The Woman Behind the Hurtin'
By Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 1999
For two years and two weeks, I've been telling people what to do in my advice column, Tell Me About It. For two years and two weeks, people have responded, "Who the hell are you?"
So is the one about my qualifications (easy: none), and so are the ones that you, my dear, bitter, under-stimulated shut-ins, pelt me with daily. You're right, everybody it does take gall to advise strangers. And so it's only fitting that you know more about me than my elevated gall content, especially since I now have the gall to tell you what to do Sundays as well as Fridays. I've sifted through your letters, culled the best questions they're excellent, by the way and granted you all an "interview."
Q: Hi Carolyn. Who made you God? Are you just some know-it-all journalist who landed the gig of a lifetime: telling people what you think and getting paid The Washington Post columnist's pay scale to do it? Or do you have any professional training that gives you license to tell people to grow up and go to hell? Just wondering.
A: The former. But I wasn't aware that I needed a license to tell people to grow up and go to hell. Let's try an experiment:
"Hey, Crissy, grow up and go to hell."
I thought that went okay.
Q: How did you get started being a columnist? Did you go to journalism school, get an entry-level job at a newspaper and then fight your way up the ladder until you earned a chance to pitch your idea for a column? Or did you just have an idea one day and someone agreed to give it a chance for a few weeks to see if you could build a following? I do not mean to belittle the hard work you've put into building your career by suggesting that just anyone can walk up and start an advice column.
A: Of course not, that would be ludicrous.
The column exists because I walked up to an editor one day and suggested we start an advice column. At the time, though, in spring 1997, I had worked in newspapers for seven-plus years and at The Post nearly five, so I was not new to the media. But I don't have any advanced degrees, in journalism or in head-shrinking of any kind; I have a bachelor's from Harvard (in American history and literature, if that matters). The column was intended from the start to be the kind of advice you'd get from a friend if that friend were relatively stable and brutally honest and had possibly gotten up on the wrong side of the bed that year.
Q: Hey, Hax. Where do you get off giving all this advice? You're just an armchair quarterback.
A: I make no claims to the contrary.
Q: Do you use your own experiences in order to answer your readers' letters? Do you see your family's influence in your values?
A: Yes on both counts. I draw heavily from experience, particularly my mistakes, particularly the mistakes that lit up the sky and can still make me wince more than a decade after the fact. And I've gone so far as to quote my parents.
Q: Do you regard your column as mostly entertainment or as a serious source of assistance to the troubled?
A: Entertaining assistance to the troubled, I hope.
Q: You are really probably something like a team of journalists, a trendy, hip twenty-something woman, a fat, balding middle-aged man, and an indeterminate-aged, frumpy female copy writer who compulsively eats Twinkies out of a desk drawer. There is no Carolyn Hax.
A: You're not even close. It's really a fat, balding twenty-something woman, a hip and trendy middle-aged female copy writer, and an indeterminate-aged, frumpy man who compulsively eats Pop Tarts out of a desk drawer.
Yes, I am one person.
Q: Is Hax a real name? It dawned on me this could be a play on "hacks," a plural colloquialism for writers.
A: My real name is Carolyn Hax or, in journo-speak, "Carolyn Writes Badly."
Q: This column purports to be directed toward the under-30 crowd. How old are you, anyway?
A: Thirty-two. Irrelevant and totally out-of-the-blue factoid of the day: Ann and Abby were born July 4, 1918.
Q: Are you sure you're not a 48-year-old divorced mother of two? I'm suspicious.
A: As sure as one can be about these things 33, I swear, married to Nick Galifianakis (my cartoonist), mother of no one, master of a bright but needy dog.
Q: I am assuming that you are very much in the Generation X mainstream and that you think accordingly. On what do you base your knowledge, and ultimately your life? From where do you derive your opinions?
A: I gave that "on what do you base your life" question great volumes of caffeine- and/or beer-induced late-night collegiate thought, and came to the conclusion that it is a question that should not be given great volumes of thought unless one is prepared for a plunge into fear, frustration and existential despair (or pat, prepackaged denial).
