How to recover from a bad decision

Many of you have asked what happened with Kate. In case you don’t remember, Kate was a homeless teen I found myself coaching in Florida. When I realized she was homeless I bought her a plane ticket to come to my house. We made our guest room into her room. I bought her all new clothes, and I told my sons to stop asking how long Kate is staying for. I told them, “This is her home. It’s the only home she has. She leaves when she wants and comes home when she needs to. Just like you guys will do when you’re older.”

I remember when she arrived, I felt I was doing something that is my life calling. It was so easy for me to understand her because she grew up just like I did. She kept asking me how I could open my house to her so easily and I told her, “I can’t help myself as a teen, but I can help you.”

I spent a lot of money trying to give her what I thought she’d need to launch into adult life. But the things she really needed were things we cannot buy.

She lied to me and my husband about birth control. We told her she had to use condoms until her new IUD started working. She told us she was insulted we would think she’d have sex when she had only been in Wisconsin two weeks and she didn’t even know anyone.

We said, “Just put the condoms in your purse. Just in case.”

She said, “That’s so slutty.”

That week she got pregnant. I didn’t find out until two months later, when she miscarried, in the toilet in the back stall in the bathroom at cello lessons. She brought me to the bathroom to ask if she’s dying. “This came out of me.”

I looked in the toilet and to be honest, until that moment I had no idea how much I knew about blood in toilets. “You had sex the week we told you to use a condom, didn’t you?”


“That’s a miscarriage.”

She lied to me and my husband about visiting her friend’s parents a few towns away. Instead she took our car across state lines with a guy we’ve never met and stayed in hotels with him with our credit card. When we accused her of lying, she told us she didn’t go with the guy. Even though all the receipts showed she did.

My husband was dumbfounded that she could be so dishonest to people who are helping her. He couldn’t believe she’d take our car and disappear. I was forgiving. I had done the same thing with my parents’ credit card when I was her age. I would have stolen from anyone when I was her age. It comes with not having parents who take care of you.

We had a pattern where my husband would go nuts that we have a lying, deceitful, unmanageable teen in our house, and I would go to therapy with her where I would explain what happened and the therapist would talk about responsibility and Kate would listen. I think.

I remember listening to a therapist at her age. I also remember wearing stolen clothes to those therapy appointments.

Kate told me she was too old to live with a family.

I asked her if she had ever had the experience of living with a family and abiding by house rules.

She said she wished her parents had stayed married. She said, “The best time of my life was when I was really little and we were living with my real dad.”

I said, “But you told me he was using heroin with your pre-teen sisters.”

“Oh yeah. Well that wasn’t good. But the rest was.”

I listened to that and I told myself that I, too, had been incredibly delusional about my father when I was Kate’s age. I told myself traumatic childhoods can only be healed with stable living environments. I could give her that. I stuck by Kate through everything. I took pleasure in telling her, every time she did or said something awful, that I would not kick her out.

She tested and tested and said, “I can’t believe how loyal you are.”

Every therapy session became a discussion about how family members abide by the rules of the family because people care for each other.

So Kate left.

She got an apartment in an area of town where I’d never let my kids live. She took a towel, throw pillows and other small things I did not tell her she could take. I only realized it when she sent me pictures.

She never had a bedroom of her own. I was too happy for her to accuse her of stealing.

She got a job that didn’t pay rent. She sent me a picture on her first day of work.

She got fired the second day. “I have a felony,” she told me.

“For what?” is what I asked. What I thought was that I’m scared she is going to get into some sort of trouble that I can’t handle.

The felony is because a friend’s mom put a restraining order against Kate and Kate kept seeing the friend. Kate told me the mom was crazy.

But I start worrying that probably everyone in Kate’s life is not as crazy as she says they are. But also, if they are that crazy, then what am I doing here?

My husband tells me I have to stop giving Kate money.

I pay her rent for one month. And I give her our car that we weren’t using anyway because I didn’t think it was safe in the winter.

I tell her we’ll put the title in her name next time she comes to visit.

The next time she comes to visit it’s too late to go to the DMV to change the title. But Kate is lonely at her apartment. She has a job but no friends. She takes home a kitten. She wants one of our favorites. My kids say no. She asks for my husband’s favorite. He says no, too.

She doesn’t want an older cat because she says it’s too hard to train an older cat to love you. She says she’d rather have a damaged baby and she goes home with a kitten who’s blind in one eye.

She is happy with her cat. She is happy with her car. She comes back to our house to get the car title. She asks if I can pay for gas. And she asks me to pay for one month more of rent. My husband makes me tell her I won’t pay for anything else. She can come back to our house to live, but we won’t support her in her apartment. “No more money.” I have to say it to her when my husband is sitting next to me so he knows for sure it’s clear.

Kate comes back to have dinner with us. The boys are so excited that they bake her cupcakes. She says she can’t stay for dinner but she wants a second cat.

My husband says he knew all along she wasn’t staying for dinner.

I tell him he’s too cynical.

We don’t have any more kittens but my in-laws do. My mother-in-law has been bottle feeding a kitten that she loves. She tells Kate that Kate can take the kitten but if there is any problem, or if Kate doesn’t want the kitten, she should email my mother-in-law and give the kitten back. It’s hard for my mother-in-law to part with the kitten she’s been taking care of for so long. My husband assures her Kate will take good care.

The next morning Kate calls me.

“You’ll hate me,” she says.

“I’ll never hate you. What happened?”

“I gave the kitten to animal rescue. It was too annoying.”

“I don’t hate you. We knew you have an attachment problem with people, so it’s not surprising you have it with animals. But why didn’t you call us? Why did you give the cat to animal rescue? And how did you even get it there?”

“They came and picked it up.”

“They picked it up?”

I am sitting at the breakfast table. Now the boys want to know what happened. They are hearing everything.

