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The radical help of the anti-advice column

Author John Paul Brammer on how to rethink the ways we seek and give support.

An illustration of a manual typewriter with pages of paper flying out of it. PM Images/Getty Images

“Are you even qualified to help me?”

This question, the first in John Paul Brammer’s book of advice essays, ¡Hola Papi!, cuts to the heart of his medium. Very quickly, the reader learns that Brammer is far from the pearl-decked, socialite woman long associated with advice columns — he’s a gay, mixed-race Mexican American from the Great Plains who jokes about his unreliable mental health. But this context arrives through his careful weighing of whether he’s a person to rely on in the first place. There’s no follow-up to that tough question, and he has to tackle it head-on: Why come to me?

People have written to columnists for guidance in newspapers and magazines since the 17th century, but rarely has the (often pseudonymous) writer had their credentials challenged. In fact, when the US saw a boom in advice columns after 1900, unwavering authority was a given. Some authors were known for delivering curt, definitive replies without elaboration: In 1912, a doubtful 20-year-old woman who asked “Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson” at the Rock Island Argus if she was too young to marry her eager boyfriend got a one-word answer: “No.

In the past few decades, many new voices have entered the conversation, and none is quite so frosty. All the same, each tends to speak from a lofty platform; there’s the assumption that they have the keenest, most penetrating insights on humanity and the habits to sustain it. You almost can’t avoid the language of a parent telling their child how the world should be.

Brammer, however — who began writing his ¡Hola Papi! column for the gay hookup app Grindr via its online magazine, Into, in 2017 — built a following with the opposite approach. Not only does he escape the largely white, straight, domestic concerns of the advice genre by carving out space for deep thoughts on LGBTQ and racial identities, he also doubts that he or anybody else can solve your problems, or even truly get a grip on them. Instead, he refracts the anxieties of young queer readers through his own life story, from the traumas of growing up closeted in the rural town of Cache, Oklahoma, with a fragile idea of his Mexican heritage, to the search for community, love, and authentic self-expression as an adult. He remembers being tormented as an outsider in middle school, his “coming out” to the male friend in denial about their sexual relationship, and a moment when art raised him from the pit of despair.

The result is a soulful memoir, each chapter drawing on an episode of his life to glean a lesson that upends advice as you know it, inviting the reader to take hold of their personal narrative. Rather than hand down edicts and aphorisms from on high, Brammer’s writing suggests, perhaps he can help you help yourself. “Whose gaze is it, and what are you looking for,” he asks a reader who is afraid to dress gayer. “What might it be like to have a lens that is more your own?”

Brammer now publishes his column on Substack and it’s syndicated in The Cut; he receives around five letters a week, assuaging people worried about being ugly, past decisions, and meeting a soulmate; his backlog of unanswered messages is now close to 700. I spoke to him about his take on the form and why it represents a necessary change. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Miles Klee

When you began writing ¡Hola Papi!, you envisioned it as a spoof of the traditional advice column. What was it about the genre that you wanted to subvert?

John Paul Brammer

Author John Paul Brammer holding a bunny on a stoop.
John Paul Brammer.
Zack Knoll

I thought it was so funny that somebody would earnestly approach a complete stranger and say, “Here’s this weird thing I’m dealing with, what do you make of it?” Because I just don’t believe that authority like that exists. Being this long-established phenomenon — the advice column dates back to the 1600s — it’s very storied, there’s something traditional about it. And anywhere there’s tradition, you have the opportunity to run amok and turn everything on its head. It wasn’t like I had real contempt for the advice column. It was more that I saw these rules I could break.

Miles Klee

When you were flooded with letters, you quickly took on the responsibility of helping those in need. Did it seem that something crucial had been missing from the medium all along? Or that it had overlooked a significant audience?

John Paul Brammer

Certainly. People have touched on LGBTQ issues in the past with their columns, but I did exist at such a unique intersection of technology and the advice column: it was pushed out through the Grindr app. I thought it would be funny to place this “Dear Abby”-type property inside a gay leather club, basically. There’s a certain kind of person who’s on Grindr in the first place, looking for intimacy; you’re probably lonely. I think I was offering, in my own limited way, a chance at genuine connection, of reaching out to someone else and telling them something important, something real — confessing.

Miles Klee

Digital connection is a big topic. You describe a youth on AIM and Myspace. I loved the story of dating a girl you met on Myspace when you were both young teens, partly because of an emotional connection, but also to appear straight, a status you perceived as enviably “normal.” This gives way into adulthood, with apps like Twitter and Grindr — the column was named after the racialized greeting you frequently got on the app. Is the lens we bring to our struggles now inseparable from the online condition?

John Paul Brammer

The internet is bringing things into our lives that we could never have anticipated, and I don’t even mean just now — the chaos that Myspace introduced to my young life. We have this second persona that we put out on the internet, and people are interacting with that. Who I was on Myspace maybe wasn’t such a real person. But even when I was with my girlfriend at the time, obviously I wasn’t being genuinely true to myself. So those things are very symmetrical to me. You can still be a projection, a “fake” person in real life, just as much as you are on the internet. I think that chapter does the best job of conveying the chaos of the internet, but also how we bring a lot of it to our real-world interactions as well.

