Dear Margo: A Letter from a Hatfield (No McCoy)

Margo Howard’s advice

A Letter from a Hatfield (No McCoy)

Dear Margo: I am writing because I take offense to a response you gave. The letter was about a woman’s father and stepbrother cremating her sister and dumping the ashes in the stepbrother’s backyard without consulting the rest of the siblings. You made reference to the Hatfields and McCoys and called their whole family the Hatfields.

My grandmother happens to be a descendant of the Hatfield family. To insinuate that the whole family is heartless, as you did, is disrespectful and irresponsible. Just because one branch of a family has been associated with less than stellar behavior does not mean the rest of the family shares those traits. My grandmother and the rest of her family are very giving people without a mean bone in their bodies. I realize you are trying to provide a simile to which people can relate, but you should try to use a more current reference in the future. Condemning a whole family line based on the history of one particular patriarch and his family is unfair. — Hatfield Descendant

Dear Hat: You are certainly touchy, my dear, about a famous feud that started in the 1860s. According to Wikipedia, the names of your family and the other group entered the folklore lexicon to characterize any bitterly quarrelling rival parties. It has become a part of the language as a shortcut that everyone understands. I did not say, nor would anyone infer, that your dear granny was heartless or mean.

As for my using a more current reference in the future, what would you suggest — the Madoffs and the Markopoloses? Alas, the name “Hatfield” is legendary, and I hope you become less thin-skinned about that long-ago history. I actually know a descendant of John Wilkes Booth who is not the least bit sensitive — and his ancestor assassinated a beloved president. — Margo, optimistically

Something Important To Be Aware Of…

Dear Margo: I’d like to respond to an answer you gave to the grandmother whose grandchild seemed a little off and uncommunicative. While I mostly agree with your advice to this woman, I would like to point out something I believe you may have missed.

Grandma describes her granddaughter as “always an odd child: quiet, aloof and refusing to associate with family unless forced to.” Could it be that this poor little girl has an undiagnosed condition on the autism spectrum? I have Asperger syndrome (also called “high-functioning autism”), and kids with Asperger’s are generally quiet, have a hard time fitting in with others and have difficulty naming their emotions. This, to me, certainly sounds like the granddaughter that “Grandma” seems to be giving up on. I read your column every week, and this is one letter I feel passionately about. — Interested Party

Dear In: Many readers got in touch with me about that letter. Here’s another one. The bottom line seems to be that Asperger’s is more prevalent than we knew and can go undiagnosed. Something to think about.

Dear Margo: I read your column, which recently included a letter from a Grandma asking whether her 12-year-old granddaughter was a bad person for not grieving over her father’s death. I recognized the behavior to be almost exactly as mine was when I was informed of my brother’s death, also when I was 12.

* * *

Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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44 Responses so far.

  1. avatar David Bolton says:

    LW1: “Dear Margo: I am writing because I take offense to a response you gave. The letter was about… zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”

    Wow, what a wonderful sleep. I feel so refreshed. Now on to LW2.

    LW2: I’m glad someone finally went out on a limb and suggested that the child may have some form of autism, etc—because that’s never been done before on this forum at all.

    • avatar Katharine Gray says:

      As always, well put David Bolton.  Nothing to add so I will bring up a completely different matter:  is anyone else experiencing problems logging in to this site?  More than half the time it tells me my name and password or wrong (and yes, I have checked to see that caps locked is off) and then…if I hold my mouth right…and only if I do…it will let me log in typing the exact same thing I typed a minute before which it had rejected. 

      • avatar JCF4612 says:

        Had this problem a couple of months ago, Katharine, but not lately, and the glitch apparently healed itself.

    • avatar Cindy Marek says:

      LOL!! 🙂

  2. avatar bamabob says:

    I think every time I’ve commented it’s been to defend a letter writer against an overly aggressive or critical commenter. I’m always quick to stand up for the letter writers…but I have to say that LW1 is nucking futs.

  3. avatar Priscilla L says:

    Margo, you cannot possibly know a descendant of John Wilkes Booth. He had no children.

    • avatar mmht says:

      Booth had 9 brothers and sisters and I can guarantee you that at least one of them had children that produced enough offspring for her to know a descendent. Descendent does not necessarily mean that they came directly from John Wilkes Booth (i.e., his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc.). It just means that he is an ancestor of theirs, or a long ago relative.

      • avatar Hellster says:

        I agree; I have four delightful grandchildren who count themselves descendants of Clyde Barrow (they even have a present-day cousin–on the “other” side–whose father NAMED him Clyde–sigh.)

        Clyde Barrow the Elder may have been homosexual, or he may have been impotent, but I think I’m safe in asserting that he “died without issue.” However, his brother was also a member of his gang, and I believe it is from him that my darlings claim their lineage.

