This is Emily Yoffe’s farewell column as Dear Prudence. But don’t stop sending your questions for publication to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Questions may be edited.)
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In February 2006, I became Slate’s third Dear Prudence columnist. On Monday, Mallory Ortberg will be Prudie No. 4. It has been an education and an honor to be Prudie, and I leave with the same qualifications I came in with: none. When the original Dear Abby (Pauline Phillips) died, I read a remark she made in response to a question about what qualified her to tell people what to do. She said she had common sense and the ability to express it. I hope I met the Abby test.
Over the past decade, I never stopped marveling at the treasures that landed in my inbox. If I hadn’t become Prudie, I may never have found out the world was filled with so many errant dildos. I discovered that the mysterious box in the attic is not just a device of fiction. (Sometimes when the boxed-up secret comes out, there is a remarkable happy ending.) I also learned, wrenchingly, how devastating the deathbed confession can be. My advice on this stands: If you’ve done something despicable in your life, either speak up while there’s time to address the damage, or go on to your final, flaming reward in silence.
People confided in me about terrible things that have haunted them their whole lives, and I felt the weight of trying to find a way to expiate their guilt or assuage their pain. One memorable letter was from a man who as a 6-year-old falsely accused a stranger in a men’s room of cornering him, because he didn’t know how else to stop having to go home with his abusive, alcoholic father. (To help relieve him of his secret burden, I consulted a criminal attorney who said it was unlikely the writer had gotten the stranger in serious trouble; I also suggested he donate to the Innocence Project.) Sometimes people wrote about discoveries that upended their understanding of the world, like a woman whose beloved mother died when she was a teenager. The letter writer, now middle-aged, had recently found her mother’s diary and “the truth” that her mother was never proud of her. I hope I helped her see that what she thought was the entire truth was not—it was only a private snapshot of a loving mother’s concerns about her teenage girl. That was not the only time I learned that if you come across a departed loved one’s diary, do not read it unless you’re prepared to be hurt.
Ten years of doing this job is long enough to watch the culture change from the vantage of my inbox. When I started as Prudie, almost all the questions I got from people in the LGBT community were about how to deal with a bigot in their lives. Slowly at first, then seemingly all of a sudden, that changed. As I leave this column, most gay and lesbian readers who write into Dear Prudence are not writing about a problem related to their sexual orientation; they’re just writing about a problem.
I also had a front-row seat to the sea change in human interaction caused by the rise of social media. I remember the confusing first few letters I got from college students complaining about classmates not accepting a “friend request” or posting something unpleasant on their “wall.” When Facebook opened up to the public, I wrote about an experiment I conducted, inspired by these letters, to find out if someone in her 50s could find any friends on Facebook. In that prehistoric social media moment, the answer was no!
It’s only natural that over the years certain subjects became areas of special interest to me. I wrote fairly often about the excesses of the sex offender registry. It was reassuring to hear that the majority of readers agreed that these laws are often not protecting us from the worst of the worst, but ensnaring those who present no danger to society. If only our political leaders would have the guts to reform them. I also noticed that I got a lot of letters from people grappling with the issue of what they owed their abusive parents now that those parents were old and ailing. I got so many of these letters that I did a long piece on this topic, interviewing many of the people who had written to me. Their stories were often heartbreaking, but I so admired the ability of people who’d overcome difficult starts in life to emerge as whole, even happy adults. I realized such people were writing to me for permission not to be emotionally trapped again with their abusers, and I was happy to give it. Too many people are bullied into “closure” (let’s retire that word) and forgiveness; too few wrongdoers acknowledge their deeds and try to make amends.
But it’s not all dark pasts and buried secrets. Sometimes the biggest reactions from readers were about less-examined behaviors that had seemed banal on the surface. The example I’ll never forget: a question from a young man who noticed that his girlfriend had not washed her bra for two weeks and wondered if she might be mentally unbalanced. I defended stoutly her lack of bra washing, and an informal poll I did of fellow women indicated bras are generally washed monthly. I’ve rarely been so surprised by the frenzy a letter stirred up. Men went nuts! They had to wash their underwear every day or else be accused of being pigs. Now they discovered that women were filthy beasts! (They seemed to dismiss the fact that underpants and brassieres cover different territory.) One man wrote to me in outrage and said he polled every woman in his office about her bra-washing schedule and informed me every woman assured him she washed her bra daily. (I waited in vain for the letter from the woman who wanted to know if she should report the male colleague who demanded to know how often she washed her bra.)
And now I’m done. This is a bittersweet day, but I know it’s the right time. When you get a letter about a boyfriend who has committed bestiality with farm animals and you think, “Oh, at least this one isn’t about house pets,” you’ve probably been Prudie long enough.
There are so many people for me to thank. I have had the pleasure of working for every editor of Slate, starting with the founding editor, Michael Kinsley. He’s only responsible for my entire career—thank you, Mike. Then Jacob Weisberg (now chairman of The Slate Group) and David Plotz conceived of the Human Guinea Pig series, which occupied me in humiliating endeavors for almost a decade. Next they chose me to be Prudence. Julia Turner, the present editor in chief, and John Swansburg, deputy editor, have for the past year supported me as I reported on college sexual assault. This is a highly contentious issue, and Julia and John never wavered in their belief that it was worth covering. They made every piece better, and John is one of the finest editors, conceptually and line by line, I have ever worked with.
As Prudie I have been lucky to have two successive editors work closely with me every week. The wonderful Melonyce McAfee, now at CNN, saw me through the first half of my tenure, followed by managing editor Lowen Liu. There is no Dear Prudence without Lowen. He has sharpened my copy and saved me from myself too many times to count (and no, I’m not giving examples). He is an island of calm, a boon companion. Lowen is also responsible for the genius headlines.
Always there are the readers. You trusted me with your dilemmas, called me out when I got it wrong, thanked me when I got it right, instructed me, corrected me, challenged me, and made this job a joy.