Miles Klee

Your style of support brings your own personal experience to the foreground. Forgoing the abstracted voice of moral certitude, you relate other people’s problems to your own, and to your evolving identity. You recount finding a job making tortillas because you felt you weren’t “Mexican enough,” and the time when a childhood bully, years later, tried to flirt with you on Grindr. What effect does this exposure have?

John Paul Brammer

Part of the funniness for the column was when someone wrote in a letter that was very serious and intimate, I would then start talking about myself. Because the character of ¡Hola Papi! was this egotistical narcissist. “Yeah, yeah, that’s your problem, let me tell you about what happened to me one time.” To an extent, he’s a cartoon character that I can write from, and he has a distinct voice that feels very separate from the way I talk and the way I write anything else. Yet, at the same time, the things I discuss are true to my life, very vulnerable. Anecdotes from my past that … there’s not much funny about it. On the internet as it exists now, it’s hard to write outside of your own experiences because people will pick it apart. What you have a right to do anymore is say how you feel specifically. Here’s how I see it. I’m afraid of overstepping, telling someone whose experience is nothing like mine how to live their life.

Miles Klee

Also in contrast to past generations of advice writers, you aren’t prescriptive. You don’t tell people what to do in extremely specific situations, but you address broader anxieties about how to be — how to live with trauma, or how to express a truer self.

John Paul Brammer

I’m so lucky that I’m running an LGBTQ advice column. Straight people are starting to write in, which I love, but that’s a recent phenomenon. A lot of those LGBTQ issues are more esoteric, have more to do with teasing things out rather than seeking a definitive answer. “How does my identity work? How can I feel more comfortable with who I am? How can I feel like I belong in this community?” When we’re talking about presentation, how you see yourself, how you make peace with yourself, that’s where I’m comfortable. And I don’t have to give these super-concrete answers, like, “You need to do this, and then do that.” I’m not operating within an established system where there are rules. I’m talking about identity, sexuality, appetites, desires. I really don’t like the ones where I’m saying, “Break up with him, sis.” I feel dumb and incapable whenever I get letters asking, “Who’s in the right here?” Like I’m at a family reunion and these people I’m not even related to are going, “Pick a side.” I don’t know, I want to go home!

Miles Klee

I was struck by your theme of reinvention. You acknowledge that we change from one moment to the next, and may hardly recognize who we were a few years ago. How does this interior, ongoing narrative shape your essays?

John Paul Brammer

I’m of this belief that we cycle through many personalities, many ways of thinking. One question I get a lot is: “What advice would you give your younger self?” That represents this non-realistic, linear way of thinking — that we accrue wisdom as we get older, and we keep all the old wisdom. But it doesn’t work that way. We lose some things. When I was a child or a teenager, I had a certain kind of wisdom that I don’t have now. Back then, I had to navigate being in the closet, violence, the idea that I could actually be hurt or physically attacked if I expressed my sexuality. There were things that kid knew back then that I don’t know now. He was tougher in a lot of ways. When I go through those different experiences and why I see them as so important, in the act of remembering them, I’m also doing some creative writing. I try to be flexible and adaptable in the way I see myself. It’s a more interesting, freeing way of seeing it than trying to pretend that I know everything.

Miles Klee

What’s a common mistake people make when giving advice to friends and loved ones?

John Paul Brammer

Sometimes we’re well-intentioned and want to give a solution. A common mistake is trying to fix it. And that sounds really counterintuitive, coming from an advice columnist, who, ostensibly, their job is to help you fix it. I get a lot of letters where it’s like, this has no solution, and they’re not looking for one. They just want to have somebody out there who’s listening to them, and to put into words what’s bugging them. That, in and of itself, is a very powerful act and can be very therapeutic, very healing for a person. I think I’m good at figuring out when that is what someone’s looking for.

Miles Klee

The book is framed by two pieces that wrestle with a tough but central concern — what, if anything, qualifies you, John Paul Brammer, to give a stranger emotional guidance. In the end, you don’t answer a gay man writing from a country where homosexuality is illegal, deciding that “my voice may do more harm than good.” Is rejecting the mantle of authority and expertise in favor of humility the most radical approach we can take to the art of advice?

John Paul Brammer

I’m going to say yes, because I love me, and I think it would be a cool idea if I was doing the most radical thing. I think we’re constantly being pushed to speak authoritatively on things we maybe don’t have the authority to speak on. This push to be an expert at everything, or the person with the smartest thing to say, is actually pretty poisonous. To write in the book about a time I was silent, and why it was good, is silly. You took a whole book to say that. But there’s a lot of wisdom in silence, a lot of virtue. Not always. But I thought of silence as this neglected altar that could use some more flowers. And I like pairing it with my job, which is “someone who’s supposed to tell other people what to do.”