An Ode to Agony Aunts

Taking pleasure in others’ pain as a reader of the advice column

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Tim Lahan

What will it be, the thing that finally makes me write to an advice columnist?

A quandary of the heart? An out-of-control kink? A high-stakes issue involving wedding invitations? Deeply schooled as I am in the lore of the problem page, I still don’t know which of the standard cries for help I’ll end up emitting.

Because they’re all standard—that’s the point. The problems are the same, now and forever. The same dilemmas, the same misunderstandings. Is my boss a pig? Why won’t my stepdaughter say thank you? I married a frog—I thought he was a prince! They loop around, they rhythmically recur, albeit touched with the flavor of the times (“Help, My Pandemic Crush Feels So Real!”). And the problem of all problems, the old chestnut: Why am I doing what I’m doing, when it’s so obviously bad for me? Saint Paul put this one best in his letter to the Romans: “For what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.”

Agony aunts, we call them in England, and I’ve been reading them forever. I first encountered them in my mother’s magazines: Woman’s Own, Woman’s Weekly, Woman’s Realm. Virginia Ironside—what a counselor. With what insight and asperity she sliced into the 200-word soap operettas laid before her, four or five to a page. Remotely, a boy at the keyhole as it were, I took it all in. I became a short-trousered expert in adulterous longing, erotic disharmony, soul-death at the kitchen table. They were an education to me, a widening of my eyes. This world of complication, this world of problems—I couldn’t get enough.

And I still can’t. “Ask Polly,” “Dear Prudence” … Some of the letters I read with icy snobbery, some with a gush of fellow feeling. How tangled we get. How impossible it is, apparently, to be alive without sitting on somebody, or being sat on. Is it freedom you want? The swingers have their problems too (“I Love My Poly Lifestyle, but the Constant Sex Has One Big Drawback”).

And then, in a different tone, in a different font, the problem is solved. The advice is given. Setup, punch line. Tension, release. One of the purest thrills for the problem-page addict is the discovery of an unreliable narrator: an advice seeker whose own flaws, glaringly revealed in their letter, are somehow obscure to them. We can barely wait for the columnist to straighten them out (Your sister is quite right; you behaved disgracefully).

Voyeurism and schadenfreude—we know our own baseness, we who lurk in the problem pages. But we’re also holding out, childlike, for something beautiful: the idea of a consummately wise person who can take us in hand. Who has all the answers. Who will know what to do when the weight of our situation exceeds the load-bearing capacity of our psychological frame. Because it’s much to be anticipated, much to be wished for—the day when our problems are over.