Dr. Laura will hector you now

With her new book, 'Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives,' Dr. Laura Schlessinger is betting that men are finally ready to start buying self-help.

Published August 20, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the radio talk-show host and bestselling author, kicks off her third book, "Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives," with a story from a listener who says, "An old Oregon rancher once told me, 'There are three types of men in the world. One type learns from books. One type learns from observations. And one type just has to urinate on the electric fence himself.'" With her new book, Schlessinger is betting that there are plenty of the first type of man out there, but she's betting against long-standing book industry wisdom about who buys relationship self-help books. If she's wrong, she (and HarperCollins, her publisher) may wind up feeling as shaken as the third type.

Schlessinger represents a new breed of author, what publishing industry marketing executives call a "franchise." John Gray ("Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus") personifies the franchise author. With seven books and dozens of cassette tapes, video tapes, CD-ROMs, seminars, even a new cruise program based on his Mars/Venus concept, the mountains of cash Gray rakes in dwarf the molehill takings of any "serious" writer, even a bestselling author like John Berendt ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"). Self-help books like Schlessinger's and Gray's (and, to a lesser degree, Jack Canfield's "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series) are the blazing stars in a market that feels like it's a universe apart from the rest of the beleaguered publishing industry. One thing publishers have always believed, though, is that all the inhabitants of that universe are "Venusians."

That belief, it turns out, is based on very little direct observation. While the most market-savvy publishers may be able to gauge how many copies of which book have sold in which parts of the country, nobody really knows who's buying them. Probably the people who shelled out 20 bucks for "Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them" and "Women Who Love Too Much" -- bestsellers in the 1980s -- were female, but what about less gender-specific franchises, like Leo Buscaglia's paeans to love and John Bradshaw's ministrations to the inner child? Who bought those?

Publishers still assume that those books were bought primarily by women, and so Carl Raymond, director of brand marketing at HarperCollins, isn't burning any bridges to self-help's bedrock following with the promotion for "Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives." "There's definitely a wink to women in this campaign," Raymond says. "The copy for the radio ads will be something like, 'If you're a man or trying to be a real man, this book is for you and the women who love and struggle with you.'"

Theories about why men supposedly shy away from the genre range from the cynical (they don't care enough about their relationships to "work on them") to the sociological (they've been trained not to deal with emotions) to the quasi-scientific (evolution has selected men who cut to the chase and have no patience for all that circular talk). Or perhaps men just don't, for some reason, view books as a particularly appealing resource, no matter what's bugging them. "When a man's going through a crisis," one book editor observed, "whether it's a divorce, a health problem, whatever, you don't see him coming back and saying, 'I just read such and such about it.' Women are the ones who like to go out and collect piles of information on the subject."

Others, like Raymond, suspect that while men may indeed read such books, they often don't want to be seen purchasing them, and so women still remain a primary target of self-help marketers. "Who buys this kind of book and who reads them are two different things," says Raymond. Still, if "Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives" must rely for its sales on female buyers seeking pointed gifts for their male friends, relatives and lovers -- well, chances are it's not going to sell over a million copies, as Schlessinger's first title, "Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives," did. Not even close. HarperCollins must believe that the gender gap in the self-help book market is narrowing, at least a little.

Gray's mammoth success suggests as much. A popularization (really a vulgarization) of the theories of linguist Deborah Tannen ("You Just Don't Understand"), Gray's Mars/Venus philosophy states that men and women come from fundamentally different "cultures," and can only communicate successfully if they bear this in mind. Like the work of most franchise authors, all of Gray's books iterate endlessly on this fairly basic theme -- sort of like a Phillip Glass composition. The simple genius of this notion (if it can be called that, and 10 million copies sold of Gray's first book alone tend to foster talk of genius) lies in the absence of blame. The relationship self-help genre is seen by most men as rife with male-bashing. A "Saturday Night Live" sketch once described an angry female character as the author of a book called "Women Good, Men Bad."

But women could drag their partners to Gray's bash-free seminars (he estimates that the attendees are 75 percent couples) with some hope that the men would be receptive. Even better, Gray's approach is essentially practical and results-oriented. He recommends basic, discrete strategies for ironing out conflict -- he can buy her more little presents, she can refrain from pestering him with demands for conversation the minute he walks in the door -- rather than vaguely insisting that men "become more sensitive" and "talk about their feelings." Instead of harping on one partner's preferences as the most correct or virtuous, he blandly attributes all conflicts to a clash between two beings from radically different societies: He's the multiculturalist of intimacy.

If Schlessinger seems poised to garner even more male readers for the relationship self-help genre, it's not because she shares Gray's namby-pampy relativism and abstention from fault-finding. In fact, Dr. Laura's fans revel in her frankness. "She has no problem telling you that you are an idiot if you've acted like one," as one listener put it. Blame -- or, in Schlessinger's terms, "moral accountability" -- is the cornerstone of her technique; she doesn't hesitate to condemn the ethically unfit as "sluts" and "bums." Schlessinger's hard-hitting, snap-judgment style betrays her roots in talk radio, a medium that feeds on exaggerated conflicts and often cartoonish moral polarities. Gray is a seminar kind of guy, tenting his hands and speaking in the smooth, pablumy tones of a corporate consultant or a minister to a wealthy, Protestant congregation. Schlessinger, on the other hand, runs roughshod over her flock.

