By Hara Estroff Marano, published on May 1, 1993 - last reviewed on June 20, 2012
Ann Landers is more than America's favorite advice columnist. She probably has more influence on the way people work out their problems than any other person now alive. Every day she discusses the most intimate details of life with 90 million people.
Feisty and outspoken, Ann Landers, now 74 and going strong, may be the most visible part of America's conscience, because she pours her moral standards into every letter she chooses to answer and every answer she writes. And as she makes plainly clear in this interview, she plans to keep right on doing it. Psychology Today met with her at her Chicago home.
DEAR ANN LANDERS: AN INTERVIEW WITH THE MOST POWERFUL WOMAN IN AMERICA
PT: Are we talking to Ann Landers or are we talking to Eppie Lederer?
AL: Actually, they are one and the same, so I guess you are talking to both at once.
PT: Which one should we refer to you as?
AL: Refer to me as Ann Landers.
PT: How do you draw the line, or isn't there a line?
AL: The people who know me and people who read me say that I am very much the same person, that when they read Ann Landers they are hearing Eppie Lederer. My private personality is very much the same as my professional personality I am not two people.
PT: Do you see yourself as a healer, as a kind of lay therapist, as a change agent?
AL: None of the above. I see myself as an unbiased, objective, experienced listener. I don't consider myself a professional neither a professional writer nor a professional counselor. People sometimes find that astonishing. I am not a college graduate. I finished three and one-half years and then got married. What I know I've learned from people. I have always made it a point to be with people who are smarter than I. That's how I learn things. Being with people who aren't as smart as you are, well, you don't learn anything.
PT: How do you do your work?
AL: I put in twice as much time as most working people, but my time is my own. That's the beauty of what I'm doing. If I want to stay up until two in the morning, which I often do working, I can do it. But, I don't want anybody getting me up at 7 A.M. The work that I'm doing is perfect for the type of person I am.
PT: When you first got the job you called on an awful lot of power figures and wove them into your answers. Where is the power that draws you or that rewards you?
AL: I don't think about the power. People tell me that I'm enormously powerful. One survey taken a few years ago said that I was the most powerful woman in the United States, exactly graded and with respects. I had to laugh because the survey was printed in the Washington Post among other papers. AR the column means to me is an extraordinary opportunity to do good in the world.
PT: Well, you have power in that you influence many people. People look to You for giving advice that somebody would give them if they just sat down and listened. To the extent that so many people pour out their hearts to you and so many people read what you say, you do have power. A different kind of power.
AL: I understand that because I have an enormous reading audience. My mail comes from people from all over the world, every possible point of view. They represent every possible age group. I realize that I am connecting with a tremendous number of people. You would not believe the amount of mail I get. You'd say, "How are you going to get through that?" Well, I'd better get through it. If I don't, I'm going to have twice as much tomorrow.
PT: You've said that you are doing a lot of good. How would you describe the good that Ann Landers does?
AL: I am understanding, trustworthy, somewhat experienced. People believe me. And the price is right. It costs 29 cents to get my attention. Also, I think that after people read me for a while, they get to feel that I'm their friend. They're comfortable with me because, think things they can relate to.
PT: What kinds of things?
AL: Well, so many people start out by saying, "I've been reading you for a long time and you say things that my mother used to say." Or "You say things that I have said to myself but couldn't accept." Or, and you could grow to hate this phrase, "You put me in touch with my feelings." What they're saying is, "You've made me feel that I could tell you that, that you won't be judgmental, that you'll be objective, and that you'll help me."
PT: How is that different from the traditional therapist? How is that different from a very good mother?
AL: I don't consider myself a therapist. I am more like a friend. I am somebody who is there, who will listen. Often, when people sit down and write their problems on a piece of paper and then cope with it, they can understand it. They begin to think about it in a more objective way.
PT: One of the wonderful stories that we have read about you is that you have to read the letters alone. You have your process. How do you decide what letters to respond to?
AL: It's a question that I can't answer. It's just strictly instinct. It comes from my gut. When I go through a days mail, something catches my eye that says this is good material.
