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The Ethicist
The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on marriage vows and stolen library books.

What are your thoughts on the spouse of an early-onset Alzheimer’s patient dating while said patient is still alive? By way of background, my mother was the full-time caregiver of my stepfather until a few months ago, when he was moved to assisted living, and she is lonely and missing companionship. The man my mother has chosen to date is in his mid-70s (seven years older than my mother), has lost all his money, has three failed marriages and generally has a poor reputation. The way the news was broken to us children (two stepchildren, including me, and two biological children) could have been better, and we are worried our mother is acting out of fear of being alone.
My siblings are hurt, angry and dealing with their father’s slowly dying, and it’s so hard to watch. My mother seems hellbent on dating this man and is not receptive to hearing our concerns. It was never going to be easy to see her with someone else this soon, but seeing her with this man is alarming. It’s also unlike her to be callous toward the feelings of her children. My fear is if we draw a line in the sand, she will pick him. But anything short of that seems as if it would be ineffective. Name Withheld
Two distinct problems are entangled here. On the one hand, there’s your sense that your mother is betraying your stepfather. On the other, there’s your worry that the person your mother is dating is bad news. Let’s start with the first, more ethically challenging, issue.
Your feelings are entirely natural; early-onset Alzheimer’s often progresses especially fast, and at the stage it has clearly reached, it deprives us of the person we once knew and loved. There’s a special heartbreak that arises from the doubleness of someone’s being here but not here.
It’s a loss that must hit everyone in your family in different ways. We talk of marital commitments as running “until death do us part.” We also know that many marriages end in divorce. Having a living, undivorced spouse who no longer recognizes you falls into neither category. Your stepfather did not break his vows or re-evaluate them. Nonetheless, he has effectively left the relationship — been removed from the relationship — in a permanent and irretrievable way. Your stepfather’s advanced dementia has, in short, robbed your mother of her husband.
Making sure that a spouse is cared for is one commitment that marriage entails and, having served as a full-time caregiver, your mother has clearly done so, at real personal sacrifice. But we should not want our spouses to abjure the companionship of others once we are no longer available to them. Indeed, nobody in your family has the right to expect this of her. The painful truth is that her status is ethically equivalent to that of a widow.
As for the very different worry that your mother’s beau is going to let her down: I agree that his track record is worrisome, and given his situation, one could wonder whether there’s a financial aspect to his interest in her. If you believe she’s at risk here, you should try to persuade her to be cautious. Yet that will be especially hard if she thinks you’re really motivated not by concern for her but by loyalty to your stepfather.
That’s why you should do your best to work through your feelings and get your motives clear before you start. Then you can tell your mother that you are happy that she has found companionship but that you hope she has thought about what her new partner’s history means for the prospects for their relationship. Whether she takes any notice is, of course, for her to decide. But this doesn’t mean that those who love her shouldn’t offer their advice.
When I was a child, my parents had some huge fights about some books my dad stole from the marvelous library of the university he attended on the G.I. Bill. They were 10 bound volumes of Harper’s Bazaar from the 19th century. Growing up, I pored through all of them 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 purse-mouthed thing and said, “I’ll think about it,” which was her standard way of not dealing with something. I tried talking to her about it several times over the years and realized she was afraid of it reflecting badly on her, because she hadn’t persuaded him not to keep them.
My mother died four years ago, and I told my sister I wanted to return the volumes. She lives in Mom’s house and so has physical control of them. She insists that Dad told her that he was awarded them for an essay he wrote. I don’t doubt Dad told her this, but she won’t recognize it was a lie. I have pointed out to her that the volumes are not sequential, which makes no sense for such an award. I told her my memories of the fights our parents had about it, and she refuses to believe me.
I feel this great guilt that those books, which could help someone’s scholarly research, are just sitting on a shelf. I don’t know whether I should do something or just let it go. Name Withheld
The theft of shared property — a category that includes library books — is particularly unfortunate. It can leave a whole community worse off. So I understand your sense of guilt. It must be galling, too, that your sister refuses to face the awkward truth and resists your decent impulse to get these things back where they belong. There’s a lesson here about the human tendency to align what we think to be true with what we’d like to be true. We may balk at replacing an enchanting story about a prizewinning essay with a disenchanting one about library larceny. Our cherished lies will not bend to new evidence; we bind them with hard covers.
Still, you may find some reassurance in the fact that the complete run of this magazine is digitally available in many libraries, almost certainly including the one you mention. (I just looked at the first issue, which appeared in 1867, through the library website of the university where I teach. It bills itself “A repository of fashion, pleasure and instruction” — rather like my classroom when filled with students.) And scholars who need access to the actual pages can locate physical copies in storage somewhere. Another awkward truth: Libraries have often selected bound periodicals like these for deaccessioning, a process that sometimes ends in their destruction. You can’t be confident that the library would even accept their return.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)
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