Confessions of an accidental advice columnist

A love of questions, a suicide in the family, and, in the end, an epiphany.

Philip Galanes ’84, ’91JD, is the Social Q's columnist at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries, and Quagmires of Today.

Julie Brown

Julie Brown

Galanes, shown here in his New York apartment, is a lawyer, a novelist, and an Internet-era "Dear Abby." View full image

If you’d asked me, at the end of that fleeting summer following graduation from Yale College, what I’d miss most about the place, I could have answered in a split-second: the questions! The scintillating, unrelenting flow of them—in the classrooms and the dining halls and the dorms: How exactly does the “anxiety of influence” work? Who are the musical heirs to the Talking Heads? Even: Coffee—Atticus or Saybrook College? How would I survive without them?

Turns out, I needn’t have worried.

Because a week later, at the peak of my not-back-to-school season, my father killed himself, and the questions began in earnest. “How did he do it?”—shockingly enough—is the first question people tend to ask. This may be preceded by a sympathetic tilting of the head or a softly murmured “I’m sorry.” But weaponry is, pretty reliably, the first information that people want to lock down.


But how he did it was never of interest to me. No, what I wanted to know was: How could he do it? How does a man with a shy smile and sweet nature bring himself to such a noisy ending? How does he leave his wife and kids holding such a nasty bag—all guilt and grief and blood? And was there any way to understand the story that didn’t make me to blame for it?

These were the questions that dogged me after my father’s death, back when I was barely a man myself. I woke up every morning worrying about them, and drifted off to sleep the same way. My mind buzzing around them all day long. Even so, I made little progress. No shrink or friend or self-help guru ever really touched them. For years, I drove in useless circles around an extremely ugly cul-de-sac.

I simply asked and asked and asked.

But I didn’t have any answers, at all. My father hadn’t seemed depressed. And no health or business or financial crisis ever came to light.

There were respites, of course, from my rutted thinking. I looked for one in an Alfred Hitchcock film festival a few months after he died, one suspense film after the next—Rear Window,then Strangers on a Train, then Rope. But they were all the same to me: my guilt and fear of exposure swelling up like a boil through every set-up and murder, right up to the wild relief of the final reel. I did not kill Farley Granger!

But respites were rare, with nothing but time on my hands. So it came as a kind of relief when I had to find work—or at least a plausible way of avoiding it.

Back to Yale I went, but this time, to the Law School. I nursed a dual fantasy that a lawyer was a very responsible thing for a brand-new man of the family to be and that the choice would have pleased my father. It wasn’t until years later that my mother shared the hard truth: like most Americans, my father didn’t care for lawyers at all.

Too late!

And in the end, it didn’t matter. Turns out, the Law School was the perfect place for me—a veritable Silkwood shower of questions: complex questions, compound questions, questions of law and questions of fact, questions of public policy. I loved them all.

And for a spell, at least during the day, they took my mind off my father. But every night, I was bound to acknowledge that I hadn’t come even a quarter-inch closer to answering the real question: Shouldn’t I have seen that suicide coming?

My father was just as mysterious to me as before.

I graduated and went off to practice entertainment law in New York City, now answering the questions of showbiz folk: Who retains copyright? Does the agreement cover a Broadway transfer? And perhaps most importantly: Will she be flying business-class or coach?

In time, my relationship with my father came to be like a patch of freshly weeded garden. Usually, there wasn’t a stray growth in sight. I might not think of him for days on end. And then he’d pop up all again—as unsightly and painful and mysterious as before.

It may have been my proximity to creative folk that inspired my next move: Why not take the story of my father’s death and fictionalize it? Write a novel about a young guy whose father kills himself? With a bit of imaginative distance, I might come up with some answers about my father; and I’d become a novelist, to boot.

The book, Father’s Day, came out a few years later. I never came close to a reasonable explanation for my father’s death, or put any kind of dent in the certainty of my own guilt. My dad was like a cipher at the center of the story; the more I imagined him, the less sense he made. And adding insult to injury, the book sold approximately 17 copies.

I crept back to the Aeron chair in my law office to lick my wounds.

And then, from out of the blue, as they say—but it really does happen, sometimes—the deputy editor of the Styles section of the New York Times, a perfect stranger, called me up. Would I be interested, she wanted to know, in writing a modern-day advice column, a “Dear Abby” for our Facebook age, with Internet daters and 15-minutes-of-fame Bridezillas and a thousand and one Kardashians?

Of course I would. “How did you find me?” I asked.

“I read your novel.”

“And you liked it?” I heard myself blurt. By this point, I had remade my book into a small handicap, like a port-wine birthmark or a father who kills himself—just another something to be vaguely ashamed of.

I don’t remember her reply.

But I do remember the instant twinge of irony: taking a job answering other people’s questions when I had failed so utterly to answer my own. I was smart enough to keep this last bit to myself. And soon, I began writing the Social Q’s advice column in the Sunday Times, which I write to this day.

The questions aren’t nearly as weighty as pondering suicides in the family: My mother-in-law has a terrible habit of licking her fingers when she cooks and serves food. What should I do?(Paging Colonel Sanders!)

It turns out to be easier solving other people’s problems than your own: No matter when I log on to the dating site Match.com, I find my boyfriend there, as well. What should I do? (Pot: Meet kettle.)

Some of the situations are particularly tricky: I am certain that the woman who swims laps next to me at the Y is peeing in the pool. What should I do?

I try to answer with compassion, a splash of wit, and by helping to keep hand-to-hand combat to an absolute minimum. But what readers of the column don’t see is my favorite part of the job: the thousands of unpublished questions that flow into my inbox.

And because of all those questions, the light went on, at last. As I was working on a new book, this one about Social Q’s itself, I printed out every last question and sorted them into categories: Facebook fiascos, dating disasters, money matters, family feuds. Staring at them all, I found a strange relief. For with every question, from the stupefyingly silly to the absolutely heartbreaking, I felt as if I could see straight through to the person who had asked it—brilliant or dense, smart-assed or naïve.

And at the core of every one of them lay a broken heart.

It’s what we have in common. Your tragedy may not be the same as mine. But we all have them—at least one; and we’re trying to get along in the world just the same. There’s no “reason” for our tragedies, and probably no escaping some feeling of responsibility for them. So we do what we can, asking questions and taking answers where we find them.

I felt a kinship that had eluded me before. I am not the only walking wounded—and never was. I’ll never know what my father was up to, and you’ll never know about your mother or the people across the street. But we’re all in this together.

And I began to see the value, even the beauty, of my Social Q’s column and book. I can be an advocate of kindness in the world (though at times I may fail miserably myself). Because in a world of hurt, the only safe thing is to be giving and kind—even to that annoying person at the bank or the office or the old homestead. We’re just a bunch of people trying to get on with our lives.

So, bring on your questions! And take comfort in the ones that have answers. Let us be as kind as possible to the people we meet—which may be the best answer (or at least my best answer) to the question I’ve been waiting for since my column began: My father killed himself—with a gun, in case you were wondering. What should I do? 


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