I will not say that Ask Polly, the New York Magazine advice columnist is always appalling. At times, her advice is just plain bad. At other times it shows even verges on helpful.
And yet, many of the columns are so awful that they produce a wave of existential angst, i.e., nausea.
One overcomes those feelings by recalling the wonderful columns written for Slate by Emily Yoffe. You may know that, as the story goes, Yoffe left Slate for the Atlantic, to be replaced by someone who is—if we are being generous—not as bad as Ask Polly, but who offers tedious and puerile advice. Where is Emily Yoffe now that we need her?
Nevertheless, in the annals of horrific advice, there is a special place for Ask Polly. In her most recent column, Polly systematically ignored the letter writer’s dire circumstances in order to opine at length about a subject she thinks she knows something about: herself. Yes, indeed, faced with a distressed letter writer, Polly goes on at a boring length about her own moods, her own feelings, her own life.
She may, as she says, love to write, but she should not be writing advice columns.
Worse yet, Polly’s attitude is so obviously the creation of her abysmally bad therapist and the therapy culture, that, if she had an ounce of good sense left, she would be so ashamed of herself that she would have long since tried another line of work.
When someone is suffering and in pain, the one thing you do not want to do, the one thing you never want to do, is to stand up and to say: Look at me! I am a winner. I got it all right. I am in touch with my feelings. I can expound about them and bore you to death with them. I even get paid for filling magazine pages with my own special swill.
In her defense, Polly adds that she was writing her column on her birthday so you have no right to upset her with the story of your failures.
You will notice that the letter writer, who dubs herself “Polluted Waters” blames her misery on the fact that her parents were veterans of World War II. For reasons no one has yet to ascertain, the only veterans we all have the right to slander were those who fought the last war that America won.
Polluted has learned enough to know that she was raised badly by people who hated themselves. Clearly, she has mastered the clichés of therapyspeak. Because of this bad upbringing she developed bad relationships. And she feels so much shame—in fact she is ashamed of being ashamed of being ashamed—that she is now an apparently unemployed single mother.
And yet, as we shall see, it’s not her militaristic parents, but the leftist and feminist ideology that has come to occupy and to colonize her mind. And she knows a little about therapy, too. She talks like someone who has undergone mind-altering therapy, to arrive at the conclusion that she had chosen the wrong boyfriends because there was something wrong with her—or with her upbringing.
Allow Polluted to explain what’s wrong:
I’m 45, and I was raised by two WWII vets who did their best but weren’t exactly enlightened. They both hated themselves profoundly, probably hang-overs from their experiences and their WWI parents. They found a way to piece their uniquely broken bits into something that worked for them in marriage, and they managed to raise two kids who to the outside world looked perfect — pretty, smart, fit, and tough. They put us in the best schools, and they also taught us some useful coping mechanisms. One that was particularly effective with me was the art of the codependent girlfriend/wife. I staggered along for years with different kinds of substance abusers and narcissists, each time peeling back more layers until I finally started seeing how the problems were linked to my behavior.
One day, overcome with feminist longings, Polluted quit her engineering job and set out on a feminist crusade to change the world, to change the way women saw their bodies. She would do it by working in fashion.
She explains her momentous and apparently not very bright decision:
Fifteen years ago I did launch myself out there and leave a comfortable home, circle of friends, the country I was born in, and a steady job as an engineer to pursue a dream of having my own fashion company. I wanted to help women feel good in their bodies. I wanted to do fashion in a different way — both by giving women a body-positive message, and by creating an environmentally friendly, family-friendly work environment and production chain. I made a plan to go back to school to learn the trade, then work for a few years for mainstream fashion companies to see what I was up against, what I didn’t want to do.
Independent, autonomous, hard-working, cut off from all of her friends and family. She might have thought that she was being liberated, especially from that militaristic, colonialist, imperialist American culture. But, she was suffering from anomie.
Ask yourself where she might have gotten such dumb advice. And ask yourself why she felt a need to save women from the patriarchy. There is nothing wrong with having a fashion company, but how about a little rational thought, a little help from her friends, and perhaps a little contraception.
Because, don’t you know, Polluted got herself pregnant and became a single mother.
Now, she is forty-five and, though she does not say it, she might very well be thinking that her best years are behind her. It might sound discourteous, but her best dating years probably are. Worse yet, she is apparently not the best employee. She is not even a very good employee.
Being a child of the therapy culture, she believes that she is failing on the job because she feels too much shame. But, if she feels ashamed of her decisions—not the most irrational of emotions—why does she not pick up, go home to her family and more familiar surroundings and try again?
The thought seems not to have crossed her mind. It certainly does not cross Polly’s mind—if you want to call it that. Sometimes dreams do not work out. Sometimes you need to fold your tents and think more practically. Most of the time, being a feminist heroine becomes the royal road to feminist martyrdom.
