Annie Lane: Guest with a gross habit

Published 5:52 pm Friday, December 17, 2021

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Dear Annie: My middle-aged confirmed bachelor brother-in-law is a frequent and welcome dinner guest at our house. Lately, when no one is here but his brother and me, he’s begun cleaning his plate with his finger and then licking his finger. Sometimes he just licks his plate.

He is a dear. He’s also sensitive and easily hurt. I’m reluctant to say anything that might drive him away, and my husband doesn’t want to mention it, either. But this unwelcome attention to the last drops of his food makes my stomach churn. I’m hoping that if you print this, he’ll take the hint — and maybe other food lovers will examine their etiquette, as well.

— Grossed Out in Georgia

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Dear Grossed Out: This is a classic etiquette conundrum in which calling out the offensive behavior would be ruder than the behavior itself. So I think you’ll have to continue to bite your tongue and avert your gaze on this one. And perhaps it will be easier to stomach if you consider what a compliment it is to your cooking.

• • •

Dear Annie: A lifetime ago, I was like “Brice,” the 11-year-old kid whom “Ashamed and Terrible Stepdad” wrote to you about. If the stepfather “hates” what he himself describes as a respectful and sweet kid merely because the kid likes to read books and is not into sports or the outdoors, then the stepfather has a very serious problem. As you suggest, odds are high the stepfather has internal doubts about his own masculinity/heterosexuality.

You recommend therapy, and the stepfather could potentially benefit from that. Unfortunately, it might not yield a positive result, particularly if the family lives in an area where kids who are “different” are viewed askance. Except in the largest U.S. cities (and even in some of them), people with similar perspectives and outlooks tend to cluster together, and any locally based psychotherapist could easily suffer from the stepfather’s prejudices.

Tragically, there is no question Brice is aware that his stepfather despises him for what he is. I am also certain that the two “rough-and-tumble” sons are equally aware of the situation. If they haven’t already started to treat their stepbrother in a disrespectful and demeaning way, they will start doing so very soon as they reach puberty. All kids pick up on feelings; it doesn’t matter whether they’re bookworms or jocks.

The bottom line: This family is seriously dysfunctional; the mother is in denial about what is going on (as many mothers in similar situations are) and also needs therapy; and all three children are at risk. If an intervention of some kind does not occur, odds are very high that Brice will grow up to hate himself and trust no one, that the stepbrothers will grow up to be bullies (or worse) and that the parents’ relationship will deteriorate.

The one saving grace is that the stepfather has more self-awareness than most other father figures in similar situations. The fact that he signs himself as “ashamed” and “terrible” offers some hope for the family’s future.

— Been There and Done That in Western New York in the 1960s

Dear Been There and Done That: I’m printing your letter, as I feel that it will be useful for “Ashamed” to hear the perspective of someone who’s been in his stepson’s shoes.

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