By Danielle Cantor
Journalist Emily Yoffe has been published in The New York Times, The New Republic, O, The Oprah Magazine, and The Washington Post. She contributes regularly to NPR’s “Day to Day” radio show, has appeared on The Colbert Report on Comedy Central and authored the popular book What the Dog Did: Tales from a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner (Bloomsbury, 2005). But surely you know Yoffe best as Slate magazine’s “Dear Prudence”–the no-nonsense advice columnist who has earned a loyal national following with the thoughtful balance of tough love and empathy she brings to answering readers’ calls for help. (Fans flock to her live online Washington Post chat every Monday for a chance at some real-time counsel.)
Yoffe also writes a regular feature on Slate called "Human Guinea Pig," in which she engages in reader-suggested activities that are decidedly not in her wheelhouse. So far, her experiences have included hypnosis, a vow of silence, a visit to a nudist camp, and work as a telephone psychic, a street performer, a nude model for an art class and a contestant in the Mrs. America beauty pageant.
A native of Newton, Massachusetts, Yoffe now lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her husband and teenage daughter.
How did you get into the advice business?
Well, this is a traditional path for Jewish women, right? [laughs] I’ve been a journalist since I graduated from college, so I ended up at Slate near the beginning and did a lot of different things for them. Margo Howard (who is Jewish), who is the daughter of Ann Landers (who is Jewish), was doing the column at the time. To backtrack a little, the column “Dear Prudence” was founded by another Jew, Herb Stein, who was one of Nixon’s economic advisors and is the father of Ben Stein. He was a friend of Michael Kinsley, the founding editor of Slate. Herb was writing for the magazine and he said, “You need an advice column.” He did not name it “Dear Prudence” in tribute to The Beatles, he was just thinking of an old-fashioned-sounding name. I’m the third “Dear Prudence” at Slate. Margo Howard had done it for several years, and when she left I thought, “What a great gig!” So I put my name in.
Why are you good at what you do? Why are you better than most people would be? Is it empathy? Experience?
Well, thank you. First of all, it’s only as good as the people reading it enjoy it. So I hope people will at least consider my advice or react against it. I’m very happy for people to react against it. I have a strong point of view, so you can agree or disagree with me. It’s not going to be namby-pamby. I think the column has to be kind of decisive and even tough sometimes. If you go see a therapist, you don’t want someone who’s oozing all over you with empathy, you need somebody who will challenge you.
I try to have a more journalistic take on it—if I don’t have the answer, I’ll go find the answer. I do think that being older is a benefit for this column, although you have to be careful as you age that you don’t get stuck. I have a 15-year-old daughter, and I’m thinking, “When she goes off to college, what’s going to be my lifeline to young people?” She keeps me connected in this world. I try to, I hope, bring an interesting voice to what I do.
Does it ever get to you when people react against your advice?
I think I have a pretty thick skin. But I hate to be wrong—factually wrong. Often where I get caught up is that I’m not a lawyer so I don’t think of the legal implications of things. So my readers will definitely let me know if I’ve blown it. Otherwise, if people want to disagree, I like that. It wouldn’t be a good column if people said, “Oh, yeah, that’s the obvious answer.”
Do you draw from your own life experiences when you give advice to others?
I get letters about childhoods that would make your stomach turn. I had an unhappy childhood, so it gives me some ability to understand these letter writers. One recurring theme is people who’ve grown up in a terrible childhood and the effects that has. Other people who have been lucky enough not to grow up that way say, “Oh, you should reconcile with your mother; you need closure with your father.” And they don’t really understand that’s not easily done. That has a huge emotional cost depending on what the childhood was like. So I can bring that understanding. Also—and maybe this more a Jewish thing—but the idea of forgiveness is more of a Christian value. I’m not denigrating it as a value, but sometimes people feel pressured to forgive when that’s not even the issue. Why do you need to forgive? I’m very much for getting over things and living your life, not getting stuck. But many people think the next step has to be forgiveness, and I don’t think that's necessarily so. I often say to people, “Well, has your abuser asked for forgiveness or apologized?” And if they say, “No,” then I have to ask, “Why do you need to forgive?”