I hang up with Kate and my husband tells me we have to get the kitten. The boys will know that Kate sent the kitten to animal rescue and my mother-in-law will be too upset. And we can’t tell the boys to lie.

I tell Kate.

She says okay she’ll call animal rescue.

They are not open until 3pm and she has to go to work.

I tell her to go into work an hour late. “Tell your boss we need to get the kitten back before they give it away.”

She says no.

I say we are coming to her apartment to talk with her. To explain why we need the kitten back.

She says she won’t tell us where she lives.

I didn’t realize that I paid rent and gave her a car, but I don’t know her address.

She stops answering her phone.

We go to the Best Western where she works at the front desk. There are three employees there, and the manager, and no one is doing anything except listening to us talk to Kate.

She tells us to go away.

We say we don’t have another way to talk with her.

Her manager asks her if she wants him to call the police to take us away and she says, “Yes.”

We go back to our car and look up animal rescue in Madison. It turns out that it’s animal control and it’s kill-only in Madison. Now we know why Kate didn’t want to help us get the cat back. But animal control tells us they picked up the kitten and felt so bad killing it that they held it until  the animal shelter opened and brought it there.

We went to the animal shelter and got the cat back.

I want to tell you I never heard from Kate again. But I did. She kept charging her braces to our account.

I called her and told her to please stop. She said she wasn’t doing that. I didn’t even argue with her. I just hung up.

And then, for three months, I told myself I’m so stupid. So stupid for thinking I can save the world. So stupid for letting her lie to me so many times. I hate how much money I spent on her. I hate how much time I spent. Incredibly bad judgment. And the conversation with my sons about how Kate is not able to trust people so she is not able to be trustworthy. That was so difficult to have.

I was so mad at myself for so long. But then my husband started reframing. He said she could have stayed at our house much longer, and made the pain for the family much bigger. And my therapist reminded me that I learned a lot about myself, and how much I’ve overcome, by seeing how many hurdles Kate still has to face.

So I made a mistake. I misjudged Kate. And I misjudged myself. And I guess it’s okay. It’s okay to make a bad decision. And get burned. But it’s not okay to dwell on it. So this is me, giving you the update and moving forward.

145 replies
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  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    It’s always messy when you try to help someone who’s been through this much. The success rate is low. But because the success rate is not zero, I’m glad you tried. I hope you’ll not shy away the next time — but you will know better what to do.

  2. Courtney
    Courtney says:

    I think you did th eright thing. Lack of notable apparent success does not constitute failure. Failure would be to do nothing. Failure would be too afraid to see your own mistakes in another.
    There are many ways to fail, and this was not it.
    No matter what she now has a baseline for what love looks like. She did not have that before. Now she has a reference point.

    • Rebecca Stafford
      Rebecca Stafford says:

      Beautifully said.
      Benefits may not be apparent for some time, but the seeds have been sown.

  3. Andi
    Andi says:

    Why do you think you allowed her to cross your boundaries like that? You showed loyalty to Kate like some people don’t even show their own children. I often find myself being overly loyal to people who don’t deserve it, also, so I’m curious as to your perspective on it.

    • Dannielle
      Dannielle says:

      I think Penelope was trying to be kind to a stranger in the way she wished someone else had been kind to her when she needed it.

      It’s admirable but also scary how we sometimes do that and leave ourselves vulnerable to people who have less than honorable intentions.

      I find that I do the same thing myself, and subconsciously compensate by surrounding myself with people who have a strong radar for that kind of thing.

      Personally I feel like I’ve got to stop trying to right the wrongs of the past by blindly helping other people. If you really want to help, help without needing some kind of unconscious reward in return. (Easier said than done and it can cost you…”open your eyes or open your wallet.”)

      It is uncanny how much I have in common with Penelope psychologically, really.

      • GenerationXpert
        GenerationXpert says:

        Exactly what I was thinking. P, don’t lose that instinct to do the right thing, open your heart, and help people.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I have another reframe of your experience with Kate. What if you never tried to help her? You would still be wondering if you missed an opportunity for one of your ‘life’s callings’. I believe it was poor judgement and not a mistake. The mistake would be for you not to learn from your poor judgement. I believe the trick in life is to not have repeat performances of bad judgement for a given set of circumstances.

  5. marta
    marta says:

    Your act of kindness shouldn’t be measured in terms of success/failure. Specially not seen through short-to-middle term lenses.

    I think someday Kate will be in your position and finally recognize your family’s gift to her.

    I also hope she turns out well in the end, as you did…

  6. beyondbeige
    beyondbeige says:

    Kate will never be in your position because she will not take responsibility. Ever. There’s a girl full of rage. And what’s that saying fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me. And after that it’s change your therapist.

  7. sarah faulkner
    sarah faulkner says:

    When my Mom worked at a girls rehab center the success rate was 1 out of 250.

    I use to think, that given the right encouragement (or whatever) people would want to change and step up. They don’t. Some people want to stay in the pit. I have been around so many drug addicts, and “way ward” teens, I can almost predict if they will stop or continue.

    Like this, It was a matter of time before she called rape against your husband. She would call rape after she tried to seduce him.

    When I was struggling with the fact that not everyone wants to be rescued, a friend reminded me that we all have a choice. I always thought, if given a different situation people would make a different choice. But they don’t. Good past or bad past we all make the choice for how the future goes.

    There is nothing that stops any one from making good choices. It’s just sad because you want everyone to make good choices, and they don’t.

    I love your heart, but don’t see this as your failure. This is Kate’s choice to not accept your help. Good for you for trying, because, she was given a chance. And, at the end of the day, it feels good to have given someone hope, even if they chose to ignore it.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The one out of 250 statistic is really sobering. While I was watching Kate make decisions that were clearly bad for her, I kept thinking about how I made terrible decisions when I was young, but the fact that I grew up as a rich kid gave me so many second chances: I had a college degree, I was well traveled, I had a house to go to when I was in trouble, etc.


