I write, with regret, to tell you that this is my last “Asking for a Friend” column.
Having read advice columns all my life, I was honored when The Nation asked me to write one, especially since it was the first one the magazine ever published. “Asking for a Friend” was uniquely of The Nation, reflecting the problems that arise from being on the political left in a capitalist and sometimes right-wing world.
There is plenty of advice available from the mainstream media, especially on romantic relationships, parenthood, extended families, friendship, depression, and the workplace. But most of this advice assumes that your problems are entirely of your own making. “Asking for a Friend” was rare in its assumption that issues of the larger society—especially patriarchy, racism, and our economic arrangements—were at fault.
Yet “Asking for a Friend” was also uncommon in left-wing media for taking readers’ problems seriously and trying to help solve them. Independent media rarely provides readers with advice about how to live our lives. We tend to leave that to the Os or Cosmopolitans of the world, as if everyday life were so trivial—so dismissibly feminine—that we could outsource its dilemmas to corporate America. Of course, that’s a mistake: We need help! Sometimes we need to be told how to cope, that perhaps putting an embarrassing political sign in your yard is good parenting, even if your teenagers disagree, and that capitalism, climate change, and Donald Trump are driving us mad.
As we are all so tired of having to have feelings about cancel culture, I’m pleased to report that no controversy or transgression has occasioned this column’s cancellation. “Asking for a Friend” was sometimes controversial, however. My answers on polyamory, S and M, transphobia, and the ethics of stealing from chain stores provoked the most left-wing ire, while just about anything on sexuality tended to distress conservative readers. A letter from Marxist-Feminist Slut nearly made Reddit implode—and was written up in the right-wing media—but I suspect it was the very existence of such a person (#goals!) more than my answer that caused such an imbroglio. Most Nation readers were, of course, thrilled to learn that Marxist-Feminist Slut was a real person.
One of the questions I’m most frequently asked about the advice column is “Are the letters real?” The answer is yes. I have never invented one or smooshed several into a composite. I once learned that an advocate had made one up to call attention to her problem, and I was annoyed because it seemed unethical to me. Readers should be able to trust that the letter writers are real people.
Along with the complaints from the peanut gallery, some letter writers would let me know that the column had helped. A rude houseguest (presumably a Nation reader) wrote a gracious note of thanks to his hostess immediately after she complained to “Asking for a Friend” of his boorish behavior. In higher-stakes news, a desperate, unemployed man said he was dissuaded from armed terrorism by my answer to his letter. Another response helped a woman get her trans daughter back onto a girls’ soccer team.
While I replied to many questions that fell within my lived experience as a white, middle-aged mother and human—questions about aging, sex, sexism, work, marriage, motherhood—there were many more that fell outside my personal ambit. An advice columnist must violate contemporary dictates to write about what you know and identitarian admonitions to sit down and shut up if you haven’t had a specific problem yourself. “Asking for a Friend” frequently addressed racism, suicidal feelings, and many other issues that I haven’t experienced. I appreciate that, apart from the occasional Twitter snipe, most people were tolerant of my efforts to navigate the unknown. It helped that I often reached out to experts and friends and could relay their counsel. While I relied on my instincts a great deal, the column was also deeply reported.
Some alienated intellectuals didn’t think a serious political magazine should have an advice column. A reactionary New York University professor dismissed me as a “left-wing Dear Abby.” (I still don’t get why that was an insult; Abby was iconic!) There’s an element of sexism to the dismissal of advice columns, which are almost always written by women and, in our era, sometimes gay men.
Although “The personal is political” is an important feminist slogan, there is sometimes a leftist disdain for the personal dilemma because, after all, everything is systemic. But just saying that over and over again doesn’t help you raise your kids or break up with your boyfriend.
“Asking for a Friend” spanned almost five years and some drastic changes in our world, including the election of Trump (along with other right-wing leaders abroad), Covid-19, the rise of Bernie Sanders and the socialist movement he represents, the emergence of a massive uprising against racist state violence, and increasing concern about climate meltdown. Each of these changes caused immense upheaval in our readers’ lives—some of it good, all of it real—and “Asking for a Friend” was lucky to be able to help.
Former Nation editors Richard Kim and Sarah Leonard thought the magazine should have an advice column and that I should write it, and I remain grateful to both of them, as well as to Christopher Shay, the column’s most recent editor, whose enthusiasm and intelligence informed “Asking for a Friend” every month. The delightful illustrations by Joanna Neborsky were also critical.
Mostly, thank you for writing in. An advice column is nothing without letters from readers, and yours were well written, vulnerable, and risky. You understood what the column was: an exploration of problems whose personal and political stakes were of equal interest. In the acknowledgments of their books, writers often thank people “without whom this could never have been written.” Of course, in the case of an advice column and its letter writers, this is uniquely true.
Although “Asking for a Friend” is disappearing from these pages, I’m not going anywhere. I’ve been writing for The Nation since the early 1990s, and I plan to stay on as a contributor. But if you want my advice, we’ll have to grab a coffee.