“True, a little learning is a dangerous thing, but it still beats total ignorance”.
As someone who advises strangers on a regular basis, I owe a lot to Abigail Van Buren, also known as “Dear Abby,” who died last week. Since she began her column in 1956, Abby has served as the prototype of the modern advice columnist, carving out a completely new way of discussing love and relationships.
Before Abby, advice was usually a reflection of social norms; you confessed your situation to an agony aunt, and she doled out whatever response that common knowledge dictated. Abby tossed all of that aside. She was approachable, relatable, and utterly honest. She was enough like the rest of us that we knew she spoke our language, but she was just a little bit wiser, her comebacks a little more clever. She was someone, as opposed to some set of rules to follow.
No topic was taboo for Abby, no subject shameful or beneath discussion. And because so many trusted her, the dirty little secrets of our relationships became a topic of national discussion. Whether it was problems in the bedroom or hatred of your mother-in-law, it could now live out in the open, and perhaps even be normal.
When it came to answering personal questions, Abby didn’t say anything she didn’t believe, and she never held back. She won her readers over not by parroting what their friends or social circles would have said, but by continuing to surprise. Not to say that she was aggressive — really she was anything but. Few people respond well to being told “the way you think about relationships (or anything else) is wrong.” Abby injected just the right amount of skepticism to make you think, without putting you on the defensive.
“The baby was on time. The wedding was late. Forget it.”
When it came to tricky societal norms about relationships, Abby took a pragmatic approach. As times changed, she was more than willing to change her opinions to match them. The quote above is in response to a mother complaining that her granddaughter’s birth came too close to her son’s wedding (spoiler: they were not 9 months apart). Abby didn’t see anything wrong with the situation (that the couple had been pregnant when they got married), because there was nothing wrong with it. She understood the bigger picture: the son was now married, he had a child, and they needed the letter-writer’s support. Rather than scrutinizing and judging, and inviting her readers to do the same, Abby adopted a live-and-let-live approach that dared readers to step outside their set ideas about how a relationship should or shouldn’t look. Abby had no problem admitting that love was complicated, and she made it okay for her readers to feel the same.
“You could move.”
Abby wrote right through the sexual revolution, right through the second wave, right through the start of the AIDS epidemic in America. Though given ample opportunity, she never got on a soapbox. She answered the questions she was given, and she answered them with honesty. Take, for example, the quote above, written in response to a woman who objected to a homosexual couple moving into the neighborhood, and asked “What can we do about it?” Abby didn’t go into detail about her views on homosexuality. Three words said everything there was to say.
In this quiet way, Abby championed equal rights for women, abortion rights, AIDs awareness, the fair treatment of those with different lifestyles than your own, well before their time.
It’s common sense that our opinions are formed in large part by our peers. When a public figure becomes peer to millions of people, small moves can have a large effect. Abby wasn’t in the business of social change, she was in the business of honesty. Because of the unique form of the advice column, she was able to express her opinions without coming off as preachy. She gave you just the spoonful of sugar you needed to digest a new way of thinking about love, marriage, and nearly everything else.