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

But she was convinced that a particular cousin of hers would show up with his two children. Woe is me.

I convinced my editor to run the letter "as is," with all the nuttiness intact, and I loved my answer to her, where I basically talked her off the ledge.

I get tons of wedding letters but I've stopped caring so much about this issue. I think I've gotten to an age where I think, "Who gives a crap about your bridesmaid issue?" But I still love this particular letter.

And both have generated dustups and controversy, often when they least expect it.

Amy: I ran a letter from a college student who'd had non-consensual sex with a frat guy at a party. She said she didn't want to have sex but she got drunk and he was drunk and she never said no but she never said yes—and she regretted it the next day. She asked if she had been raped.

In my answer I quoted an expert at a rape hotline who said she had been. I told her to go to her health center and to the school to report this guy because there was a chance he had done this before and might do it again.

But I also said that she should be careful in the future because her own drinking put her at risk.

This statement brought a lot of criticism onto me and there was an orchestrated campaign through social media that was quite tough to handle. I ran a letter and explanation in my column and the campaign started up all over again. And it's all instant and voluminous and misinformed—and it never stops. I guess I'm supposed to think that this is "hot" or good for the column but really—it's just painful.

Emily: I can never predict what will get people going. "How often should a woman wash her bra" had an explosive reaction.

And often the process of actually writing out the question to Amy or Prudence is a solution in itself.

Emily: Occasionally I will get a letter then shortly afterward another email saying, "Please don't use this. I realize what I need to do and writing it down helped." People want an objective person to give them feedback. Sometimes people don't want to turn to friends or family members. And they don't want to look for a therapist and start a therapeutic process, they just want an answer.

She adds that while the problems may seem new, the issues remain the same.

Emily: Advice columns are a very old form. They are always a reflection of their time and also a reflection of the fact that human beings continue to grapple with the same issues. When I started the column seven years ago I got no letters about social media, now Facebook is a frequent topic. But the issues that Facebook raises and people write in about—jealousy, boasting, cheating, manipulation—are some of the same issues Ann and Abby dealt with just in a different package.

Pauline Philips once said, "Most people just want someone to listen to them without moralizing or sermonizing or sitting in judgement. That's good therapy, just to get it out of your system and tell somebody."

Amy: When I was remembering Dear Abby I referred to her as a "great listener." And I agree that listening attentively is hugely important. But whenever someone accuses me of being judgmental I say, "Well—isn't that what I'm here for? To render an opinion about something?" She rendered wise judgment all the time.

And dear God, Abby was pretty snappy!

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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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