BEYOND CARING

Dr Laura Schlessinger is America's most popular radio therapist. Curiously, she has little sympathy - or even time - for most of her listeners' problems
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The Independent Culture
"Jan! Welcome to the programme."

"Hi. I'm kind of nervous calling you, because I know you tell people how it is."

"I don't blame you. I'd really think about calling me."

But call they do. Every weekday thousands of Americans dial 1-800-DR-LAURA to pour out the most intimate details of their messed- up lives to Laura Schlessinger, a once-divorced, conservative Jewish mother with a PhD in physiology and a licence in marriage and family counselling, who introduces herself as "my kid's mom" and may well represent the end of therapy as we know it.

Jan, a 28-year-old mother of two, began her call to Dr Laura all bubbly and jokey, seeking advice about her 50-year-old husband, a man she began seeing while he was married to someone else.

"My problem is that he has children from his first marriage."

"Who are probably older than you. He has ties older than you."

"Correct," Jan answered, sustaining the first blow, "but I don't want to seem like the blonde bimbo, because I'm not. I'm an educated redhead."

"Oh, OK, a redheaded bimbo with a degree."

"No, not yet, but I'm working on it. However, his children treat me like..."

"You have to understand one very important point - their father acted like a bum, but they don't want to be orphans, so they're probably putting the onus on you, because they don't know how to look into their father's face and say, `You're a disgusting bum.' "

"OK," Jan said, the bubble in her voice gone flat.

"He screwed up the family, and then everybody's demanding that everybody act like it's OK and normal and be accepting. You're asking for a lot. We can hope for `polite'. But you're asking to be accepted as though you were kosher, and - trust me - there's been no blessing on this dinner."

"So what do I do? Do I leave him?"

"With two little kids, and break up yet another family? That sounds like a wise idea."

"No, I love the man to death, but I don't want to..."

"I'm glad! But you didn't love him enough to leave him alone with his family. You wanted him for yourself, so you have their rage. Well, no kidding. What do you expect? Waltz in, take a guy, make babies with him out of wedlock, then marry him and everybody is supposed to go, `Well, since you got married, I guess it's OK'?"

"But they already told me their parents' marriage was over."

"It wasn't over till it's over! Any opportunity for it not to be over was destroyed when you came in the picture, the little bimbo redhead."

"Don't call me a bimbo." Now her voice was dissolving into a whimper, and Dr Laura's was getting bigger, gathering the rage and indignation not just of the scorned wife but of all of society against the transgression of the social order. Vixen! Harlot! Slut!

"But that's what it's like to everybody else!" Dr Laura said, finishing her off. "He didn't get a grown woman who was his peer. He got a little girl who adores him."

You could hear the beginning of an agonised wail, but the music cut it off. "This is Dr Laura, and you're listening to WABC."

Laura Schlessinger is not interested in your pain, your suffering, your heartbreak. She does not care about your low self-esteem and your lousy childhood. She is shrink as aerobics teacher: Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Stop blaming other people. Stop thinking about yourself so much. Forget victimhood, empathy or therapy as anodyne. In other words, suck it up, bucko.

If the numbers mean anything (and they do), Americans are listening. Just two years after her Los Angeles-based call-in show went national, it can be heard in 80 per cent of the US. Every day, some 12 million people tune in.

Schlessinger's two self-help books, Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives and How Could You Do That? The Abdication of Character, Courage and Conscience, have been bestsellers for more than two years. On the airwaves, she is second in popularity only to the notorious right- wing current affairs phone-in host Rush Limbaugh, whose daily programme attracts 21 million listeners countrywide. Both share a conservative agenda based on what have come to be known as family values, but that's where the similarities end. Schlessinger doesn't discuss issues or politics and demurs when asked about her own. "It's not relevant," she says, though it's pretty clear where she stands. In her office I spied copies of the partisan Republican magazine, The Weekly Standard, and she often directs listeners to the book Who Stole Feminism? How Women Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers's withering denunciation of the women's movement. "Feminism," Schlessinger says, "is anti-men, anti-family and anti-children."

