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interviews 15

the college hill independent

People actually wrote in and said, “This letter is fake.” But this country has more than 300 million people in it, and I truly believe there is a happy incestuous homosexual twin couple out there. Rather amazingly, after that letter ran, I got an email from a young woman who thanked me because she is in an incestuous lesbian relationship with her twin sister. They had thought that they were the only people in the world, and now they felt much better about themselves. And, because I couldn’t help myself, I did a little Googling, and I was able to confirm that she is a twin, so I think it’s legit. So, there are at least two such couples. Maybe it’s sweeping the nation. My favorite type of question is the one where you think, “Oh my god, who could make this up, it’s amazing!” People are always accusing me of making up letters. I never make up a letter—why would I have to make up a letter? I’m not a novelist; I’m not that creative. How would I come up with some of these situations? One like that was a divorced middle aged man with grown kids; he had moved into a new house a few years ago. He was in his fifties and there was a couple in their thirties with a young son who lived next door and they all really hit it off— and I mean really hit it off—and now they’re a threesome. This guy’s grown son had lost his job and was married and had kids and needed to move in with the father, and the father wanted to know whether to tell his son about the situation. There’s no way I’m going to come up with that scenario. Indy: Can you think of the most difficult question you’ve ever received? Prudence: I got a letter from a woman who had a ten-year-old daughter who was the result of rape. Her daughter had been asking, “Who’s my dad, why don’t I know my dad?” Her family had said to say he’s dead. She said, “I don’t feel right saying that.” I knew this was an absolutely great letter, but I had no idea what to answer. I turned to a psychologist at Yale, Alan Kazdin, who really helped me. Basically he said in situations like this parents get very worried that they have to tell the entire story to a child who may not be ready to absorb the information, and oftentimes what a kid is saying is, “Can we talk about this? Is this something I can ask about?” And so with his help I gave an answer saying, “You can give an age appropriate response to your child, something like, “Ideally a child comes when a mom and dad fall in love and get married, but it doesn’t always happen that way—you know, you have friends who don’t have two parents—and it didn’t happen that way for me. It’s kind of complicated and I think you’re going to understand more when you’re older.” Indy: Are there questions that you refuse to answer? Amy: There are questions that are just not appropriate for newspapers. I don’t take fetish questions, for instance. I’m also aware that my column runs opposite the comics page, and I consider it to be a column that should be read by everyone from eight years old up through, and so I deal with sexual issues but I don’t deal with what I would consider to be serious deviancy. It’s just not the right space for it. Prudence: I’m not Dan Savage; I don’t get as into sexual specifics. I’ve answered questions about the overly masturbating husband and that kind of stuff—but that’s not my regular fare. Miss Conduct: There are topics that I just won’t do anymore: annoying people in the next cubicle. There is always going to be someone in the next cubicle who

is doing something annoying. There’s really not much you can do once you’ve given that advice once: politely ask, make sure that you’re not doing anything annoying to them, get headphones, blah, blah. There’s just no way of keeping that one fresh. Also, it’s hard to get wedding questions past me anymore. The questions are often so much about an aggrieved sense of entitlement on either side, and I really don’t want the column to turn into the petulant groan fest of people complaining how nobody today has any manners. I want it to be more constructive and problem solving. Indy: How do you view the entertainment value of your column, and how do you reconcile that with the fact that you are providing personal advice? Amy: I realize that these columns do have entertainment value, in that there is a tendency to enjoy it when someone else is a doofus. I understand this and occasionally run letters that I know readers will find entertaining. An example of this is when a woman wrote to me recently that she was having an affair with a married co-worker, but then she was also engaged in a relationship with another guy, but he was long-distance and she was trying to figure out which of these two men held the most promise for the best relationship for her. So obviously this is an awesome letter because the woman is completely unconcerned about the effect of her behavior on other people. In her life, she gets to make choices in a vacuum. And sometimes a letter is straightforward but gives me an opportunity to try to write an entertaining answer. I guess the rise of shows like “Intervention” and “Dr. Drew” illustrate that there is a genuine entertainment value in viewing someone else’s problem or personal issue and observing the way this issue is dealt with by an objective outsider. I don’t think of this as disrespectful; I think of this as a very natural human curiosity. And I assume people are reading my column for all sorts of reasons, including those times when they find the letters “entertaining.” Prudence: An advice column must be entertaining and intriguing or fun to read or else it doesn’t get enough readers and the readers don’t send in enough questions. Part of its entertainment value is the window it offers into sometimes very private, intimate problems that others are going through. Humans are fascinated by the human condition, and advice columns give us a special peek into it. Indy: If you were going to write to an advice columnist, what would you ask? Amy: This is a question from an E.M. Forster book, I think it’s from Howards End. It’s the question I’ve always had, [that has] never been answered: How do you make love stay? That’s a question I would love to hear an answer to. Miss Conduct: How do you get comfortable being photographed and learn how to make a photogenic face? Prudence: How do I get my husband, who has promised he would scoop the litter box without my reminding him, to do it, without my reminding him? ERICA SCHWIEGERSHAUSEN B’13 doesn’t know better.


The College Hill Independent: 16 March 2012