The Ethical Dilemma: Star-Crossed Lovers, Plus Joan Reisman-Brill Responds to Facebook Comments

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Star-Crossed Lovers: We are a middle class liberal family. My husband is black, I am half Chinese, half Caucasian. We have two sons, ages 15 and 20, and live in a very non-diverse, affluent community.

When my older son was a senior in high school (17) he fell in love with a freshman girl (15) and they kept their relationship a secret because of their age difference and for obvious cultural and socio-economic differences. My son finally told me after he turned 18 and graduated from high school, but she continued keeping the secret from her family. Her father is a neurosurgeon and mother is a stay-at-home mom. Huge mansion, cars, boats, pool, housekeepers, nannies—a totally different world than ours.

My son brought her to our home to have a safe, accepting, loving environment where they could spend time together. At first I did not know she was not being honest with her parents, or I would not have let the kids hang out in our home. Their relationship became intimate. My son moved to college but they spent every night on Face Time with each other and were close for two years. I started talking to her about needing to be honest with her parents. (I did the same thing with my father when I had a black boyfriend; now my father is dead, and I regret lying to him for so many years.)

After the girl went on vacation with her family, she broke up with my son via text, refusing to see him, saying her mom threatened to put cameras on their house and detectors on her car to see where she was going. But it seems these kids are supposed to be together.

After the breakup, my son was so frustrated and emotional, he ran away and checked himself into mental inpatient for a few days. He has respected her family’s wishes and never went to their home, even though his heart was broken. He couldn’t hold a job or go to college and became very depressed.

It has been over six months now. My son has been working and holding a job for over a month, he’s dating other girls and trying to keep busy, but he still loves her. He cries that he is trying, but it’s no use.

Here’s the problem: The girl has not been eating, and several pictures over the past month confirm she is unhealthy, very thin. We are devastated. She has a new boyfriend and is on the high school dance team, but obviously something is wrong. I believe she is using her eating disorder to have some kind of control in her life, since her parents have control over her ending her relationship with my son.

As a human being, I feel responsible to try and help. This girl could die. If she or her parents refuse, then at least we know that we opened the door for communication and attempted to get together, at least to talk and let both of our kids answer some mysteries and start some healthy recovery.

I thought I would write a polite, honest letter to the mom, with the theme being concern for the girl and not about my son or the breakup. The worst that could happen is they would throw my letter away; the best that could happen is they would let our kids talk with one another. My son and husband are afraid they would try to get a restraining order, or call their lawyer. (The father has a litigious past.) But I don’t care, I feel horrible for the girl and we are concerned about her health.

What should I do? What should my son do?

—Caring Mom

Dear Mom,

You tell a dramatic tale, but I’m not sure how much of it is reality vs. fantasy. It’s impossible for you (or me) to know if your interpretation of the girl’s weight loss six months after the break-up and the reasons for excommunicating your son are on target. There may be other things going on with this young lady and her family. And speaking of what can and can’t be known, and an “open door for communication,” I find it hard to believe you had no clue these two were engaging in intimate relations for years, unbeknownst to her parents, behind closed doors in the “safe, accepting, loving environment” of your home. Really? You couldn’t guess they weren’t just doing homework? Maybe her parents’ reaction has nothing to do with race or class, and everything to do with their daughter sneaking out to have sex with a hunky older jock, with his parents’ complicity.

But all that’s water under the bridge. What is relevant now is your concern that the girl may need help (even that isn’t certain either) and you don’t want to stand idly by. There are several things you can do: You can write the letter you describe to her mother, briefly and strictly expressing concern about the daughter’s health. You can contact the girl’s friends or the high school for a reality check on her psychological and physical well-being and ask them to prevail upon her parents or the authorities if indeed she does appear to be in need. You could even contact your local human services directly to report your fears if the first two suggestions fall flat.

As for the litigious father, I wouldn’t worry about a restraining order if all you do is send a letter to the parents or make a few phone calls to friends or authorities. And if the father was going to pursue statutory rape or other charges against your son (and you as accomplices), he probably would have done so already. But there’s no way you can or should push these two kids to make contact. Your son is right to leave the girl alone right now, for his sake as well as hers. It sounds as though he is gradually improving, but he might benefit from some sessions with a therapist (which he will probably welcome, since he previously sent himself for therapy and it appears to have been helpful).

These kids struck up an unchaperoned relationship at a very young age, and they are still not mature. Their feelings for each other are apt to fade with time. Perhaps hers already have. In another year, the girl will be out of high school and will probably have more opportunity to get in touch with your son if she wants to, and soon after that she’ll legally be an adult—although her family, like most families, will retain an emotional and economic grip on her.

There’s no reason for anyone to think your son has ruined this girl’s life, and I wonder why he would imagine that’s how she feels (again, maybe there’s more to your story). She will have to learn how to navigate between her own desires and those of her parents, but everyone has to do that to become an adult.

Your son should pursue his life as though it will be without her from now on, which is the most likely scenario. While your idea that these two are “supposed” to be together is magical thinking (and counterproductive to your son moving on), time will tell if they choose to resume the relationship when they are old enough to make their own choices. No matter how things play out, your son will be better off if he focuses on pursuing a college education, a career, and a satisfying social life—without underage paramours.

Joan Reisman-Brill Responds to Ethical Dilemma Readers: Many thanks to the hundreds of readers who responded to Have A Fill-in-The-Blank Day on Facebook. I’d like to address a couple of comments on Facebook specific to my answer to that question. One didn’t think answering “How are you?” with “Thank G-d” was a non-sequitur, and felt that it was intolerant of me, as a humanist, to poke fun at people who won’t spell out God.

First, that response certainly fits the definition of a non-sequitur: “a conclusion or statement that does not logically follow from the previous argument or statement.” Same as if the answer to “What’s new?” were “Fine, thank you.”

Second, it hardly seems intolerant, in a column about blessed days, to mention what strikes me as another, rather amusing, superstition. I actually encountered a Hebrew school teacher who told her class they must always write G-d—never God—on the blackboard because if they erased the word God they’d be erasing the actual God. But erasing G-d was fine. (There I go again!)

And while I don’t want to get into a deep discussion right now of the appropriateness of tolerance and intolerance, I don’t believe there’s any inconsistency with being a humanist and calling out absurd notions and practices wherever they may arise. Not only is it a humanist right, in many cases it’s a duty. While the spelling of G-d may seem to be a harmless quirk, it is symptomatic of the superstitious nature of many (most? all?) religions and cults, where brainwashing and jaw-dropping illogic affects everything from the tiniest mundane detail to large communities’—even nations’—entire worldview.

Are humanists supposed to keep their mouths shut and act as though it’s ok when groups of people have words and concepts that cannot be spoken or written or depicted? Do we have to politely humor those who decide personhood begins the moment a sperm and egg meet, and believe no one, including people who don’t share that view, should have access to contraceptives or abortions? Do we have to give equal time, without a word of protest, to the teaching of creationism and intelligent design, and to those who interpret an unseasonably cold day as irrefutable proof that global warming is a myth? I believe that humanism includes a healthy dose of constructive intolerance, wielded with discretion (and whenever appropriate, with humor).

As for the comment that one doesn’t, as I wrote, “lob a kill shot,” my secret is out: I don’t have a firm grasp of sports terminology. I’ll be more careful in the future. (But you understood what I meant, right?)

Again, thanks for the great discussion, everyone!