Last Monday, as we have already covered, DoubleX "Friend or Foe" advice columnist Lucinda Rosenfeld (who, full disclosure, I know socially and professionally) angered her readers -- and the blogosphere -- by telling a letter writer who said she was drugged at a concert and later ended up alone in the emergency room that she could not expect her two “best friends” to come to the hospital while she recovered.
The reaction was white-hot and furious. To say people did not agree with Rosenfeld is to put it mildly. Commentators shared stories of going to the hospital with their friends. “I cabbed her over to the ER and waited for her parents to show up,” one man wrote of a woman he didn’t even know, whom he’d found in her underwear in a stairwell, “and I didn’t even think twice about doing it. AND I AM KIND OF AN ASSHOLE.” The question was not open to debate: Every commenter was a good person who would go to the hospital -- no matter what, no questions, no caveats -- and Lucinda Rosenfeld was a shit. She was also a shit for her blame-the-victim stance, which many felt veered uncomfortably close to the sort of “mentality we’re so used to hearing and striking down when it comes to rape,” as Samantha Henig wrote, in an apology of sorts, posted on DoubleX.
But did Rosenfeld really blame the woman? If yes, what for? Let’s start with the basic premise that if your friend calls you at 4 a.m., you go to the hospital. It's certainly what I believe, and from what Rosenfeld writes, she mostly agrees, too, at least in a dire emergency, though she is a cooler customer than most, who draws a distinction between a near-death situation and comforting a friend in hysterics, especially if that friend is well enough to call and ask you to come comfort her. (How you deny a friend who asks for this, even if you’re already in bed and annoyed with the request, I’m not sure.) So if your friends won’t go to the hospital for you, if they refuse, even when you call sobbing, even when your mother calls, if they show up the next day angry and annoyed, something is wrong. There are three options: There is a problem with them, there is a problem with the friendship or there is a problem with you. Why did this woman’s friends not have what is, if all the comments are to be believed, the instinctive human response?
Rosenfeld faults the friends for not driving the letter writer “all the way home the next morning,” or “following you there to make sure you got through the door on two feet,” but she doesn’t outright call them crappy companions. Partly, of course, this is because she doesn’t believe friends are obligated to provide comfort in the wee hours of the morning, a point of view that is eminently open to criticism, but that’s her view, let’s let her have it. I suspect she also avoided bashing the friends outright because if the girls were categorically bad people, or categorically bad friends, they would have had a different reaction entirely -- they would not have shown up at all -- and the letter writer would presumably not have been close with them in the first place. Instead, the two friends arrived indignant. And so the question arises: How could anyone be infuriated with someone who had just been through such an ordeal?
Rosenfeld theorizes that the pair thought the letter writer was “lying about the mickey.” In fact, they could have been mad at her for any number of reasons -- the letter writer tends toward melodramatic antics, they'd had an argument before they went out, whatever, whatever -- but Rosenfeld hazards a guess based on the information at hand. Hers was a spectacularly tone-deaf guess, true, in its failure to recognize that blaming the woman for an incident like mickey-slipping is behavior so common in our culture that people are sensitive to it, and will sometimes react even when it has not occurred. But what she was trying to figure out is this: “Why were they so unforgiving?” What had pissed them off? “The fact that ‘Drugged’s’ friends were described as ‘angry’ the next morning made me think there might be a back story we weren’t hearing,” Rosenfeld wrote in her apology letter, as readers began calling for her head, "I'm not suggesting that the writer is lying about what happened. But possibly she has asked favors like this more than once in recent years. Otherwise, there is no reasonable explanation for why her close friends would be anything less than sympathetic for what was, by all accounts, an awful night.” There is, of course, another explanation, and in her apology Rosenfeld finally alights on it. “Unless they’re simply nasty people. Which, in turn, begs the question: How did they become ‘Drugged’s’ best friends?” Had Rosenfeld raised this possibility in her first letter -- even if it didn’t seem likely, given how hurt the woman was by their rejection -- she might have saved herself the past week of grief.
If Rosenfeld blamed the letter writer for anything, it was for her friends’ reluctance to retrieve her, for the shaky state of the friendship -- not for being drugged. Blaming her for this is not the same thing as saying she asked for it, as defense attorneys often claim of rape victims. It’s just not. In her first letter, Rosenfeld did write that saying you were slipped a mickey is “sometimes used as a cover for irresponsible behavior.” This is actually true. Rosenfeld doesn’t say the letter writer was slipped a mickey because she was irresponsible, rather that women sometimes claim it to cover for irresponsible behavior. But again, why go there? The friends might have declined to come pick up the writer for any number of reasons; it didn’t have to be that they suspected she was lying about having been drugged. (And if Rosenfeld thought the letter writer was lying about having been drugged, why use the letter at all?)
As it happened, the friends had a reason for their poor showing, and a lame one at that. In a response written by “Advice Seeker” published late Thursday evening the letter writer herself fills us in: “[A]s it turns out, there was one big piece of the puzzle missing that fell into place later -- the explanation for why my friends were angry the next morning. When I was drugged, my friend tells me I ended up dancing with a boy my friend had a crush on.” That’s about as small, selfish, juvenile a reason not to pick up a friend at the hospital as I can think of, but it seems to point to the fact that, again, there may be a deep reservoir of ill will in this friendship, a paucity of trust, for whatever reason. It also reveals that Rosenfeld was right to suspect that there was more to the story.
But she erred by filling in the contours of that story in ways that were speculative and, to many, offensive. Rosenfeld is first and foremost a novelist -- a rather good one, though with a generally dark view of female friendships -- and perhaps this explains her imaginative leap. The job of an advice columnist has traditionally been to give generalized guidance; she (or he) directs her words to one person, but they are dispensed for the masses. The best advice columnists are thus clear, direct, uncompromising, even overly simplified at times. Their job is to reduce ambiguity, not to increase it. (That’s why people solicit their help; the world is an ambiguous place.) There is little room for nuance or relativism, for shades of gray -- if your friends didn’t come meet you, they suck. You might say the advice columnist acts as a final arbiter with an accessibility denied the rest of us to the absolute verities of life. A novelist, on the other hand, must understand human motivation in all its bizarre and glorious and sometimes-perverse complexity. Ambiguity is her métier. She who is a good novelist may be an unorthodox giver of advice.
“If you wanted to know whether I have a history of getting drunk and wandering off (I don’t), or even just getting wasted-drunk (again, I don’t), could you not have emailed me?” the letter writer asks in her wounded response. Rosenfeld could have emailed, I guess. Though to do so would have broken the fourth wall separating advice columnist from advice seeker. Between these two parties there has always been a tacit contract -- pick a letter and answer it based on the information within -- an implicit barrier crossed as infrequently as that between a reviewer and the author of the book she reviews. Of course, one could argue that if Rosenfeld was going to deviate from classical practice by assuming context beyond the letter, why not throw tradition to the wind and fire off an email as well? In the end, Advice Seeker’s reply points out not only that her friends are creeps, but also that the advice column format may be a fossilized form in the age of the Internet. Why not have the columnist and those seeking her pearls of wisdom email or IM back and forth? The columnist could ask clarifying questions. There would be no doubt, in any muddy situation, who was the victim and who was the perpetrator.