And they love her for it. With a daily audience of 20 million, Schlessinger has the kind of regular mass media exposure that makes publishers salivate. Men make up 53 to 57 percent of her audience (estimates vary), and in Internet discussion groups they're some of her most avid fans. "I have a colleague that listens to her show while driving around with sales reps," says Raymond, "and they cheer her on. Her forthright, aggressive, no-nonsense approach appeals to men." She seems to have won many of them over to a concept -- radio psychologist -- that they had previously regarded with suspicion and boredom.

Schlessinger appeals to them for precisely those reasons that the burly sex usually avoids self-help: She's action-oriented, bearish on emotions and uninterested in endless talk and analysis. "To Dr. Laura, 99 percent of life's situations are black or white," marvels JaChri Taylor, a "loyal listener for almost two years." She'll cut off callers who strike her as making excuses or rationalizing, slicing with an Old Testament ruthlessness to what she sees as the core issue: What is the right thing to do? Her moral code -- based on her own conservative Judaism, with a strong emphasis on family unity, sexual restraint and child welfare -- has an almost geometrical consistency; like Sherlock Holmes, she attacks every problem in exactly the same way, and the spectacle comes from our own surprise at not seeing how she'd do it from the very start.

"Tell me what you think, not what you feel," Schlessinger is famous for saying, promising a life where the messiness of emotions, while not eliminated, can be conquered by the force of pure reason, backed by iron-clad values. While more traditional radio talk-show shrinks get bogged down in callers' incredibly labyrinthine masses of personal and interpersonal detail, she champions the lean, abstract absolutism that makes the decision to finally do something possible.

In both her new book and "Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives," Schlessinger also champions men themselves, while insisting on a distinction between mere "males" and real "men." "Within the context of your maleness, you should be able and willing to explore the possibilities which elevate you males to men," she writes. She's like the regular guy's Robert Bly, less interested in drumming and initiation rituals than in locating a clear-cut path to virtuous masculinity firmly rooted in traditional ideas of husband and father. Key to that effort are her frequent condemnations of feminism and the rest of the self-help tradition, which she derides as "whining about how men are unwilling to commit to women after minutes or millennia of dating." Any theory that allows anyone to attribute their problems to disease, dysfunction or oppression -- that is, factors they can't control -- Schlessinger roundly dismisses as "rationalizing their self-destructive behavior by identifying themselves as 'sick.'"

Ironically, most of the changes Schlessinger urges on her male readers -- become more responsible, available, emotional fathers and husbands; stop defining yourself through work; admit to a healthy need for intimacy; abandon the use of intimidation and passive aggression to control your partner; treat sexuality with more respect and quit expecting women to take care of you -- turn out to be pretty much what most women and, yes, even feminists (the reasonable majority, usually ignored on talk radio) have been requesting for years. By leading with fiery denunciations of the worst excesses of sob sister support groups and feminist separatists, and adopting the tough love mannerisms of a boot camp drill sergeant, Schlessinger manages to prevent her male fans from seeing such changes as a concession to man-haters and nagging wives. Instead, they become an affirmation of manhood. And by insisting on the incontrovertible, biological roots of masculinity, she finesses the fact that she's instructing men to act more like women, and avoids suggesting that some of their previous bad behaviors might be the product of social injustice.

Schlessinger's radio program can be exhilarating to listen to when she's in top form, blasting through a caller's impacted self-delusions and resentment to the essence of his or her problem. She's certainly right when she describes many Americans as severely lacking in personal responsibility. Unfortunately, she also caters to the all-too-American tendency to see morality as a matter of other people's behavior, an opportunity for self-righteousness rather than an impetus toward self-examination. Like much of talk radio, her program makes a spectacle of our fellow citizens' chagrin and humiliation at failing to live up to a ferociously stringent code of conduct.

It's one thing to listen to Dr. Laura harshly attack that unwed teenage mother -- it's another to apply her daunting standards to one's own infidelity, parental neglect and terror of vulnerability. But any man who buys a copy of "Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives" as much as admits that he has, in fact, messed up and probably needs help. If men do that (and right now, that's still a big "if"), it will be because they find certainty in Schlessinger's book, a fail-safe formula for understanding life's dilemmas handed to them, intact, by a stern maternal figure (often called "Mother Laura" by her listeners) who's famous for pronouncing, "Everything I say is true!"

There's more than a whiff of authoritarian fanaticism to the Schlessinger formula, an elimination of doubt and questioning that's reassuring in precisely the same way that religious and political fundamentalism can be. What she shares with other advice mavens is her appeal to a group of people who have spent decades ricocheting from one prescribed lifestyle to another, ears tuned to a parade of experts, each telling them what they're "supposed" to be. At the moment, many are listening to Schlessinger as she hectors her followers to assume the mantle of full adulthood by taking responsibility for their lives.

Whether the best way to become a "full adult" is really to place oneself in the hands of a scolding, infallible radio host (or anyone else, for that matter) is one of those questions that never gets asked.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------