PT: Are you looking for things that are representative of everybody's problems, or are you looking for things that are unique? Or are you looking for things that give you a chance to speak about something that's been on your mind?
AL: I'm looking for anything. Anything and everything. I can't say that I'm looking for any specific thing. When I look at the mail, I think: "Is this something that will catch a reader's eye?" Or, "Is this something that will teach a reader something?" Is this something that many people can relate to or is this offbeat? Is it different? I want my column to be easy to read. I don't want it junk.
PT: What your answer says in effect is that you do it by instinct, sheer instinct.
AL: And it's something that you can't teach somebody else to do either. Either they have it or they don't, they feel for it or they don't feel for it.
PT: On the way here, we couldn't avoid passing a giant television screen showing Maury Povich conducting the public airing of private problems. Do you think you've been the mother of it all?
AL: When I first started to write, the mail was very different from what I'm getting now. People had to read me awhile to get to know me before they opened up to me. Then I noticed the quality of the mail gradually improved. The people I hear from after 38 years are very different from the people I heard from at first.
PT: In what way?
AL: My readers today are much better educated and function at a much higher intellectual level.
PT: Do you mean sophisticated in matters of the heart, in what we used to call psychology, or are you referring strictly to education?
PT: And why are they writing? You said that what they asked you was different. What is different about what they've asked?
AL: What's happened after all these years is that I've evolved into a much more serious, more insightful person than what they perceived when I first started. Serious, thoughtful people didn't read advice columns 38 years ago.
PT: You helped change that.
AL: Yes, I think so.
PT: Why do you think people read about other people's problems? Is it because they like to hear about other people's problems or do they think they'll learn something about themselves?
AL: It's a lot of things. I think it was Edmund Burke who said, "I am human therefore all things human interest me." I think this is what it's all about. People want to know about other people, and when they read the column they do see others-and they often see themselves. That's what I think makes it easy for them to open up. Also, they see a chance to get a different take on their problems. "What's wrong with me? Why is my life like this?" Often, in fact, people will say "I saw myself today in your column," or "I could have written that letter."
PT: At least one scholarly analysis of your column reported that more than two thirds of your readers are women. Is that still true?
AL: No. When I started, at least 75 percent of readers were women. Now it's equal numbers of men and women.
PT: I don't doubt what you say, but I doubt that most men admit to reading it.
AL: They do now. But 35 years ago, they would hide it under the sports page. I would get letters: "The guy next to me on the bus was reading your column, hiding it, sort of ashamed....'
PT: The males in the office read it, but none of them admitted it. The women said, "Of course we read it. We have read it since we were ia,, Why do you think that's true?
AL: I have been hearing for a very long time, "Oh I don't read that stuff." But they are reading that stuff because for a long time half the mail has come from men.
PT: Does it come from readers diverse in other ways as well? And how do you know?
AL: Oh yes. My column is carried by many papers that have a big readership among blacks, in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago. I get a lot of letters in which people identify themselves by saying, "I am black." Or "I am Afro-American," "I am Oriental." Remember, my column appears in many other countries.
PT: The letters have changed. How has Ann Landers changed over the years?
AL: I've been pretty grown up for quite a while. I got married when I was 21. I know people say I am not as sarcastic. My columns have become more sympathetic. I guess I thought I had to be sort of snappy in the beginning. I don't feel that anymore.
PT: If you do look at your column over time, it is true. There's more meditation and less tartness in your responses. How many letters do you get a day?
AL: About two thousand.
PT: That's incredible. Ploughing through it must be quite a job.
AL: I'm not looking at 2,000 letters a day. I receive 2,000 pieces of mail. Many of them are booklet requests. No human could read 2,000 letters a day.
PT: Okay. You read 200 letters, or even 100 letters a day. That's more problems by far than most therapists are exposed to. Being immersed in those problems, how do you keep your bearings.
