When a dear friend’s teenage daughter was killed in a car accident, she understandably could not bring herself to erase her daughter’s message from the family phone. That was seven years ago. My friend still hasn’t changed the message, and I find it very discomforting to hear the deceased girl’s voice every time I call. My friend says, ‘‘It’s all I have left.’’ I want to be supportive, but I worry that preserving her daughter’s voice for every caller — be it a friend or a plumber — is unhealthy. Should I say something? LINDA, PHILADELPHIA
No, you should not. While I agree that her fixation is mildly unhealthy, your personal discomfort has no bearing on what someone else wants to use as a voice-mail message (particularly if the content of that message provides her with even a grain of comfort). Would you chide your friend for keeping too many photographs of her dead daughter in the living room? This message is an auditory version of a high-school picture.
She may never get over the death of her daughter. Don’t try to make her pretend she has.
MY WIFE’S LOVER
My wife is having an affair with a government executive. His role is to manage a project whose progress is seen worldwide as a demonstration of American leadership. (This might seem hyperbolic, but it is not an exaggeration.) I have met with him on several occasions, and he has been gracious. (I doubt if he is aware of my knowledge.) I have watched the affair intensify over the last year, and I have also benefited from his generosity. He is engaged in work that I am passionate about and is absolutely the right person for the job. I strongly feel that exposing the affair will create a major distraction that would adversely impact the success of an important effort. My issue: Should I acknowledge this affair and finally force closure? Should I suffer in silence for the next year or two for a project I feel must succeed? Should I be “true to my heart” and walk away from the entire miserable situation and put the episode behind me? NAME WITHHELD
Don’t expose the affair in any high-profile way. It would be different if this man’s project was promoting some (contextually hypocritical) family-values platform, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. The only motive for exposing the relationship would be to humiliate him and your wife, and that’s never a good reason for doing anything. This is between you and your spouse. You should tell her you want to separate, just as you would if she were sleeping with the mailman. The idea of “suffering in silence” for the good of the project is illogical. How would the quiet divorce of this man’s mistress hurt an international leadership initiative? He’d probably be relieved.
The fact that you’re willing to accept your wife’s infidelity for some greater political good is beyond honorable. In fact, it’s so over-the-top honorable that I’m not sure I believe your motives are real. Part of me wonders why you’re even posing this question, particularly in a column that is printed in The New York Times.
Your dilemma is intriguing, but I don’t see how it’s ambiguous. Your wife is having an affair with a person you happen to respect. Why would that last detail change the way you respond to her cheating? Do you admire this man so much that you haven’t asked your wife why she keeps having sex with him? I halfway suspect you’re writing this letter because you want specific people to read this column and deduce who is involved and what’s really going on behind closed doors (without actually addressing the conflict in person). That’s not ethical, either.
INSPIRED BY SCANDAL
I am a student filmmaker. My senior thesis is an allegorical look at a controversy that took place on my school’s campus more than a decade ago. Am I obliged to inform auditioning actors that this controversy inspired the film? It was public and divisive when it happened but has since been virtually forgotten. A.P., NEW JERSEY
Your question suggests that the nature of this controversy might make a certain kind of person unwilling to participate in the film. If this is true — if you honestly believe your actors might unknowingly find themselves in support of an ideological position they find abhorrent, and you don’t want this to happen — you should open the audition by briefly explaining how and why this event became the motivation for the movie. If (for example) this film was a sympathetic roman à clef about a long-dead professor who was both a serial rapist and a Holocaust denier, the lead actor might want to know this before he signs on. I would think you would want him to know these things, and it might improve the entire project.
But are you obligated to do this? You are not. As the creative force behind an artistic endeavor, you reserve the right to share or withhold whatever information you believe will create the best possible version of whatever work you intend to make. There’s no ethical imperative to explain why a fictional story exists.