And how about the videos? As a writer, how does it feel being on screen?
I never wanted to go into TV. I’m a print person. I beg our producer, who’s very sweet, to Vaseline the lens. I have to memorize everything and do it in a clean take. I find it a little stressful—not stress like I’m a Syrian refugee—but looking into a camera and memorizing, it’s just not my strength.
Why do you think the column is so popular?
It’s either, ‘My life is terrific compared to this,’ or ‘I have the same thing.’ I think part of what makes it so much fun is that it’s not like therapy. You don’t get into all the subtleties and the nuances and the history. The majority of people read Slate at work, and you can take a two-minute break and go, ‘Oh my God, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever read.’ It’s fun.
Tell me about some of your most memorable letters.
I had a Halloween letter that said, ‘These awful poor kids [come into our neighborhood] from other communities, and do I have to get candy for them? I’m not one of the rich billionaires, we’re all doctors and lawyers and business owners.’ That was so much fun, to ream out someone and say, ‘Hey you cheapskate, go to Costco, spend 30 bucks and give these poor kids some candy!’ My daughter called me and told me, ‘Mom, my friends tell me that you’re trending on Facebook.’ It was so unexpected.
Another was from a guy who was in his early 60s, a recent widower, been married for over 40 years, never had children. He said, ‘We’re really simple people, we didn’t go to doctors. That was just God’s will. My wife died of cancer horribly, and on her deathbed she confessed to me why we’d never had children. She was on the pill for most of our marriage, but she’d also had two abortions during our marriage.’ He said, ‘I’m having a really hard time with this information. I loved my wife. But now I realize my life isn’t what I thought, and my wife wasn’t who I thought. I went to my priest and told him about this, and my priest said, ‘Oh well, she’s going to burn in hell.’ He said, ‘I’m not sure that’s true, but it didn’t help me, and I don’t know what to do.’
So what’s the answer? There’s no answer. But it was a fascinating, awful, heart-wrenching dilemma, and all I could say is that you need to find another priest, you need to find a therapist, or a safe person. This is just too much of a burden to carry by yourself.
How do you come up with answers?
I’ve learned a lot from the questions, readers, experts. At this point, I have this well of knowledge to draw from. I’m always looking for a different way to frame recurring issues. It’s been a process of being educated by readers. I hope it’s made me better.
I try not to be highly predictable. I really try to look at each individual case and read between the lines. Is this narrator reliable or not reliable? Is the problem really the person who’s writing the letter?
I don’t have an overarching philosophy that I apply. I generally believe in honesty, but not in every case. If a spouse has cheated and it’s a one-time or short-term thing, it’s thoroughly over, and it’s regretted…I get a lot of those letters, people saying, ‘I’m tortured, there’s this dishonesty in my marriage.’ I really feel that you, by unburdening yourself, you are putting a terrible burden on your partner. Like, ‘Oh, now I feel better, I’m all relieved.’ And the partner’s like, ‘Gee, thanks for telling me that. Now we have to go to therapy and I have to cry, and it’s awful.’
A lot of questions come down to: Do you let it go, or do you do something? Should you tell if you know someone else is cheating? Or your mother-in-law always gives you clothes for Christmas that are 10 sizes too big or 10 sizes too small. Do you say, ‘Thank you,’ or do you say, ‘This is offensive to me’? I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule. I try to keep it fresh.
Do you sometimes call on experts?
Yep. You would think the expert I would call on most is a psychologist. It’s not. The experts I call on most are lawyers. When I started, I did not realize the legal ramifications of a lot of things. I’d have these crazy roommate questions. I’d say, ‘Change your locks, put the person who’s menacing you out.’ And people would write, ‘Apparently you don’t understand that you need X amount of notice.’
Do you get more letters from women than men?
Yes. I would say it’s in the 70 percent range. It’s like getting into college. If you’re a guy, you have a better chance of getting into college. If you’re a guy, you have a better chance of having your letter run. But interestingly, the comments I get back from readers are about 50-50, so I think I have a lot of male readers; they’re just less likely to write that they have a problem.
What was the most unusual letter you’ve ever received?
One of my most famous letters was the ‘twincest letter.’ A guy said, ‘I’m not writing to you to ask you for your moral opinion of what’s going on. My twin brother and I are in a long-term romantic relationship.’ The dilemma was, they live in a state that had just legalized gay marriage. So now everyone in the family was like, ‘When are you two going to find some nice [guys] and settle down?’ So the two of them were having a conflict: Should they tell their family, or not tell their family, and that’s why they were writing to me.
I knew to call a lawyer, a family law person, because this had an incest component. Was what they were doing illegal? The lawyer said they should consult with a lawyer in their state. But even if there are incest laws, they usually address a power differential: parent/child, older sibling. I sided with the letter writer, who didn’t want to tell. I said the grief it will cause is just not worth it. But I said that you can tell a version of the truth—tell people that you live together: ‘We know our situation seems unorthodox, but it works for us. We couldn’t be happier, and we don’t want to change it.’ And that’s true, and it gets at some level of what’s going on without…I just don’t think that’s something parents could cope with.
A few days after that letter ran, I get an email with the subject line ‘Thank you.’ It’s from a young woman who said she’s in her mid-20s, she’s a twin, and she and her sister are in the same relationship. She said, ‘We thought we were the only two people in the world. Now we feel less alone and less freaky. Thank you.’
Are there any questions that you’re sick of?
Cubicle mates who chew, fart, hum. It really makes me happy I work alone.
Do you ever not publish a letter but respond to the writer anyway?
Occasionally. Teenagers, I always try to answer. People in horrible distress, I just say, ‘OK, gotta get social services, you gotta call CPS [Child Protective Services], or get eldercare, or something,’ just try to give them a start.
I wrote a longer piece that came out of letters I’d collected over the years called ‘The Debt.’ It was about what do adults who grew up with abusive parents now owe those elderly parents? Now when I hear from those people, I’m able to say, ‘I wrote about this, here it is.’