AL: I know what you're saying. Some letters absolutely break your heart. Early on I had a wonderful editor who taught me how to write the column. He called everybody "baby." He said, "Baby, some of these letters are going to kill you, but you've got to remember that what they are telling you is happening to them, not you. You have to learn how to separate yourself from those readers."
PT: Yet part of your value is to be able to have compassion, to understand.
AL: Have compassion, understand, care, want to help-but don't get yourself mixed up with that person who is living with an alcoholic brute, whose mother is a narcissistic witch, whose daughter is now hooking in the lobby of a convention motel. If I couldn't separate myself from the readers, I couldn't help them. I have to look at something the way police check it and say "this is a helluva problem, but it's not mine." Many people in this field couldn't stay in it. Did you ever read Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West? Miss Lonelyhearts was a man, and he flipped out because he couldn't separate himself from the readers.
PT: It's a problem with most healers-a classic problem. They become one with the object of their compassion. And then they get compassion burnout. It seems that you have something tremendous to teach therapists about compassion. But you are seeing people only in their writing. If you were seeing their faces, might it be a little bit harder?
AL: You'd be surprised. You can see the faces when you see the letter. I relate to these people like they are almost sitting in the same room. I feel their pain.
PT: Have you ever cried when reading a letter?
AL: I'm not a crier. I don't cry at movies. I don't cry at sad songs. But sometimes the letters really do get to me. I don't cry but I really feel the agony. Then sometimes I've gotten involved with the readers on a personal level, which is not a very smart thing to do. Sometimes I just can't help myself.
A woman in California was plagued with boils in the armpits and groin. Can you imagine living like this? She would get so frantic she would take a razor and operate on herself without anesthetic to open up these boils. This is just about as hellish a life as you can have. For five years she couldn't get rid of them. The doctor she had seen didn't help her and she could not afford to go to any more doctors.
I called the dean of UCLA Medical School, who served on the Board of Harvard Medical School [where I serve], and asked him to help her. He said, "Send her over." So she went to see the head of dermatology there. Throughout this time I was in touch with her, and she told me, "I want to thank you but I wasn't comfortable with this man. I don't think he really understood my problem."
So I sent her to Arnold Klein, a great dermatologist in Beverly Hills. Mind you, my friends never charge the people I send. Dr. Klein put her in touch with a surgeon, Dr. Mitch Karian. He removed the glands under her arms, and her whole life is different as a result. She is absolutely cured of the boils. When you do that, it's great to know that you can really change a life.
There's another young woman who sent me pictures of herself, a beautiful blue eyed 27-year-old. Her face is totally distorted. She had a malignant tumor on her gum and, in order to save her life, the doctor had to remove a great part of her gum and the inside part of her cheek. I called Dr. Victor Lewis, a plastic surgeon who lives in Chicago. I told him we have to do something for her; if something doesn't help her, her whole life is going to be a mess forever. He saw her and said, "We are going to get her fixed." He is now waiting for tissue from different laboratories.
PT: This is going to cost a lot of money.
AL: I will find the money.
PT: How do you find the money? Do you call friends?
AL: I find the money. I find the money.
PT: These are problems that could be physically resolved. What about any other kinds of problems?
AL: There's a woman who owns a small paper in Virginia. Her 21 -year-old son committed suicide. He was her only son, the golden kid, the one for whom she had the most hope. She saw a letter in my column about a young kid who committed suicide and she called me up. She said, "I really related to that letter like you wouldn't believe. I just happened to be one involved, and your advice was perfect." And she said, "I just wanted to let you know that I think you do a tremendous amount of good. But it was just a shock to me that I picked up the phone and called you. I just had to let you know." I talked to her for about 30 minutes. I felt very good about that conversation.
And then she revealed that she was having trouble with her husband since the boy died. I said, "This often happens." She said, "I think this is the end of my marriage." I asked, "Are you shutting him out because of your grief?" She said, "Yeah, I am." I said, "When we're finished talking I want you to go to your husband and tell him that you and I talked, and that I said to say, "If I don't change my approach to you, this will end the marriage. And I want to know how to change things." She called me up two days later to say, "I think you saved my marriage. It's the first time I've been able to talk to my husband about anything that was really meaningful, because that tragedy that often brings people closer together pulled us apart." It does that. It alienates couples.
