It astounded me to realize, upon the recent publication of her book excerpt accusing President Trump of sexual assault in the 1990s — which he has denied — that E. Jean Carroll was not already a household name.
“Magazine columnist” is how CNN blandly described her in one headline. “N.Y. woman” was the Associated Press’s shorthand, which I read and cringed.
New York woman? Oh, no. None of those descriptions even begin to capture the flinty professional advice-giver whom we fans have devotedly followed for decades, subscribing to Elle as college students so we could read her columns, then loyally updating our mailing addresses from dormitories to studio apartments to two-bedroom condos with Poang chairs and live-in partners.
Since 1995, E. Jean has responded to the woes and worries of her flock. Leering boss? Bad boyfriend? Sex tape fallen into the hands of a vindictive ex? Auntie E. had seen it all, and her hard-earned advice typically boiled down to a few sentences: Life is tough, chickadee, but you can be tougher. Chin up, head down, dry your eyes, apply another round of waterproof mascara and just get on with it, girl.
In other words, it was the perfect column for a woman in her early 20s — an age where life’s getting messy but it still seems like most things can be solved via your own creativity and pluck. An age before you fully grasp that some problems might require policy shifts not pep talks, that some crap is structural.
What to do about a supervisor who seems to value brown-nosing more than hard work? You could demand a performance plan with measurable goals. Or, you could turn to “Auntie Eeee’s Art of Sucking Up,” a three-point guide for gritting your teeth while kissing someone else’s butt.
Are you terrified of living alone after an attempted break-in? You could seek out a therapist specializing in PTSD. Or: “Move!” E. Jean said. “Your imagination is too Hitchcockian for a first- or second-floor flat. If you absolutely cannot move, get a dog. Any feisty bundle of hair with a bark will do.”
Only the most dire issues — a man poisoning his wife, a doctor stalking his patient — required divorce attorneys or HR intervention. Everything else was dealt with via a breezy workaround.
In Friday’s bombshell excerpt from her memoir, published in New York magazine, E. Jean described a scenario for which there could be no breezy instructions. Some 20 years ago, she claimed, one of the most famous men in New York had forced himself on her in the dressing room of a Bergdorf Goodman’s while she first laughed and then tried to fight — events the president has vehemently denied (adding that Carroll is “not my type”). She wrote that she immediately told two friends, who offered different advice on what to do next, and she ended up remaining silent until now. The Bergdorf assault, she wrote, had come after a lifetime of dealing with multiple “hideous men” who assaulted or abused her with impunity.
Because this story was told by a woman whose insights arrived in my mailbox every month for a decade, her searing account seemed to me, and probably to thousands of others, like it had happened to a friend. So I’ve been thinking a lot about her advice columns.
Elle’s online archives don’t go back all the way to the beginning of E. Jean’s tenure, but they do go back to 2005. I’ve found myself scrolling through her work, pausing every fourth or fifth column to read or reread her guidance on how to navigate the world.
So much of it was as I remembered: naughty, funny, bracing. E. Jean is a terrific writer; she has mastered the difficult task of making her words sound like they’re delivered in person, over a cocktail. To a woman annoyed that a new beau suddenly stopped texting: “Escalate, darling! Escalate! Out-silence the man.” To the mortified office worker who had accidentally walked in on her colleague in the restroom: “Oh, for God’s sake. It’s just a penis.”
But then, so much of E. Jean’s advice wasn’t funny, or at least it didn’t seem that way now. So much of it was something else, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on at first.
A worker wrote in after she’d been recently fired. Her male boss, in the traditionally masculine construction industry, had insisted on discussing her romantic life: “I think that when I stopped allowing myself to get walked on, my comebacks bruised my boss’s ego, and he started disliking me, and it was this that led to my dismissal.”
E. Jean’s response didn’t address the inappropriateness of her boss’s questions or the potential illegality of the firing. Instead she focused on how to charm and disarm future fragile-ego bosses: “Any jab of yours that is less than totally positive will cause him agony.”
A wife wrote in asking how to appease her husband, who couldn’t stop obsessing about her previous lovers.
A different advice columnist might have argued that this was the husband’s hang-up to deal with — we all have pasts, after all, and can’t this guy remember that his wife ultimately chose him? E. Jean’s advice, though, centered on obsequious flattery: “Which ‘previous lovers’?” she suggested the wife respond. “‘I’d completely forgotten those milksops! Your prowess has completely obliterated them from my memory!’ (Repeat the next 200 times you’re in bed.)”
What struck me, in column after column, was the resigned practicality of it all. The knowingly raised eyebrow. The unspoken message to her readers often seemed to be: I know none of this is fair, but here’s what you’ll have to do to get through it.
E. Jean wasn’t giving advice based on an ideal world, one in which cads could be taught to stop assaulting women. She was giving advice based on a make-the-best-of-it actual world — one in which targeted women could and should, at the very least, retaliate with swift kicks to the testicles. Maybe the system couldn’t be changed, but at least it could be worked. At least her readers could do their best to carry on with dignity.
In retrospect, I disagree with a lot of her advice. Also in retrospect, I completely understand why she gave it.
Since her book excerpt was published five days ago, there have been predictable debates about her credibility. Wasn’t it convenient, some argued, that E. Jean hadn’t mentioned this three years ago, when 21 other women were also accusing the president of sexual misconduct? Wasn’t it strange that she was only talking about it now when she had a book to sell?
But to anyone who’s kept up with her career, it didn’t seem convenient. It didn’t seem odd. It seemed like she was a 75-year-old woman who knew a thing or two about how the world works, and what battles to pick, and what battles to forfeit. Who had seen a lifetime of jerks do bad things to women whose only recourse was writing to the advice columnist of a glossy fashion magazine. Chin up, you little rose petal. Onward and upward.
She didn’t come forward, she said, because she knew she’d be pilloried, and because she knew her testimony wouldn’t change anything. And it turns out that she was right about that.
Wise Auntie E. So often right, even in areas where you wish she was wrong.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.