What you’ve experienced, then, falls into an established pattern. It’s clear both why your sister was antagonized by your careful agnosticism and why you can’t responsibly commit yourself further. Your sister, you acknowledge, may well have been sexually abused. But she needs you to share her certainty and you are unable to offer this. That’s why I’m not optimistic about your being able to end the estrangement. It has done too much work for her. To protect her core beliefs, it seems, she deceived her children and kept them from others who could dispel those deceptions. However misjudged, those kinds of decisions are hard to walk back.
What’s beyond debate is this: Now that your niece and nephew are adults, their mother has no right to dictate what relationships they may have with you or your children. You sought out her participation here. At this point you are perfectly entitled to contact them, and to tell them what you know about the relatives she hid from them.
I’d encourage you, though, to think about how this revelation will affect your sister’s relationship with her children. You represent a buried secret whose exposure she must have long been dreading. When her deceptions are exposed, she will no doubt feel betrayed by you, but her children will no doubt feel betrayed by her. It would be terribly sad if your establishing ties with her children led them to cut ties with her. Assuming that you do get in touch with your niece and nephew, help them understand that their mother could not have made her decisions lightly and deserves every consideration. There’s been too much scarring in your family already.
I have an old friend who raised several children as a single mom, is a cancer survivor and isn’t wealthy. When I learned she was struggling to make ends meet, I spoke with her about her situation and then decided to send her some money. My intention was to give it to her, no strings attached. Recently, she came to visit my home, and, before she left, handed me an envelope. She told me that she was sorry she hadn’t gotten the money I lent her back to me sooner — that she felt awkward about it. I didn’t know what to say except thank you. But I really didn’t want to accept it. I’m in better financial shape than she is and I want to find a way to give the money back to her without insulting her. What should I do? JS, New York City
Consider the possibility that your friend understood your intentions perfectly well. Accepting the money allows your friend her self-respect; sending it back to her and telling her she was struggling under a misapprehension may not. The best gift you could give her, I suspect, is to accept the return of yours.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)