Whenever advice columnist Ann Landers got a screwy letter postmarked in New Haven, she assumed Yale students had written it as a prank. As it happens, I went to Yale, but by then my days of writing phony letters to advice columnists had already ended. Admittedly, I was a bit precocious in this regard, having seen one of my gems published by “Dear Abby” when I was still in junior high. I had posed as a teenaged girl whose boyfriend had not been forthcoming about his shady past. Dear Abby renamed the boyfriend “A” and advised me to start asked “A” some hard questions, assuring me I wouldn’t get to “B” before I got some answers.
Advice columns are an easy target for budding young pranksters, but their enduring popularity suggests that people identify strongly with human woe in all its forms. In their heyday, Ann Landers and Dear Abby were the most widely syndicated newspaper columnists in the world. Their vocation is now carried on by others, including a new generation of TV and radio personalities who dispense advice over the airwaves. Ann Landers and Dear Abby would probably be appalled by the on-air hijinks and downright unprofessional behavior of some of their successors. But then, many of the current generation aren’t professionals, at least not human relations professionals. Even the blunt-spoken Dr. Phil, a protégé of Oprah Winfrey who trained as a clinical psychologist, is no longer licensed to practice after being cited for misconduct many years ago.
For that matter, Ann Landers and Dear Abby (who were identical twins) didn’t have any professional credentials either, which may have been one reason they were so popular. They dispensed with the psychobabble and imparted the sort of homespun wisdom they probably absorbed as nice Jewish girls growing up in Sioux City, Iowa. By and large, they stuck to the tried-and-true. Teenagers were warned against premarital sex. Couples having problems in their marriage were advised to stay together for the sake of the kids. Those whose feelings had been hurt were admonished to forgive and forget. If nothing else, those plucky girls from Sioux City were abundantly endowed with the one quality their correspondents seemed most lacking in: common sense.
Ann Landers and Dear Abby were not the first to ply their trade, not by a long shot. Many centuries before there were newspapers, that nice Jewish boy from Galilee was dishing out advice to the multitude. He had to stand on a mount to make himself heard. But the message would still be relevant to Desperate in Dallas and Harried in Hackensack: turn the other cheek, treat people right, forgive and forget. Above all, love your neighbor. It was considered radical advice, then and now -- and we ignore it at our peril. The world is in a terrible mess any way you look at it. One way to look at it is that the nice Jewish boy from Galilee was abundantly endowed with the one quality the rest of the world still seems to lack: common sense.