      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        How many second chances has Kate had to turn things around for herself with the help that has been offered to her and she’s accepted? She had second and more chances with you and your family. We really don’t know how many chances she’s had with other people.
        My guess is it takes a “village” to bring Kate around. A “village” of dedicated specialists in a rehab or similar type facility which Sarah mentions above. And, of course, ultimately it is Kate that has to want to work and persevere to straighten out her life. I don’t believe you knew enough of her prior history to have reasonable expectations of her stay with you. I do hope Kate reads this blog and the comments and that both of you appreciate your effort. I believe Kate knows how to ask for help. She just has to figure out how to make the proper use of it.

  8. Jack
    Jack says:

    Two things I’ve learned in this life.

    Actions speak louder than words.

    The only change comes from within.

    Good for you for doing your best, but I’m glad you found your stopping point before she was able to cause any permanent damage to your family.

  9. Brandy
    Brandy says:

    I once told you that I wanted to adopt older kids (foster-to-adopt) and I got the impression that you didn’t think that was a good idea. I now understand why.

    I am so sorry this happened to you and your family. Attempting to be the person for her, that you wish had been there for you – and having her sabotage it – has got to feel like a slap in the face. It completely sux.

    Having said that, I’m proud of you. I’m proud that you tried, really and truly tried. I’m proud you set up boundaries and stuck to them. I’m proud of you for recognizing a bad situation for everyone involved and pulling away. I’m proud that you had some difficult conversations with your husband and kids, because I’m sure no one enjoyed it. But mostly I think I’m proudest of how you are handling the aftermath.

    If it helps at all, one of the things a social worker said to me was people with kids, biological and adopted, are unhappier than childless people until the children become adults. Then the happiness factor for parents greatly surpasses the childless people. My guess is 10 years from now this whole episode will make both you and Kate happier.

    At least I hope so.

    • Lizzy
      Lizzy says:

      I totally believe this.
      A close friend of mine has two adopted/foster siblings that made life hell for the parents starting at age 12.

      Then the adopted/foster siblings, grew up, got married, had kids and completely changed. Now they’re a strong, supportive family unit of grand-parents, aunts, uncles, grandchildren etc.

  10. Richard
    Richard says:

    I know. I have a friend who did this. Next thing you know, he had a house full of them….like John Candy in the movie Summer Rental. At the time, he was the classic social worker, it was all “nurture.” I said I doubted it…souse ear, silk purse. After, several failures, he now says “it’s all genetics.” I wouldn’t go that far, I’d say it’s mostly genetics.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      There is a lot of evidence to back that up – that it’s all genetics. I think we just don’t like hearing it. We don’t like feeling pre-determined ourselves, and definitely parents don’t like hearing about all the twin studies that show parenting didn’t matter. (Read Bryan Caplan’s book for great summaries of twin studies.)

      I thought more than once about how Kate’s parents are messed up and her aunts are messed up – I mean, it takes a genetic melange of disappointments before a teen is out on the street – because in most families someone in the extended family would pick her up.

      I don’t want to think it’s all genetic, but it’s hard not to.


      • Sinead
        Sinead says:

        It’s damage between ages 0 – 6 rather than genetics.

        “A lethal cycle of psychological wounds and unawareness (ignorance) that passes silently down the generations. The effects of this cycle are everywhere: abuse, neglect, anxiety, divorce, depression, homelessness, crime, addictions, cults, aimlessness, obesity, suicide, runaways, school dropouts, welfare, “mental illness”, terrorism, and other common personal and social problems.” – Peter Gerlach, MSW

        The only way out is by breaking the cycle. It can be done but it takes a lot of, lot of work.

      • jessica
        jessica says:

        Oh god, the twin studies were sobering.

        I believe parental environment and expectations DO have a lot to do with a persons’ mental and emotional outlook, genetic predisposition or not. Environment can change a person’s expressive genes. It’s like a big ecosystem, with expression of healthy genes relying on health and circumstances. So if she wants to change, she has to do the long hard work of changing her mindset. I would recommend reading books, gaining knowledge, and keeping a diary. If she wants to start somewhere but doesn’t want to seek help. She can at least help herself to form some better habits.

        Money gives so many second chances. This is the big thing that will be in her way.

        • Jennifer
          Jennifer says:

          I will read the Bryan Caplan book. I read “The Nurture Assumption” and argued with the text all the way through … but in the end I found it parts of it to be very convincing.

          • jessica
            jessica says:

            I would like to read a post from the Farmer’s perspective on the Kate situation. Then one from Kate.

          • jessica
            jessica says:

            Sorry that reply was not mean to go there, but at the bottom.

            Nature vs Nurture is a long debate. I think they affect people differently; Some are more responsive to their surroundings, while other’s less so. My brother is in the strict ‘Nature’ camp, while I tend to believe nurture and sheer willpower can steer nature in a powerful direction.

  11. Kate
    Kate says:

    Reading this story breaks my heart. When you first wrote about Kate, I thought, I was that girl once. I thought, if only I’d had someone like you to save me when I’d needed it most. Instead I had to claw my own way out, and it was not easy. I hated it. I hated myself. All I wanted was for someone to care about me, to help me, to provide some stability and love and understanding.

    But now, in retrospect, I realize that back when I needed it most, I wouldn’t have been able to accept help from someone like you. I wouldn’t have been able to take kindness and empathy at face value, back then. I would have spit in my benefactor’s face, much like Kate seems to have done. I would have been pleased to have someone gullible enough in my grasp to give me what I wanted. It took years of struggling for me to learn to have normal relationships with other people, to believe that people didn’t just exist to be used by me. Eventually I got to that point. But before I got there myself, I truly don’t think anyone could have helped me, no matter how good their intentions.

