A Columnist Who Shares Back

The advice column has evolved over the years, from a reinforcement of social etiquette to something more intimate and personal. Jessica Weisberg spotlights Cheryl Strayed of "Dear Sugar" as an example of how the advice column has been humanized along those lines:

Sometimes Strayed’s readers sign their full names at the end of their letters. Anonymity is a longtime staple of the advice column, a way of protecting the reader from embarrassment and protecting the columnist from becoming too invested in her readers’ troubles. But Strayed doesn’t seem to mind this breach in contract. She wrote her column anonymously for a time, but outed herself last spring, in part to direct the column’s devoted readers to her memoir, "Wild," which has been on the best-seller list for more than twenty weeks. But from the beginning, Strayed was never too concerned about maintaining her anonymity.

Her columns drew upon personal stories that she had written about in previously published essays. While Strayed writes from a place of comfort—married with two children, a thriving career—she has only recently arrived there. At forty-two, she had yet to pay back her student loans; she cheated rabidly on her first husband; her mother died when she was in her twenties; she was sexually abused by her grandfather. She offers up these sorrows to see what others might glean from them. Her comfort with her own imperfection is a small example of feminism’s accomplishments; she is a reminder that anyone with a troubled past could one day become a voice of authority.