New Problems, Old Issues: Why Advice Hasn't Changed Much Since Dear Abby

A conversation with "Ask Amy" Dickinson and Emily "Dear Prudence" Yoffe about the past and future of their profession.

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The Chicago Tribune; Slate

The recent death of Pauline Phillips (aka Dear Abby) marked the end of an era for advice columns. Fortunately, Amy Dickinson (syndicated newspaper columnist Ask Amy) and Emily Yoffe (Slate's Dear Prudence) are worthy bearers of Phillips' (and twin sister/rival Ann Landers) mantle. They both have a style and spirit that honor the tradition of the advice column's journalistic/psychiatric/voyeuristic hybrid while often pushing to form to high art.

Both Dickinson and Yoffe are experienced journalists, authors, and in their bookish way, total exhibitionists. Amy worked for the New Yorker, NBC News, and Time magazine, wrote The Mighty Queens of Freeville, and has been a lounge singer. Emily wrote for the New York Times, and the Washington Post, is the author of What the Dog Did: Tales from a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner, and also star of Slate's Human Guinea Pig, which has inspired her to try hypnosis and take a vow of silence. She has also become a street performer, a nude model for an art class, and a contestant in the Mrs. America beauty pageant.

Both have written about their troubled relationships with fathers who basically abandoned them, both have one daughter whose very existence renders them poetic, both found perfect love later rather than sooner and both are totally, completely, unerringly funny. And writers with a capital W. With answers.

Amy asked that I include they both have shiny hair.

Amy's column reflects her mainstream newspaper audience—it's folksy, warm, and strait-laced while remaining contemporary, like a hip older aunt. Emily's Slate readership comes up with convoluted and often wild dilemmas that can include fetishes, gross personal habits, the complications of modern parenting and pairings and yes, even "twincest." Emily is tolerant, accepting, and wise but has a sharp eye out for mistreatment of any kind. Both women are champions of the bullied and abused in any and all forms.

I am lucky to count Emily and Amy as friends and conducted recent interviews with both of them. Here are some highlights from our conversations.

Like their departed muses, both regularly reach out privately to readers who seem to be truly on the edge and also, like the true moms they are, always respond to the very young.

Emily: I do this if they sound suicidal or are in dangerous relationships. I also get back to young people who are in difficult situations. Not that I have the answer, but I provide some hotlines and suggestions for getting help or getting out.

Amy: I ran a letter in my column from a man who had been sexually molested as a child; this prompted several other men to contact me. I replied to each and encouraged them to contact a national organization whose work I really like. I also encouraged them to keep in touch with me. It takes two minutes to do this and people feel supported and listened to. And any kid who contacts me with a serious issue is going to get a quick answer directly from me, whether or not I ultimately decide to publish their letter.

Both also hate weddings. Not their own, not in general, just because of the sheer volume of letters on the subject.

Emily: I wish there were less "My Day" to wedding days (or "My Month" or "My Year"). I hear from so many people who are going into debt for a wedding, which seems crazy to me. The point is to get married, not to pour all your resources into the "perfect" day.

Amy: My favorite letter came my first week on the job. It was from a crazed Bridezilla who didn't want kids at her wedding. Her letter was filled with ALL CAPS sentences and it was written in this hilarious, telegraph writing style: "Kids. DON'T WANT THEM AT WEDDING."

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Nancy Doyle Palmer is a journalist and screenwriter based in Washington, D.C. She also contributes to Washingtonian magazine and the Huffington Post.

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