Having had a rocky romantic young adulthood, lived with guys, had unsuccessful relationships, I think helps me. And then having made a happy marriage gives me the perspective that it can be done, what that feels like and what goes into it.
Which other recurring themes rise to the surface after years of fielding questions?
Well there are certain big categories. A big one is: “My cubicle mate farts/belches/hums/stinks.” Others include: “My best friend’s turned into a bridezilla and I never want to talk to her again.” “My husband/boyfriend is obsessed with porn.” “My mother-in-law does not want to accept that her son is married.”
Which letter has generated the most feedback?
I often think something is going to get a lot of reaction, and it doesn’t. And then a letter that I don’t even think is an issue gets berserk reaction. One of the funniest ones—I almost didn’t run it because I thought it was so silly—this guy writes in, “I’ve just started living with my girlfriend, we’ve been living together two weeks. She has worn the same bra every day and not washed it. Is she a pervert? What should I do? I’m disgusted by her.” The bra-washing letter was an explosion. It was hilarious. I actually did an anonymous poll among Slate female staffers, because I’m an infrequent bra washer.
What was the result of the poll?
Most people washed theirs more often than I did, but it was from every two weeks to every month or so.
Which letter has generated the most controversy?
Probably the most difficult letters involve child porn. I take a somewhat unusual stance on this: I am of course against child porn, but I think our laws have gone way too far to turn people who are just looking at this stuff into criminals. I think we’ve gone too far in labeling people lifetime sex offenders, and that should be reserved for the worst of the worst. So the most difficult ones are about integrating these people back into society. Someone finds out, “The guy who lives next door/the guy I’m dating has some child porn [conviction], what do I do?” I basically take the stance that they’ve done their time, that these people are out and it is not a benefit to society to make them permanent pariahs, and in some ways it increases the risk of re-offending because your life is destroyed anyway. I understand it’s a fine line and it gets people really riled up. Whenever I deal with it, I know people are going to be very angry.
Is there any topic you just won’t touch?
No, but two things I rarely cover are molesters, because it often has so many other tentacles that it’s just not a good issue for the column, and bipolar disorder, which I have dealt with. There’s mental illness in my family. People write to me saying: “You don’t understand it.” I do understand it. Bipolar disorder is treatable, but it’s not curable; it’s a lifetime issue. I am NOT against marrying people with mental illness. I think there needs to be a lot more openness and resources. But when people write to me with this “love will conquer all” attitude, I think you’ve got to be tougher about the challenges you’ll face. People think, “You can just take medication for that and everything’s fine.” You may be in love now, but you have step back and look at it clinically. I’m not saying “Don’t do it,” just put your illusions aside. I had one letter from a guy who married a woman who didn’t tell him she had bipolar disorder, but clearly she did, and she just fell apart after they’d been together for a year and a half. His life was hell, and he was writing to me asking, “Am I a horrible person because I want to get out of this?” I do take the line that the mentally ill person has to step up and take responsibility. If you refuse to get medication, there are consequences to that.
Which are the top life mistakes that women make?
This isn’t a mistake for everyone because often it works out fine, but I feel that if your goal is to get married and have children, in that order, you have to be very careful about deciding to move in with someone for whom those issues are not clear. Some people have this idea that you shouldn't pressure the guy with a deadline. Well, your ovaries have a deadline, so if you feel you’re being strung along, or he’s ready for you to pay half the rent, but he’s not ready to have that discussion, do not move in.
