Can I contact my sister’s adult children without going through her?
What you have experienced then fits into an established pattern. It’s clear both why your sister has been upset by your cautious agnosticism, and why you can’t responsibly engage more. Your sister, you recognize, may have been sexually assaulted. But she needs you to share her certainty and you are not able to offer it. This is why I am not optimistic about your ability to end the estrangement. It was too much work for her. To protect her core beliefs, it seems, she deceived her children and kept them away from others who could dispel these deceptions. Even if they are misjudged, it is difficult to go back on these kinds of decisions.
What is indisputable is this: Now that your niece and nephew are adults, their mother no longer has the right to dictate the relationship they may have with you or your children. You asked for his participation here. At this point, you have every right to contact them and tell them what you know about loved ones that she has been hiding from them.
I encourage you, however, to think about how this revelation will affect your sister’s relationship with her children. You represent a buried secret which she must have dreaded the revelation of for a long time. When her deceptions are exposed, she will no doubt feel betrayed by you, but her children will no doubt feel betrayed by her. It would be terribly sad if your bond with her children led them to cut ties with her. Assuming you make contact with your niece and nephew, help them understand that their mother couldn’t have made her decisions lightly and deserves all consideration. There have already been too many scars in your family.
I have an old friend who raised several children as a single mother, who is a cancer survivor and who is not wealthy. When I found out that she was struggling to make ends meet, I told her about her situation and decided to send her some money. My intention was to give it to him, without any conditions. Recently, she came to visit me and, before leaving, gave me an envelope. She told me that she was sorry that she didn’t get the money I loaned myself earlier – that she felt uncomfortable about that. I didn’t know what to say other than thank you. But I really didn’t want to accept it. I’m in better financial shape than she is and I want to find a way to give her the money back without insulting her. What should I do? JS, New York
Consider the possibility that your friend fully understands your intentions. Accepting money allows your friend to respect herself; sending it back to her and telling her that she was struggling with a misunderstanding may not be. The best gift you can give her, I guess, is to accept yours back.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at NYU. His books include “Cosmopolitanism”, “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity”. To submit a request: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)