Family Pauses over Woman's Posthumous Request
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, Host:
This week, with ethicist Randy Cohen, we'll hear from a listener with a similar dilemma. Adeline Talbot(ph) wrote to us from Greensboro, North Carolina, and she joins us on the line now. Hello. Welcome.
ELLIOTT: And, Randy, are you with us again? Hello.
RANDY COHEN: I am indeed. Hi, Debbie. Hi, Adeline.
ELLIOTT: Adeline, you say you are wondering what to do with your mother's papers. What's the situation there?
M: And we just still don't know what to do. We packed them away, no one's read them, and just wondered what the ethical basis for making this decision. She's gone so she can't be harmed by this, but also with her wish, so who's right?
ELLIOTT: Now, did she put this in her will? You mentioned that friend - her friends have told you this. Was anything in writing?
M: No. Nothing was in writing. There's no legal - you know, legally binding aspect to this. It's just to honor her wish. I'm the literalist. I feel like if she wanted us to burn it, then we should probably do that. But I'm one of four sisters and two family friends.
ELLIOTT: How do the others feel?
M: Then there's the thought of just putting it away for two - for a generation. You know, after we're gone, our children can look at it in case there was hurtful material, you know?
ELLIOTT: Well, let's get Randy in on this.
ELLIOTT: Randy, obviously this isn't a legal question then. This is simply a question of do they need to respect the wishes of Adeline's dead mother?
COHEN: Yes, put the papers in a box for 50 years or pick your time limit...
COHEN: And honors, you know, what about my needs? You know, I want to read these papers. History gives us so many examples of papers tragically lost. Jane Austen's sister, Cassandra, destroyed all the letters she and Jane had exchanged.
M: Oh, I didn't know that.
COHEN: Yeah. Boswell's heirs destroyed a passage in his diaries where he describes a fling he had with Rousseau's mistress. I want sexy details. And my favorite is, Thomas Hardy destroyed a manuscript of his wife's entitled, "What I Think of My Husband."
M: I think he had to.
COHEN: I think you can honor the intent of a person who kept diaries as long as you put them aside for a while.
M: Wonderful. I think that answer is going to satisfy everybody.
ELLIOTT: Adeline Talbot, thank you for writing to the Ethicist.
M: Thank you.
ELLIOTT: Randy, good to talk with you, as always.
COHEN: Always a pleasure.
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