Another is just feeling responsible for everyone else, or getting into control freakery. “My husband doesn’t do this, or when he does do it, he doesn’t do it the way I like.” You can’t ask for both. You want him to step up and do it and then you’re micromanaging what he does. And then I hear a lot from women who have horrible, abusive, denigrating mothers. “She’s told me my whole life I’m a fat pig. But she’s my mother, I have to visit her once a week, I have to spend the holidays with her.” It doesn’t matter if she is your mother, you have to say, “We will not discuss my weight again. If you bring it up, I will end the phone conversation or end the visit.” Letting other people step all over you because of their own needs is a big mistake.
It’s been no secret, especially since the advent of the Internet, that women can be viciously judgmental of one another’s life choices. Do you find it’s worth taking the finger-waggers to task, or do you tend to let those types of letters fall in the waste bin?
I had a minor thing in a chat last week, a mother said that when her kid falls down on the playground she dusts him off and says, “Well, you seem alright,” and the other mothers were telling her she was a terrible mother. I think you have to really be able to say, “You’ve got your style, I’ve got mine, let’s just agree to disagree.” Don’t get caught up in it.
How do you choose which questions get published?
Part of it is balance—I try to balance within the column, and from column to column, romantic/parenting/work. If I just did a bride question, I won’t do one for another month. And it’s really looking for the unusual letter. A couple weeks ago I had a letter from a woman who just had a child and whose mother-in-law just revealed she had Huntington’s disease. And the letter writer is saying, “I know she’s known about this running in her family for years. And now I have a husband who might get it, and a son who might get it.” So that unique letter always rises to the top.
You aren’t shy about tackling questions that deal with relationship abuse in its various forms. Do you feel any sense of responsibility, being in your position, to raise awareness about the issue?
Oh, yes. I get a lot of letters about it. And I get people bashing me as a man-basher, because I say, “He’s an abuser—get out. Just get out. Take your underwear if you want to. Get. Out.” Women can commit domestic violence, too, and I have letters from men who are very troubled by it because it’s such a reversal. I have a letter from a guy who ended up slapping his wife because—it was clear from the letter—that’s what she wanted him to do. She was trying to provoke him to hit. I am not justifying anyone hitting. I told him what he needed to do was say, “This discussion is closed, I’m leaving.” I didn’t defend him, but he said she seemed almost happy after he did it because then she had moral power over him. She could get her husband arrested for hitting her. I told him he needed serious counseling so he would never do that again, no matter what the provocation.
I’ve had private communication with people, because the letter hasn’t risen to the quality I want to use in the column, and they’ll describe, “My husband/boyfriend does this or does that, and I think at heart he’s really a good person, but…” and then there’s a list of things that reads like an “Is your husband an abuser?” checklist. I remember writing back to one woman, saying, “There is no good person inside. This is who he is. You have been abused for 10 years. You are raising children to think that’s what relationships should be like. You need to know that you’re not going to find someone else inside.” And she wrote back to me and said, “I’m really reeling; I hadn’t realized that.”
Do you think being Jewish colors the way you respond to people’s questions – with a particular sense of right and wrong, or a penchant for judgment?
I think the forgiveness thing – I have a much more Jewish take on that. And I guess a much more Hebrew Bible sense of familial relations. Also, just a more “this world” sense, I’m not thinking of punishment in the next world, let’s just deal with this world.
To whom do you turn for advice?
My husband. Friends. Not that she’s my confidant and advisor, but if it’s not an intimate thing, I like getting the take of my 15-year-old daughter. I think it’s fun for her, if I’m having a work dilemma.
What’s the best advice you ever received, and who gave it to you?
Probably my father: “Don’t take it so personally.”
My father: “Don’t trust anyone.”
To whom do people lie more: Themselves, or others?
It’s so infinite. We’re designed to lie to ourselves. You have to. There are studies showing that depressed people can actually have a more accurate sense of their weaknesses than non-depressed people, but that’s part of being depressed. You’ve got to have self-delusions or you’re just not going to get through life. I’m not defending lying – “Where were you?” “Oh, I was working late…” – but little lies like, “You look great!” make life better for people, for goodness’ sake.
