Memories of Dear Abby


When I was a kiddo, my favorite writers were the folks I could always read at my grandparents’ house: political satirist Art Buchwald, proto-mommyblogger and humorist Erma Bombeck, and the great, sensible, kind Dear Abby. Her writing was as interesting when I was 6 as it was when I was 26, and her advice was always straightforward, smart, and immensely useful. Sometimes it was even saucy and sassy, particularly when Dear Abby didn’t entirely like the tone of the person who’d written to her.

Now Dear Abby herself, Pauline Phillips, has left us after a lengthy struggle with
Alzheimer’s Disease. She was 94.

The first “Dear Abby” column ran in 1956, and Pauline kept on plugging solo ’til 2000, when she began writing the column with the assistance of her daughter, Jeanne. Jeanne took over the column entirely in 2002, the same year the family announced that their matriarch had Alzheimer’s.

The column often ran alongside “Dear Ann Landers,” which was written by Pauline’s sister, Esther Eppie Lederer.

There are a number of fun remembrances of Pauline Phillips online today, but here’s
perhaps my favorite bit, from Time (a magazine I relished reading alongside the
newspaper at my grandparents’ house):

When she started writing the column, she was reluctant to advocate divorce: “I always thought that marriage should be forever,” she explained. “I found out through my readers that sometimes the best thing they can do is part. If a man or woman is a constant cheater, the situation can be intolerable. Especially if they have children. When kids see parents fighting, or even sniping at each other, I think it is terribly damaging.”
She willingly expressed views that she realized would bring protests. In a 1998 interview she remarked: “Whenever I say a kind word about gays, I hear from people, and some of them are damn mad. People throw Leviticus, Deuteronomy and other parts of the Bible to me. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve always been compassionate toward gay people.”
If the letters sounded suicidal, she took a personal approach: “I’ll call them. I say, ‘This is Abby. How are you feeling? You sounded awfully low.’ And they say, ‘You’re calling me?’ After they start talking, you can suggest that they get professional help.”

It’s the last bit that really gets me, that brings tears to my eyes over a woman whose pen name became such a part of modern Americana. Pauline set an example for everybody who becomes a self-appointed advisor to strangers. Sometimes you get a little more involved than your friends might like. Sometimes you pick up the phone, or write a personal email to, a person whom others might label too “weird” or “crazy.” You don’t try to cure them and you don’t present yourself as someone with all the answers. You don’t get over-involved in their lives. But you let them know that you’re there, that somebody, somewhere bore witness to their pain, and that in some way they are not entirely alone in this world. They are seen. They are known. They matter.

‘ve been one of those weird, crazy people who sought a reason to keep going in the midst of despair. I’ve also been one of those self-appointed advisors, via my old Sirius XM radio show (sponsored by Cosmo mag, natch, because I’m such a Cosmo gal) and, more recently, via my Tumblr. In fact, I’m about to start a friendship advice column, “Friendzone,” right here on Jezebel. (You can write in about your friendship issues to [email protected], in fact. End plug.)

Those of us who give advice for (part or all of) a living generally do it out of a desire to help people. Sometimes it’s a way of avoiding dealing with our own issues, and we can come off as snooty and superior. I know that sometimes after I write a particularly high and mighty piece of advice, I ask myself, “Who the hell are you? You’re the girl who wet her pants waiting in line for the Starbucks bathroom last week, that’s who. Take the attitude down a notch.”

I, and my fellow advice-givers, would be wise to revisit the work of Pauline Phillips, who could very occasionally get on a bit of a high horse but who always came back down to earth, presenting herself not as some perfect domestic goddess with a magical sex life and a great hairdo but, well, just a regular gal with some ideas about the way things ought to be. That’s all good advice is, really: a naturally flawed, well-intended arrow that, hopefully, points in the general direction of a better life. No advice, and no advisor, is perfect.

Dear Abby came close.

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