait until you’re in a position of strength—ten years into a healthy career, for example—to put yourself out there again. I won’t judge you. This is on them, not you.

Here’s what helped me heal:

1) Get therapy. It’s hard to trust a therapist when you’ve been abused by people whose job was to help you. (And university mental health services can be infected by the same toxic crap they’re supposed to be combating, eroding that trust still further.) But it’s going to take a while to learn to trust again, and you’re going to need a person to practice on who will give you tons of validation and practice in good boundaries. A competent therapist will help you recalibrate. Hot tip!: If you’re anything like me, you have some unlearning to do around valuing “brilliance” over boundaries. Avoid the idea that your therapist has to be some kind of superstar. A therapist who models good boundaries by setting her own and respecting yours is what you need most.

2) Reclaim your headspace. It’s fine to block out all knowledge of these people and their protegés for a while, especially on social media. (Their students sound awful, who cares what they’re doing?) This is going to be hard when you’re still in the same field, and you will probably bump into them at some point down the line. Put that moment off as long as you can. Later, as you move out of the suffocating academic world and into the professional one, I suspect you’ll find that the Brilliant Duo’s reputation is not so unimpeachable as they would have you believe. There are whisper networks in the professional world that you didn’t have access to as a student. You’ll eventually meet others in your profession who went through what you did, with them or someone else (these abusive profs are SO FUCKING COMMON, truly BORING in their ordinariness), and who also survived. In the meantime, unfriend who you can, block the rest, send alumni newsletters straight to the trash folder, and get in the habit of thinking “gee, those miserable assholes are still at it” whenever you encounter their names.

3) Fill your life with other things. This is advice that gets much easier when you’re not a student, but you can experiment with it now. Invite stuff that’s not school-related into your life. Cultivate relationships with people outside your profession. Watch stupid movies. Read trashy books. Eat good food. Contact old friends from the Before Times. Go back to church, if that feels good. (Seriously, fuck them for making fun of your church. I noped out of religion years ago, but this pisses me off so much. Only insecure asshats do that.) Circle back to all the things they made you give up; touch them all, and remember what you got out of them once. One of the most healing things for me after leaving academia was rediscovering parts of me that had nothing to do with the values I’d internalized there. I picked up my guitar again. I read The Artist’s Way and did all the woo-woo exercises. (Seriously, do this.) I baked cakes and decorated them. I went ice skating, took improv classes, listened to my favorite music from high school. I relocated to a city where lots of my old friends still lived. You probably can’t do that, Burned, because you’ve got this job lined up, but maybe start looking into non-work connections in your new town—clubs, hobbies, friends-of-friends—and in the meantime, experiment with whatever the equivalent of cake-decorating and listening to Tori Amos is for you.

4) Embrace your shiny new red-flag detector. Before I entered my grad program—at 24, not 19—I was shockingly naïve, and later, I wasted a lot of time shaming myself for not seeing the abuse coming. But the truth is, abusers are very good at what they do, especially when they’re backed by rigidly hierarchical institutions like universities. I’m not saying you have some foolproof abuse detector now, but you are paying special attention to your boundaries these days, and listening to your internal alarm bells. When something makes you feel uncomfortable—like Professor Call Me By My First Name—you listen. Good on you! You don’t owe anybody a level of intimacy you’re not comfortable with. When you sense someone pressing up against your boundaries, it doesn’t make them evil or abusive, but it might make them someone you don’t want to stick around and play with. There will be boundary-pushers and abusers in the professional world—watch out for them in your new job, and maybe start reading Ask a Manager, just in case!—but in my experience, they’re easier to get away from than they were in school. You won’t be stuck in a program with five professors in your subspecialty anymore; you’ll be in a big pond with lots of interconnected networks, some of them more toxic, some of them less. Use your superpower to gravitate toward the circles where you feel most comfortable, and don’t be afraid to take a step away when you’re not.

5) Decentralize your mentors. I have actually backed away from the whole idea of “mentors.” I prefer to think of mentorship in terms of a wide range of roles—“useful person to know,” “supportive friend,” “advice-giver,” “knowledge-haver,” “person with resources who is willing to share them as part of a mutually beneficial relationship”—that can be filled by lots of different people at different times. This is self-protective, because it doesn’t put all your emotional and professional eggs in one basket. But it also helps when it’s time for you to pass along your knowledge to people who need it, without the pressure of having to be someone’s everything. Mutually supportive relationships with peers and people further down on the food chain are as important, sometimes more, than upward relationships. Some of the most helpful people to my career have been those who just happened to explain something to me at a moment when I was able to understand and benefit from it. Anyone who claims they can get you the world if only you turn over the keys of your life to them is a cult leader, not a mentor.

