Readers are taking me to task for my granite-top heart in mercilessly assessing the plight of Caroline Payne, the woman featured in the NYT magazine whose life never seems to get any better–possibly, just possibly, because of her own dumb decisions. (See “Caroline’s Whine” downscreen, Jan. 19 and 20.)

J.C. writes in an e-mail: 

“You attack a single mother working awful hours in awful jobs for awful wages–a woman who put herself through an associate’s degree, not to be a CEO (as you snidely misconstrue) but to have a decent-paying office job–for the damage her choices are inflicting on her daughter and herself (both of whom were sexually abused). You have no empathy, because you have no shared experience….Part of me wants to excuse you, telling myself that just as Caroline’s life has led her to make bad choices, yours has prevented you from understanding the perspective of a single parent struggling to survive. But if I were to apply your own standards to you, holding you fully accountable for your behavior, I’d call you a simple-minded, heartless hypocrite who spends her life as a talentless hack of a writer spitting venom at those who are most beleaguered in the world, all the while desperately adulating those who are most greedy and irresponsible.”

A.F. adds:

“Yes, you have a heart made of granite. I should have stopped reading when you admitted that possibility and saved myself the time. I am sad to know that there are people like you out there. May we never meet.”

Well, no, I’ve never been a struggling single mother, but I have both an aunt and a cousin who fall into that category (both deserted by husbands)–not to mention many  friends and co-workers, some of whom have never seen a nickel from the father of their children. Life is tough for such women. Childhood sexual abuse is no laughing matter, either (I have friends and relatives who experienced that, too). Caroline had a horrible childhood, no doubt about that. But so did Oprah Winfrey. There comes a point when you’ve got to put your hard luck behind you and do something with what you’ve got. It should be remembered as well that the perpetrators of most sexual abuse against children are the new husbands or live-in boyfriends of the children’s mothers. Among other things, Caroline surely has some responsibility for picking the bad-news boyfriend who harmed her daughter.

As for my crack about Caroline’s not getting a CEO job, maybe that was cruel. But I do know for certain that a two-year associate’s degree is more than enough to qualify an applicant for office work. Many offices are desperate for secretaries and receptionists who are competent and reliable–traits hard to find nowadays. And, believe it or not,  unless you want to work on Park Avenue or in Beverly Hills, most employers don’t care what you look like, as long as you can do the work and you’re minimally presentable: a little makeup, slacks, not blue jeans. Really. But I have a feeling, J.C., that you don’t regard a receptionist’s job as “decently-paying,” either. A grousing op-ed piece in yesterday’s WaPo dismissed such administrative jobs as “low- paying, uninteresting and unglamorous,” and belittled computer support work because the median annual income in that field (which also requires merely an associate’s degree) was only $36,420. What on earth do you snobs think is a “decent” job?

Caroline’s real problem in the job market, I suspect, isn’t her educational level but her personal appearance. And on that issue, I’m not sympathetic. She has no disfiguring disabilities, nor has she been injured in any disfiguring fashion. She simply won’t wear her dentures. I’m sorry, but my father, who was cursed with genetically bad teeth and grew up in the premodern era of dentistry, wore dentures during his entire adult life. He courted my mother wearing dentures. My siblings and I, when I was growing up, used to joke about where Daddy’s teeth were at any given time. If Caroline would just put on her choppers, her employment prospects would improve enormously. Which brings me to my final point: Why are all Caroline’s woes, from her refusal to wear her false teeth to her binge-spending, our fault and not hers?      

J.C. and A.F. may be on my case, but InkWell does have one fan, P.R.:    

“I am currently 17 years old. I strongly agree with the ideals that the IWF stands for and therefore support this group. I believe that every woman has the right to have a say on curent issues concerning women.”

Way to go, P.R.! Where there’s youth, there’s hope.