Q: I stumbled across your column for the "younger set" via The Post online several weeks ago. Many of the situations you respond to cut across generations and age gaps. Indeed, the problems are timeless, aren't they?
But I must say, we Xers aren't as screwed up as everyone thinks if a tarted-up rewrite of the Golden Rule is what passes for Gen-X mainstream. And a Rule girl is what I am; you don't have to believe in God to see it is the perfect, working guideline for doing unto others. Do I believe I am any more "able" than other people to apply it? No. But I seem to be able to get people to read, which is seen as a plus in commercial publications.
A: Yes, but please let's keep that between us. If I am seen as meeting the approval of readers who use terms such as the "younger set," I will become toxic to the entire younger set. Thanks.
Q: Your responses are unusual in tone. Are you edited in a manner that sharpens the sarcasm? Has there been any response from professionals in counseling or psychiatry?
A: I'm afraid the "unusual tone" is all mine. The Post gives me enormous freedom to rant as I please, and I've never asked my editors why because I'm afraid if they start thinking about it, they will change their minds. My paranoia might be groundless: The response from the pros doctors, social workers, ministers, even has been almost universally friendly. I can't say the same for the nonprofessional public: Some people out there hate the column, and really, really hate me, and probably hate my dog. (See below.) I have a special name for these critics, though: "Readers." (See below.)
Q: What are you actually trying to accomplish by making fun of the very readers who keep your column going? Does misadvice and sarcasm give you some sort of sick pleasure? Whether people writing to you need to "wake up" or not, the manner in which you present your so-called advice is anything but helpful.
Annoyed in Arlington
A: I'd be happy to concede your point; I get no sick pleasure from being hated. Besides, it would be just the kind of peace-on-Earth gesture that scores serious humility points. But your argument has a fatal flaw, which I'll state in your own words: "the very readers who keep your column going." My readers do keep the column going through mail that is ever increasing in volume. Hey, I'm as mystified as you are. The difference is, I'm not going to question it.
By the way, I strenuously disagree on the "misadvice" issue: I'd never recommend action I wouldn't take myself.
Q: Do you use the same style when giving advice to your friends and family?
A: I do, if you can believe it. I've tried from the beginning to use my natural voice in print more out of sloth than principle. Having a separate column persona sounded like work. Like using a fake accent.
Q: Carolyn, Carolyn, Carolyn! Damn it, girl, why do you insist on being so vulgar?
A: Because I am vulgar. Just be glad this is a family newspaper.
Q: How do you feel about breast augmentation?
A: Nick? Is that you?
Q: How do you feel when people ask you for advice and then degrade you personally because they don't like your answer?
A: Lousy. But I try to remind myself that if they had a valid point to argue against my advice, they would use it instead of degrading me personally.
Q: Why do you believe people are compelled to consult you instead of a friend or somebody they can explain the situation to at length?
A: That's the great mystery of advice columns: Who in their right mind would write to one? I like to think those who solicit my opinion are good, wise, thoughtful people in need of disinterested counsel. Or maybe they're all just freaks. Either way, people who air their hang-ups in my column and others gain a distinct advantage: Privacy. You laugh, but would you rather send a letter to me with no return address and signed "Frilly in Fresno," or look your best buddy in the eye and say, "I'm wearing women's underwear. Is that so wrong?" It's the old stranger-on-the-train phenomenon; it's easier to confess to someone you'll never have to face again.
Q: Most of the letters are so far-fetched that I have trouble believing they were real.
A: Most of the letters are so far-fetched that I couldn't make them up. So I don't.
Q: It appears that the only qualities one must possess to secure a column of one's own at The Washington Post are a dull sense of self-satisfied humor, poor language skills, little or no experience in the relevant field and a fierce misandry.
A: You forgot "unreasonable salary demands."
Q: Where do YOU go for advice? Do you like any self-help books?