PT: Your advice is tremendously insightful. Experts on the subject of loss tell us they see this pattern. What is interesting is that you went a step further than most psychologists, a privilege of your position because you are a writer. You can direct people what to do and put the authority on Ann Landers. "She said for us to do this."
It must be liberating for you to have no particular boundaries on what you can do. You can do everything from not reading a letter to reading a letter and responding to it, or calling the person and deciding to change a person's life one way or another. That's a pretty large range of possible alternatives. And you say you do that only on instinct.
AL: You can't learn this in school. You can't learn it from a book.
PT: When I was growing up in the suburbs, your column was in the local paper and I read it. One of the things I liked about you was the smart, snappy quality of some of the answers. I was convinced, as my mother was, that these letters could not be real.
AL: I hear that so often. I have been hearing that for years. I am hearing it less now. In the beginning, people couldn't believe some of what was said. I can believe anything about anybody now, after doing this work.
PT: How has your view of people changed over the years?
AL: This column has been an education. I didn't realize that I was living a pretty sheltered life. Most people I knew were sane, sober, and fairly well behaved. I didn't know what went on in the lives of so many people until I got into this work. Now I know.
PT: What does go on in the lives of so many people?
AL: A tremendous amount of brutality, sadism, and alcoholism. There's also a tremendous amount of sacrifice, compassion, and love. People are really heroic and have no idea that they are-women who are raising kids alone, holding down two jobs keeping things together; men who are widowed or whose wife ran off and left them with the kids. They're working twelve hours a day keeping their families together. When I see what life is like for so many people, I've got to admire them. I don't know whether I could have survived some of the hardships and tragedies that I read about.
PT: Do you think that life has changed over the course of time that you've been doing the column, or has it always been a mixture of the brutal and the heroic?
AL: I think human beings have been the same for a long time, but the outside forces are changing lives today. For example, television has changed everything. That one invention has had an enormous impact on people.
PT: Talking about television, what about Oprah. She's the best of a certain kind of show. You can describe shows like Oprah's as the offspring of your column. Oprah is somewhat different from Ann Landers in that she moderates as opposed to giving advice. But her show is the same in that perfect strangers are coming together on TV in front of the whole world and revealing perfectly ghastly things about themselves. How would you describe your relationship to that?
AL: Oprah is a phenomenon. She is a very fine human being. I know her. She is a first-class woman in every way. She is real, she is generous, she is compassionate, she is bright. She's had a tough life growing up, sexually abused by a couple of relatives. But she has emerged a magnificent person, and it is reflected in the way she talks to people and the way she gets people to talk to her. There are several other talk shows, but they're not what Oprah's show is.
PT: What is Oprah's show to you?
AL: It's on at nine o'clock in the morning for one thing. I've not seen it a lot, except when I travel. There's tremendous conversation. It's people really opening up. But to maintain a level of excitement, she has to get into some pretty bizarre stuff, I guess.
PT: Do you think she's in the same business as you?
PT: How would you distinguish the two?
AL: We are not doing the same thing. I am a listener, a helper. She doesn't give advice. People don't go to her for advice. They go to her because they want to be on television.
PT: So you're saying people go to Oprah to be on television. The people who write you are anonymous. How does that change the nature of your relationship with people?
AL: I don't think about why they are here or what they want. What I do is I try to fill a need. Oprah is not there to fill a need. Oprah is there to be the host of a television show. We do totally, totally different things.
PT: Are you saying it's entertainment with compassion? Certainly people go because they have a narcissistic desire to be on TV But they go there because they have problems and they want to discuss their problems. They want somebody to tell them what the answer is. What's interesting is this willingness to say things that you would normally not tell anybody, let alone the whole world. It's now acceptable in America to say, "I have this terrible problem. My father used to beat my mother and now I try to do the same thing at my home." There's permission nationally to voice these very private concerns publicly. In that sense you and Oprah are part of the same thing.