    I dug myself out from under the pile of shit my upbringing had buried me in, and it took me many years. It wouldn’t have been the same if someone else had swooped in to rescue me–in fact, I’m not sure it would have happened at all. I think the same thing is true of Kate. You cannot save her; you will only ruin your own life in trying to do so. One day, when she gets really fucking tired of the misery in her life, she will save herself. Or not. Either way, you have no power over when and if that happens.

    I applaud you for trying, though. I think it was hopeless from the start, but the once-broken teenager in me still says: good for you for trying.

  12. Carlee
    Carlee says:

    I’m really sorry about what happened with Kate. That’s hard on a family, but I wanted to write and say I think it will be good for your kids.

    You modeled kindness.
    You modeled taking a chance on people.
    You modeled giving the benefit of the doubt.
    You modeled realizing individuals can be awful and hurtful.
    You modeled decoupling from those people.

    These are crappy lessons, but really important ones. Especially for your INTJ kid. I think seeing that people can get through situations like this makes it possible to be more open and loving as a person.

    I know you know this, but sometimes it can be nice to hear it anyways. I hope you’re doing ok.

    • Kate
      Kate says:

      I agree and am glad another poster pointed out that this experience, while heart-breaking, has positive messages for Penelope’s kids. In addition to the role modeled behaviors described, I don’t think it’s bad that her kids saw first hand what happens when the boundaries between parent and (adult-ish) child (even if there’s no biological relation), or boundaries between friends, are pushed to the limits. Her children saw how far Penelope and her husband would go as parents and a family for someone (even if they weren’t blood relatives). I’d think this would reinforce their understanding of family, the goodness of their parents, etc. And, importantly, they also saw the flip side – how their family can be hurt by negative actions that manipulate my parents’ trust.

  13. Karen
    Karen says:

    Amazingly close story to my own, trying to help a girl in trouble, letting her into my home, even though I had kids, etc. Very similar outcome as well. Lots of lying, betrayal. Lots of “why are you so nice to me?” You’re not alone in your “mistake”. I’m trying my best not to dwell, either. This post was sent to me by a caring friend that knows my story. My “Kate” is trying to reconnect and I need to remain firm, as difficult as it is. This was a good reminder. Much love to you and go easy on yourself as you untangle yourself from this. I understand completely.

  14. Bailey
    Bailey says:

    Did Kate ask you to coach her? Did she ask you to buy her a plane ticket? To give her a room in your home?

    Yes, eventually she did start asking for things, like rent and gas money, but that was only after you taught her this was acceptable.

    You claim that you’re a “big picture person” and can divine the future when others can’t. I knew how Kate’s story would end after reading just the first few sentences. What took you so long?

    As a Mom, protecting your kids (and kitten) is your first priority. Attempting to save a teenage version of yourself not only put your children at risk, but worse it turned Kate in to an even bigger monster. You turned her in to a better manipulator. You trained her to prey on kind people and expect handouts. You trained her she could lie and steal without consequences.

    I am very happy for you that you have grown in to a smart, happy and productive adult. And I truly hope the same for Kate.

    Yet in the future: mind your own business!

    • MC
      MC says:

      “You claim that you’re a ‘big picture person’ and can divine the future when others can’t. I knew how Kate’s story would end after reading just the first few sentences. What took you so long?”

      This is brutal but fair. The bad decision is a symptom of Ms. Trunk’s seemingly unshakable faith in nurture overcoming nature.

      I can’t help but think that Kate’s irresponsible desire to take care of the kitten is an apt metaphor for Penelope’s desire to take care of Kate.

      • jessica
        jessica says:

        To be fair, personally, since Kate is reading this, maybe, I believe Kate is at the age where she can’t be ‘nurtured’ by others until she starts sorting herself out and defining her grown up life and outlook through hard work (mental and emotional work).

        So, she can still recover, but she has to do it herself. It’s going to be harder with real bills to pay, but she can do it when she wishes to. Character is not set in stone. (PS the sooner the better)

        I think P should still help people, but this is a learning experience for her self as well. Not all is a loss.

        And directly for Kate- look, a lot of people that read P’s blog have been through years and years of life. There are many different situations in these comments, but the one thing everyone knows is that you can learn to make better choices for yourself, and by doing so your future is better, your life is better and you start to value yourself and your word. You are young enough to start working through this tough stuff and come out on the other end HAPPY and self-valued. You deserve it, you’ll be ok, but you have to make that choice. Best to you.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Its very very difficult to see our own story. So much easier to see other peoples’. This is true of significant others as well. For example, everyone knows if you should dump your boyfriend before you do. They all saw it coming. Before you moved in with him. It’s always like that. We are too close to our own lives.

        I have found this is true with personality type as well, by the way. It’s so easy for me to see other peoples’ types after knowing very few details about them. But with people I’m very close to (mom, brother, etc) I get it wrong a lot.


  15. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    “My husband says he knew all along she wasn’t staying for dinner.

    I tell him he’s too cynical.”

    High five from INTP to ISTP.

  16. Kina
    Kina says:

    The realization that one can’t change people is harder to deal with than their messed up lives.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Yes. As the child of alcoholic parents, I decided in my twenties to stop trying to change people.

      However, it is difficult to find a way to convey this resignation and acceptance to my children. They want a normal relationship with their grandparents, and it grieves me to watch their hearts being broken.

      Alcoholism: worse than divorce?

  17. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    I have to wonder about your sense of proportion. The same money sent to an overseas charity could have saved a hundred kids from disease or malnutrition. Or I’m sure you could have found worthy charities in the U.S., or even in your own community.

    I assume people do these excessive gestures of charity because it makes them feel good about themselves, not because this is the best use of their time or money.

    As a disabled person myself, I run into this kind of thing off and on. Someone offers to help me and I tell them I’ll manage. A disappointed look crosses their face. Rather than respect my independence, they are unhappy that I’ve denied them the opportunity to show what a great person they are by helping…

    I know people like to have a good opinion of themselves, but I’ve always considered this reaction kind of pathetic.

