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‘There’s something so intimate about reading a stranger’s deeply personal problem’

by Jennifer McShane
25th Jan 2020

Even though we can go to Google for instant answers to any query we have, Jennifer McShane admits she still craves words of advice from strangers 

Before I ever knew what an agony aunt was, I was reading the columns. Most of us were. We never knew the real names of the writers, they weren’t our aunts and yet, their popularity, stemming largely from Jackie magazine has had a resurgence the last number of years.

There’s something so intimate about reading a stranger’s deeply personal problem; you feel like you’re eavesdropping, only the guilt subsides when you realise so are thousands of other people. And they’ve moved on from their early days; the modern agony aunt is required to be a savvy problem-solver. We no longer require the answers to general issues from Mizz Magazine, reassuring us of period pains, that the teenage spots were here to stay or, as the Cathy & Claire agony aunt in Jackie astonishingly advised, there was “absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t fall in love with your cousin”.

The modern agony aunt

Now we seek bigger answers as to how we can live life in the world and come out unscathed. But, as even the best ‘aunts’ will tell you, if you want to have a life truly lived, you’ll never come out unscathed. It’s that mix of the sweet and the sour — and how we handle both — that determines who we are.

And yet, we’ll stumble. It’s the stumbles most of us need help with. So, we turn to the weekly columns, as we would to a friend. They no longer condescend; they don’t talk down to us, they speak to us. They are one or two steps ahead, they’ve lived a bit more: maybe married, separated, had kids, lost friends, scuppered dream jobs. Their wisdom comes from heartbreak, obsessions and triumphs. They know what it is to suffer as they know to appreciate the moments of sparkle.

The transformative power of the words of strangers

I’ve always found it oddly comforting; that, out there, others fear as I would, but had the nerve to tell it to a stranger, to even write it down. My obsession peaked when I found Dear Sugar —Cheryl Strayed’s words changed me. They put me at ease; reassured me, ‘you’re going to be fine’ in a way that no real-life person could.

I remember reading of a 26-year-old man who signs his letter “Beast with a Limp.” He wrote that he was born with a rare blood disorder that has left him with physical deformities and joint abnormalities. He wants to know: Should he keep trying to find love? Or should he give up on the idea entirely? Given that my mild Cerebral Palsy had left me with differences of my own — I feared the same thing: that, as a result, I would find no one to love or, the bigger issue, they to love me the same way. Her response still brings me to tears:

‘You’re going to have to be brave. You’re going to have to walk into the darkest woods without a stick. You aren’t conventionally attractive or even, as you say, “normal-looking,” and as you know already, a lot of people will immediately X you out as a romantic partner for this reason. That’s okay. You don’t need those people. By stepping aside, they’ve done you a favour. Because what you’ve got left after the fools have departed are the old souls and the true hearts. Those are the uber-cool sparkle rocket mind blowers we’re after. Those are the people worthy of your love.’


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And so I continue to seek out those words; the words that ease the constant anxiety or insecurities I can feel. I’d imagine that’s why we all read advice columns. But on the other side of the coin, what is the appeal of being the Agony Aunt? I asked our own Rhona McAuliffe, who advised readers in her ‘Hit Me Up‘ column on

“People are inherently nosy”

“I love being transported into someone else’s life.  We can get so caught up in our own limited sphere it’s easy to forget that everyone is dealing with their own stuff! I also never know what’s coming next, meaning I get to research everything from how to live with a chronic snorer to my dog is ruining my sex life. Dream job,” she says.

Of why she thinks they remain so popular, her reasoning is simple: “Because people are inherently nosy! Also, every ‘agony aunt’ or advice columnist will have their own, fully-formed opinion on something, which can be divisive. The best ones, I think, surprise you with their answers and offer fresh perspectives on increasingly knotty issues.

“And I’m still reading them! I particularly love Mariella Frostrup in The Guardian and Dan Savage, the US sex columnist.”


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Agony aunts for beginners

So, the next time you feel a little lost at sea, I recommend listening to the Dear Sugars podcast, or Heather Havrilesky at The Cut, who, as Ask Polly never fails to move me in her beautiful responses.

I suspect I’ll never know enough to be an agony aunt myself, but the comforting words from others are as good a place to start as any.