Photo: Simon Eles
Reading about other people’s problems is great.
Like the guy who wrote about how his niece didn’t know she was unwittingly engaged to his secret son.
‘‘’No, Bobby, you can’t date that girl because she’s your biological cousin,’ is all it would have taken,’’ the man wrote, fuming that his ex – married to the man his son thinks is his dad – decided to keep, well, mum.
Or the woman who took to pen wondering what to do now her lover had died and left her and her husband a fortune.
‘‘What should I tell him when he asks where it came from?’’
If the husband reads the New York Times "Social Q’s" column, chances are he already knows.
So might those newlyweds-to-be. Readers of Slate’s "Dear Prudence" were told the chances that their kids will be deformed are slim, and that no one with inside biological information should consider ruining their special day.
Such is the ecstasy of agony columns: proof, if any was ever needed, that there’s nothing quite so complicated, fascinating or reassuring as other people.
The internet is full of them. The Christians have "Dear Maggie". Accountants, "the Audit Agony Aunt" (I’m sure it’s great). Each offers up the same addictive hit of the human condition that has kept telenovellas going for years.
But advice columns – where the writer at least gets a shot at atonement or vindication, and the reader a kind of Embarrassing Bodies for love and relationships – have been doing it for longer.
London’s Athenian Mercury is credited with coming up with the world’s first such column in 1691, back when any Thames riverboatman mulling over how to ask out his mate’s ex after a blameless break-up had limited options.
The paper’s 32-year-old proprietor with an eye for a winning concept (and a married woman) thought he could do with some anonymous advice about his affair. He rightly figured others could do with the same.
“Where is the likeliest Place to get a Husband?” demanded one reader of what was subtitled Casuistical Mercury, resolving all the most curious questions proposed by the ingenious of either sex.
Or this, an early version of the “asking for a friend” category: “Why should the putting of a man’s hand in cold water occasion a sudden emission of urine, notwithstanding his being fast asleep?”
“Tis a perfect vulgar error,” responded the column, “and has nothing at all of truth in it—at least, in those experiments which we have made about it.”
History doesn’t often remember the bedwetters. But those who forget their lessons are destined to repeat them – or watch Mythbusters come to the same conclusion more than 300 years later.
Which goes to show the problems don’t always change, but crucially, the answers often do. And this is why the advice column endures, and dating guides like The Rules hasn’t: Rules break, but people bend.
The master of the modern column, Pauline Esther Phillips, knew this.
Otherwise known as Abigail Van Buren, Phillips began writing ‘‘Dear Abby’’ in the 1950s – when pre-marital sex was frowned upon, same-sex attraction was not spoken about and women caught up in office politics were expected to cop it.
It was the flinty edged humour coupled with a compassionate no-nonsense approach made her column eminently readable. It also put those issues – from trivial to tragic – in front of 110 million readers a day.
“Dear Abby,” began one letter to Phillips, whose daughter took over the column after her death in January, ‘‘My wife sleeps in the raw. Then she showers, brushes her teeth and fixes breakfast – still in the buff. We're newlyweds and there are just the two of us, so I suppose there's really nothing wrong with it. What do you think?”
“It's OK with me,’’ came the response. ‘‘But tell her to put on an apron when she's frying bacon.”
Today, that could be a tweet.
It’s unlikely, however, the internet would give pause on its way to a punchline about ‘‘Stumped in Kentucky’’ to consider whether the single father was just awkwardly voicing his worry, ignorance and indecision about a generation he was trying to understand.
“It’s not like we have a huge shower,’’ he fretted about his teen sons’ tendency to hit the bathrooms with their friends after sports. ‘‘It’s normal size.”
Nothing inappropriate to see here, soothed Abby, who added, ‘‘ You are just not as comfortable in your skin as your sons and their "jock" friends are. Is it possible that they take after their mother?’’