In person, the woman who has tapped into America's confused superego so successfully is an intense, tiny 49-year-old with teased hair, red- lacquered nails and the umistakable air of someone who is sure she's always right. When asked if she has ever given anyone the wrong advice, she does not hesitate: no, never. Which may be what makes her such an irresistible figure for these ambivalent times when, given a choice, many of us would prefer to have no choice. Tell me what to do, her callers ask, and I'll do it. I'd do the right thing if I knew what the right thing was. And if the authority figure is a little mean and a little harsh, if she calls your behaviour "stupid" instead of "self-defeating", isn't that what we all think anyway? When I bought a copy of Ten Stupid Things Women Do, the sad-eyed clerk rang up the sale and said, "I ought to read that book, too." No wonder the therapeutic community can't stand Dr Laura. "Her information is not the kind that a psychologist gives," says Dr Lilli Friedland, a past president of the media-psychology division of the American Psychological Association (APA). "We're supposed to guide people, not lead them."

It's 20 years since Toni Grant, a Los Angeles psychologist who wrote the best-selling Being a Woman: Fulfilling Your Femininity and Finding Love, put radio therapy on the map. Her show was such a success that talk- radio programmers began adding therapists to schedules that had previously included only sports, politics and the occasional gardening show. One of television's top-rated shows, Frasier, is based on the burgeoning profession of radio shrink. But even as the industry has grown, bringing therapy - or an approximation to it - to ever larger numbers of people, traditionalists have watched with dismay.

"When I first started, the APA tried to take my licence away," says Dr Joy Browne, a radio psychologist who is syndicated on 250 stations. "People kept saying, `Joy shouldn't be doing this.' Then they'd slip me their card and say, `If you ever need a replacement, call me.'" Like Dr Laura, who says that her show deals with "moral health, not mental health", Browne says that what she does on the air is not real therapy. None the less she thinks these phone-in shows reflect a deep need to be recognised. "People would rather be praised than punished," she says, "but they'd rather be punished than ignored. How else to explain why they call?" Still, except to say that Dr Laura "doesn't have a licence to worry about" (a radio therapist doesn't need one), Browne hesitates to make a direct hit. "I feel we should all be more gentle and careful with one another," she says. "There are no simple answers for complicated questions. Until we've walked in someone else's shoes, we don't know what their lives are like."

Noble sentiments, but not necessarily the stuff of high ratings. Even in Britain, "no nonsense" agony aunts such as the Daily Telegraph's Anne Atkins are increasingly seen as a way of increasing audience share; in the US, the no-nonsense approach is fast becoming the only approach. "The best way to ensure the failure of a radio therapy show is to concentrate on psychology," says David Bartlett, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "Good talk radio is done for the listener, not the caller."

On Most days, Laura Schlessinger rises before dawn, lifts weights, practises martial arts (she has a black belt in Hapkido) and gets to her office by 10am - which is decorated with a framed photograph of Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 - to prepare for her three-hour show. Of the 60,000 calls a day made to the show, Schlessinger's producer, Carolyn Holt, screens about 100 every hour. Holt looks for people who have a dilemma, a conflict, something that will make good radio but not anything too dark like suicide or sex abuse. Psychosis does not entertain.

From Holt's selection, Schlessinger chooses the call that appeals to her and begins to work. On the day I observed her, I was impressed with her wit, her mostly good sense and her timing. I was beginning to wonder why therapists dislike her so much. Then a man called Aubrey rang. Aubrey sounded intelligent and educated, but too needy, too eager to please. You just knew he was the kid who got picked on at school. He was living with a woman whom he had taken in four years earlier when her brother kicked her out of the house. The woman had a child that Aubrey had raised as his own. There was, however, no sex in the relationship, although they had necked and petted "on rare occasions". The problem was that the woman had turned into a "thoroughly unpleasant person", and he was afraid she was going to take the child away. What, Aubrey wanted to know, should he do?

"Whose interests are first here? Hers? The kid's? Or yours?"

"The kid's."

