A life of giving advice is to walk the finest of lines

Reed Saxon/AP - In this Feb. 14, 2001, file photo, "Dear Abby" advice columnist Pauline Friedman Phillips, known to millions of readers as Abigail van Buren, signs autographs for some of dozens of fans after the dedication of a "Dear Abby" star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles.

Era over. What a strange institution it is, the advice column; it’s part of the cultural air we breathe, but only because of Pauline Phillips, who died yesterday at 94, and her sister Eppie Lederer. Dear Abby and Ann Landers to most of us, of course.

As a writer who gives advice now, I get to see all the unanswerable questions that pop into my inbox day and night, week after week, year after year. Unanswerable to some extent due to my limitations, which are legion, and also due to the limits of the human experience, where we can never fully know another’s heart. Often, it’s a twisted mystery just knowing our own.

Pauline Phillips, better known as Abigail Van Buren, dies at 94

Pauline Phillips, better known as Abigail Van Buren, dies at 94

‘Dear Abby’ columnist was confessor and friend to millions of newspaper readers for more than four decades.

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And as someone who has appeared publicly in need of advice herself — as both Pauline Phillips and Eppie Lederer did at well-publicized times, especially given their rivalry — I can say it’s also a state of being in which your private and professional lives are so entwined that the meaningful distinctions might exist in our imaginations alone. The lives we lead and witness end up in columns, and columns affect our lives, and if any of it goes awry, we end up in someone else’s column.

And so a life of advice is to walk the finest of lines, between knowing and guessing; entertainment and empathy; compassion and criticism; between trying to help and presuming to; between being a public resource and a punch line.

About that rivalry. Phillips and Lederer lived this already-weird life with the added weirdness of being the Friedman Twins: identical, double-wedding-and-double-honeymooned, then transformed into fierce competitors as Phillips, the younger by minutes, pulled a classic little-sister move and launched her own column after practicing on Lederer’s.

She is said to have responded to 70 letters in two hours when she tried out for the new gig. That slim anecdote encompasses what made Phillips so huge — quick, smart and breezy — and why advice columns evolved away from the bite-size buck-ups the sisters brought to virtually every kitchen table in America for decades, a feat unthinkable now. Nearly 50 years’ worth of 10-year-olds used one or both of these columns to decode the cryptic world of adults.

“Ann” and “Abby” didn’t provide the first public forum for the lovelorn but, in combination, they made advice into a central tenet of pop culture — one their heirs try to, variously, live up to, live down and live by to this day.

Portions of this essay are adapted from a May 7, 2012, benefit performance at Theater J. Read Carolyn Hax’s columns at washingtonpost
.com/lifestyle.

 
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