Dear Carolyn: My nephew doesn't know that his "dad" is not his biological dad. My sister birthed my nephew out of wedlock and met the man she married years later. For his whole life, my sister has allowed my nephew to think his fake dad is his real dad. She divorced his fake dad five years ago but still hasn't told my nephew, who is in his mid-20s now and about to get married.
Ironically, my nephew didn't invite my sister to his wedding for various reasons and now his fake dad will be at his side.
My sister doesn't intend to ever tell her son about his real biological father.
Am I complicit because I haven't told him myself? I would love to tell my nephew because I believe this lie has created a family system of secrets and opaqueness. But is that my place?
Carolyn says: I could argue that it's not your place to tell solely due to your use of "fake dad." A man who sticks around to raise a child is a dad, period — contemptuous modifiers notwithstanding. There's no place here for someone who doesn't have your nephew's best interests at heart and isn't sensitive to the needs of all parties. Your choice of words therefore is disqualifying if there's any feeling behind it.
Conveniently, it's not your place to stir this pot for reasons less open to debate: You're not this man's parent. As long as his mom and dad are mentally and physically present, they make the call. Even a terrible call like the one they've made to this point.
Are you complicit for helping them to keep the secret? A little. Not for failing to tell your nephew yourself, though. You're complicit for the extent to which you made it easy for your sister to lie to her kid.
This is obviously a gray area. One person might read this as a responsibility to frown — really hard! — in disapproval when your sister disclosed her intent not to tell, and another might take it as a mandate to badger your sister at every opportunity for the past two decades. I think decency splits these two extremes — where you calmly, discreetly express your discomfort with being a party to this secret, and do so whenever the topic comes up organically.
You can apply this standard from now on. It comes up, you civilly state your objection. Repeat in perpetuity.
Due to circumstances, you can also make a onetime foray into raising the issue yourself: The earth beneath this secret may have felt solid to your sister 20-plus years ago, but it surely is not anymore. Like anyone else at the moment, your nephew is one bout of curiosity — or, seriously, just one oblivious gift-giver — away from sending his spit to a lab just to see what turns up.
This isn't an endorsement of DNA testing, by the way. It's an acceptance of the reality. Family secrets have become endangered faster than rotary phones and eye contact. Anyone who likes your sister even remotely — as I'll pretend you do — would be kind to wake her up to the fact that her best, maybe only, chance of staying in her son's life when the truth comes out is if she's the one to tell it.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.