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She accepted this with grace, never stopped giving advice, qualified as a counsellor, worked in schools and to this day continues to answer letters. “I still do a little counselling and one of the big issues is bullying online and anonymous notes saying things like ‘you are frigid’ to children who don’t even know the meaning of the word . . . Children are not able to cope and it’s hard for parents to know what to do.”
Bullying-related suicides are just one way in which the new social media has affected us. Despite our constant digital connectedness, loneliness – for young and old – is a persistent problem, Macnamara says. “We’re living in a world where people don’t care or notice what is happening in another person’s life.
“Today we can access experts on everything through Google, so what role can an advice column play? People need empathy and a sense that a real person really cares. People want the sense of a friend they can confide in. That’s what you can offer.”
I asked agony aunt Carolyn Hax, whose column is syndicated in 200 US newspapers and attracts up to 800 questions weekly, why agony aunts remain relevant. “A lot of it is pure voyeurism,” she says. Her live online QA sessions, which she calls “emotional crowd-sourcing”, offer readers relevant and immediate “telestranger comfort”.
“The advice benefits from being quick – you get in and get out with an insight.” Hax was inspired to become an agony aunt while working on the Washington Post as a news editor, and started out quoting experts in her answers, until she realised that readers really wanted her “distinctive voice”.
Hax’s advice was that you need a “cold streak” to be an agony aunt. “Some of the stuff will break your heart,” she says. “I sit there crying at the monitor sometimes reading someone’s story. You have to have clarity and make pragmatic decisions that will help the person see their way through a dilemma. You have to have your warm side and your cool side.”
My column will aim to help you see your way through a problem, both with my own insights and with the help of others – such as therapists, doctors, financial advisors and lawyers.
I cannot promise the perfect answer, but I will do my best to advise you on the best resources available. No good counselor will ever tell you what to do, but will help you to see you have choices.
Agony aunting can be stressful, warns Maura O’Neill, a secondary teacher of French and English who in 1999 took over best-selling author Cathy Kelly’s Sunday World column. “When I came to the agony aunt job, I brought my own life to it. In 1984, I lost both my parents and two brothers when a tree fell on the car,” she says.
Agony aunts are no strangers to personal tragedy. Sally Brampton has shared her struggles with depression, while Dear Frankie – RTÉ radio agony aunt Frankie Byrne – was revealed after her death as having given up a child fathered by RTÉ personality Frank Hall, which drove her to alcoholism. It makes you wonder whether agony aunts are born or made.
“I think there’s an element of being born with it. Over the years before I was an agony aunt I would have had people come to me with problems. I’m a good listener, as was my mother,” O’Neill says.
O’Neill thinks that the very act of writing a well-considering anonymous letter or email to the agony aunt is a form of therapy in itself, because it helps clarify the problem.
The best-loved agony aunts keep their advice practical, helping readers to take those first steps to improving their situations. One of the best at this was Lesley Garner, who over four years at the Telegraph, took over entire pages with controversial letters. When the task proved too great, she retired to concentrate on writing self-help books.