    • kina
      kina says:

      You think I am equating malnourished children with out-of-control teenagers here. I am not. Apples and oranges.

    • Nick
      Nick says:

      I think this is probably more of an in your face vs. on the other side of the world thing. Sometimes an opportunity to help someone presents itself and those opportunities are easier to seize than ones on the other side of the world. When you just throw your money at some charity and never know what really happens with it it’s hard to really feel that it’s helping.

    • Molly
      Molly says:

      Sending money to a charity may not utilize the person’s strengths/knowledge, or allow them to experience the feeling of making a positive difference. Instead, it is providing someone else with the opportunity to do so. There is no shame in someone wanting to experience that first hand. If you, personally, don’t need the help than graciously refusing their help and freeing them up to help someone who does is considerate of you, ideally without passing judgment on their intentions.

  18. Trilby Henderson
    Trilby Henderson says:

    Interesting. Does this experience change you’re opinion of Kate’s aunt who originally wanted you to coach her? It seemed like you were pretty hard on the woman when you decided to bring Kate in and fix her.

  19. Geoffrey
    Geoffrey says:

    You were a Good Samaritan. I think you did the right thing. Some people just don’t want help, or are deceptive.

  20. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    I think about this quote all the time.

    “When you trust someone, they become trust worthy.”

    It’s from Louder than a Bomb.

    I don’t believe it, but I want to, I really want to. Penelope, I think you did the right thing. You helped someone who needed it. Keep that spirit.

  21. Tracey
    Tracey says:

    You basically temporarily adopted a sociopath. You’re incredibly lucky she never hurt your sons.

  22. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    I see a pattern from a scary person in my life I took in.

    Destroying relationships as a way to get what they want. Not theirs, but other people in their ‘help’ circle. The way she destroyed P’s relationship with her aunt, is clever. She will probably continue to do this as she sees it to be a useful tact. P is very lucky she got her out of the house before she started secretly destroying P’s family relationships.
    I would bet her next big ‘helper’ is drawn to the story she will concoct about how P abused her.

    Another pattern I see is charm, intelligence and good looks. They can look the part of someone with more means than anywhere near what they have. This is used to lure people in.

    It is hard to figure out these types, (and I don’t mean MBTI, I mean serious mental problems like narcisstic personality or sociopath) especially when they are young. Hopefully she changes, but if I were P, I would let her change on her own. If she calls in a few years with news about how great she is doing, say, I am so happy for you, and hang up the phone.

  23. Kathy Shaidle
    Kathy Shaidle says:

    Most ‘homeless’ people are ‘homeless’ for a reason: They were kicked out of their real homes for being assholes.

    How can a grown woman not know this?

    There is something wrong with people who always want to “help others.” Fix yourself first.

  24. BODO
    BODO says:

    How could this be a bad decision?
    You did the RIGHT thing and this is admirable. Not many of us have the capacity or the courage to do that. With Kate it could have turned either way and no one could have predicted the outcome.
    What is sad is all these people blaming you, all these people pretending to know everything.

    Anyway thank you for this inspiring story.

    • Dana
      Dana says:

      WHAT?? The right thing?? No! She did the self-serving “I AM AWESOME AND I CAN SAVE THE WORLD” thing … not the right thing. It was a huge mistake – she’s just lucky the consequences for this mistake weren’t more severe …

  25. grayjohn
    grayjohn says:

    Now you understand that “A walk through the ocean of most souls will barely get your feet wet.”
    People like Kate feed on pain and misery like plants feed on sunshine.

  26. Poster
    Poster says:

    While I don’t know if it’s her real name, it might be courteous to take Kate’s photo off the blog. Even if she’s a screw-up, it probably fair to let her do that relatively anonymously.

  27. bwbandy
    bwbandy says:

    This is one of the dumbest things I have read in ages. I agreed with K. Shaidle. I doubt you learned anything from this.

  28. jessica
    jessica says:

    I’m neutral on the Kate thing.

    Isn’t she in her teens? Who didn’t screw up in their teens? Doesn’t she have a shitty background with crappy people in her life, as well? Isn’t P the FIRST person to offer help and assistance (we don’t have many government programs for the Kate’s of the world) to Kate? If Kate was your child, wouldn’t you be happy that there are people like P around to offer help (whether or not it was for her own emotional gain)?

    There is so much time for Kate to learn the ropes of the world. You just can’t expect someone with her background to come out of her experience with a proper head on her shoulders making excellent decisions and keeping earnest people around.

    All I’m reading is someone testing boundaries, her own and others. What she seems to be missing is now that she is growing up, she has to own it. She’ll get there one day (hopefully), but not without burning a few bridges in the process.

    I’m just tired of reading comments that people like this are beyond help. That’s just not true. Especially at her age.

    • Bailey
      Bailey says:

      There’s a difference between being “beyond help” and “beyond hope.”

      Yes, there’s still hope for Kate. But she’s the only one who can help herself. It’s a cosmic crime to interfere with another person’s “must figure life out” path. As a bystander, it’s painful to watch others stumble along, bumping in to the same mistakes “young me” made.

      In cases like these, trying to “help” the Kate’s of the world is (at best) a misdirected attempt to heal something within oneself. At best.

      Kate is Kate. Penelope is Penelope. Yet Penelope thinks Kate is Young Penelope. In trying to rescue Young Penelope, Helper Penelope damages Real Kate.

      Predictable? 100%

      I’m sorry if what I say sounds harsh. I don’t mean to “blame” P yet I think her eyes are still closed here. Often when we think of ourselves as the victim (“How could Kate betray me like this? I’m such a kind and helpful person.”), we are actually the perpetrator.

      I’m P’s fan. I think she awesome: intelligent, a fabulous mom, brave. Yet open your eyes and, for Kate’s sake, move on.