6) Be gentle and patient with yourself. All this takes time. You’re going to have good days and bad. Days when you wake up glowing with the realization that they can never hurt you again; days when you feel worthless because of something petty they said ten years ago; and even days when you feel guilty, as if your anger were somehow responsible for their death. (Sorry, that one’s specific to me.) On the good days, celebrate the fact that you made it out alive, and look for small ways to help others do the same. On the bad days, buy yourself some ice cream or a weighted blanket, take a hot bath, go to bed at 8pm. Find something, no matter how small, that makes you feel better in the moment, and wait for it to pass. It will always pass if you let yourself feel it.

And Burned, on your absolute worst days, always remember: They’re the ones who fucked up. They could have just taught you. If I believed in hell, which I don’t, they’d be the ones burning.

Good luck,


Bio: Amy Gentry is the author of three thrillers–Good as Gone (a New York Times Notable Book), Last Woman Standing, and Bad Habitsand a 33 1/3 book on the Tori Amos album Boys for Pele. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Paris Review, Salon, Austin Chronicle, and lots of other placesShe has a PhD in English and lives in Austin, Texas, where her hobbies include horror movies, cake decorating, and not being in grad school anymore.

When: Sunday, December 19th, 10 am – 12 pm

Where: Arnold Arboretum, 125 Arborway, Boston, MA 02130

The closest T stop is Forest Hills, on the Orange Line. The entrance to the Arboretum is a 15-minute walk from the station. We will be meeting at the map of the Arboretum in front of the Visitor’s Center.

Venue: The plan is to stay at the meeting point for 20 minutes, then stroll slowly up the primary paved path.

How to find us: I have a red knit hat and I will affix a sign to my person. I will also post to the Friends of Captain Awkward forum in “Meetups” when I arrive in front of the Visitor’s Center.

PLEASE WEAR A MASK. Thanks, and hope a few people can make it!

Hello everyone!

I was in two minds about running this meetup given omicron, but I’ve decided to still go ahead with additional precautions. Everyone who’s coming please make sure you take a LFT the previous evening or that morning

Obviously I will cancel if the situation changes or the rules change

18th December, 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.

Also re Christmas:

I’m going to be in London this year, and I decided to host a Christmas dinner on the 25th for anyone else who would like to come. (Pandemic permitting, obviously.) If you’re interested in coming please get in touch via the below email address to discuss food needs etc.

Access notes: My house is in outer London, about 5 mins from the nearest bus stop, with three steps up to access the front door, and one step down to the toilet facilities. I have two cats and lots of houseplants. I can accommodate most food restrictions, but not kosher as the kitchen is not segregated.

kate DOT towner AT gmail DOT com

Hey Captain Awkward—

My sister and I (she/her) are both students at a small college. We are both training in the same arts field, and one of our primary future career paths involves working closely together (think like a two person play, but not that). When we were younger, our mom was pretty controlling. She wanted to instill in us good habits (eating right, working hard in school and in our chosen career path, working out, etc.), but sometimes went overboard, more so with me, the elder child, than with my sister. We have a pretty fight-y family, and my mom would be the first one to admit that she does most of the yelling. She is a very insightful and organized person, so she has in the past tried to step in and run our lives in a way that is not always helpful (for instance, she used to read our emails and respond from our accounts). When she found out that we had been doing something harmful like sneak-eating snack food or staying up to read under the covers, she would be very upset: sometimes in a way that felt (at least to me back then) a bit scary.

In my early years of college, I rebelled against my mom hard. I stayed in touch with her much less and worked less hard, resulting in me falling behind a bit in my training. Over quarantine, she and I were forced into proximity and became much closer. I understood how difficult it was for her to try to raise us to be successful, and although she was not perfect (and would never claim she was), I no longer resent her. She doesn’t act like she used to anymore: she is very supportive of me and a helpful source of motivation and advice. She is teaching me to drive and cook for myself, and helping me learn the tools I need to become a responsible adult at a realistic pace.

But while I was in my rebellious phase, I tried to convince my sister (who has always worshipped our mom) that the way our mom raised us was harmful, and that we needed to become more self-reliant. Recently (like in the past 6 weeks), she has suddenly started to agree with what I thought back then, but has taken it much farther than I ever imagined.  She never tried setting boundaries or asking for changes—just suddenly woke up one day and cut my whole family off in a very cruel email, without giving my mom a chance to fix anything. Once she realized I was not going to agree with her, she started acting like she barely cared about me. I can’t remember the last time we talked about something not related to school or a book one of us read. And if I say anything positive about our family or negative about how she is treating me, she immediately walks away and refuses to hear it.

We have a VERY important event of our “two person play” that is right after our school’s break. I am a very nervous person and require a lot of practice to do my best. But she has announced that she will not come home because of my mom. As a result, I can’t practice with her at all—just get my part ready and hope for the best. She won’t even tell me where she is going.

