Oh, the Letters You Write
Which Dear Prudence columns most riled and inspired you.
Usually what riles readers about the advice I give in Dear Prudence is their belief that my social views are so antediluvian that I seem to have emerged out of the ooze about the same time as the reptiles. But this year the letters that got readers most incensed were what they saw as my endorsement of child-rearing practices so lax that I could be cited as the Devil's spawn in a sermon on moral rot by Mike Huckabee.
Dozens of you wrote to denounce my advice to Disabled, Displeased, and Distraught. The letter writer, the mother of an almost-17-year-old girl, had recently become bedridden because of a degenerative illness. She complained that her daughter, who had an after-school job, was not helping out around the house and was instead spending her free time with her friends. She said the family had been through counseling and that her daughter had adjusted to the new family situation. But the mother who had been "used to having the house looking clean as can be" was consumed with resentment because her daughter refused to "sweep a few times a week, mop floors at least once a week, and dust a couple of days." I told the mother to lighten up on the housework demands for the moment and spend more time connecting emotionally with her daughter.
Readers had a different perspective:
"You bitch. You must be of the same selfish, prissy, and hedonistic gene as this little brat who only thinks of herself."
"The parents should tell her she has 30 days to move out on her own. The 17-year-old girl in this story is a snot-nosed, self-centered little punk."
Others wrote movingly of taking up the chores formerly done by a parent who had fallen ill or was serving in the military, and took me to task for not saying that this girl should step up as they did. To everyone who wrote, you're right, my answer was bad. Yes, the daughter, like any child, should have regular responsibilities to keep the household functioning. But I disagree that the mother's solution is to stick the mop in her daughter's hands and tell her to either start swabbing or start packing. Even the mother was so taken aback by the fury against her daughter in the Fray that she wrote in to defend the girl's "big heart."
The girl is scared, worried, and guilty; her answer to this emotional mess is to flee. The mother is also scared, worried, and guilty; her answer to this emotional mess is to try to control the one thing she can: keeping the house as clean as it used to be.
So what to do? I think the way for the mother to get the daughter to take on more responsibility is to not make their relationship revolve around mopping schedules, but to get the girl to talk about what's going on inside her. Finding another therapist, one who won't let everyone nod and say they're fine, would help. Having the daughter feel understood and heard—and hearing in turn what's going on inside her mother—might get this girl doing what's needed, and make her appreciate these last years at home.
Readers also took issue with my answer to the mother who wrote in about the enthusiastic masturbatory habits of her 4-year-old daughter. The daughter would mount tables, chairs, and stairs and go at it for 45 minutes a session. I reassured the mother that this was perfectly normal but that she should teach the girl that this was something she needed to do in private. Perfectly sick, was how some readers responded. Others wondered how I could have missed that this behavior was an unmistakable sign of (in alphabetical order): Asperger's syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, pinworms, sensory integration dysfunction, sexual abuse, stress, urinary-tract infection, yeast overgrowth, or zinc deficiency.
Fortunately, I also got testimony from several young women about memories of their own preschool wild abandon. One wrote, "I didn't know what I was doing, only that it felt good to me and was funny to my parents. They would often laugh at me (they said I looked like a frog). Thank you for making me feel a bit better about my childhood."
My advice on an obnoxious co-worker also provoked reader ire. Fragrant wrote that she got the creeps from a male colleague who stood at her door and made suggestive remarks about her perfume. I told her to tell him to stop the comments, and go higher up the ladder if he didn't. Many of you thought my advice stunk. The responses came in two camps. One was from men who wondered why a woman would apply an expensive pheromonal signal if she didn't want someone to answer it: "What is this world coming to! Women wear perfume to ATTRACT men!" "Where does the word 'compliment' ever come into your feminist vocabulary?"
The other was from cubicle dwellers who thought the obnoxious co-worker was not the guy, but the perfume wearer: I should have used the opportunity to tell all perfume wearers to save it for dates. "I have asthma. When I'm around people who insist on marinating in their perfume it will send me into paroxysms of coughing and wheezing." "Stop wearing so much perfume! If the Creepasaurus-Rex coworker can smell her at 50 yards, trust me, everyone else in the office can too."
I agree that a well-meant compliment ("Lovely perfume," "Nice-looking jacket") should be taken as such—but gentlemen, that's not what was going on here. I'm also sympathetic to the odor-sensitive. I missed a chance to tell Fragrant that for the sake of everyone in the office (and to sniff out the real intentions of her co-worker), she should try going fragrance-free.
Sometimes a letter to Prudie prompts the similarly afflicted to offer their tales. One from a woman named Rita being driven crazy by a co-worker who sings "Lovely Rita meter maid" to her 50 times a week, brought forth other women with lyrical names. A reader named Roxann (she spells it with no final "e") said when she meets someone new, the person inevitably bursts into a chorus of the Police's ballad about a prostitute. A reader named Casey said it was preferable to be a meter maid than to hear "driving that train, high on cocaine" from the Grateful Dead all your life. But the musical booby prize went to the long-suffering Michelle Bell. She wrote, "For four decades now, I've had an uncountable number of people come to me and say, 'Michelle Bell? Have you ever heard that Beatles song?' Then they start singing, 'Meee-shell my bell.' I just look right at them and say, 'Really? No, I've never ever heard that.' "
And sometimes, fortunately, I give advice that actually helps. A 16-year-old girl who called herself Wondering wrote about a dusty box of baby gifts addressed to her she recently found in the attic. They were from an aunt and uncle she'd never met, whom no one in the family talked about. Having discovered the box, Wondering wanted to know about these relatives and their loving notes. I suggested she find out more from her great-grandmother, who sounded like a potential ally. Then I said she should tell her parents she found the box and wanted to know the truth.
Wondering did all that. She found out that harsh words and hurt feelings had led to the family's long estrangement. The box existed because when Wondering's mother gave her husband the unopened gifts to burn, he secretly put them away, hoping someday the impasse would be breached. The day came when Wondering confronted her parents about her discovery. In short order she was on the phone to the aunt and uncle she had never met, then on a plane to spend the weekend. "They are wonderful people! I'm looking forward to a lifetime of fun memories with my 'new' relatives," she wrote. The thaw continued. Calling herself No Longer Wondering, she wrote to tell me her aunt and uncle were coming in for Christmas. It was going to be the first one the whole family had spent together in 20 years.
Photograph of Prudie by David Plotz.