    • avatar Dara says:

      I can personally challenge this statement as can my younger half brother, Chris Booth. John Wilkes Booth is his great great great Uncle.

  4. avatar antiquer says:

    Good heavens, Priscilla L, what a silly comment. Have you never heard of nieces, nephews, etc.??

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      How dare you use logic.

      • avatar antiquer says:

        I know, David…what a wacky girl I am…how could I possibly use logic??? It has no children!!!

    • avatar Mainer says:

      Good heavens, antiquer, what a silly comment. Have you never heard that the word “descendant” refers only to offspring, not any old relative from the next generation of your family? 😉 Indeed, if Booth had no children Priscilla is not silly at all and Margo probably meant to write “a descendant of the Booth family.” Logical, no?

      • avatar stateoflove_N_Trust says:

        Not necessarily true. There are lineal descendants and collateral descendants. Look it up.

        • avatar mmht says:

          A descendent does not refer to offspring only, that would be a “direct descendent” or the more fancy word that stateoflove used.

          • avatar mjd4 says:

            Interesting. I always thought descendant meant, well, descended from, as in children, grandchildren, etc. I’ve never heard of nieces and nephews being called descendants.

            Google’s definition is “A person, plant, or animal that is descended from a particular ancestor.” Merriam Webster online says “proceeding from an ancestor or source”, and says “a person or animal that is descended from a specific ancestor; an offspring.”

  5. avatar navy1lf says:

    RE: LW2…In spite of increased awareness and understanding over the last 20 years, not all childhood issues are related to Autism (in any form).  I was that “aloof” child who hated being part of any of the family activities and generally hated being part of the family.  That is because my family was clinically insane and the definition of dysfunctional.  I left home at 16 and never looked back.  Good thing…I am happily married, having raised three sons to be decent, hardworking adults who have all (like their mom) served their country. Two of which are now great dads and husbands.  Sometimes it’s not a disorder/disease or malady…it is on its face, just a crappy environment and the kid is doing the best she can to insulate herself from nasty adults. BTW – two of my beautiful grandchildren have severe Autism (non-verbal and probably won’t ever be able to live on their own), so I have seen first hand what THAT looks like as comparison.

    • avatar LuckySeven says:

      Nevertheless, it is not an unreasonable suggestion. My family is Norman Rockwell-esque and I was still an aloof, withdrawn, child. I was in college when I was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s (which runs in my family: My father and uncle are textbook Aspies, and my grandmother/their mother likely was, as well).

      There is not enough information here for any of us to know what, exactly, is going on, so all suggestions are, oddly, equally baseless and equally valid.

    • avatar Datnoyd says:

      navy1lf: I agree with you that Aspergers has become a boutique diagnosis used to label children who happen to be more curious, intellectual, quiet, and asocial than the conformist herd.  I was raised by alcoholics and drug users who lied to me about who my father was, mocked me for my gifted and sensitive writing and art, and generally made me feel worthless and unloved. They were also abusive and neglectful of me and my four half-siblings.  I was extremely advanced in reading and writing as a child, yet I was diagnosed twice with autism at ages 3 and 10. Later, as an adult, I read a New Yorker article about Temple Grandin and thought that I might be Aspergers too. Like you, I got the hell out of the dysfunctional family environment as soon as I could and married at age 21. It was a wise decision. After my mom died none of the siblings can stand each other; they are full of unresolved rage.

      Now I am seeing an empathic therapist who has helped me realize that I am not autistic, that it was a false label imposed by the mental health establishment of the 1950s and 60s that absolved my family of any “blame” for my “strangeness”. Somehow I managed to marry and raise a successful son on my own, in the most adverse conditions imaginable, and I am now at peace with my wonderful adaptive gifts and strengths. There are worse things than being aloof from the crowd; my standoffish nature has helped me avoid becoming an alcoholic mess and party girl like my mother.  Recent writers (Solomon, in Far From the Tree) point out that the symptoms of PTSD in abused children can mimic so-called autistic traits. It is a form of self defence to wall off the craziness and nuture the self in a hostile situtation.


      • avatar Hellster says:

        Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner! Contenders for the seat recently vacated due to the untimely passing of Briana Baran can all step down.

        In fact, an admittedly rudimentary forensic analysis of Datnoyd’s post could give rise to rumors that the late, somewhat lamented Briana, faked her own death!

        • avatar Lym BO says:

          I missed something. What happened to Briana?

          • avatar Queen Mum says:

            Dear Lym BO:  Briana Baran died suddenly last year.  She wrote many insightful and sometimes heart wrenching letters.  I read her obituary on the internet.  No cause of death was listed… just that her death was sudden.  I believe she was in her early 50s.

