Slate’s “Dear Prudence advice columnist Emily Yoffe responded to questions on Wednesday about her favorite letters, her personal life, and her long-distance friendship with Dan Savage during an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Snapmedown: Has there ever been an occasion that you seriously considered notifying law enforcement after receiving a Dear Prudie letter?
Emily Yoffe: Great question. I haven’t. Usually when the obvious answer is to notify law enforcement, the person writing to me has identified a problem, and I am just telling the person to go ahead and notify the authorities. I have heard back a few times from people who have done that and felt better about it.
I haven’t had the kind of letter in which I realize that the letter writer, for example, is molesting a child and I myself need to act.
SquirrelWife: I love your column, but I’ve always found your stance on alcohol to be a bit strange. Anyone who drinks more than one drink once a week seems to be labeled an alcoholic. Why so stringent? I think by your standards everyone I know has a severe problem. I should perhaps point out that I’m English and we do like a drink.
Emily Yoffe: I agree people get really *pissed* at me for my stance on drunkenness. I am not at all opposed to drinking. I am opposed to being drunk, especially being drunk as a hobby. I love England, but watching puking people stumble out of the pubs at closing time is not the most endearing sight.
trees_make_me_happy: Hi Prudie! No real question, but I wanted to provide a follow up. I wrote, and you published, one of your more controversial letters about five or six years ago now.
It was regarding my then boyfriend, on whose computer I found a porn CD that included child porn. I didn’t actually take your advice, but you did kick start me to at least do something. I confronted him about it later that day, over the phone while at work to see how he would react. He sort of spluttered and denied any knowledge that that’s what was on there and told me to throw away the disc when I got home. Then, when I got home, the disc was mysteriously already gone.
I didn’t contact the police, which was what a lot of your readers were up in arms about, but I did move out a week later and am now happily married to a wonderful, wonderful man and have an adorable six-week-old daughter who’s sleeping in a swing across from me at the moment. Thanks for doing what you do!
Emily Yoffe: I remember your letter and I’m really glad to hear there’s such a happy ending for you! A lot of people take issue with my belief that our laws need to make much more a distinction between people who look at child pornography and people who molest children. I know the child pornography industry is repellent, but I think that someone who just looks at these images and does not touch children should not be incarcerated for years on end.
way2gimpy: What percentage of your questions do you think are just made up?
Emily Yoffe: A minuscule percentage and I don’t run letters I think are fake. Take the incestuous twins letter, which a lot of people said was a fake. I hope the follow-up helped prove it wasn’t. But after I ran the original letter I got an email from a young woman with the subject line “Thank you.” It turns out she was in an incestuous relationship with her twin sister and they thought they were the only two like them in the world.
She had an unusual name, so a little Googling revealed there were two people the same age with the same last name living at one address. Why should we be surprised by people’s capacity to get themselves into seemingly unlikely situations?
pugg_fuggly: Do you find yourself giving different advice than you would have earlier in your career? Or is good advice timeless?
Emily Yoffe: I think I have more of a sense now that some situations just can’t be improved very much. Some people would rather kill themselves with booze or drugs, for example, than make their lives better.
Our laws are such that if you have a mentally ill loved one who will not go in for treatment, then there’s often not much you can do. (These laws need reforming, but I don’t see that happening.) So what I’m left with is giving more advice along the lines of after you’d done what you can, you just have to sometimes accept people won’t or can’t be helped.
Dhet: Does your faith inform your answers to letter writers?
Emily Yoffe: I’m not a particularly religious person, but I do think I’m Jewish in my outlook. Some basic ways are that I’m a “this world,” not “the next world” person. And that forgiveness is not as guiding a principle for me as it is for Christians. Not that I don’t believe in forgiveness, I just don’t believe everyone has to forgive. I don’t want people to get stuck on early traumas, but the pressure to forgive can be destructive in some cases. There are ways to get over things without forgiving the perpetrator.
Ex_party: What’s the screening process like for your letters? Any good ones that have been screened out, but you’d like to tell us about?
Also, I’ve been cheating on my brother with my other brother (we’re triplets), any advice?
Emily Yoffe: It’s very informal and mostly goes by my saying, “Now that’s a good letter.” I also try to balance things. If I’ve done a wedding letter recently, I’ll hold off on answering those for a while. I definitely don’t screen out good letters, I print them!
Please write this up with more, many more, details and send it to email@example.com.
Sixacross: Thanks for doing an AMA, Prudie! I love your column and find your point of view really helpful.