A: If I were trapped in a rodent-infested well, I would try to crochet a ladder out of rat hair before I'd cry out for help. It's an ego thing, and not my most charming trait. I have no problem asking for help with the column, though. And I do sometimes, grudgingly, call on people I trust for personal things: my husband, parents, doctor, sisters, co-workers different ones for different situations. I read a lot, too. Periodicals mostly, reliable Web sites, fiction when I have time and not a syllable of self-help. Unless it's "How to Lay Ceramic Tile."
Q: How old were you when you got married, and how long have you been together (prior to and since your marriage)?
A: Twenty-seven; three-plus years before; five years since.
Q: How has being known as an advice columnist changed your personal life?
A: I'm much more critical of the way I behave. I'm paranoid. And at cocktail parties, people now ask my advice, which feels a little weird. I charge them a quarter.
But I do love my job.
Q: What's your favorite movie, musical group, sport?
A: Couldn't possibly choose; changes every week; football.
Q: Do you ever get a question that stumps you?
A: Uh . . .
Q: How can you tell if the person is really 30 or under?
A: I can't.
Q: After reading your bio, it's clear you're doing pretty well in life. How do you relate to some of the people who are obviously in very different social situations than you are or were in?
A: I've been loved and in love, been dumped, been despised, had totally screwed up relationships and normal ones, I've made friends, lost friends, kept friends, insulted people, been insulted, been fat, been in shape. I've tasted powdered milk and Dom Perignon. I've cleaned toilets for money, been on TV, been drunk to stupefaction let's call it "more than once" done the Right Thing in spite of myself, gotten D's, graduated with honors, and had a rather spectacular loss of bladder control in a public place. I was in third grade, but still. I've lived in a crack-infested neighborhood, lived paycheck to paycheck, lived in a group house, lived with a man, lived alone. I've been angry single, happy single, happy married. I've dated outside my race and faith, and within. I've never been fired, knock wood. Or divorced, ditto. I have hated myself intensely, and changed some things, and felt better most of the time. That aforementioned ego? Huge. I want children, but I don't want children with two parents who work full time. I'm a dog person. I've been shy all my life, but I travel and go to parties alone when need be because, in the end, I'm all I've got.
So that's my target audience.
Q: I notice you advise a lot of the advice-seekers to give up on the relationships they have started. Why the hurry?
A: As it happens, I love love. But by the time it reaches my desk, it rarely fits that description.
Q: When does your column become a daily one?
A: Donald Graham
The Washington Post
1150 15th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20071
Q: Do the people who write to you wait around to read your answer in print (if in fact you answer at all, what with volume of mail and so on), and if so, what do they do in the meantime to stave off the impending disaster that prompted them to write in the first place?
A: I wonder that myself. I assume they just muddle along like the rest of us, doing their best to play the hands they've been dealt. Advice columns are as much (if not more) for the audience as they are for letter-writers, but I try not to think that way. I pretend I can help.
Q: Do you think the people who need the advice really hear you?
A: I have no idea. My guess is, letter-writers fall into two categories. Some write to me because they're open to change, and so will at least consider what I say if not execute it to the letter. Others write in search of third-party approval usually for something they already know is wrong and so when they don't get it, they call me a name that starts with a "B" and keep doing whatever it was they were doing.
The only advice outcomes I know for sure are the ones reported to me later, which I live for. Some end well, some end badly. No one has said to me, "You pushed me into the wrong decision, and I've suffered for it." But it's early yet.
Q: I don't bother giving much advice because nobody takes it anyway, but you're burdened with the fact that people take you very seriously. Are you planning on burning out soon, or do you thrive on dealing with difficult problems and difficult people?
A: I have no burnout scheduled at this time, but I haven't ruled it out.
Q: Do you ever look back at a response and think, "I could've thought of something better than that"?
A: Every time. So I stopped looking back at responses.
Q: What is your career objective?
A: Are you kidding? I'm bloviating for bucks, the millennial American dream. This is my career plan.
You know. Until I finish the screenplay.
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