"Then you try to get along with her so that at least he has the balance of one, I assume, reasonably decent, sane human being helping him grow up. But at some point, she's likely to want to get herself a guy."

"Well, I've asked her to marry me, and she's been putting me off."

"You're not it."

"Apparently not."

"You're the one who can be used. You're not the kind of guy she's going to go for."

Afterwards, I asked Schlessinger if she'd been too hard on the man. "No," she answered. "The people who call me are not fragile and frail. They don't stay on the line for 30 minutes on hold if they are. I could tell from the tone of his voice, the word choice, the way he spoke, that he could take it. It's like with a car mechanic. When you drive up, he can tell a lot about a car by the way it sounds. I don't have a lot of time with people, so I need to distill it down and make it bold with lights flashing."

Radio professionals say that is precisely her talent. "When Laura became so successful, I started to get a lot more tapes from therapists who wanted their own show," says David Hall, programme director at her Los Angeles station. "But they didn't get it. They'd send tapes of themselves being meaner or harder on people, but that's not what makes her successful. What she has is an ability to focus on the heart of someone's story and say whatever is the right thing. I think Oprah does that, too."

Still, I couldn't get Aubrey out of my mind. He had seemed like a bright man in serious pain, somebody who was struggling with a severely dysfunctional relationship and needed help. Who could be a better candidate for traditional therapy? Schlessinger disagreed. "There would be no value for that person to go into therapy," she said. "The typical therapist would say: `Let go of this woman. You're not in a real relationship. It's sad for the kid, but life is sad.' Whether something is right or wrong is not an issue in therapy. Modern therapy promotes self-centeredness. Everything is rational or relative. I'm not. My morality is based on the Old Testament and the Talmud. Whenever I can, I try and push people towards religion."

"Revelations," as Schlessinger likes to say, "don't change lives." True enough. Even Freud once observed that giving a patient insight into the causal connection between his current problems and his childhood experiences has "as much influence on the symptoms of nervous illness as a distribution of menu cards in a time of famine has upon hunger." Still, it's hard not to wonder what happened to Laura Schlessinger to make her the way she is; and it comes as no surprise to anyone versed in the most basic of therapeutic principles - we either become what we hate or become the opposite - to learn that her own childhood was less than ideal. She grew up in Brooklyn, one of two daughters born to Monroe Schlessinger, a civil engineer, and Yolanda Ceccovini, a young Italian beauty he met and married during World War II. The marriage was not a happy one, partly because Schlessinger's Jewish family did not accept his Catholic wife. As a child, Laura reacted to the chilly emotional landscape by retreating into the seemingly rational world of science. When the family prospered and moved to Long Island, she set up a laboratory in the basement, got a degree in biology from the State University of New York and eventually got her PhD from Columbia for her research on the impact of insulin on fat cells.

She moved to California for the weather and began teaching courses in biology, physiology and human sexuality at the University of Southern California. Enrolment in those classes doubled as students discovered her frank and mordant humour. One day she called a radio talk show to answer the question "Which would you rather be - divorced or a widow?" (Divorced at the time, she answered: "Widow.") The host was so taken with her banter that he kept her on the air for 20 minutes and hired her as a guest expert on human sexuality.

These days, Schlessinger refuses to talk about her mother, who is still alive but with whom she has not spoken in 10 years. In 1994, however, she told People magazine that the rift occurred when Schlessinger suggested that her mother, who was working as her secretary at the time, learn how to type. She walked out and has not been heard from since. When Schlessinger speaks of her father, who died of stomach cancer in 1990, she recalls a "dad who never said he was proud of me or loved me". She cried when she said it, and I couldn't help but notice that she had also cried when discussing the lack of love in her family during an interview on a television programme. Either she is capable of producing tears on cue, or her upbringing was so troubled that she is still traumatised by it.

