QUESTION: Last Christmas my mom’s sister and I had a tipsy conversation and she confessed she had slept with my father 28 years ago, when mom suffered a breakdown after my sister died at birth. The topic hasn’t been raised since, but I’ve been angry all year with my dad and aunt. I was particularly fond of this aunt, but I can’t bear knowing when mom does not. Should I confront them?
ANSWER: Charles Dickens was right about the Ghost of Christmas Past, always there to haunt us. But while your spectre has stalked you for a year, your father and aunt have been shadowed by it for nearly three decades.
I know it’s hard to feel any empathy for them right now - their transgression rightly shocks you - but imagine how one moment of madness must have weighed on the duo down the years.
Having said that, it was wrong of your aunt to put the burden of unwelcome knowledge on your shoulders. But the secret must have been festering for a long time and she was clearly desperate to tell someone. Drink can tip even the most circumspect of people into indiscretions.
She must have felt that you, of all people, might understand now you’re an adult. I also expect there’s a big part of her that wants you to absolve her of the guilt.
What your aunt forgot is that every grown-up remains a child in relation to their parents, so your reaction couldn’t be as rational as if you heard the same tale about another family.
Try not to forget, however, that this breach of trust happened under uniquely sad and stressful circumstances. Your father was suffering the double grief of the loss of a child and a wife who had suffered a breakdown. Imagine how lonely he must have felt at this time and how desperate.
Your aunt would have suffered, too. I know nothing of her personal life, but if she was lonely or unhappy at the time, it would have been all too easy, when comforting your father, to overstep the line. Any psychologist would tell you that bereavement and grief can compel some people to lose themselves in the temporary oblivion of sex.
I believe that relations thrive on honesty and openness, but there are times when love means accepting the burden of a secret. You are old and wise enough to keep this hurtful disclosure from your mother. And I do not see what you would gain from confronting your father and aunt. They feel bad enough already.
Children can be self-righteous when confronted with their parents’ wrongdoings, but part of growing up is realising we all err. And if we can’t be compassionate at Christmas, there’s little hope for us during the rest of the year. - Daily Mail