In my eyes, Dear Abby was – well, let’s say, “a transitional figure.” As an advice columnist, I take as much from her example as I do from leaving it behind.
An advice column is an odd thing to aspire to, especially for a dude. All I knew was that I wanted to be an honest writer, like my heroes Philip Roth, Henry Miller and the open-book blunt Dany Laferrière. The kind of candour these writers muster made me a) laugh and b) feel less alone in the world. “Yes!” I would think as I read, “I’m not the only one who’s ever felt that!”
But Abigail Van Buren (who died on Thursday) was something else.
The history of advice-giving has a humanizing arc: It starts with gods of yore prodding us to do stuff we don’t feel like doing (say, through the “Thou Shalts” of the Ten Commandments) and ends up with a I’m-at-least-as-bad-as-y’all Oprah, who admitted on air that she had freebased what we now call crack. Dear Ms. Van Buren, who dominated advice-doling for most of the 20th century, positioned herself somewhere in the middle.
That doesn’t mean she didn’t have a crazy story to share.
Abigail van Buren was actually named Pauline Esther Friedman. She had a sister, Esther Pauline Friedman, who was born the same day, and got married the same day in a joint ceremony.
Esther Pauline wrote a column as “Ann Landers,” and Pauline Esther went to work for her. But soon she developed a taste for dishing out advice herself. She struck out on her own with a rival column under the pseudonym “Abigail Van Buren” – and from there the sisters became rival capos in the advice world, entering into a vicious battle for global domination.
The sisters didn’t speak to each other for years at a time. Although that didn’t stop either one of them from dishing out how-to-get-along-with your-relatives advice by the boatload.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I liked Dear Abby and her one-liners. She was salty and sassy, and would sometimes go after readers: Famously, when someone wrote to her to ask how she could improve the neighbourhood now that a gay couple had moved in, she said, tartly: “You could move.”
But her whole helmet-haired, pant-suited persona was a construct, a projection, and the WASP-y society matron “Abigail Van Buren” a big, fat fiction. Of course, that’s part of the fun, and the meritocratic promise of the American Dream: Create a character out of whole cloth, and that person can be adored by millions.
Still, part of me wished for more from Pauline Friedman, born in Sioux City, Iowa, to Jewish immigrants from Russia. I would have loved to know what she had to say. I would have loved, just once, in response to someone complaining about a competitive brother (“we’re in the same business and he’s always trying to undercut me”), to read, “I hear ya, man. My sister’s always…”
That would have been exhilarating. That would have been illuminating. It never happened – mostly, I think, because she was a woman of her time. And I do honour her for bringing all sorts of topics to everyday Americans who had never heard them discussed in a public forum before.
But we advice columnists tread a weird line between entertainers and ombudspersons. Sometimes we’re presented with the most agonizing aspects of the human condition: My marriage has lost its spark; I have a terminal disease; I’m trying to get closure with my son. This stuff simply can’t be covered with a one-liner.
In the future, we need fewer zingers – and more reality and fellow-feeling.