Debbie Reynolds and I have had a series of strange coincidences. The legendary entertainer, now 82, has been giving advice professionally since 2010, when she took over the advice column of the tabloid the Globe from Ivana Trump. A few months ago a reader sent me an email alerting me that “Dear Debbie” was running letters that strongly resembled letters from the Dear Prudence archive and wondered if anyone else had noticed. I hear from multiple readers on the occasions that a letter I run in Dear Prudence also appears in, say, “Ask Amy” or “Miss Manners,” but those duplicates always appear virtually simultaneously, the result of an advice-seeker submitting to multiple columns. The letters Reynolds answered were echoes of letters I’d responded to months, sometimes years ago. It’s possible the sleuth who contacted me, a librarian mortified for anyone to find out she buys the tabloids, is the only reader of both Dear Prudence and Dear Debbie. (I once wrote a Slate column called Keeping Tabs in which I summarized the news in the tabloid weeklies. But I’d weaned myself of the tabloid habit years ago.)
After my correspondent sent me some recent examples, I started tracking the similarities myself. Indeed, I saw that week after week, of the four questions Dear Debbie ran, at least one and occasionally all four were strikingly like dilemmas I had responded to. I tried not to be insulted that the concurrence did not include my answers; often Dear Debbie and I disagreed.
The letters in the Globe didn’t have the exact language as those from my columns, and certain identifying details were almost always different. An antique dining table in a question in my column last Dec. 3, from a woman who can’t fit the passed-down gift in her house, was instead in Reynolds’ March 3 column an oversize antique dresser. (I told the letter writer not to get stuck with a useless piece of furniture, no matter how dear. Reynolds said the recipient should embrace the gift and find a place for it.) A letter to Dear Prudence that ran Jan. 2 this year was written by the aunt of a boy who wanted to get a pink bike helmet but was steered by his dad toward something more manly; in Reynolds’ May 26 column a little girl wanted a black pirate helmet but her grandmother insisted she get a more girly one. (Both Reynolds and I were in favor of embracing the child’s right to choose.)
It’s difficult to say just how long this parallelism had been going on, since the Globe, and its sister publication, the National Enquirer—both owned by American Media—remain resolutely in the print era. The Globe has a minimal Web presence, and Reynolds’ column is not available online. A dedicated Slate intern went to the Library of Congress to investigate, but its tabloid archives were spotty and went back only to 2012. A few letters from the batch of columns found at the Library of Congress correlated with letters I had run, but since late 2013 there has been a ratcheting up of Dear Debbie’s frequent similarities to Dear Prudence. In the months I tracked this, Dear Debbie letters twinned with mine with remarkable regularity:
— Last November I ran a letter from a single father furious his mother was allowing his deadbeat ex-wife to stay with her when visiting their young daughter at Christmas. In April Dear Debbie ran a letter from a single mother furious that her mother was allowing her deadbeat ex to stay with her to attend the son’s high school graduation.
— Also in November I had a letter from a mother of an 11-year-old boy whose friend was forbidden to watch Harry Potter movies or read Harry Potter books on religious grounds, and the mother wanted to know if it was all right to violate these rules. In March Dear Debbie had a letter from a mother facing exactly the same dilemma involving—surprise!—11-year-old girls.
— In July 2012 I answered a question from a mother thinking of firing her perfect nanny because she feared how much her daughter loved the nanny. In March of this year Dear Debbie had the same question about a son.
— Last October I ran a letter from a widower with a 4-year-old daughter terrified of dogs. He was distressed that close relatives who often took care of the girl had just gotten a dog they refused to crate. In April, a Dear Debbie letter was about grandparents who got a dog they refused to crate when their 5-year-old grandson was visiting.
— Last August I ran a letter from a man exasperated about dating a woman who carried her Chihuahua everywhere in her purse because of its separation anxiety. In January Dear Debbie had a letter from a man frustrated that his girlfriend always stuffed her anxious Yorkshire terrier into her handbag.
In trying to find out what was going on, I was able to speak on the phone to longtime Reynolds assistant Margie Duncan at the Debbie Reynolds Studio, a dance center in North Hollywood. Duncan told me she receives the letters in batches from the Globe and forwards them to Reynolds for the star to answer at home. (I asked to speak to Reynolds herself, and Duncan took my number but said she thought a conversation was unlikely.)