[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
May 29 - June 5, 1998


Ayatollah of the airwaves

I'll try to be a little nicer to Dr. Laura than she is to her poor listerners

by Walter Crockett

[crockett] The most appalling national radio talk-show personality on the air today is not Rush Limbaugh, whose ego-maniacal windbag approach to virtual presidential assassination has become old-hat, but Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the ayatollah of the airwaves, who can be heard locally on WTAG.

I will try to be fairer here to Dr. Laura than she is to the numerous callers she berates and hangs up on every day. But it won't be easy. Her mirthless laugh, her prissy voice, her astonishing lack of compassion, and her unquenchable desire to apply the whip to the bared breasts of her worshipful callers is so dismaying that I often turn off the radio in embarrassment and disgust only to turn it back on moments later to see if she really could be that bad.

She could and she is. This self-styled doctor, whose claim to the title is a Ph.D. in physiology, has all the vengeance of the God of the Old Testament and none of His compassion or poetry.

If "Dr." Laura could brand her adulterous callers with a scarlet A she would, heating the branding iron in the burbling cauldron of her limitless bile. If she could cut off the offending member of anyone who ever fathered a child out of wedlock, she would, faster than you could pass the scissors.

But Dr. Laura doesn't stop with the sinners. She's more at home abusing the victims for being stupid enough to be victimized. The unwitting caller who expects an open mind and a shoulder to cry on is in for the rudest of awakenings. Her show invariably brings to mind the Monty Python skit where the hapless customer looking for argument walks into the room for abuse.

The titles of her three books clue you in right away to Dr. Laura's style: Ten Stupid Things Women Do To Mess Up Their Lives, How Could You Do That? and Ten Stupid Things Men Do To Mess Up Their Lives. The emphasis is always on stupid, as in "You were stupid for doing that," "You were stupid to let someone do that to you," and "How could you ask me such a stupid question?"

This is not to imply that Dr. Laura is always wrong. You may turn on the radio and find her giving good advice. You may hear her speak with compassion about children. You may hear her listen without interrupting. She may even get through three or four calls before she starts abusing. After forcing myself to listen to her and to read her books, I have come away with the conclusion that she is not quite as nuts as I first thought she was. But she's still plenty bonkers.

Dr. Laura, a married woman of 50 or so, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California who's been on the air for 25 years. She had a son at 38 and stayed home until he was three and a half. Then she went back to work, showing true maternal instinct by choosing to spare her son the hours of verbal abuse she inflicts upon her radio fans.

She is not without principles. In fact, she has her principles tied so tight her eyes must be popping out her head. Many of her stands -- on sex before marriage, on divorce, on the wages of sin -- would be ridiculed and ignored by most of the American public if Dr. Laura were a born-again Christian. But because she is an Orthodox Jew, they are perceived as a refreshing sort of tough love.

Her theories are, if not always sound, at least worthy of argument. She believes that kids are everything -- their happiness comes first and their welfare supercedes all other considerations. That means that people should almost never divorce, no matter how much they hate each other. And if they do get divorced, the father should seek joint custody and should spend time with the kids every day, even if the mother remarries.

This comes as a breath of fresh air in the age of disposable children and disposable marriages, but with Dr. Laura it also comes engraved in stone -- no exceptions, no compassion, no understanding that under some circumstances one good single-parent beats the hell out of two feuding birth-parents.

"I am my kid's mom," she announces at the beginning of her show, as if to say, "All my other roles are inconsequential in comparison." This has become sort of a mantra for her fans -- almost a shield, really, that they hold to ward off her anger when they call for advice.

"First and foremost," a caller named Veronica tells Dr. Laura, "I am my daughter's mom." You might think this will win her some bonus points, but it won't.

Veronica had two kids out of wedlock with a guy who left her and who now only feels fatherly toward the first of them. "How do I get him to be a good father to the second child?" seems to be the question Veronica wants to ask Dr. Laura. But the good doctor of physiology sees an opportunity to kick Veronica's sinful butt, and she isn't going to let it pass by.

"You went and had two kids out of wedlock with a guy you couldn't count on," Dr. Laura says. "You created this for her. You knew what he was like."

"No . . . ," begins Veronica.

"Yes, you already told me the story. Don't try to get out of it," says Dr. L.

"My question is . . . ," begins Veronica.

"Now that you've told me this, what's the question?" Dr. Laura interrupts.

Veronica starts to ask the question.

"Veronica, what's the question?" Dr. Laura interrupts again. Finally Dr. Laura cuts her off. "When you pick a guy like that, this is what happens. You've got a problem. I don't think there is an easy solution." End of discussion.

Thus we see how Dr. Laura's first principle in theory -- "kids come first" -- runs aground on her first principle of action -- "blame the caller whenever possible." In her rush to judge the evil sinner woman, Dr. Laura forgets all about the innocent young daughter who needs her help.

A guy named Charlie calls the show and says his girlfriend of six months is pregnant. He says it was a mistake, and he isn't sure it would be a good idea to marry her. Dr. Laura says he must. They go back and forth over the issue, and she finally hangs up on him. After the next call she comes back to the subject:

"Making a mistake is different from doing something wrong," she says. "A mistake is unintentional. Doing something wrong is intentional. Then, when it doesn't work out, we call it a mistake." So far, so good -- invigorating tough love from the radio jock doc! But then she adds: "All over the world for thousands of years people have had arranged marriages in which they built strong loving relationships because it was their personal decision to do so."

Hey, doc, people had slaves for thousands of years too -- must we emulate them? Just because it's better to have two parents than one doesn't mean that a hellish marriage beats none at all. But it's this ayatollah streak that her followers like. There are no shades of gray. And the whip feels so good when it stings.

"I want to doubly thank you for your moral stances," Dustin tells her. He and his wife are worried about whether they should leave their kids with alcoholic relatives. You might think a simple no would suffice, but Dr. Laura is not in the mood for answers. "You needed me for that?" she asks. "You needed me for that?" Then she hangs up on him.

"I am my beautiful little girl's daddy," says Steve, waving the verbal shield in front of him. Steve has an abusive wife who has pulled his hair out of his head. He's getting a divorce, and he thinks his daughter is better off without him in the home, because his wife doesn't fly off the handle when he's not around.

"That's crap! Self-serving garbage!" Dr. Laura says. She keeps interrupting him, so he never quite gets his question out, and then she hangs up on him.

My 12-year-old daughter, who has been listening to the Dr. Laura show with me, finds her as appalling as I do. "First she says, `Don't tell me about the story, just ask the question.' She's rushing them," my daughter observes. "But then she says, `I can't answer the question, I don't know enough about it.'"

At this point, I realize that I have exposed my daughter to the same bad Dr. Laura influence that Dr. Laura has gone out of the way to avoid exposing her own son to.

I've made a big mistake. No, I mean, I've done wrong. I'd better call Dr. Laura and take my lumps. I know just how to begin: "Hi, Dr. Laura, I'm the father of my daughter, and I have sinned."

Then how the lash will fall. n

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