For my part I am not very clear about whether or not Polluted is still employed. Yet, it seems that her bad attitude has made her nearly unemployable Note the following attempt at self-rationalization or, should I say, pseudo-insights:
Recently I’ve found myself in a work situation that feels as bad as being with an abusive cokehead. It’s similar to the codependent thing — I’m mired in shame, so I smear it on thicker to make myself a zero. When I get overloaded with work, I don’t organize it well so I can get a grasp on how much I can reasonably do and set boundaries where I can be honest with myself and co-workers, and then I don’t call it out soon enough when I’m getting swept under. It’s like I think I should be able to handle it, and fuck me if I can’t, I deserve to suffer. Maybe a lot of people have this problem. My boss is a bully and a terrible manager, but it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that I’m being called out on low performance like this again. And today he fired me.
At least, there’s always the patriarchy to blame. Or, World War II veterans. In another context, Polluted—you ask yourself, is Polly short for Polluted—is surrounded by cheerleaders, by people who have been sufficiently therapied themselves to be giving her the therapeutically correct advice. And she needs, it. After all, her feminist dreams have turned into a nightmare:
So here I am now — the single working hot-mess mother, living in a foreign country, and still scheming about how to make that company I always wanted. Single mothers really do have to do twice what our partnered-mother friends do; that’s just reality. I try to remind myself of this and give myself credit for the things I do accomplish, but still, the expectations and the feelings of inadequacy are always there, ready to tell me that I haven’t done enough.
To be honest, I do hope that, even though she was fired for being so much of a hot mess that she could barely function on the job, she has a job. To me, it is not clear.
Sometimes you have to tell yourself that it is not working out and that it is not going to happen. Banging your head against the wall and having all your friends tell you how terrific you are does not really solve any of it.
Note how Polluted describes herself:
It means that you know that there’s a giddy rush of joy when you launch on a path after your dreams, but if you’re still stuck in shame, you will do a shitload of work and still never get to really be yourself. And it means that there is nothing scarier than imagining yourself on the street, with no steady job, when you’ve got a kid who relies on you alone. You write often about the courage in saying: I’m broken, I’m fragile, I surrender. Well, I’m there. I am starting to see that I am no longer swimming upstream; I’m now just becoming one with the sewage. I think what I want to know is where to go from here. It’s one thing to realize how low you are, but another to climb out from it.
As I said, she is in a foreign country, with or without a job. Perhaps it’s time to go home to the good old USA, to find a place that is more familiar, more welcoming, more congenial.
I will spare you Polly’s efforts to cheer up this woman. They are foolish and pathetic… and, to her, all roads lead back to her.
The first line of Polly’s answer seems, regrettably, to be sincere, in a twisted way. And, note how effectively and effortlessly Polly shifts the emphasis from Polluted to herself. At least she understands that she is perfectly narcissistic and totally incapable of offering any useful advice. Where’s Ann Landers now that we need her?
Congratulations on losing your job! And today is my birthday! It feels like we were meant to celebrate this day together in some outdoor café in whatever country you’re living in — I’m picturing Italy — eating good bread and olives and cured meats and sipping a nice Barolo. You’re 45, I’m 46. Here’s a toast to no more narcissists, here’s a toast to kids who have their own crazy independent minds and no longer need their asses wiped, here’s a toast to emancipation, here’s a toast to being deeply, profoundly uncool but still dressing like you’re a million times cooler than you actually are.
After some highly relevant reflections on why she does not get her anus waxed, Polly moves on to a more pertinent topic: self-indulgence. Because, to her strange mind, this is what Polluted really needs:
I am showing you how to indulge, Polluted Waters, because this is what you need to relearn at such a bone-deep level that you never lose it again. You don’t have to be the good one, the capable one in the background, or risk being too big, too vain, too spoiled and flighty and wild and petulant. Your kid is old enough now to need a role model in wild petulance. He’s had his generous, solid role model, and now he needs his Mother of Dragons. He needs to see you emerge from this burning building with a calm smile on your face and announce to the world, “The next time you raise a hand to me will be the last time you have hands.”
You see it. Polly doesn’t know what to say. She has no advice to give. So she recommends that Polluted reconfigure herself as a fictional character, a character in someone else’s fiction.
The sad part of it is, that is what Polluted had been doing. She decided to give up a perfectly good engineering job in order to cast herself as a feminist heroine. She was taught to disrespect her parents, made herself perfectly independent and autonomous and was shocked to discover that she was attracting narcissists. And, naturally, she wrote to the only advice columnist whose narcissism surpassed hers. Only someone who has attained the highest level of narcissism would congratulate her on losing her job.