Dilemmas: Knowledge comes with responsibility

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Adam's is in one of those classically tricky situations that have existed ever since the child in the playground wondered if he should 'tell' or not.

His problem is that his cousin had given birth to a son, now nine, by artificial insemination. Though this was meant to be a closely-guarded secret, it turned out that the whole family knew what had happened. And yet despite the fact that her husband is infertile, Adam's cousin keeps telling her son how like his father he is.

Adam is worried that the boy will get to know the truth one day by accident, with damaging effects. Would having a word with his cousin mean he was an interfering busybody, pushing his nose into affairs that were nothing to do with him? Or should he offer his two pennyworth in the interests of his young relative?

A C Watson of London W8 set the ball rolling succinctly: 'If it's a family secret then for goodness' sake he should keep stum.' But the problem was, it wasn't a family secret, as Richard Scott of Edinburgh observed. And Adam's cousin should be made aware of this fact. 'What she does once she knows her secret is out, is her and her husband's affair. It is their duty, right and privilege, and no one else's to decide what to say to their son about the circumstance of his conception.'

Andy Pheasant of New Maldon, Surrey, agreed. He wrote that by revealing that the 'closely guarded secret' is more like headline news, and advising that the child be told the truth, Adam would achieve three things. He would get a chance to hear his cousin's views, which might make him change his own mind. 'Secondly it may stop his cousin making a fool of herself in front of her family with the references to family likeness; and thirdly stop Adam blurting out the secret to further members of his family who might not otherwise have known.'

But how could Adam be sure that the 'closely guarded family secret' was not, in fact, a widely circulated family rumour? An anonymous reader wrote: 'How can anyone know the 'truth' about how the baby was born? However remote it might seem, there is a possibility that the husband might be the natural father.

'If he was having sex with his wife - and there's no suggestion he's impotent as well as infertile - then the smallest chance of him fathering his own child should not be dismissed. After all, even men who've had vasectomies have sometimes found themselves fertile.

'Adam should keep his thoughts on the subject to himself and encourage others in the family to do so too. If they're tempted to speak, I hope they might consider this - can anyone say, with absolute certainty, who their real father is?'

No. But up-to-date DNA tests can prove with virtually 100 per cent accuracy who the real father isn't. And although it's true that in sub-fertile men there's always a remote chance that even with babies conceived with the help of artificial insemination the child might be their own, no such possibility exists if the man is totally sterile.

S R Leary of Peterborough recommended subterfuge. Adam should devise an anecdote, containing similar ingredients. 'He need not reveal that he has any knowledge that his cousin is in the same position, but can simply impart his sadness at the story and that events could have been dealt with better.' But that would hardly work if the result was the cousin chuckling to herself and thinking: 'If only he knew]'

Perhaps the best person to comment on the situation was a reporter from the battlefield itself, someone in the same boat as the child. Rae of London wrote: 'My parents took the very unwise decision of keeping the identity of my natural father a secret until I was 25. It is little short of a miracle that someone didn't tell me the truth before, as I've now discovered that upwards of 20 people knew. I regarded everyone that knew with disgust, that they could take part in such a charade.

'Now my anger has gone I do realise the only people who could tell me were my parents. So as 'not to upset the applecart' they took the uninformed decision not to tell perhaps the only person who has the ultimate right to know - myself.

'This is a timebomb waiting to explode and one day it will, make no mistake about that. I suggest Adam writes a letter to his nine-year-old relation explaining how he feels about the situation and how he has had to respect his parents' wishes and not reveal the truth.

'Then, when the day comes, and the boy does find out, at least Adam can hand over the letter. I'm sure it's something the child will value and respect him for.

'Two years after knowing the truth, I still suddenly remember, with anger, flashbacks of my childhood, when people told me how I took after my father, or looked just like my sister, when it was genetically impossible.'

Adam should not simply shut his eyes to the situation. Now he knows, he does have some responsibility, if only to make his feelings clear.

As S R Leary wrote: 'As regards it being Adam's business: he cares about all the people involved, and is worried about the situation, so it is his business.'

What should I do with my contrary mother?

Dear Virginia,

MY MOTHER is 70 and over the past year her health appears to have been deteriorating. She's overweight, gets tired easily and suffers from shortness of breath. In addition she has become more irritable and forgetful and gets confused easily. During the last six months she seems to be getting increasingly paranoid, and once told my sister the neighbours were drilling through the wall to listen to her conversations.

My father, who is 72, and the rest of the family, have tried to persuade her to have a medical check-up but to no avail. To her, all doctors are too young and are fools anyway. She says if there's anything wrong with her she'd rather not know about it. We just want our parents to enjoy their retirement, but my mother's health problems could ruin what is left of their life together. How can we get her to a doctor before some real crisis arises?

Best wishes, Barbara.

All readers' comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted in the column will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send your comments and suggestions to me at the Features Dept, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB; fax 071-956-1739, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share with readers, let me know.

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