I was intrigued by the Downtown Abbey episode in which the Dowager Duchess’s butler begins anonymously writing a popular “agony aunt” column for Edith’s magazine. That episode delighted me, because I grew up reading both of the daily newspaper columns, Dear Abbey and Ann Landers, and it’s likely that they shaped much about my understanding of the larger world outside my little Midwestern niche.
I was perhaps 11 when I first began reading the advice columns, finding them both instructive and sometimes shocking. I read about teen pregnancies and unfaithful spouses, family spats, cruel in-laws, and the heartbreak of parents who had lost a child. I read about indecision regarding which of two potential spouses a person could choose, and the difference between infatuation and love. I read about mistreatment of the elderly and the bitterness of those who had grown up as abused children, and how those two situations were sometimes linked. I read of alcoholism and drug abuse and sexual perversion and racial prejudice.
The advice columns were, I now think, part of my social education, teaching me a myriad of things that would never have dared been touched upon either at school or by my parents.
For a long while, ten years or more, I took the guidance handed out by the Abbey and Ann duo as gospel. But as I began graduating to other advice columns, the ones I discovered in a dozen or more women’s’ magazines, I also found my own voice. Shocking as it seemed even to myself, I began arguing with the columnists. I dared to think that perhaps, given this question or asked to make that judgment, I could have given better counsel.
I would have told the young woman who complained about her husband’s predilection for sex in the shower (in which he got the warm stream of water and she only the cold steam) that the real problem was his lack of interest in her comfort and pleasure.
I’d have advised another young woman whose boyfriend always found fault with the gifts she gave him, and the exasperated family of a grandmother who did the same, that these people were toxic recipients and were never going to be pleased, no matter what accommodation one made to their taste and preferences. I’d have suggested an intervention, facing the fault-finders with every unappreciative remark they’d made for each gift given them for as long as anyone could remember. I’d have advised the gift givers to state flat out that they were weary of trying to please someone so critical.
I’d have told many, many questioners that they were presenting their story to the wrong person; that what they were saying needed to be said not to a columnist but to their spouse, their friend, or their family member. Face it, I would have responded: stop hoping that “they” will read your complaint in the column recognize themselves. For heaven’s sake, just get up the gumption to say it, I’d have advised.
And for those who were determined to verbalize a problem, begging for advice on how to soft-pedal an approach, I’d have said outright that there was, sadly, no chance that what they planned to say or do wasn’t going to create a rift between family or friends. But I would have added the solace that, if they had the courage to stand up for themselves, they also had the courage to survive the upheaval that would follow.
I would have told the young couple who could not afford the big family birthday dinners (at which they ordered the least-expensive entrees, but were forced to ante up for everyone’s meals when the single bill was divided by all those present) that they were absolutely right. They should explain to the family that their finances forced them to begin paying only their fair share for the dinner of the birthday person and for their own selections, or otherwise, sadly, stop attending these family functions. They, and they alone, knew what their financial situation permitted.
But the truly important factor in all this, in finding my own responses to the questions asked in advice columns, was not that I was intrinsically right or wrong; it was that I had begun sifting through my own sense of morality and my understanding of human nature to make what I deemed rational and informed choices.
Although I’ve often asked advice from my circle of friends, especially when faced with a difficult choice or a situation that involved the possibility of hurting the feelings of others, I’ve never felt the need to write to a total stranger requesting guidance. And for that fact, I tip my hat to all those authors of all those many advice columns that I read over the years. I thank them for teaching me how to think though a problem from all angles, consider multiple solutions and probable results, and finally reach my best decision.
It was an significant life lesson, but one I doubt I would ever have learned without them.