Dear Aunt Agony… help!
By Karen Ann Monsy
Friday, July 20, 2012

What can you say about pouring your heart out — warts and all — to a perfect stranger holding out a supposed helpline?

Problems, problems and drama galore — the human race has never been short on either. From the cosmetic (“My rear is too large”) to the scandalous (“Is it okay to have feelings for my aunt?”) to the unapologetically bizarre (“Is my husband really a woman?), the concerns are quite real — but also the sort that might only ever come out if you lost a round of Truth-or-Dare. It’s enough to keep anyone up at night, but still you dare not trust anyone with a word.

It’s precisely for this reason that media outlets the world over run agony columns — though one has yet to start a following in these parts — using the same winning formula. For those losing sleep over their dilemmas, the reasoning for pouring their hearts out to these total strangers called agony aunts is simple: if they can’t get a helping hand, even a listening ear will do.

For her part, UK-based agony aunt Denise Richardson says she got into the act quite by accident. “I was a journalist and having a lot of agony in my own life,” she explains. “I was widowed young, was then in financial straits and a single mom. Then I remarried and became a stepmother, my husband’s business went bust, which then made me the breadwinner to seven people — and all the time I was writing articles about what was happening to me.”

As this cycle of using real life as a muse continued, people started writing in, asking for advice with their own little fixes. “I remember a man managing to get hold of my home phone number and ringing me from the other end of the country to say his marriage was breaking up because he couldn’t be a stepfather. Then he asked: ‘If I drive up to where you are, will you help me?’ That was pretty scary, because he was in Portsmouth and I was very close to the Scottish border. So if you know Britain, you’ll know that’s one hell of a drive.” It was, however, the point at which Denise started those taking agony queries more seriously.

In the 1970s, she was offered a job in commercial radio and started one of the first agony aunt columns of the year. From there, she was recruited for BBC Breakfast Time — and then “pinched away” for This Morning, who she has been with for the last 25 years and for who she also takes phone-ins from viewers from time to time.

With about 200-300 emails pouring in a week, she soon realised that a lot of people wrote to her about things that had happened to them in the past but they had not been able to tell anybody for a long time. “You shouldn’t feel ashamed to talk about it but you do,” says Denise, who is neither “particularly proud nor ashamed” of the nature of her work. “With me, they could tell me all and I might pass them in the street the next day and never know that they were the people who’d written to me.”

It helps to be the disembodied voice on the phone or the invisible saviour on the other end of an email, she says. “I don’t get attached to people, except that I like to know that they’ve come safely home or that they’ve found a happy solution.” Denise admits, however, that because she’s been widowed twice — both in very happy marriages — she is especially moved when she gets a letter from those who are about to lose someone they love.

Does she ever follow up? “I don’t ever contact them,” she says, emphatically. “I think if they decide they want to end the relationship — either because the problem is solved or they don’t want to talk about it — then it’s not up to me to seek them out.”

You’d think anyone looking for a bit of a laugh would jump at the chance to shoot off rude emails to sites like hers, but Denise says there have been “astonishingly few hoaxes” over the years. “That leads me to think that perhaps human nature is a lot nicer than we sometimes fear,” she quips.

On the rare occasion that she suspects a hoax, she recommends some laidback British humour. Take the letter she once received from two students who told her that they had perfected the art of bedroom antics to such an extent that they were willing to give lessons to people! The author of several novels herself (as well as the self-help title The A to Z of Love, Sex... and Exasperation), Denise mulled it over awhile before shooting back: “I am delighted to hear you’ve achieved such a peak of perfection. Unfortunately, most of the people I know are too busy practising themselves to want any outside intervention!”

While many have found comfort in her, the agony aunt extraordinaire’s own life has not been all dry humour and Sellotaped hearts. Through the tough times, she wishes she’d take her own advice. But…“I don’t,” she says, resignedly. “I tend to internalise my problems, which is not sensible. There’s also the complication that when you become fairly well known, you can’t really seek help without the world finding out about it.”

All said and done, there’s never been a “dull moment” in her life. From the woman who was murdered a week after she’d written in to the advice column about her tempestuous relationship to the one who decided not to take her life, after hearing the agony aunt on TV (which was, mercifully, on at the time), Denise’s experiences have incorporated almost the entire spectrum of human emotions.

It’s this incredibly diverse spectrum that Deidre Sanders — one of the UK’s leading agony aunts — says is the constant source of fresh material for her advice columns online and in print. For over three decades, she’s heard people question whether “all those questions” are real — in the “backs of taxis, over countless dinner tables, even when laid up in hospital”. And each time, her answer has remained stoically the same: “Absolutely.”

In fact, the scale of it all still “amazes” her at times. “The Sun sells more than 3,000,000 copies a day and is read by something like one in four adults in the country,” says Deidre, who has been anchoring the ‘Dear Deidre’ personal advice column with The Sun since 1980. “At the last survey, the Dear Deidre problem page was the second most-read page of the paper, behind the sports page — this is by men as well as women. The paper has also always recognised the value of the free answering service to its readers and, since I began in 1980, more than six million have contacted me with their problems.”

In other words, Deidre says, finding the material to publish in her columns — both on and offline — has consistently been the least of her worries.

With readers’ problems pouring into the office at the rate of 100-300 queries a day, however, the more pressing concern was working out a system to ensure every genuine query was answered individually, quickly and efficiently. “The really urgent dilemmas — problem pregnancies, anyone suicidal, anyone with a court case coming up, debt crisis, imminent wedding, any case involving violence or potential child abuse — are replied to that same day by one of my team of six counsellors,” says Deidre, while the rest are generally answered within a couple of days.

That said, however, she cannot discount the help that she and her team of aunts get from social support networks in the country. “I once heard from a single mother who said she loved her seven-week-old baby very much but couldn’t cope,” she recalls. “She had gone out and left her; the baby wasn’t eating much and seemed very lifeless. She thought she must be dying and thought the only thing to do was kill them both. I contacted the NSPCC, who started checking hospital records for the area, and I also alerted a self-help group for parents under stress and gave their number in my column for the girl to ring. We were all very keyed up wondering what was going to happen, whether we would make contact with the girl or whether we would never know what had happened.”

At 5pm on the day the column went out, however, the woman did phone the helpline. She accepted the workers’ offer to pay her taxi fare if she came over with the baby. “When she arrived, she let them take her and the baby to hospital,” Deidre continues. “Staff there said that considering what terrible post-natal depression she was suffering from, she had coped remarkably well and the baby was in not-too-bad health. What I wasn’t prepared for was that same day, the helpline heard from another 50 parents — some in a much more desperate state than that girl.”

For the mum of two, it’s after days like that that she finds it a bit tricky to know how to react when people comment, “Oh, an agony aunt — that must be a bit of a giggle.” She explains, “I know quite a few people think that all you need to be an agony aunt is some common sense and sympathy, but in fact it is quite a demanding responsibility.”

The concept of an agony aunt typically envisions a dear old lady, albeit one sensible and quick-witted enough to bring the big picture into sharp focus for anyone in a spot. But the criteria for becoming an agony aunt (or uncle, even) have nothing to do with age — as eight-year-old Eve Hobsbawn proved this year by offering her problem-solving services in the UK (for a small fee, of course).

The concept took off in the 70s and 80s, but for the desperate, an agony aunt has long since proven the perfect solution: a speedy, practical, advice-dispensing machine. For everyone else, there’s the university of life.


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