    • avatar mmht says:

      It does seem like now everyone is being diagnosed with a form of Autism just like it seemed as if everyone in my generation was ADD/ADHD. I have wondered if this is simply due to a growing awareness of Autism or if it is being over diagnosed (just like I feel ADD/ADHD has been over diagnosed). I’m not trying to undermine those that have been diagnosed with Autism, I’m just saying that I have wondered why so many people now a days have some spectrum of Autism.

      As for this particular case, when I read the letter I never truly felt like there was anything wrong with the child besides the fact that she was shy and socially awkward which was only made worse by the death of her father, which she never truly seemed to comprehend or know how to deal with. Personally, at the time I felt (and still do) that the grandmother never really liked the granddaughter to begin with b/c she was an introvert rather than the extrovert I’m assuming the grandmother is. I also think that she is in so much pain over the loss of her son that she can’t open her eyes and see how much harder it is on the granddaughter, whose old enough to comprehend but too young to fully grasp and understand why her daddy is gone.

  6. avatar R Scott says:

    LW1 – You obviously don’t know this but  I have it on good authority that your grandmother ate kittens for breafast. Yeah. She wasn’t as nice as you thought. Sorry.

    LW2 – Or, maybe not. I like to think there are a few kids out there who don’t have a condition or syndrome or label or.. .  . .

    • avatar Lym BO says:

      Funny. I was researching Asperger’s and other autism spectrum diagnoses when my adopted twins were two because the physical therapist kept implying they were autistic (I’m an R.N.). Anywho, I found it eventually comical as I went thru the different lists that I could pick out as many symptoms for my gifted child (talked at 7 months among other things) as well as myself as I could for the twins for autism. Eventually, in the next few years, it became abundantly clear that the twins are normal with a few quirks. I did read about a diagnosis called “Pseudo Autism” that internationally adopted children can exhibit. They get sensory overloaded with new parents, culture, language & basically shut down for a while, regress & exhibit various signs of autism. So is the case with these two.
      My point: people are quick to diagnose. Makes them feel better is they can put a label on something. The biggest problem with labeling is how you intend to treat the label.

  7. avatar Michelles11 says:

    Wow, people are obviously cranky today. Hope everyone has a great day!

  8. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    Letter #1 – A perfect example of PC (Political Correctness) gone amok.

    Margo you were far too kind in your response. This letter writer needs to suck it up and realize her lineage is one that will forever be used when describing a rival. Always and forever. No one gives a flip about whether the McCoys or Hatfields were kind and loving people. Newsflash: Good people do bad things everyday.

    Letter #2 – I work for a man that has adult onset Aspergers and he is far from quiet and withdrawn. This form of Autism manifests itself in various forms. The child may indeed have Autism or other personality disorders OR the personality signs this child is displaying may simply be her ….well….personality.

    Not every personality that “we” can’t define should be considered a condition in need of medication or therapy. Sometimes being shy or awkward is simply your personality. No more, no less.

  9. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: I’m a direct descendant of Daniel Boone. So what? I don’t go wearing that on my sleeve, hardly ever think about it. If someone were to “diss” old great-great (etc) uncle Dan, I wouldn’t feel overly wrought to defend him.

    • avatar Brooke Schubert says:

      Exactly, Cindy.  I’m a descendent of Franz Schubert, but I don’t take it personally if people didn’t like his style of classical music.  It’s just not important.

    • avatar Ariana says:

      Haha, no! They’re being ‘irresponsible’!!!
      Good thing is, that letter made me smile at the LWs indignation and throwing around adjectives that don’t make sense 😀

  10. avatar Brooke Schubert says:

    Wow, LW#1 REALLY needs to get over herself.  One of my college stats professors was a member of the McCoy family and he used that as a running joke, calling our class “a bunch of crazy Hatfields” one time when we disagreed with the conclusions of his statistical analysis. 

    The legend of the Hatfield and McCoy fued is ingrained in our lexicon.  You’re going to spend the rest of your life in defense mode if you take every silly reference to that fued personally.

  11. avatar mac13 says:

    I know this is probably going out on a limb to notice, but here goes. LW1 refers to her grandmother’s lineage. But not referring to it as her lineage, isn’t she distancing herself from being a Hatfield descendant? If she was really properly offended, wouldn’t she have said I am a Hatfield descendant and we are not all crazy mean vindictive people? I noticed that immediately as I read the letter.

  12. avatar D C says:

    I have Asperger’s in the family.  My youngest brother and my youngest son.  The brother was the “Sheldon Cooper” type.  My son, as a young child, was much more violent when things did not go the way he thought they should.  Luckily my son, now 16 and with excellent intervention, is much better at adapting and “fitting in”.  However he still does not react like his brother and sister and peers to some situations.  But I don’t think you automatically have to take on a diagnosis of some kind just because you internalize emotions.  That 12 year old girl may just be afraid to let go and work through grief like others do. 

