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."

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!