      “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

        • jessica
          jessica says:

          Kate is Kate. Penelope is Penelope. Yet Penelope thinks Kate is Young Penelope. In trying to rescue Young Penelope, Helper Penelope damages Real Kate.

          Maybe that’s why Kate left then, for her own good. I can’t just sit here and say, Penelope is so fantastic, Kate is so dumb. I think there are nuances that we don’t know, of course. So maybe Kate knew the road Penelope offered would lead her no where, or at least, not where she needed to find herself.

          Ah, the story of Kate.

          • Penelope Trunk
            Penelope Trunk says:

            I worry that there is a lot of truth to this. I’m not sure there is anything that can be done about the human condition of wanting to help people who remind us of ourselves.

            It is this proclivity that makes diversity at work so difficult, by the way — most people want to help someone who reminds them of themselves. And most people want to get right what they didn’t get right the first time. Not that this is a good way to function, but it’s what most people do. So probably I’m no different even if I try to be different.


  29. Dana
    Dana says:

    I’m confused … am I supposed to feel sorry for you? For Kate? I mean, I get the whole “Here’s an update,” but you spent a disproportionate amount of time in this post talking about what was (is) wrong with Kate, and very little about what was (is) wrong with your decision making in this process.

    Sure, it’s okay to make a mistake … and perseverating on said mistake is not productive either … I guess I’m just wondering how many times you are going to try to save your younger self by “saving” others.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s a good question. I had to go to therapy with my husband to understand why I keep doing this – bringing people to the house and trying to save them.

      I mean, of course I do it to make up for my childhood, but I need to find better ways to cope. So we have an agreement that I won’t do it again while our kids are in the house. It’s not good for the kids, to say the least.

      I will have to save myself. Not surprising to anyone, I know. But most things we have to go to therapy for are not surprising. That’s why they’re true.


      • jessica
        jessica says:

        Maybe you can fill the need to help others through some form of donation. Perhaps if a situation like this arises again- donating the funds for a 30 day rehab stay where at least someone can learn some skills for their own life and you are not involved.

      • Bailey
        Bailey says:

        “I will have to save myself.”

        Interesting statement. Is it possible for a person to save themselves? How will you ever know when you’re done? Sounds like a never-ending, self-hating process. “Sorry I screwed up. I haven’t saved myself yet, so what do you expect?”

        I think the best we can strive for is to be a good person, which includes correctly prioritizing responsibilities (kids over lying-stealing-homeless teen, husband’s sane request over must-be-convinced-by-therapist). And accepting universal truths such as “helping” others who don’t actively seek out assistance ultimately cannot save but can only damage them.

        I believe you’re a compassionate and intelligent person, yet still, I’m not sure you see that it’s likely you actually harmed Kate. She’s actually a worse person because of your meddling, I mean help. All you can see is “me me me.”

        Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

      • Sue
        Sue says:

        In one of the many books on how to be happy that I’ve read, I recall reading one step to overcoming a painful experience is to help someone else cope with a similar painful experience. Instead of helping a young version of yourself, maybe you could help an adult version of yourself. That sort of person will likely be more responsive to your willingness to help. Or maybe it’s the parent, or relative, of a young PT that would most benefit from your help… like Kate’s aunt.

      • Dana
        Dana says:

        I do it to make up for my childhood, but I need to find better ways to cope.

        Yes … yes you do!

        So we have an agreement that I won’t do it again while our kids are in the house. It’s not good for the kids, to say the least.

        You know, of all the issues with your decision, this one bothers me the most. Your boys had no choice in this decision – they are subject to your whims – and although I refuse to go all “THE COULD HAVE BEEN TRAUMATIZED!!!” on this point, I will say that attaching to someone, and then having them leave, is not a great thing for kids – trust me, I know this from personal experience.

    • Dana
      Dana says:

      I think this is an unfair statement. Kate is NOT a loser, she’s a teenager who will – with life experience – determine where her path will go!

  30. Jen
    Jen says:

    I love what Anne Lamott says about this-
    “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
    Not suggesting you went looking for her but just that you can help by writing the truth, loving your family and being you. It’s enough.

  31. Shelley
    Shelley says:

    I had a 16 year old foster daughter. Similar situation as Kate. Drug addict parents, no space of her own, no attachment to people… It ended similar to your ending with Kate. I tell myself that I gave my foster daughter a perspective of life that hopefully one day will blossom into something that makes her world a better place than it would’ve been had she never lived with my husband and me. That is not a mistake. Not even bad judgment on my or your part. We wanted to show the good in life, we wanted them to experience it. They have and again, hopefully it manifests itself positively. Big hug to you.

  32. Lizzy
    Lizzy says:

    I changed my username in case friends/family recognize me for what I’m about to say:

    I’ve been there, but in a less exhausting, draining way.

    I tried to take relation of mine, a young woman about the age of Kate, under my wing after a life of neglect/abuse. Basically I agreed to pay her tuition to complete her GED while receiving pre-training for a specialized vocational college.

    This wasn’t cheap, but thankfully, as the farmer essentially said, she let her true colors show almost immediately by getting knocked up within four months.

    So I withdrew support and haven’t spoken to her since.

    I don’t feel stupid, or bad, I tried. It was a huge lesson to realize that if someone wants something bad enough, they’ll figure out how to get it on their own or THEY will approach YOU and make it their life mission to make a case for why you should help them.

    Sometimes (I’d even say most of the time), handing people who’ve had nothing their whole life (and therefore can’t have nice things, because they don’t have experience taking care of nice things) stuff on a silver platter backfires spectacularly. Another example: lottery winners who go broke.

    When you took in Kate, I was really rooting for you and her, but deep down, I knew what would eventually happen. You could tell based on how passive and blasé she was about getting all that stuff and opportunity.

    But something wonderful did come of this: You helped basically a street girl become a productive member of society. She has a job and supports herself. Quite the feat!

