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  • Robert Farago

Dear Abby - Yesterday and Today

Are advice columns dangerous?


For Gen Z, Dear Abby is almost as ancient and incomprehensible as a rotary telephone. Life advice that’s not on TikTok or a lifestyle website? From a Boomer? From beyond the grave, actually. Abby died in 2013. Sherman set the way back machine to January 1956…


That’s when the 37-year-old daughter of an Iowa movie chain owner kvetched to the editor of The San Francisco Chronicle. Pauline Phillips told the Bay Area newspaperman she could do a better job than their advice columnist. And so she did, under a pen name.


“Abigail Van Buren” combined the first name of a biblical heroine with Martin Van Buren, America’s inglorious eighth President. Like Ralph Lauren (b. Ralph Lifshitz), Ms. Phillips chose her new moniker to obscure her Jewish heritage from mainstream America.


Twins



Pauline’s twin sister Esther (above right) also changed her name. Esther opted for “Ann Landers.”

When Esther and Pauline were students at Northwestern University, they co-wrote an advice column for the college newspaper. When Dear Abby took off, Esther followed her sister into the biz, writing under the byline Ask Ann Landers.


Don’t be fooled by the picture above. The competition between the women was not friendly.


When the two columnists were competing for newspaper real estate, Esther offered her advice column to the Sioux City Journal at a discount – provided the paper refused to print her sister’s column.


Both women were, eventually, wildly successful. Pauline more so.


The World’s Most Popular Newspaper Column


At its peak, Dear Abby was syndicated in 1400 newspapers to 110m readers. Books of her collected columns were huge best-sellers.


wikipedia.org explains the appeal:

Phillips was considered "the embodiment of female orthodoxy." This attitude carried over into her column in the late 1950s, and she considered women "faintly ridiculous" if they were unable to make their marriages work. Her "code of conduct" was "husband and children first."

Over the decades, Dear Abby’s advice rolled with the changes. Pauline eventually relented on marital absolutism, recommending divorce when she considered an unhappy writer’s relationship “intolerable.”

In 1996, her column declared support for gay marriage and adoption.


By that time, Pauline was co-writing the column with her daughter Jeanne. When Alzheimer’s disease took its toll (by 2002), Pauline handed Jeanne the reins, which she holds to this day.


Post Facto


Which brings us to today. Here’s a Dear Abby advice request published in last weekend’s New York Post.

I’ve been seeing a man for about a year… His intentions are to be together forever, although there has not been a proposal. I think I could continue this relationship indefinitely.  There’s just one thing: I’m not physically attracted to him. He is presentable and well-groomed, but it can’t compensate for the fact that he is homely. I am, to put it plainly, a beautiful woman. I have always dated “in my league.”  I am trying hard not to be shallow, but this bothers me greatly. Sometimes I’m just disgusted. I know we’ll both age, but until then, he’ll still be ugly. I do have feelings for him, so should I try harder to overlook his defects? — TORN ABOUT HIM IN NEVADA

Let’s be clear: advice requests like this are and always have been heavily edited, if not entirely made-up.

It’s also safe to say that in today’s media environment, Dear Abby’s columns have a lot more… oomph than before.


Here’s “Abby’s” reply:

No! For both your sakes, please don’t do that. The man you are writing about deserves someone who is more focused on inner qualities than you seem capable of. Forcing yourself to like him should not be necessary. Because this bothers you so much, do both of yourselves a favor and let him go.

The “new” Dear Abby template: a strong focus on infidelity and familial outrage. No holds barred. No quarter given or taken. Click here for a recent list.


Advice Column Renaissance


Over the last ten to fifteen years, post-internet, advice columns are more popular than ever. Dear Abby’s been joined by a host of more explicit, “intimate,” niche-focused and diverse online advice colums.

Psychologists reckon advice columnists find favor because they make people feel less alone with their problems. Empathy for and amongst anonymous strangers. A chance for readers to add their two cents to those in need. Sure, but…


After scanning the comments underneath the columns, I’m thinking there’s another reason: advice columns let commentators luxuriate in a feeling of self-righteousness indignation.


Check out this commentator’s reply to TORN ABOUT HIM IN NEVADA:

You say you're beautiful, but sound so ugly on the inside, time will go by you may not be as beautiful, as you say you are now, but your insides will be uglier, and older. He will be so much better off with a person or loyal dog than with you.

Jeanne sets ‘em up, readers knock ‘em down. Not every time, but a lot.


Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!


Which makes me wonder if advice columns are not unlike Championship Wrestling. A world with two archetypes: Babyface good guys and Heel bad guys.


In our divorce-heavy times, with splintered families, institutional failure and AI-fueled uncertainty, the desire for moral certainty is as strong as it’s ever been. But what is morality if it’s not the opposite of amorality?


Which makes reading about amorality something of a buzz. In fact, taking pleasure in someone else’s pain is a normal, natural human impulse. The Germans have a word for it: schadenfreude.


In his book Mordecai Would Not Bow Down, author Timothy P. Jackson sees schadenfreude as an off-shoot of the Nazi project known as Kraft durch Freude ("Strength through Joy").


What does that tell you? Other than the road to hell remains paved with good intentions.

 

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