Politics

The Fizzy Bleakness of E. Jean Carroll’s Advice Columns

Before going public with her story about Trump, she’d spent decades confronting sexual power dynamics in print.

E. Jean Carroll at her home in Warwick, New York.
E. Jean Carroll at her home in Warwick, New York.
Eva Deitch for the Washington Post via Getty Images

E. Jean Carroll recently joined the more than 20 women who’ve publicly accused President Donald Trump of sexual misconduct. In a New York magazine excerpt from her forthcoming book, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal, Carroll describes how Trump cornered her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room sometime in the mid-1990s and raped her while she struggled to escape. Soon after Carroll fought Trump off, she told two friends about the assault. They both confirmed the account to New York. Trump responded with a categorical denial: “I have no idea who this woman is this. It is a totally false accusation,” he said.

In Carroll’s telling, Trump recognized her outside the department store on that evening 23 years ago, as she was leaving and he was entering. She writes that he stopped her and called out, “Hey, you’re that advice lady!” At the time, Carroll, now 75 years old, had both an advice column in ELLE and a televised advice show that ran on the NBC cable channel America’s Talking, now MSNBC. The show only lasted a few years, but the “Ask E. Jean” column launched in 1993 and still runs in Elle today. On Carroll’s website, she claims to be the longest-running advice columnist in history.

Though Carroll has been writing columns and books about relationships for years, before last week she didn’t quite have the name recognition of some of the other prominent advice columnists of the past few decades. So I decided to read through some of her past work to better understand her role as a cultural figure—one high-profile enough that Trump once recognized her on the street—and the impact she’s had on the way women think about themselves, especially in relation to the men in their lives.

In her advice column, Carroll takes on the persona of a slightly judgy, slightly world-weary, endlessly cosmopolitan older family member. (Indeed, she refers to herself as her readers’ “auntie.”) She gives her inquirers little nicknames (“my snow orchid,” “my little artichoke”) and answers their questions with a wry twinkle in her eye and lots of wordplay. Her tone is patronizing yet empathetic, her advice full of both tough love and encouragement.

Readers of her column will recognize that voice in her book excerpt, too, which also includes accounts of assaults by former CBS CEO Les Moonves and several other men. (Moonves has likewise denied Carroll’s allegation.) Her columns are full of cheeky euphemisms—women getting off are “lathering their lemon squeezers”—and her essay about sexual assault is, too. Moonves went after Carroll “like an octopus … his pants bursting with demands,” she writes in the book excerpt. “I am thrilled I escape before he expels his ink.” Paired with her dry, winking humor, these cute turns of phrase make the excerpt an even more jarring piece of memoir. The content is disturbing and bleak, but the tone, for the most part, retains its self-assured, emotionally removed fizz.

Carroll’s column launched in the age of the 1995 self-help bestseller The Rules, which gave women specific instructions, mostly about playing hard to get, for getting and keeping a potential husband. Carroll’s worldview is of this retrograde era in some ways—she advises readers against staying friends with their exes and tells women to “torture” men and keep them “off balance” to retain their affections, as if dating and love are zero-sum games played by members of two evolutionarily opposed species. But Carroll also never misses an opportunity to tell readers to rid themselves of men who treat them like crap—unless there’s reason to scold the reader, too. (This woman, who wondered whether to leave her wealthy cheating husband for a less-wealthy man she cheated with, was told she and her husband deserved one another.)

She implores inquirers with slut-shaming and fat-shaming husbands to demand for themselves the respect and reverence they’d demand for their friends and daughters. Sometimes, the simplified, patently unrealistic solutions she offers readers—like the 27-year-old woman Carroll told to simply “get promoted” over the 50-year-old boss she’d slept with—are followed by more practical advice, like keeping a log of retaliatory behavior for HR or filing a police report against a partner who secretly taped a sexual encounter.

Reading through Carroll’s columns, knowing that nearly all of them were written after her alleged rape by Trump and in the shadow of other assaults she wrote about—many of which occurred while performing her professional duties as a journalist—gave them new meaning for me. As an advice columnist and a survivor of multiple sexual assaults, Carroll has a bird’s-eye view of the age-old patterns of gendered abuse that replicate across generations, the traumas and indignities women suffered in 1961—and also in 1995, and 2004, and 2019. Carroll writes in her recent book excerpt that almost all the letters she’s received in her 26 years giving guidance boil down to trouble with men. She also writes that she hasn’t had sex since Trump’s alleged rape in 1995 or 1996. The author description in Carroll’s 2005 book, Mr Right, Right Now! Man Catching Made Easy, says she “is enjoying just a ridiculously huge number of flings.”

Resting in the dissonance between those two bits of autobiography is a truth about advice columnists. They are characters as much as confidants, and their columns function more as cathartic fables with hyper-compressed climaxes and denouements than as workable guides for better living. “One reason these columns are so popular is that we get stories from them,” Carroll told the New York Times in 1997. “These are true tragedies, or dramas, with a narrative and a solution.”

That’s what makes advice columns so satisfying to read, and for Carroll to spend more than a quarter-century producing them, they must have been satisfying for her to write, too. It’s not difficult to imagine why the Carroll who started tallying up a “Most Hideous Men of My Life List” the day the New York Times published its first bombshell piece on Harvey Weinstein might glean satisfaction from doling out droll, soothingly simple, predictable solutions to the man-related problems that make women’s lives hell.

Read in the context of her assault allegations, Carroll’s columns become aspirational. Together, they make up a painstakingly laid-out vision for the world she’d like to see, paved with definitive answers to questions that have none. They are full of words of inspiration and strength that Carroll more or less admits, in her book excerpt, she was never able to internalize. It’s impossible to read them and not wonder: If Carroll had written in to her own column about the abuses she’s now detailed, what could the witty, sympathetic, take-no-shit auntie on the other end possibly have said?