  33. Tim Keating
    Tim Keating says:

    To reframe it in *another* way, consider that part of your brand is doing wacky shit that most people won’t. This is probably a factor in why many people read your blog, and, as such, indirectly contributes to your value in actual enterprises (such as public speaking) that DO make you money.

    So from a crass and cynical perspective, money spent on Kate should be charged against the marketing budget.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      You say “crass and cynical”, I say “pragmatic”. But I do love the idea that the expenses should come out of the business’s funds. That was some solid content creation and it deserves to be compensated.

      Also, I don’t think Penelope does wacky shit that no one else does. Tons of people do what Penelope does. The wackiest part is that she actually tells us about it whereas most people don’t examine their choices and are incapable of doing any analysis after the fact.

      That’s why it’s funny to read comments from people judging Penelope for being a bad friend, a bad mom, bad wife, etc. That’s not the point! She’s a person muddling through like the rest of us. Her gift is that she can illuminate these little life vignettes so that they are useful lessons/cautionary tales for the rest of us.

      • Sara
        Sara says:

        Nicely put! I’m struggling not to respond to the negative, judgemental, self-righteous and ignorant comments here. I don’t want encourage them by giving them attention they don’t deserve. So I’ll just endorse your more enlightened, non-judgemental message.

      • me
        me says:

        “[P’s] gift is that she can illuminate these little life vignettes so that they are useful lessons/cautionary tales for the rest of us.”

        This is precisely why I’ve been reading this blog for nearly five years. No matter the situation – whether or not I’ve been in a similar circumstance – I *always* learn something from P’s observations on life.

        How sad that so many comments focus merely on the minutiae and miss the broader message ….

  34. Wil
    Wil says:

    Penelope, you previously wrote: “It’s not that we are victims of life, it’s that at some point in most of our lives there comes a time when something else is more important than Leaning In.”

    For Kate, that “time” comes every waking hour and that “something else” is to frame herself as a “victim of life.”

    “Leaning In” is a respectable act when metaphorically, Kate cannot even sit without slouching.

    Penelope, your selective compassion is misguided. You are not really helping Kate, the person you thought were; you are not really healing the family you wish you were, the Sandbergs. Start by showing compassion to yourself without regard to others and your poor judgment of late will clear.

  35. me
    me says:

    Remember the story you told us last year on the anniversery of 9/11, re the Palestinian kid you took in for a few weeks because he had no where else to go? You’d wanted to say that you’d saved him, but you didn’t: he moved on to a new place after spending a few weeks with you.

    Here’s the thing: No one can actually save another person. Only we can save ourselves. You showed extraordinary kindness and compassion to Kate, but she wasn’t strong enough to accept it and save herself.

    The world would be a hideously hopeless place if people didnt try to help others in dire need. You and your family went above and beyond for someone too weak, ill-prepared to meet you half way and do her part.

    At the end of the day, only we can save our own lives ….

  36. Alyce Vayle
    Alyce Vayle says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Really, in all honesty you should have cut the cord much, much sooner. She took advantage of you and your generosity. You should have not thrown good money after bad. That money should have gone to your own sons and their future. I would feel sorry for you – but you absolutely brought this situation on yourself. Your husband was very, very tolerant. The worst part is – this person will probably go on to resent you and your family.

    I don’t to be too harsh – you’re such an excellent writer and so compassionate. But this situation dragged on for far too long. She didn’t deserve the therapy sessions for a start – she’s not your family or responsibility.

    Good luck with everything and cut the cord with this person. She deserves to make her own wretched way in life. She is obviously a manipulator and can stand on her own two feet.

    –Love, Alyce

  37. London
    London says:

    Okay so this was very interesting to read and reminds me of my own family members who have taken great advantage of my parents. My parents have spent thousands of dollars paying for education and accommodation for people who will drop out of school and never show any gratitude. They have even shed out a lot of dough for plane tickets to bring them to the United States for a better life but they’re still ungrateful (my family is originally from poor East Africa).

    This also reminds me of our current welfare system many people think we can help solve the problem of poverty by providing freebies but thats not the right solution. We have created a system of dependancy. Countries like France have gone overboard with overly generous welfare programs and their poverty problems still remain.

    I myself I’m a 19 year old college student and I can’t imagine living a life like Kate’s. I felt really bad when my parents had to pay for my tuition this past school year. I worked part time to be more independent and I have to cancel a trip to Europe (my dream for years) in order to work so I can pay for school in the fall.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      poverty will never be eradicated – independent of political system. THere will always be people who are unable to get their lives organized, or cannot hold down a job, or are mentally ill, simply temporarily out of luck, or come from a disfunctional family and never learned to take care of themselves. However, it is also our responsibility to take at least some care of those around us who are less well situated in life. Social security has, for example, mitigated a lot of the poverty in old age – people who worked hard throughout their lives but never made a lot of money. Many use food stamps to help out during a rough time, and sure, there are those who abuse the system. Find ways to weed those out, develop programs (which work) to get welfare generations out of their habit and we will be much better off.

  38. Reality Check
    Reality Check says:

    Penelope – Have you thought about detaching from the therapist? Seriously.

    I can’t know your deal in life but it seems like therapy is quite a crutch. Ditch the shrink, you’ll feel better taking control of your own life.

    You are a smart and savvy person, truly. However, I seriously wonder about your neuroses, significant envy and lack of compassion for people who’ve suffered catastrophic losses (Sandberg and others). Then you go do crazy stuff like this.

    Just get REAL with yourself. Commenter, Wil, above…got it right, “Start by showing compassion to yourself without regard to others”. I’ll add, just forgive yourself for prior selfish and crap decisions/actions. And LEARN from them.

    Also, I’ll share a mantra I now live by (after making some poor decisions) that has held me in very good stead. I call it, “slow the train down!” Which means I don’t make a big decision either quickly OR until I know exactly WHY I am making it. Life gets much smoother with that approach.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Kate picked a therapist. I went to the therapist if there was a problem Kate and I were having together. But Kate went alone.