Do you think that people tend to use traditional mental health services less because of your column?
AL: No. Maybe more, because I very often recommend counseling. I do not recommend psychiatrists. There are some very good psychiatrists who do a lot of good in the world. But I think there are some who are not compassionate, not helpful, much too commercial, and don't do that much good. There is no measure that tells you when you're healed, when you're ready to end therapy. A good doctor, a good psychiatrist will release you when he feels he has done as much as he can and that you ought to get out in the world. Too many of them don't do that.
PT: Do you include psychologists and social workers in that appraisal?
AL: No. Psychiatrists charge an outrageous amount, sometimes $300 an hour.
PT: And they can prescribe drugs.
AL: Some people have the kind of problems that need drug treatment. Manic depressives need lithium. Only a psychiatrist can give a prescription. A psychologist cannot. After you are prescribed, you don't need to see that person three times a week, or twice a week. You can release that patient or say, "Come to me if you're in trouble." Or, "I'll see you anytime that you think you need to talk to me."
You may know this story. A woman came to see me with a manuscript that she had written. It was about a Chicago psychiatrist who was president of the American Psychiatric Association. She had been going to this man for several years. He was injecting her with amital and sexually abusing her. I blew the whistle on him (see p. 64). She wrote the book You Must Be Dreaming. That's what he kept telling her: "You must be dreaming." He was sexually abusing her and when she questioned him he actually told her she must be dreaming.
PT: He was abusing many others, too, it turns out.
AL: "It turns out" you bet. When she filed charges against him, he immediately turned in his license. But what burned me up was that the psychiatric community protected him. Not a word appeared in print. No magazine articles, nothing in the psychiatric journals. Nothing was done. This man was very well protected. In a column that I wrote when I blew the whistle on him, I said that the psychiatric community really takes care of its own. And Ann Landers takes care of her own, too, and his story is going to be read by 90 million people. I came right out with his name.
PT: That's courageous.
AL: You'd be surprised how many people called me and said, "God bless you, that you had the nerve to do this." There was a big article about this on the front page of the medical news publication Psychiatric News, congratulating me for doing this and saying that they hoped it would embolden others to blow the whistle. It's also a message to psychiatrists in this country to clean up their act.
PT: I certainly wouldn't want Ann Landers mad at me. Do you find yourself getting into fights by being so outspoken? Or don't you care?
AL: I care, very much.
PT: Have you ever given advice that you regret?
AL: In one instance, a young bride wrote that her husband was overseas and he was flying home from Germany. Her in-laws, his parents, wanted to meet him at the airport in New York. Should she let them? She was really very troubled about whether or not to do this. I said, "Yes, after all they are his parents, and I think you should allow them." That was really the wrong advice. I should have said, "This is your husband. He's been away a long time and you should come first. You should have that quiet time alone with him." Well, she wrote me back and told me that she was looking forward to a wonderful reunion. But it turned out to be a very sad affair. His parents really took over, and it was very hurtful to her. I realized I should have told her, "They can wait a few days. This should be your time You should be at the center of the stage."
PT: Did you feel bad about that?
AL: I felt terrible.
PT: You have the advantage, though, of taking the second letter and giving the proper advice. Did you do that?
AL: Oh sure, sure I do.
PT: What is the harshest criticism you have received?
AL: The National Rifle Association, the pro-lifers, and the animal rights people are my bitter enemies. You wouldn't believe the nasty letters I get from the pro-lifers. I don't want to see another picture of a fetus floating around, or another picture of a monkey with electrodes on his head in a cage. These people don't want animals used for medical research, but it is absolutely necessary. After the riots in Los Angeles, following the Rodney King verdict, the National Rifle Association made a big deal that people didn't have, but should have, guns to protect themselves. Those three groups really despise me-and I'm very proud of it.
PT: One can very well be judged by one's enemies.
AL: You are so right. And they are my enemies. They write me the nastiest letters. After three words, I just throw them away. There's nothing to read. They all say the same thing. I believe they're form letters.
