Help! I Can't Stop Reading Advice Columns

I was being good about reading books at the beginning of self-quarantine, but as of late, I only have eyes for advice columns. The way I consume them is compulsive, like almost all my behaviors: I wake up to “Help! My Fiancé’s Family Keeps ‘Accidentally’ Calling Me His Ex’s Name” (oh dear!). I eat breakfast with “My Friends Did Cocaine at Our Kids’ School Fundraiser” (shady, but also whatever). I fall asleep to “My Girlfriend Has Incredibly Strict Rules for How We Have Sex” (sounds like a nightmare) and the next morning, I wake up to “My Inlaws Are Careless About My Deadly Food Allergy!” (holy fuck).

When I need a breather, I hop onto the Am I The Asshole? (AITA) subreddit, essentially a series of crowdsourced advice columns. “AITA for keeping a lost pet until the owner paid the advertised reward?” Uh, yeah. “AITA for naming my daughter ‘lasagna’?” Upon learning more information, no!

You know that scene in Rear Window when Jimmy Stewart’s girlfriend is trying to make out with him, but he can’t stop talking about the suspicious behavior he’s observed out his window? That’s basically where I’m at—except my metaphorical horny girlfriend is named “dealing with any of my real problems.”

The advice part of the advice column isn’t what draws me in. It’s the voyeurism, getting the chance to observe interpersonal drama without the burden of having to be involved in it. You get these vignettes about strangers’ particularly weird and often cruel behavior, an intimate window in somebody else’s fucked up life. It inspires this strange sense of relief, like, Hey, my life could be a lot worse, at least my husband didn’t secretly rack up $100,000 in credit card debt. The pleasure of the advice column is not dissimilar to why I like (and miss) being a reporter: you are granted a backstage pass into an interesting person’s life, and you don’t have to apologize for prying.

Of course, the advice given does matter. I love Slate’s “Dear Prudence” column, but only the ones written by Danny M. Lavery, because his responses are full of compassion, and I almost always agree with him. I can’t get down with his “Dear Prudence” predecessor, who dabbled in cringey puns and had an extremely Boomer-esque way of looking at things. Rich Juzwiak and Stoya, who are Slate’s sex advice columnists, are great because their sexpertise far surpasses my own, and I learn something new every time I read what they have to say. Reading these columns is aspirational in a sense: I put myself in the shoes of the advice-giver, and subconsciously compare what they write with what I hope I would say.

It’s not a mystery why I’ve become so smitten with advice columns. Under lockdown, I’m deprived of the second-hand drama I used to get from my friends. I’m jonesing for some conflict! In better times, I’d encourage my single pals to send me weird screenshots from their online dating adventures. These columns scratch a similar itch, offering a quick, vicarious thrill.

Still, advice columns are an imperfect substitute because they always leave me wanting more. I learn about someone’s weird problem, I read a smart person tell them how they should proceed, and then I am dying to know what happens next. Did they take the advice? How did it shake out after that? How are they doing nowadays? Can they please let me know that everything is OK? I’m worried!

What I need is more friends, specifically the sort of person who has weird problems. Or if that seems too far-fetched, a device that lets me listen in on a stranger’s weekly therapy sessions. And if worst comes to worst, I suppose I could be the advice columnist I wish to see in the world, and start dealing my own (tragically ordinary) problems.

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