      Therapy is, indeed a crutch for people who grew up in totally broken homes. It seems like a reasonable crutch to me.

      That said, I think most people could benefit from therapy — it’s always interesting to live an examined life.


      • Dana
        Dana says:

        I think your blogging should be your therapy. I cannot imagine the comments you receive on this blog (and your homeschooling blog) are right in line with what your therapist might say.

      • Dana
        Dana says:

        I think your blogging should be your therapy. I cannot imagine the comments you receive on this blog (and your homeschooling blog) are not right in line with what your therapist might say.

  39. House Martin
    House Martin says:

    Good point Reality Check.

    Kate is like a stray cat. She’ll survive.

    If you throw money time and effort at a stray cat, it will still take *years* before they adapt and relax and start to learn the rules of how to live socially. If all the money you spent on her was effectively a debt that she had to repay somehow, no wonder she left. The price to pay would be beyond her, at least in her mind at the moment. How could she suddenly transform herself into someone to played by all those rules made up by other people, restricting herself to someone else’s ideals and expectations, giving up control of her natural survival instinct?

    Penelope you did the right think in helping her, you just gave too much too soon and expected too much of a return on your investment too soon. Kate will survive. She will land on her feet and she probably has a lot of her stray cat lives left to live. It was her choice to leave when she did, and it was the right choice. She did it a little haphazardly, wobbled and made some poor decisions, but she did it.

  40. bgw
    bgw says:

    “My husband says he knew all along she wasn’t staying for dinner. I tell him he’s too cynical.”

    Cynical maybe, but it seems like he’s pretty much always proven right in the end.

    • Natasha
      Natasha says:

      Lets here it for the “S” type! (As opposed to the MBTI “N” type, for those who don’t immediately get the reference).

  41. Noel
    Noel says:

    I don’t think it was a bad decision to help Katie, i think you just handled the situation wrong. When you take at your home a teenager who lives in the streets and is used to “fight” everyday for small stuff we get as granted, what do you think she will do when you give her your credit card or your car? And as a person that hasn’t experienced real love in her life but only rejection, how do you think she see you? Is it possible to see you as another person that will abandon her after a while and she has to squeeze as much as she can from you? My point is that when someone is traumatized as much as Katie is they see things more cynical and it is a really loooong proccss that will take years until they will be able trust you. So you should have been prepared for the long run before you take her home.

  42. Valentino
    Valentino says:

    This bad decision can be seen an opportunity for learning and growth. Somehow the biggest lessons in life need often come out of painful loss, shame or grief.

    I suspect that Kate has a Personality Disorder in the cluster B (Dramatic) type, probably Borderline (BPD) and possibly with some overlap with Histrionic and Narcissistic.

    For example, the story about the kitten is very textbook BPD, all about ‘fear of abandonment’, chose the kitten because of easy and guaranteed acceptance, but once the kitten got annoying and wanted her attention, she abandoned it quickly.

    While it looked like she needed nurturing through comfort and safety, what she needed more was treatment, guidance and training. (ie. skills to develop emotional regulation, a sense of separate self, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness.)

    There are limited studies as to the prevalence of people with Personality Disorders (PDs), but there are rough estimates of 9.0-15.7% in the US, based on a NCBI research:

  43. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I don’t know what to say about this other than: newsflash! Not everyone knows that this is how typically things will end up. Except for the people that have been burned.

    And it makes me sad that her kids has to go through that.

    The silver lining Is all intangible stuff. So it’s hard to get the hurt to go away. Then you feel like you’re making excuses.

    Is Penelope responsible? Yes, she made those decisions. Did she deserve that? I don’t think she did. Unless there’s someone in the universe balancing scales and Penelope screwed people badly in the past to somehow deserve this. But even for that it requires faith to believe so….

    I’ve been in this situation. Now my heart has swung all the way in the opposite direction and I don’t want to help anyone who won’t show any signs to help themselves.

    Someone here said that if someone is kicked out of their home it’s for a reason. I may not agree or justify the reasons but we must see that whatever those problems were they’ll will follow when you open your house to someone.

    I’m hoping this turns out so much better at the end than just a learning lesson.

  44. juliette
    juliette says:

    It’s admirable that you worked to help her help herself. She IS old enough to know right from wrong, so while her patterns might be habit, she does know what a lie is. She therefore can be held accountable for screwing up a friendship with you and your family that could have meant great deal to her for decades to come.

    • Dana
      Dana says:

      :You deserved it, are you stupid or masochistic?

      Seriously?? I don’t know why I feel a need to “stick up” for Penelope here, but you’re an ass. We all make mistakes and although this one Penelope made may have some financial repercussions, it was relatively harmless. Sure, it could have been a DISASTER, but it wasn’t. Hopefully the lesson will be learned.

  45. exwife
    exwife says:

    I get that you want to help people directly, but stop it. You are putting your kids at risk. My ex-husband was murdered by a homeless man he tried to help in this way. Murdered. In his own home. The home where he brought our children. My kids will be affected by his decision for the rest of their lives

  46. N3
    N3 says:

    Two suggestions: stop traditional psychotherapy because you already live too much in your head … try somatic therapy. You’ll love it and progress so quickly through your old emotional pain, especially given the issues you have had with your body. Be sure to find one who comes from psychotherapy background first and adds somatic work to their practice. You won’t want a body worker only because you are smart and will want that rigorous training to feel safe, I’d imagine.

    Second, consider CODA – codependents anonymous, a 12 step program for people with relationship problems who tend to be rescuers of others.

    Good luck. Keep your heart open but maintain some better boundaries for the sake of yourself, your H, and especially your kids. They’ll make it through this situation, but luckily your husband helped set a boundary for the future.

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