So the underloved and underpraised daughter of a religously mixed marriage grows up to become a national phenomenon, a radio personality who, among other things, discourages people from marrying outside their religion. It should please the ironists to learn that her husband, Lew Bishop, a former professor of neurophysiology who now works full-time managing her career, was brought up as an Episcopalian. Schlessinger said he had converted to Judaism, but when I asked him about it, Bishop, as laid-back as she is highly strung, said he was still in the process. "I've been busy," he said, "and there are some things about it I'm still struggling with." Like what? "Oh, the problem of evil."

The fact that Schlessinger felt underpraised as a child almost makes her own self-aggrandising easier to take. The biographical note for her first book ran to a page and a half and ended with the wince-producing sentence: "She is certainly a woman from whom to learn courage." Her acknowledgments for the second book, a windy, somewhat unreadable rehash of her daily show, begins: "I'll admit it. I slaved on this book by myself for most of a year. And that's after 18 years of studying, teaching, counselling and on-air work ... I thank myself for all that effort." Asked if she sees herself as part of a larger movement toward conservative values in this country, she says: "I'm not part, of a movement. I am a movement."

Schlessinger says that her show appeals equally to men and women, young and old. To see who these fans were, I attended a book signing and a live broadcast of her show in Lake Arrowhead, California. Driving west out of the sprawl and gloom of Los Angeles towards the faux Tyrolean village of Lake Arrowhead, site of second homes of Roseanne, Patrick Swayze and Schlessinger herself, you understand why Southern California has spawned so many national talk radio personalities. Everyone here is on the move, sealed into the car, radio on.

The fans on this day were mostly white, female and in the throes of man trouble. "She changed my life," said Leanne Combs, a 35-year-old telephone repairer who cradled a dog-eared copy of Ten Stupid Things. "I married a man for all the wrong reasons. I was looking for a father, for someone to save me." Displaying that peculiarly American willingness to reveal inner life to complete strangers that makes shows like Schlessinger's possible, Combs added that she was so miserable she had considered suicide. Then she found Dr Laura.

She now listens daily, though she has never tried to call the show. "I know what she'd say," Combs said. "I'm married and I have two kids. I need to make this marriage work, so that's what I'm trying to do." But as she spoke, her eyes went watery. "My husband is not a bad man, he's just selfish," she said. "But now I'm taking a hardball attitude. Just this week, I came home from work - he's between jobs - and he asked me, `What's for dinner?' I told him he has got to start taking some responsibility around the house." And had she ever considered therapy?

"It occurred to me, but I don't know what they'd tell me that Dr Laura hasn't."

Curious to see what men thought of Schlessinger, I went looking for a male fan and found Wayne Burns, a 46-year-old from Rancho Cucamonga who drives a street-sweeper truck. Burns turned out to be the most devout and thoughtful fan I met. He'd been listening to Schlessinger for years in his street-sweeper. "In the beginning I'd lie to the guys at work and say I'd been listening to Rush and hadn't bothered to change the station," he said. "But now a lot of them listen, too." This was the first time Burns had seen Schlessinger in person; he said he was shocked that she was selling paraphernalia like $16 T-shirts emblazoned with her motto "Take on the day". I couldn't tell if he was being ironic.

"I got divorced a few years ago," Burns said, "and I went to a psychologist for a year, but all he did was sit there and go `Mmm-hmm, mmmhmm' while I whined and whined. It was more helpful for me to listen to her. My biggest problem has always been my career. I always thought it was someone else's fault that I hadn't advanced more. I blamed a lot of other people, especially my father, because he quit school in the eighth grade and didn't encourage me to go to college. He said people in college were snobby. But then I started listening to Dr Laura and I heard caller after caller try to blame someone else for what had gone wrong in their life and I really recognised myself in them. I realised: `It's you. It's yourself.' It's not someone else's fault. It sounds simple, I know, but I didn't get it for a long time."

Wayne Burns was still a street-sweeper at 46; he was still frustrated that his own child wasn't more interested in school, and he was still divorced. But somehow Laura Schlessinger had made him feel better about it. She had given him a way to reframe his past, to forgive his father and to make himself less bitter about the promise that had once been his life. "What does she say? `Dreams are just unrealised goals.' I write a lot of her sayings down." No therapist could ask for more. !

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