I feel like this rift in our family is my fault. And I know my family would do anything to fix this with her. It feels petty, but I can’t help resenting that my sister is sabotaging a make-or-break career opportunity that was years in the making because of this very sudden change of heart.

Any advice would be amazing,
Sister Act

Hi there, Sister Act,

I have a few strong initial reactions to your letter and I’m just gonna go right in:

  • The process you went through in re-creating a relationship with your mom (both the rebelling/distancing and the making peace) is not transitive to your sister. She observed your experience, but it doesn’t replace her own experience. She’s going to have to find her own way.
  • If you treat “persuading your sister to reconcile with your mom/your family” and “repairing your relationship with her enough to get this art project done” as a package deal, with you as the Family Ambassador, I think things will get worse before they get better.
  • I have a lot to say about the artistic collaboration part, you’ll find it at the bottom.

It is possible for siblings to grow up in the same family and have extremely different experiences and relationships with their parents. You feel more generosity and compassion toward your mom now, but there are reasons that you felt the way you did when you were trying to convince your sister that your mom was toxic. Your sister didn’t agree with you then, but you distanced yourself from your mom anyway because it was what you felt you needed to do. You may not like the way she’s going about things, or the timing, but your sister is not inventing the dynamic so much as following in your footsteps.

Questions to ponder:

  • Did your mom stop her attempts to control you because she realized it was wrong, or did she stop because you stopped complying?
  • What if your ability to create that distance, to describe painful events accurately and feel your feelings about them, was necessary to heal and grow, and necessary before you and your mom could form a better relationship on more equal footing now?
  • You say now that you understand your mom’s perspective on parenting more, but I wonder, has your mom ever apologized to either of you for reading your email and impersonating you? Has she ever said she regrets invading your privacy and  punishing you harshly for what you read and ate?
  • Did she actually stop those behaviors with your sister? Do you know that for sure? “I’m not mad anymore, so you shouldn’t be, either” isn’t really a thing, especially if the person who caused the harm hasn’t asked for forgiveness or made their own amends.
  • In the current conflict,  has your mom tried to build her own bridges with your sister and get to the bottom of what’s happening here, or is she tacitly agreeing that it’s your job to fix it? 
  • Are you sure you know why your sister is so upset? People don’t tell their families to eff off forever out of the blue for no reason, and your sister may not have told you or anyone else in your family everything there is to tell. That’s not a prompt to play detective and get to the bottom of it, by the way. It’s a reminder that when things are bad, listening, questioning your assumptions, and withholding judgment until you have all the facts rarely make anything worse.

You worry that the rift in your family is your fault, but it might not be about you, at all — not to cause, and not to fix. Your sister is figuring out what kind of relationship she wants to have with her family of origin. The process is painful and confusing, the way it was probably painful and confusing for her when you were in a vastly different place than she was. It’s so tempting to be the peacemaker and help her skip a few steps, but it doesn’t work that way.

As for your sister’s “cruel” letter and decision to not come home for the holidays, maybe she was really out of line in how she expressed herself, but this blog will never make the argument that people must celebrate holidays with family if they don’t want to. Your hurt feelings and surprise aren’t imaginary or invalid, but you’ll lose less in the long run if you accept that she has her reasons now than you will if you force the un-winnable game of tug-of-war called “If you really loved me, you’d come home” vs. “If you really loved me, you’d trust me on this one.”

This is why, if you want a truce with your sister, I suspect your best bet is to make it clear that you won’t lobby her to come home or reconcile with the other people in your family. Stop defending your mom and her parenting decisions to your sister. Even if you are right, and your sister is being unfair, I suspect that the last thing your sister wants is for you to Be Aggressively Right at her. If your mom *was* invasive and overly critical at times (and not gonna lie, it sounds like she was), the best antidote is a combination of solidarity and faith in your sister to manage her own life. “I don’t fully understand, but I love you no matter what, and I trust you to figure this out in your own way. Come home when you’re ready. I’ll be here.”   

You write: “I can’t remember the last time we talked about something not related to school or a book one of us read. And if I say anything positive about our family or negative about how she is treating me, she immediately walks away and refuses to hear it.” 

What happens if you incorporate your sister’s incredibly clear and consistent feedback and respect her boundaries? Tell her *one time* that you’ll miss her at Christmas, but you understand if she needs to take some time, and starting now, you will stop bringing up family stuff unless she does. Then, keep your promise and drop the subject. If your sister knows that she can talk to you about school stuff and art stuff without navigating a minefield of family conflict, it may open the door to resuming work on your joint project. Picture her as a rescue kitten, feral, furious, and hiding under the laundry bin. If you want her to come out, you can’t force it. She’ll only come out when she feels safe. To help her feel safe, take her at her word about what she needs, stop chasing her, remove pressure, and give her room to breathe.