PT: In parties around town, are people likely to come up and ask for advice?
AL: All the time.
PT: Is that irritating?
AL: No. I see it as someone who is seeking an opportunity to get some help.
PT: Do you respect them?
PT: If you had it to do all over again, would you become a columnist?
AL: Oh, absolutely. This is a wonderful life. I can't think of anything that would be more interesting or more rewarding or more worthwhile. If I have been helpful to the people, believe me they have been helpful to me. I've learned from them. Now I know what life is all about. Before, I had no idea. Now I know what it is out there.
PT: Speaking about what there is out there, a while ago-some time in the 1970s-you asked people whether, if they had it to do all over again, they would have kids. And you said you were shocked by the response. I think 70 percent said, "NO!" Have you ever asked people again and seen what the response would be?
AL: No. I asked them once and got a shocking response.
PT: How did that shock you?
AL: Seven out of 10 people who have children said if they had it to do again, they wouldn't have their kids. That makes quite a statement.
PT: What do you think the statement is?
AL: There's a great deal of disappointment out there on the part of parents. Something obviously went wrong. Kids are supposed to bring you pleasure and joy and a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. I'm sure if anybody asked my parents if they would do it over again, they'd say absolutely, the kids made their lives. Apparently, this is not the way it is now.
PT: In addition to selfishness or maybe the disappointment of a failed marriage with kids around, perhaps you were tapping into something more generous, such as people voicing their concerns about the future?
As a parent, I can't tell you how indescribably sad I get thinking about the befouled and in a sense diminished Earth my kids will inherit. Perhaps some people react by thinking, I wouldn't want to bring kids into that.
AL: That's part of it. It isn't just that the kids have been a disappointment. It's the fact that the world has gotten to be such a dangerous and un-ideal place. People write and tell me often, "We're getting married and we decided not to have children because the world is a very frightening place to be in today; we don't think that we want to bring children in this world."
PT: It wasn't that way when you started doing the column?
AL: No, it wasn't. I would say that the world is getting more dangerous and untidy. The violence in America is absolutely mind-boggling. Drive-by shootings-who ever heard of that 40 years ago? You pick up the paper in Chicago, and two, three, or four innocent people got killed sitting on their porch or in their living room. A bullet comes through the window. People get killed in their own cars, going to a movie, on the street walking to get a pizza. From nowhere a bullet.
PT: What's your take on it? Where are people getting this?
AL: There's a lot of anger out there. I think TV has incited a lot of violence. It looks so easy to do, and everybody's doing it.
PT: Are any questions taboo for you today? Any subjects ever?
AL: No. Would you believe that, in the beginning, 38 years ago, we couldn't say anything about homosexuality.
I got a letter which made reference to a man's homosexuality and I put it in the paper. The editor in a Michigan paper called and said, "I want you to know that I'm putting a block on the front page saying that there will be no Ann Landers column today because the material covered was not fit for print." I asked, "What's going on," and he said, "That's the way I feel." And he hung up. Of course, everybody went right out to buy my column in the Detroit Free Press, to see what it was that the local paper suppressed. That little incident made me very popular.
PT: Today there are no more taboos?
AL: Oh, no.
PT: For you or for the readers?
AL: Today, I could deal with any kind of subject-oral sex, whatever-and I do.
PT: What do you say about oral sex?
AL: Whatever people want to do is their own business and nobody else's. And most sex drives are instinctive. And whatever they want to do is all right with me. I'm not a policeman.
PT: Coming out of Sioux City, Iowa, did you ever expect to be saying these things?
AL: Coming out of Sioux City, Iowa wasn't a bad idea.
PT: It seems to have worked. It gave you a very reliable fix on the world. Are they going to retire your name when you retire?
AL: When I die, so does the column.
PT: You're not giving this up?
AL: No. They're going to find me over the typewriter writing the last column. I've got no plans to quit, but when I go there'll be no more Ann Landers. I own the name. I make that decision, if I thought there was someone out there terrific. I haven't seen anybody.
PHOTOS (6): Ann Landers (RICHARD SHAY)