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.)
Reynolds certainly has the life experience to give advice on a whole range of questions. As she said in a press release when taking over the column, “I’ve lived through just about everything that can happen to anyone.” She was born in El Paso, Texas, came to Hollywood as a teenager, starred in the iconic musical Singin’ in the Rain (to her horror she learned about French kissing when her much older co-star, Gene Kelly, stuck his tongue down her throat). She married singer Eddie Fisher and they had a daughter, writer and performer Carrie Fisher, who has struggled openly with bi-polar disorder. Eddie Fisher famously left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor. Reynolds has said his departure wasn’t a great loss, and in any case she didn’t discover sexual pleasure until her 40s. Reynolds’ second husband seemed like a nicer guy until she discovered he gambled away millions, and her third husband wasn’t any better.
I’ve been fortunate to be married to a great guy for 20 years, however, and our divergent marital histories may have informed how Reynolds and I each dealt with a question from a woman who had sex with a man she met at a bar, then exchanged information so he could see her again the next time he was in town. The writer of my letter did some subsequent Internet sleuthing on the guy and turned up this disconcerting nugget: “I stumbled upon his engagement announcement.” The letter writer was considering contacting the fiancée, and I gave her a green light, explaining that the bride should know what her future husband was up to. A letter to Dear Debbie from a few months later had the same details (“Imagine my surprise when I saw that he just got engaged!”), but Reynolds advised the writer, “Zip it.” Maybe Reynolds just doesn’t expect the best from men, because she then added, a bit sharply, “She got a ring—you had a one-night stand.”
But despite our differences, Reynolds and I do share a love of canine conundrums. My column from Jan. 30 of this year had a letter from a young man who took on the task of caring for his girlfriend’s dog while she was visiting her family. He got violently ill during her absence—so sick, he wrote, that when he ran out of dog food, “For two days, the pooch had chunky soups mixed with dry cat food for meals, because that's all that was in the house.” When he told the girlfriend, she became “livid,” saying he was “trying to poison her baby with people food” and suggesting he seek therapy for his “abusive” behavior. In Dear Debbie on May 26, it was a woman left with her boyfriend’s two dogs, falling ill and running out of dog food. She “fed the pups canned soup and lunchmeats,” and when she told her boyfriend “he flipped out!” and “ranted and raved how terrible people food is for his pets.” I said it was the traveling girlfriend who sounded like an abuser and the letter writer shouldn’t stay with someone who made him feel like a beaten dog. Reynolds was far less sympathetic, saying the letter writer should have sought help with the animals and that the soup could have made the dogs sick.
As for the questions themselves, I couldn’t stop noticing the little twists that differentiated the Dear Debbie letters from mine. In one memorable example, I ran a letter last August from a prospective bride whose father had been badly burned and disfigured in an accident. The father was planning to walk his daughter down the aisle, but the bride’s future mother-in-law had other ideas. As the bride-to-be wrote, she “called me out of the blue and told me that she didn't think that my dad should come to the wedding. She thinks that he will upset the guests and ‘traumatize’ any children who might be there.” Five months later, Dear Debbie had a letter from “D.D.” in Great Falls, Montana, about a bride-to-be who wanted to be walked down the aisle by her brother, a veteran who had been “badly burned during his service.” D.D. wrote: “But my mother-in-law is throwing a fit, saying that my brother’s appearance is startling and could be upsetting to some of the guests.”
Since Reynolds did not appear to be involved in the sourcing of the letters, I hoped the Globe would be able to provide an answer. I spoke to the Globe’s editor on the phone and sent over documentation of some of the concurrences. On Wednesday I got an email back from a lawyer for American Media, Lo-Mae Lai. She stated that “similarities between readers’ letters is just one of the many challenges that all authors of advice columns must face”—even me, she made sure to point out. But Lai went on to say that having reviewed the letters I brought to their attention, they “agree that there are some editorial similarities in the subject matter contained in these letters.” And in fact, Lai wrote, the person who managed the Dear Debbie column left the company on June 20, 2014. The new overseer “has assured us that all content in the Dear Debbie letters is original.”
Recently, Reynolds herself was the subject of headlines in the Globe: “Debbie Reynolds Hurt In Shocking Collapse!” The “exclusive interview” revealed that Reynolds fainted in the bathroom late at night, a fall that sparked fears that she is “working herself sick.” Even into her 80s, Reynolds is still active as a performer—she was wonderful as Liberace’s mother in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra. Fortunately, Reynolds was only bruised and shaken, and the medical crisis did not result in an absence from her column. I wish her continued good health.
I’m also glad that we’ve reached the apparent end to the case of the kindred letters. It’s good to know that the Globe editors recognize there’s enough trouble in this troubled world to keep Dear Debbie's readers—and mine—occupied with original questions about love, mothers-in-law, and dogs for a long time to come.
The regular Dear Prudence column will run on Friday.