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Miss Conduct

Advice: I think my friend forgot sharing an awful secret with me

Over drinks one night, she told me she had been abused, and hasn’t said a word since. I don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen.

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Recently a longtime friend disclosed she had been sexually abused by a family member more than 40 years ago. She is a lovely and honest person. She is not an excessive drinker, but had had a few drinks while on a newly prescribed medication and was not as coherent as usual. The details of the abuse were sickening. At the time, I continually told her how sorry I was and that she did not deserve what happened to her. I have seen her several times since and believe she has no recollection of telling me. I am not sure what to do. I don’t want to ignore something that has been so hard for her, but don’t want to cause her additional pain.

Anonymous /Westerly, Rhode Island

I am so, so sorry for both you and your friend. What a horrifying situation for you to be in! If no one else has expressed sympathy to you, Anonymous, please have a steaming mug of it with whipped cream from me. It is profoundly traumatic to bear witness to someone else’s victimization.

So, first, take care of yourself. Choose a confidante who is not in the same social circle as your other friend, whom you can talk to about your feelings — your anger on your friend’s behalf, your grief, your uncertainty.

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Are you familiar with psychologist Susan Silk’s Ring Theory? It goes like this: The person the bad thing happens to is in the center of the ring. They can complain to/ask for support from anyone. The people closest to that person are in the next circle. They can complain to/ask for support from anyone except the person in the center. And so on. Get it? Support in, comfort out. Find someone who can comfort you for the trauma of knowing.

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Then let your friend know you know. It’s only fair to her; it’s almost certainly what you would want, in her position. Her privacy and autonomy have been violated enough.

I think the best thing is to send her a letter. Not for intimacy or formality — typed or handwritten doesn’t matter — but so that there is no electronic record of it, so that those awful words don’t infest the device she uses for work and games and shopping, and so that she can read it when she is alone and composed.

Tell her that she told you about her history, and that you love and support her. Tell her also that you will continue to behave toward her as you always have, and if she should want to broach the topic with you again or ever, you will be there for her, but that you will not ever bring it up on your own. She is in complete control of how things proceed.

Then stick by that promise. I hope it deepens your friendship.

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If it has the opposite effect, please forgive your friend — and yourself. Know that if she distances herself from you in the aftermath, it is not because of anything you did wrong, but because you have become infected by a disease she has no immunity to, and she must quarantine herself.

Miss Conduct is a writer with a PhD in psychology.