Let’s take a little quiz, shall we, and try to guess when the following advice was written: “Some women can run corporations or marathons, but they don’t have the faintest idea how to dress for a man.” Or this: “Men are extremely visual and cannot be attracted to a girl just because she is nice, smart, or funny. … He can’t possibly love your insides if he doesn’t love your outsides.” Or, wait for it: “Premature grey hair should be coloured immediately, as nothing makes you look or feel older than being silver!”
Do you think maybe I dug that up in the cellar of a 16th-century madhouse? Alas, no. It’s the actual text of The New Rules, the just-released sequel to the 1995 advice-book phenomenon The Rules, which counselled women to play dead like submerged crocodiles and snap up unsuspecting men as they passed by. Or something like that.
The new advice book, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, is updated for the digital age, even though it reads like it’s from 1832! It’s full of exclamation marks! And advice for beautiful sociopaths! About finding love on Facebook by lying about your whereabouts! While plain girls throw themselves off cliffs like lemmings, because dead is better than dateless! Thank God for progress!
It seemed a particularly cruel cosmic joke that just as The New Rules arrives on our weary planet, the voice of sanity known as Dear Abby passes from it. The great scales of wisdom are now sorely out of whack.
In January, 1956, a society matron called Pauline Phillips began writing an advice column for the San Francisco Chronicle under the name Dear Abby, at least partly to get up the nose of her twin sister, who was writing as Ann Landers. For 30 years she dispensed sane, compassionate and occasionally bitchy advice to millions of readers. (Since 1987, Dear Abby has been written by Phillips’ daughter, Jeanne, as her mother had Alzheimer’s.) In those first 30 years, every dark corner of the human soul was opened to Abby – kleptomania and dipsomania, snoring and bad hygiene, cheating, beating, overeating – and she responded with tolerance, wit and the occasional crack of her sharp tongue. “What do you do with a man who refuses to use a deodorant, seldom bathes, and doesn’t even own a toothbrush?” one correspondent asked. “Absolutely nothing!” Abby replied.
The collection The Best of Dear Abby, published in 1981, highlights her support for gays (“love and let love”), transsexuals (“a human condition that is tragically buried in ignorance”) and even those pathetic divorcees (“it’s more important to save people than marriages”). For a woman born in the last year of the First World War, her attitudes were remarkably modern. She chose letters that she thought would appeal to a wide variety of readers – “the young, middle-aged, elderly, the sophisticates, squares, gays, straights, kooks and conservatives.”
It’s oddly comforting to realize that whatever problems you have now, somebody in Dubuque had the same one 50 years ago – or, as I like to think of it, the great wheel of life crushes us all, and having crushed, rolls on, laughing hysterically. Parents wrote Abby letters agonizing over children who were jobless, pregnant, ungrateful, depressed. She (mostly) advised compassion. One father had stumbled across his son’s diary: “I am only interested in being stoned, spending money and sex,” the boy wrote, in a passage that would be deeply unfamiliar to the youth of today. “Be cool,” Abby counselled the dad, “don’t put him down or make him feel guilty.”
She was politically progressive, touting the books of her friend, the muckraking journalist George Seldes, and cosmopolitan: She answered a mother’s query about her son’s homosexuality by printing one of Freud’s letters on the subject. But what’s most striking, when you go back and look at the letters, is how much they were about community: families and neighbourhoods and workplaces, and how they might work better. There was none of the narcissism, the laser-like focus on self-improvement, that you find in something like The New Rules (“Long nails will make you feel like a goddess, and so will long eyelashes!”). I now wish I’d written to Abby while she was still with us, because I think I’ve had only two good pieces of advice in my entire life. The first, before I married, came from a friend who wore her best don’t-shoot-the-messenger face: “You should probably learn to bite your tongue,” she said. The second, before I had my first child, came from my sister-in-law, who grabbed my arm and hissed: “You must tell the doctor that everyone in this family has a very large head.”
I’d add my own two cents for any expectant mothers, perhaps the only piece of advice I’m qualified to give: If the government is paying for the drugs, take them. I feel that Dear Abby, modern woman that she was, would have agreed.