Talk to me

Sat, Mar 2, 2013, 00:00

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.

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.

We can’t predict precisely what’s going to happen with this new Irish Times column. You the readers will make the column yours by sharing personal issues that you’d like some help with. The column will be a safe space in which to share both in the newspaper and online.

Tell Me About It

Tell Me About It will appear weekly in The Irish Times Life page and online at irishtimes.com, starting next Tuesday, March 5th.

Send your problems or questions to tellmeaboutit@irishtimes.com.

Questions will be published only on an anonymous basis.

'MEN HAVE TO BE FED AND AMUSED' ADVICE OF YESTERYEAR:

Q. ‘Corinne’ is a bride and poet who forgot to order dinner while finishing a sonnet on ‘Wedded Love’, prompting her first marital quarrel.

A. The Weekly Magazine, 1859, advises: Your first duty now is to your husband. No wife should have a soul above buttons [ie, sewing them on] nor should she ignore the fact that man’s heart lies very near his stomach.

Q . A woman complained that her husband was ratty when he returned home from work.

A. Mary Holmes, Lucky Star, 1948 replies: Have you thought of sharing the gardening? Are you bright and welcoming and understanding? Men are rather like children in a way – they have to be fed and amused.

Q. ‘Disgruntled’ asks: My wife seems to think that I ought to help her in the evenings. I work very hard all day and she has only a tiny flat to look after. She always has the day’s washing-up to do and the place is never cosy or tidy. What attitude should I take up?

A. Weldon’s Bazaar, 1936 replies: Could you get her to write to me so that I could plan her day for her, leaving her with plenty of leisure to spend with you in the evening?

Q. Dear Angela, My husband strikes me and slaps me across the face when he is angry. I don’t mind being struck so much but I wish he wouldn’t do it in front of the children. . .I’m depressed. I’m only 32 and if I’d my life to live again wouldn’t marry.

A. Angela Macnamara, Sunday Press, 1965: Can you be unselfish enough – and it takes great spirit – to love your husband and show him that you need him? Do little things he likes you to do and praise any effort on his part. Your doctor may be able to help you get over your depression.

Q. Dear Angela, Would you please write something in your column about the married seducers that are filling our dancehalls.. . .The girls seem to have so little hesitation in flirting with the married man and it’s not only mild flirtation. . .If provocative girls mad to get a man fill the dancehalls then weak men are going to make hay while the sun shines.

A. Angela Macnamara, Sunday Press, 1976: In all the current talk about women’s lib I think we very often forget to consider women’s strength and their consequent responsibilities. Once a woman see herself as a “man hunter” she tends, not only to lower her own dignity and lose the respect of men but also to encourage the lowering the standards and sense of responsibility of men.

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