My stepfather has Alzheimer’s. Can my mom date someone else?
When I was a kid, my parents had huge fights over books my dad stole from the wonderful library at the college he attended on the GI Bill. It was 10 bound volumes of 19th century Harper’s Bazaar. Growing up, I went through them all and found them fascinating. My dad died when I was 20, so I finally broached with my mom the idea of returning the books. She did her word of mouth thing and said, “I’ll think about it,” which was her usual way of not handling something. I tried to talk to her about it several times over the years and realized that she was afraid it would reflect badly on her, because she hadn’t persuaded him not to keep them.
My mother died four years ago and I told my sister that I wanted to return the volumes. She lives in Mom’s house and therefore has physical control of it. She insists Dad told her he rewarded them for an essay he wrote. I’m sure daddy told her that, but she won’t admit it was a lie. I pointed out to him that the volumes are not sequential, which makes no sense for such a price. I told her my memories of our parents arguing about it, and she refuses to believe me.
I feel great guilt that these books, which could help someone’s scientific research, are just sitting on a shelf. I don’t know if I should do something or just give up. Masked name
The flight of shared ownership – a category that includes library books – is particularly unfortunate. This can worsen the situation for an entire community. So I understand your guilt. It must be infuriating too that your sister refuses to face the inconvenient truth and resists your decent impulse to put these things in their place. There is a lesson here in the human tendency to align what we think is true with what we would like to be true. We may hesitate to replace an enchanting story about an award-winning essay with a disenchanted story about library theft. Our cherished lies will not bow to new evidence; we bind them with hard covers.
Nevertheless, you might find some reassurance in the fact that the full version of this magazine is available digitally in many libraries, including almost certainly the one you mention. (I just looked at the first issue, which appeared in 1867, on the website of the library of the university where I teach. It advertises itself as “a repository of fashion, pleasure and instruction” – a bit like my classroom when it’s full of students.) And researchers who need to access the actual pages can locate physical copies stored somewhere. Another inconvenient truth: Libraries have often selected bound periodicals like these for alienation, a process that sometimes ends in their destruction. You can’t be sure the library would even accept their return.
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: email [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018. (Include daytime phone number.)