Too Bad to Be True

Why I waste time searching for the fake questions in advice columns.

Woman reading a newspaper.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by igor_kell/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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It’s all Dottie’s fault.

I met her at the tender age of 12 within the black-and-white pages of the Weekly World News, her “Dear Dottie” advice column an oasis of reason between the Bat Boy and alien conspiracy theories. She looked a little too elegant for the sordid pages she inhabited, but her responses were tart and the questions were scandalous—sometimes too scandalous to be real. I was hooked.

Ever since then, identifying the fake letters in advice columns among the authentic cries for help has been my favorite way to procrastinate. A departure from my own calm, reasonable life and workaday chores, it’s a skill that requires a good nose for the outrageous tale, an advanced degree in armchair psychology, and a willingness to consult dubious crowdsourced wisdom.

It’s a splendid, deeply involved way to waste time. It’s also much harder than it sounds.

To be clear, I, like you probably, can spot the obvious, artless fakes from a mile away. These shabby letters regurgitate familiar movie plots and TV shows with only the most cursory names changes. Others, less derivative but still obviously false, contain blatant inconsistencies in detail. They are lies that sound like lies, created on the spot with no concern for internal logic. They’re a waste of my time while I’m wasting time.

But the best letters—the sort that occupy me for hours as I straddle the boundary of belief—are true works of art, difficult to tease out from their authentic brethren. That’s because truth often is stranger than fiction, and the outrageousness of a given letter doesn’t necessarily undermine its authenticity.

I spend hours at my computer considering problems so absurd they sound like stand-alone sitcom episodes: the hapless writer who accidentally sent his oblivious boss to Venice, Italy, instead of Venice, Florida, or the woman who vocally disparaged her daughter-in-law and then—uninvited!—joined the PTA at her granddaughter’s school. I contemplate an endless array of bridezillas, cheating husbands, and parents hiding life-altering secrets from their children.

Are these tales of woe true? False? For heaven’s sake, my great-aunt once shot her husband through a screen door after he came home too late for her liking—far be it from me to disparage a story on the basis that it sounds false. It’s foolish to dismiss an absurd tale outright. Sure, a letter might read as fake: the virtuous characters a touch too self-righteous, the antagonists Disneyesque in their villainy. But for me and much of the advice column audience, such characteristics are hardly disqualifying. We know people like this.

Given that, it might seem impossible to distinguish an outlandish but true story from a real fraud.

But that’s where the legwork—and the bulk of my procrastination—comes in. Left to myself, I comb through the columnist’s language to find her hints that a letter might be fake: Where does she approach the presented problem with a skeptical eye? Has she contacted the writer for edifying details, or will she cop to editing out bits or pieces of the letter that might give more of a clue about its origin?

I lean, too, on the commentariat—my fellow procrastinators in arms, with whom I while away the most productive hours of the day. These gatekeepers are blessed with ridiculous memories and an understanding of their particular column’s ethos; they spot perceived fakes and argue over them in threads that seem to go on for generations. Hours that I ought to devote to writing or crunching out a spreadsheet I instead spend poring over these debates, wondering along with everyone about absurd hypotheticals: Is it possible—given the wonders of modern technology and the relative ease of booking a flight—to send your boss to Italy by accident?

Mostly, though, I rely on myself, and therein lies the great joy of spotting fake letters.

My preferred approach is psychological: I ponder possibly fictitious spouses and parents and attempt to diagnose them as a way of validating their authenticity or lack thereof: Seems like a touch of narcissistic personality disorder to me. I consider my own experiences and weigh them against all the stories I’ve heard over the years from friends, colleagues, and church ladies to determine relative probability. Sure, my mother has never demanded to be present in the labor and delivery room against my wishes, but what is the likelihood, given the entirety of my accumulated understanding, that another mother with fewer boundaries might?

And like any good English instructor (who really ought to be applying these principles to her students’ work and not to advice columns), I bring my knowledge of writing to bear. In particular, I search for a particular performative tone native to fake letters: a stilted or overly self-indulgent attitude that seeks to either titillate or appall readers rather than to genuinely resolve a question. The hallmarks of this tone are tough to pin down—absolutist language, an exaggerated sense of outrage—but it’s impossible to miss. In my robes of judgement, I know it when I see it.

But what if I’m wrong? The truth is there is no right answer. Despite my dogged pursuit of advice column authenticity, the joy of procrastination isn’t in identifying the fakes conclusively—though I feel a frisson of triumph every time a columnist or a commenter posts an update that confirms my suspicions. Rather, I glean satisfaction from what is ultimately a communal meditation on the human condition: a shameless chance to peek into someone else’s life and adjudicate the authenticity of its absurdities.

And hey—if it gets to be too much of a habit, at least I know where to send the letter.