The Literati's Anonymous Advice Columnist Unmasks Herself
The Internet makes fast work of the anonymous. But in the case of Sugar, the popular, anonymous writer behind the The Rumpus' advice column "Dear Sugar," the coming-out was orchestrated on her own, at a party in San Francisco on Tuesday.
The Internet makes fast work of the anonymous, as we've seen time after time in the unveilings of the culprits behind fake Twitter accounts and satirical websites. But in the case of Sugar, the popular, anonymous writer behind the Rumpus' advice column "Dear Sugar," the coming-out was orchestrated on her own, at a party in San Francisco on Tuesday. There, writes Sally Errico in the New Yorker, "Sugar formally introduced herself as Cheryl Strayed, a writer living in Portland whose new memoir, “Wild,” will be the Rumpus Book Club’s pick for March."
Sugar, who has written the Rumpus column since March of 2010, is widely loved for her affirming frankness and her ability to combine the old and new in an advice column "for the Internet age" that wraps service into personal, deeply revealing essays often dealing with hard truths -- like the death of her mother, for instance, when she was in her twenties. Anonymity is a common feature of the archetypal advice column; it creates a degree of intimacy while bolstering the advice giver's honesty with a certain unaccountability. Readers are more comfortable giving up their own innermost thoughts and concerns to the unknown. But in an age of the inauthentic and "scripted for reality," does anonymity have its limits?
Strayer lists her reasons for naming herself now in an interview with Errico:
Why are you coming out?
- Because I always said I would. Revealing my identity was how I conceived of my anonymity from the start. Being anonymous felt to me like a form of literary performance art, not the way it would always be.
- Because my work as Sugar is a really important part of my work as Cheryl. I want to claim it.
- Because so many people know already anyway. People who’ve read my writing as Cheryl Strayed figured out I’m Sugar, so it’s not so much a secret as it is an open secret.
- Because Sugar’s job is to bring things into the light. I’ve always loved the word “reveal.”
- Because I’m curious about what will happen next.
In an advice column to her readers concerned about whether her coming out would change anything, Strayed elaborated: "Whenever anyone asked who I was I told them I would tell them someday. I said it here and here and here and I said it every time anyone inquired over email or Twitter or Facebook. I want to tell you who I am because it feels like the right thing to do, like we’ve reached a point of intimacy where I really ought to introduce myself. I want to see what happens next, to experience the column as the Sugar who doesn’t have to keep that one big secret that hundreds of you have been told or figured out on your own by now anyway. The Sugar column won’t change, at least outwardly. I’ll continue to write it as Sugar. You’ll simply know who I am after February 14th."
In a Q&A as Sugar with Matt Davis, writing for The Awl, in July, Strayer said she'd gotten very few nasty emails concerning her decision to come forward with her name. And following her announcement, by and large, her readers seem to be embracing her fully, real name and all. Whether they would have felt the same way had she started writing under her real name and never been anonymous, we can't know. But given the positive reaction to her coming out, perhaps what we want now in solving our problems is indeed the advice of real people, not nameless creatures providing a false sense of intimacy from beneath the cloak of a "Dear Abby." Maybe the Internet is too scary a place when everyone's anonymous. Conversely, the cynical might say: Maybe it's hard to go on a book tour -- or brand properly -- when you're anonymous, and unveilings are news. (In fairness: Strayer has never been paid for the column, so it would seem that money is not her first priority.)
In any case, in responding to Errico's question, "Do you think coming out will change your readership, or your readers’ devotion to you and the 'magic' of Sugar?" Strayer explains with characteristic beauty and frankness, "I’ve always written the column as if I were a naked woman standing in a field showing you everything but her face. I still plan to write it that way. The only thing that will be different is that you’ll know the naked woman’s name."