  13. avatar lebucher says:

    I think a 12 year old could likely have difficulty in expressing grief and dealing with same.  I was 13 when my stepfather committed suicide, I found his body, and I know I didn’t deal with it well.  I pretty much did not talk about it at all and sought escapism instead into kid activities that brought me pleasure.  Years later I could talk rationally about it and how it made me feel, but at that age I had no tools whatsoever for dealing with those types of strong emotions.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t feeling anything, I just couldn’t cope with it at the time.

    • avatar Susan JH says:

      lebucher, how awful for you!  I’m so sorry. 

      With respect to LW2, I think that every possibility deserves to be explored in case there is something treatable at hand.  Randomly labeling it something just to have something to call or define it is a whole different story.  It could be, as others have suggested, that she doesn’t have the coping skills at that age, and certainly should not be judged for that.

      With respect to LW1, I read a quote somewhere and I remember the quote, but not the source.
      “Those who TAKE offense add just as much misery to the world as those who GIVE it.”
      Get over it already.

      • avatar Susan JH says:

        P.S.  LW1, I have a dear friend whose last name is Hatfield, and yes, she is one of “those” Hatfields.   She was raised in New England and could not be more culturally different from her ancestors if she had been born on a different planet.   (I can say that, because I am from the Appalachian region myself and she is equally different culturally from me as she would be her ancestors.)  She is in her 60s and has taken a lot of ribbing over her last name all of her life, so long before I met her (some 20 years ago), she decided to embrace the connotations rather than resenting them, and I assure you she is a much happier person for it.  On one occasion, we were at lunch with another friend, and when I said something, the other friend punched me on the arm and said, “Susan, you’re the real McCoy!”  I acted aghast and said, “Don’t say that so loud — I’m sitting next to a real Hatfield!”  We all got a kick out of it and she made as if to discover a McCoy and come after me.  Relax and enjoy it.

      • avatar jabbeycat says:

        That quote is from Ken Keyes, Jr. I’m with you, get over it LW1.

        • avatar Susan JH says:

          Thanks, jabbeycat — I’ve been using that quote for 20 years now and trying to find out where it came from for almost that long.

  14. avatar JCF4612 says:

    LW1: Your Hatfield defense letter was a real McCoy when it comes to being whiny and boring. Get over it.

  15. avatar BeanCounter says:

    Margo, seriously.   You could have condensed your response to LW1 with:  “Dear Hatfield Descendant, EFF OFF!”

    That way, you could have saved room for one more letter?  just a thought.  There’s alot of people in this world just waiting to be offended by someone so they can “cash in” emotionally or monetarily.   Best not to indulge them, dear. 

  16. avatar bobkat says:

    Hey, Margo! Way to dismiss LW1 as ‘thin skinned’, because she took offence to your using “Hatfields” as a shortcut to mean ‘heartless’. I think she has a point. How about replacing “Hatfields” with “Sopranos”? At least that’s a fictional family and no real life person will get offended if you use that name to mean ‘heartless’.

    As for LW2: That’s what I thought, too, when I read that letter. This girl sounds like a text book case of someone with Aspergers Syndrome. Unfortunately, girls often get misdiagnosed or go undiagnosed, because many assume that autism spectrum disorders are a male thing. They’re not.  

  17. avatar Claudia Holmes says:

    The historical Hatfield-McCoy feud is certainly fair to cite (LW1=ridiculous), but it reminded me of something that used to happen a lot. There were mocking references to the Lindbergh baby, or to the kidnapping, in jokes and popular culture–a meme before the days of internet memes. I read something by a Lindbergh daughter–and am paraphrasing it here–such as “People forget that he was a real person. He is a joke to them, but he was my brother.” I think we often forget that jokes can be very unkind to real people–innocent people thrust into the news, or their family members. I recall that poor guard at the Atlanta Olympics, who was pilloried in popular culture but who was vindicated later–after his life was ruined. My point is that not everything is “fair game.”

  18. avatar Mjit RaindancerStahl says:

    Regarding LW2: My nephew and The Spawn have both been diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum, showing some of the same asocial traits and socially inept behavior that I have. I was never diagnosed, because 35 years ago girls were Just Shy. Unfortunately, I also have some PTSD from the way my parents dealt with my “shyness,” and a distrust of psych professional after a lengthy, pointless treatment.

    The 12-year-old’s antisocial tendency could be a lot of things, from Aspberger’s to just plain being 12. Either way, Grandma needs to stop forcing the issue. Dragging her into the fold and forcing her to sit at the proverbial family table isn’t going to “fix” anything.