News & Politics

Dear Prudence: How’d You Get That Job?

After years as an advice columnist, Emily Yoffe has grown careful about what she asks other people. Photograph by Chris Leaman

As author of the Dear Prudence advice column, Slate correspondent Emily Yoffe has a job that allows her to explore and learn about some odd corners of human existence.

In addition to sifting through hundreds of plaintive and sometimes humorous letters sent to her advice column each month, she has signed herself up for experiments ranging from a vow of silence to becoming a “drag king” for Slate’s Human Guinea Pig column.

In her own words:

‘‘I owe my career to Mike Kinsley. He plucked me out of the intern-application pile at the New Republic years ago.

I’m the third Prudence. Herb Stein, an economic adviser to President Nixon, started Dear Prudence. He was a friend of Mike’s and thought Slate needed an advice column.

Then it was taken over by Margo Howard, the daughter of Ann Landers. When I heard she was leaving, I thought I had to go for this.

‘‘Being a standardized patient for second-year Georgetown medical students was probably my favorite Human Guinea Pig assignment. I had 23 physicals. I was the first person to get a head-to-toe physical from these students. All of these people were going to end up doctors. Some I thought were born to be doctors; others I thought, ‘Please go into pathology.’ One of them spent about eight minutes just trying to get a blood-pressure reading from me. It turns out he had the device on backwards, so it showed I had no vital signs.

‘‘Probably a quarter of the questions I get as Prudence are some version of ‘What do I say to people who ask about’ my prosthetic leg, my adopted kid, my disabled kid, rude questions about my line of work, et cetera. Reading these as Prudence, I sometimes think about things that I’ve asked—it’s human nature to be curious about other people. Very few people want to hear, ‘Are you going to have children?’ ‘Do you want more kids?’ Be careful about asking.

‘‘I try not being Prudy in my normal life. What could be more annoying than saying all the time, ‘Well, what you should do . . .’?

Anyway, life takes over and ‘What would Prudie say?’ just drops away.

This column has really made me grateful for my loving husband. I would estimate, based on my in-box, that 98 percent of men in the US are addicted to porn. You read these awful letters from women about their alcoholic, deadbeat, unemployed husbands and say, ‘How did I get so lucky?’

You learn from all sorts of things: Watching Jon & Kate Plus 8 has been a big help to my marriage because I say to myself, ‘Oh, my God, it would be better not to sound like Kate.’

‘‘When I have a session of just reading a lot of Prudence e-mails, I think, geez, there’s so much sadness in the world—people who don’t have anywhere to turn and are writing these heart-wrenching questions to a stranger online. Sometimes I’ll end up in a private back-and-forth because there are some questions that aren’t for the column yet just have to be answered.

Sometimes I hear back from people. One woman wrote me a year later; I didn’t even remember her letter. She said, ‘I was having terrible problems with my sister, and you advised me just to let them go. I took your advice, and things are so much better.’"

This article first appeared in the September 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here

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