If *you* need to work through family stuff in the meantime, take it to the school counseling office or confide in a good friend. Especially if you are feeling nervous enough that it’s interfering with your ability to function, tell your regular doctor and/or make an appointment with the school counseling office.

From there, you can model good boundaries, like, not passing on your mom’s feelings, comments, or messages to your sister and vice versa, and not discussing one while the other is not present. “I love you both, but this is between y’all.”Resign from your Parental Press Secretary and Sibling Whisperer roles, effective immediately. Your mom and your sister will have to forge their own relationship, eventually. You can love them both, and root for them both, but you cannot do the work for either of them. Let go of the notion that you have to.

This is so hard, I know. It requires you to have faith and trust in someone who is not showing those things to you. If it helps, from what you’ve told me, I am extremely hopeful that things will not stay this bad forever. Unless there is some huge piece of the puzzle you’re missing, your sister is most likely going to work through whatever this is and find her way back to you. Will it be in time for your big debut? I can’t promise that, but read on. This is not the first time I have met college students who are undertaking a high-stakes collaborative art project that is at risk of collapse.

Here is where I remove my Advice Columnist hat and don my slightly dusty but still quite fetching Film Professor hat.

It’s not that your honorary Film Professor doesn’t care about your feelings or your relationship with your sister, but right now she is much more interested in hearing about your plan. 

  • What needs to happen in order to pull off your planned project, on time, under budget, and in a way that does what you hope it will do, both creatively and professionally?
  • Details please: Dates, times, equipment, locations, materials, who is doing what.
  • Working backward from the deadline, what needs to happen each week between now and then? Are there any particularly time-sensitive pieces or firm deadlines?
  • How will everybody share drafts and updates,  keep track of all the moving parts, and communicate? [In-person meetings, a dedicated email thread or webspace, texts, phone calls, etc.] In my classes, students jointly proposed ground rules and made agreements about how and how often they’d communicate. “I will check email and reply to messages at least once a day between now and filming.” “If I can’t do something I promised to do, I’ll let everyone know right away so they can make another plan.” 
  • What resources do you have? What resources do you need? What are the gaps that still need to be filled? Who can you ask for help?
  • If something falls through or doesn’t work out as planned, what’s Plan B?
  • Great, what’s Plan C?
  • What are the artifacts that are being created and how will they be stored and accessed? [Digital material like scripts, raw video footage, edited video, graphics, concept art, sketches and schematics should all be backed up in at least three places and be accessible to everyone on the project.]
  • Who is the project’s spokesperson for publicity and social media purposes? How will the finished product get to its audience?
  • Just between us, what’s Plan D, marked Top Secret, the contingency plan for if your sister bails on the project completely, or you find it impossible to keep working with her if things remain so tense? You may think of you and your sister as a package deal, but pedagogically speaking, these are YOUR office hours and I’m interested in YOUR creative future right now. Don’t worry, if your sister stops by later, I’ll ask her the exact same thing.

To me, it sounds like the most pressing issue is rehearsals. You originally planned around being in the same place over the break, making it less urgent to nail down times or reserve space and equipment. But now you won’t be in the same place during those weeks, so those rehearsals need to go on the calendar now. Let’s say, at minimum, one rehearsal before everybody leaves for break, one rehearsal first thing when you come back, one tech rehearsal, one dress rehearsal. That’s four more rehearsals than you currently have planned , right? If you need more practice than your sister’s schedule or emotional bandwidth will presently allow, find a friend who will run lines with you. Maybe they can film you so you can see yourself.

You’re a trained artist, so I’m sure this is not the first time you’ve heard about good practices for collaboration. But I”m getting into the dirty details for a reason, namely, that in collaborating so closely with your sibling, you may not have had to spell any of this out before now. She’s your best friend, your creative partner, your other half. You can practically finish each other’s sentences! You always know what she’s thinking!

Until one day you didn’t. And it was terrifying to discover that you can’t just let go and trust the old shorthand, the automatic, dependable, seamless joy of having someone there who absolutely gets you. So if you’re going to make this work, you have to find something else to go on. That something else is process, it’s the sum of all your training, the difficult-but-repeatable act of turning what you imagined into something that somebody else can work with. Making art is making decisions, and logistical decisions are creative decisions. “They’re out of banana costumes, can we make T-Rexes work?” “They had the silver fabric that you wanted, but what do you think of this shimmery purple? It is 1/10th as expensive, meaning we can also rent the smoke machine.”  “We can’t use the big theater that day, there’s a concert. Will the black box work?” “Mary has class that night, can Toby run the lights?” 

You don’t have to particularly like each other or work out all your family shit to put on a show, but you do have to to solve one problem after another until you “finish the hat.

I hope you finish the hat.



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