I was recently informed by a former reader that he’d ditched this blog when he was offended by something I’d written earlier this fall.
Of course, pissing people off is a major sign that you’ve “made it” as a writer (and for such glory, I’m willing to accept a readership of 3 people rather than 4! Maybe).
Nevertheless, I wanted to address the issue, since this is the first time I’ve been boycotted, and that seems worth marking in some way.
On December 16, I posted a response to a letter from Annie’s Mailbox, written by Ann Landers’ former editors. The letter was from a young woman in college who was unhappy in her relationship with her back-home boyfriend, who sounded like less than a treat. He had a history of emotionally and verbally abusing her, she said, as well as a history of mental illness in his family that seemed to be manifesting itself in his behavior. He was, at the very least, unstable and easily angered. And yet her question was whether she should break up with him, or if instead she should “throw her life away with the wrong guy.”
My main beef with her letter was the way she phrased her question. Not “I’m afraid of my boyfriend and don’t know how to end the relationship” but “Should I throw my life away on the wrong guy?”
Seriously, those were her words. And I commended Marcie and Kathy for looking past what she said, and getting to the heart of what she seemed to mean: that the bf was scary and unstable, and she wasn’t sure how to end it.
However, I also felt that their advice might not be so helpful. The writer (not me, but the writer) described the boyfriend as abusive, unstable, and potentially mentally ill. As a result, I didn’t think that Kathy and Marcie’s advice, to become so obsessed with her studies that he wants to break up with her out of boredom, would be very effective. If he is all the things that the writer (again, not me) says he is, than I think he’ll be more focused on controlling her and the state of their relationship than rationally considering whether or not they still have anything in common.
My former reader was put off by the fact that I described the boyfriend as potentially schizofrenic–but that came from the writer herself, not from me. More personally offensive to him, though, was my parenthetical sidenote wondering whether there was a “creepy age discrepancy” between the two.
“As the product of a ‘creepy age difference,'” he said, “I was offended.”
However, this post was hardly about age difference in relationships on the whole. I caught a whiff of what sounded like it might be an age gap, and pointed it out. When a relationship is already abusive and unbalanced, a discrepancy in age that gives the abuser an even more unbalanced amount of power and authority over the other person becomes creepy, whether it’s a difference of 3, 9, or 20 years.
In contrast, I truly believe that relationships between people of compatible and balanced emotional, social, and intellectual levels can and often do thrive, no matter the numbers involved.
To sum up–my problem wasn’t with the age difference, which I inferred (it was never confirmed in the letter). I simply felt that if there was such a difference, it would only compound the unfortunate situation in which this young woman found herself, and make it more difficult for her to get out of the relationship.
I stand by my original answer, though this episode was a good reminder to me that the odd phrase can put people off so much that they totally stop reading.
“That’s what you would do if a columnist did something like that, right?” the former reader asked me.
Nope. I’d write in to them and voice my opinion. That’s what I’ve done for years, and I’d encourage readers here to do the same! Conversation is what keeps this interesting. I don’t have all the answers, and whether or not we agree, I’d like to hear what others think.