Does anything still shock you?
It shouldn’t at this point, but I didn’t know there was this whole lifestyle of polyamory. I got a polyamory letter – and I very rarely think my letters are made up, but I thought that this one might be… but it was so good. It was this woman who was going to move in with a couple, but the couple’s teenagers really objected. And I thought, “Oh, come on, this is baloney.” But it’s not! There’s this whole world out there of polyamorists. And I was shocked! I wrote a very negative answer to that letter. Of course I feel that, number one rule, if you have kids, you protect the kids. So you don’t move your lover who doesn’t like your teenagers in. But then a year later I got another polyamory letter and I realized I’d actually changed my mind a little bit about this. So that shocked me too – that I could understand someone dating a couple.
Do you read other advice columns? Which ones?
I do. I don’t read all of them. I think Carolyn Hax is really excellent. I’m a friend of Amy Dickinson. I love Miss Manners, who is Jewish. Those are the main ones.
You’ve no doubt gleaned a broad and deep understanding of the human condition as a result of this work. Is it a boon to your own life, or perhaps an occupational hazard – do you ever feel like you know too much?
No, I really like it because actually sometimes stuff comes up with my teenager and I’m able to say, “No, this is really common, I get a lot of letters about it.” I do feel like I have this really intimate insight into people’s lives and struggles. And how are you going to get it any other way? There are people who write to me and say, “I can’t tell anyone else this.” So it’s an honor, and I appreciate it.
Of all your experiences as a “Human Guinea Pig” for Slate, which did you most enjoy?
I think one of my favorites was being examined by 23 second-year medical students. Because it was so theatrical—the door would open, and there would be another one, and I wondered if this one would be incompetent or confident. It was just so much fun to see these young doctors at the beginning of their careers, looking at me like, “Oh my God, what am I supposed to do with her?”
Which would you never do again?
I would never entertain at anyone’s child’s birthday party. Ever. I was the entertainer at my boss’s son’s third birthday. It was the biggest fiasco—unbelievable. And even though having a fiasco is good for the column, it shook me up. It was so bad.
It kind of gives you a whole new respect for children’s entertainers, like The Great Zucchini.
Well, I had gone to see him, and stole his act. I said, “I’m going to do your act.” Someone had a really good insight on that: It’s one thing if this goofy guy puts a (supposedly) dirty diaper on his head, but if a woman who looks like Mommy does that, it’s really scary. That’s not good!
Which experience taught you something truly valuable?
I really learned just generally about trying to get over the sense of being embarrassed or humiliated. It would be hard to humiliate me now. You can always make a joke about what’s really embarrassing to you.
You wrote a very personal and moving article for Slate about marrying a widower – the man who is your husband today. What sort of feedback did you receive when that was published?
That was one of the most gratifying things I’ve done as a journalist. It made me feel, “Okay, this is why I wanted to be a journalist all those years ago.” Because you can still affect people. You put words on a screen and it was really amazing to get these emails from men saying, “I had to shut the door in my office because I was crying.” That moved me so much. And then I did hear from people in the same situation, either who had just become widows or widowers and said, “Thank you, I hope I find love again,” or who were dating someone and were dealing with jealousy of the late spouse.
You also wrote a very well-received book about adopting, and coming to love, a dog. Did developing a relationship with Sasha the beagle change any of your relationships with human beings?
Sasha is no longer with us; we had to put Sasha down about a month ago. She could be lovable, but she remained a difficult dog with a lot of problems. Let's just say she decided early on housebreaking was not for her. I think having her did change my relationship with my husband and daughter. They begged, cajoled, and pleaded with me about getting a dog—they would do all the work! So of course for 10 years I devoted my life to Sasha while they happily went on with theirs. You could say having Sasha was an unbonding experience for us. About a year ago we got a new dog, Lily, a cavalier King Charles spaniel. There's no book to be written on her. It's more like a Hallmark card saying, "She's wonderful!"