Three questions for you:
1. You recently ran some follow-ups with some memorable letter writers to see what action they ended up taking and how that worked out for them. Were the writers you contacted generally willing to share their progress? (By the way: more follow-ups, please!)
2. Do you get stopped on the street by readers who recognize you and want some quick advice?
3. Some writers have obviously been letting a bad situation accumulate without action for many years. Do you ever maintain a correspondence with them after a letter, to ensure they take some action to improve their situation?
Emily Yoffe: 1. I agree the follow-ups were really interesting and I plan to do more. Most of the people I contacted were happy to give me updates. A few didn’t respond, which I understand.
2. Most recently in a break at Yom Kippur services a woman and her sister asked me to mediate a dispute between them, and I did!
3. I’m not a therapist, which people understand, so I don’t try to act as that for people. There is so much sadness in my inbox, many letters that don’t lend themselves to the column because the issues are so complicated and overwhelming.
5tupidflanders: Can you tell us which submission has had the most profound impact on you? Is there one that keeps you wondering what happened to the letter writer?
Emily Yoffe: The letter from the mother of a 10-year-old whose child was the product of rape and whose daughter was now asking about her father was one of the most powerful letters I dealt with. I turned to Dr. Alan Kazdin for advice in answering it.
Basically the point was that you want to let your child know this subject is not taboo, and explain that the answer is complicated and ask if it’s okay to tell some now and some when the child is older. I heard from another reader in a similar situation who used the advice and said it really helped.
On question two, several years ago I had a letter from a man who was in love with a woman he wanted to propose to but he’d never let her know that when he was a boy he accidentally killed her father. He and some friends were throwing corn at passing cars and they hit the father who crashed the car. I’d really like to know what happened to those people.
XtheXlanternX: Prudence, I love your column and I read it religiously. The only place I regularly disagree with you is about marital infidelity—you seem to judge these people much more harshly than I would.
I was just wondering how you got started doing advice columns, and if you had any advice to anyone who would like to do what you’re doing someday. I read a lot of your columns, and I feel like you’re probably a person to use as a model, but what sorts of things helped get you to where you are today?
Emily Yoffe: Most people complain I’m too easy on cheaters! I really try to take it case by case. I do not think infidelity in and of itself has to be a marriage ender. It depends on the circumstances. (And dear husband, don’t get any ideas.)
I don’t think you set out in life to be an advice columnist. I have been a journalist for more than 30 years (Oh, Lordy) and I was lucky enough to be at Slate when the previous Prudie, Margo Howard left. (Economist Herb Stein, father of Ben, was the first.) I thought, “Hey, I’ve been through a lot of crap and my life is better now than when I was younger, so I should put my name forward for this.” Really, luck played a huge role. But doesn’t it in a lot of things?
Sensitiverobot: Do family and friends often come to you for advice, or is it understood that once you’re off the clock you’re just Emily and not Prudence?
Emily Yoffe: When I turn to my sister for advice with problems she often says, “What would Prudie say,” and I say, “I know what Prudie would say, but this is me and I don’t want to hear any reasonable advice!” I really try in my private life not to act as if I’m in the advice game. Occasionally people will come to me for advice, but it’s generally someone I’m in a mutual relationship with and so we come to each other anyway. My daughter would tell you that I never stop with the unwanted advice.
Viscountprawn: What other advice columnists do you personally know and/or talk with? Especially interested to hear about Dan Savage. I imagine you guys going out and getting blasted together on tequila at some sleazy bar.
Emily Yoffe: Amy “Ask Amy” Dickinson and I used to hang around when she lived in D.C. I have spoken on the phone, via interviews, with Dan Savage and Cary Tennis. I feel like I have a long-distance relationship with Dan even though we don’t know each other. I love that he alternately takes me to task and agrees with me. And I was so thrilled that the incestuous twins wrote to me and not him—that really annoyed him, and I understand why!
NikaNuss: Hi Prudie! How do you feel about the comment section on your articles at Slate? I’ve always been under the impression that you are rather amused by how silly your fans can get (like the time you joined us when we were all writing poetry about letters!), but this week the comment section has been subject to mass bannings and deletions. Are you on board with that? What type of posts do YOU want your fans to make?
Emily Yoffe: I think the comments section is a great bonus. I’ve heard back from many letter writers who have said they have been particularly helped by the commenters. But there’s a problem when the comments appear to be a kind of club taken over by very enthusiastic posters. I really appreciate the regulars, but others are discouraged from chiming in if the section is being monopolized by a few.
(*This final question was excluded from the original transcript for length reasons, but added back in order to help clarify Slate’s commenting policies.)
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. This was really fun and you made me think about what I do.