Talk to me
Kate Holmquist - who always wanted to be an agony aunt - and her dog, Luna. PHOTOGRAPH: ALAN BETSON
KATE HOLMQUISTseeks advice from other agony aunts about how to go about her new column, Tell Me About It, and invites you to send in your own questions or problems
When Sarah O’Doherty became Dear Dr Sarah for the Irish teenmag Kiss 10 years ago, friends said,“We always knew you’d become an agony aunt!” O’Doherty, a clinical child neuropsychologist at the National Rehabilitation Hospital, Dublin says “from the age of nine it’s all I ever wanted to do.” To which I could only say, “snap”.
As a girl, Jackie magazine’s “Cathy and Claire” was her favourite: “I learned a lot about life.” Titillating questions about “the facts of life”, relationship dilemmas (“how far should I let him go?“) and personal “true stories” inspired her career in psychology.
“With all the information on the internet, it’s such a big deal for a young person to write to someone like me and I’m always surprised at how many do it,” says O’Doherty, who receives about 50 letters a month for her Kiss column.
I asked O’Doherty for advice because my youngest daughter and her friends liked the column. “You don’t have to be a psychologist. It’s empathy and common sense, really. Even psychology is just common sense. When someone is stuck, they only see the narrow view of their situation.
“Try to give the person the tools to take a 360-degree view to help them solve the problem themselves.”
Agony aunts have been vehicles for social change for 300 years, ever since the first such column in the Athenian Mercury periodical in London, 1691. The late Claire Rayner – who shocked audiences by demonstrating how to use condoms and highlighting domestic violence – was described as “a great force for good in British society”, by Baronness Helena Kennedy.
No Irish agony aunt has been as influential as Angela Macnamara, who worked for the Sunday Press. She was an “agent for change” during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, says Paul Ryan, lecturer in sociology at NUI Maynooth and author of Asking Angela Macnamara: An Intimate History of Irish Lives. But that was then, when a pen and paper were all that broke the isolation of sexually repressed and often maritally-trapped Irish at the dawn of feminism and liberal values.
Can an agony aunt column still be relevant today? “Yes, there is an audience in Ireland, but it’s a very different sort of column that works now,” says Ryan. “You’ll be faced with the same criticism as every agony aunt since the dawn of time. People will be writing letters to the editor asking what makes you qualified.”
My qualifications are, first and foremost, empathy. Over the past three decades on this newspaper thousands of readers have trusted me with their stories. As health correspondent, education correspondent and feature writer I have been privileged to be the conduit through which many personal stories and challenging ideas have helped to provoke change.
I’m also a wife, mother, sister and daughter who’s experienced her fair share of the crises life throws at you. And as an emigrant, I understand the pressures on relationships this involves.
But an agony aunt column is different, in that it looks at specific relationship issues behind closed doors. In Macnamara’s day, the novelty was that she was the first lay authority and became a national institution, receiving 4,000 letters a year. Many young people first read about sex by peeking at their parents’ copies of the Sunday Press. Significantly, she was a woman in a time when only certain men – priests, doctors – were thought to be knowledgeable.
While her columns from that period now appear very old-fashioned, in their context they were titillating, informative and liberal, yet by the time her column ended, a sociological shift had occurred and feminism, birth control and individualism had swamped her views, making her seem too conservative. “Society outgrew her,” says Ryan.