Years ago, she would have been called "a common scold." Today, she's deemed "a pain in the ass," "dictatorial," "rude," "overemotional," "a fraud," "Laura the hen," "a psychological bag lady" and "our national mommy."
"I pretty much preach, teach and nag," Dr. Laura Schlessinger told a reporter from the Washington Post. "It's not pop psychology at all. If anything, it's a new genre ..."
Schlessinger can be heard three hours a day in almost every corner of America. They say that her audience exceeds 18 million on 450 radio stations and over 50 percent of her listeners are men. Fifty-thousand people try to call in each day. Her syndicated show recently sold for $71.5 million.
Schlessinger's themes are protect the child, practice family unity, use sexual restraint, stop making excuses and don't interrupt me. "Tell me what you think, not what you feel," she says. "Everything I say is true," she confesses.
She grew up in Brooklyn and on Long Island, with a Catholic mother and a Jewish father. She was a loner in high school and college, but no one could miss her intensity. She was fascinated with science, and got her Ph.D. at Columbia University.
In the midst of her divorce in 1975, she moved to Los Angeles, and tuned in to Bill Ballance and his radio talk-show. She called up during a program about divorce, and they spoke, on the air, for 20 minutes. He then arranged to meet her, using the oldest of come-hither lines, "Someday you're going to be an international radio star."
The radio gods must have been smiling down on her, because Ballance was the originator of a new, and rather daring, on-the-air confessional program. Before Ballance, call-ins had been people discussing their fishing trips and their kids and cats and politics of the non-confrontational variety. Then suddenly it was all love, lust and passion. Ballance, according to those who knew his show, "talked about sex incessantly."
Dr. Norton Kristy, another on-the-air radio shrink, said the program "evolved into an invitation being extended to women to talk about their most intimate fears and hopes and issues in their lives. Bill did that. He was the first in America to do it, and within three years, he was widely copied in America and around the world."
If Dr. Laura was seeking to become famous, she picked the right guy. If she was looking for someone who would keep her deepest secrets, she didn't. Over the years, Ballance seems to have lost whatever little affection he had for his old squeeze. His uncensored memories of their time together have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair and other newspapers and magazines. They are uniformly obnoxious, highly personal and hilarious.
For instance, there's the matter of pet names. He called Laura his "Little Plum," she called him her "Pillow Plumsicles." She wrote notes to him signed, "Your Tottle Bug." "We used to thrash around like a couple of crazed weasels," he told Vanity Fair. He dubbed her "Ku Klux." Why? "Because she is a wizard in the sheets."
He didn't limit his comments to their love affair. "We were sitting in the Musso and Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard one day and I said, 'You're scratching your head and a cloud of dandruff is floating over into my consommi.'"
"Talk about gnashing your teeth; it was an actual snarl. She said, 'Don't you ever tell anyone I have psoriasis.' I said to Laura, 'If it weren't for your psoriasis you wouldn't have any character at all.'
A while back, as most everyone knows by now, Ballance sold off some photographs he took of her. In the buff. These went for a pretty penny ($50,000 is the figure mentioned) to the Internet Entertainment Group. Like every other lurid thing you could possibly want -- or have nightmares about -- they are now online, listed as "Dr. Laura's Dirty Dozen." As the folks over at "Mr. Showbiz," commented shortly after the pictures were published: "There are several frightening things you hope never to hear in life. The first might be, 'It's malignant.' But the next up would have to be, "Nude pictures of Dr. Laura are now available for download."
She calls herself Dr. Laura. But, according to the California Board of Behavioral Science Examiners, "Nobody is allowed to use 'Doctor' unless they are a medical doctor or ... a professor in the psychological field with a clinical license." Schlessinger has a Ph.D., but it isn't in psychology --- it's in physiology. Her doctorate was entitled "Effects of Insulin on 3-0 Methylglucose Transport in Isolated Rat Adipocytes." According to one of her professors, she spent most of her doctoral training time "pulling fat pads off rat testicles."
I asked a friend of mine who works in the field what "Methylglucose Transport" is all about. He said, "It's the standard, routine, crushingly dull thing done back in the days before DNA research. Physiology is the term used for lower-level biochemistry. However," he concluded, "it does not sound like an obvious portal into psychology, even of the broadcast variety."
Despite all this, and despite the fact that many consider Laura Schlessinger the dragon lady of talk radio, some of us can't help but admire her. She is snippish, overbearing and often insulting --- but anybody who has the temerity to call in to her program knows what they are going to get, especially if they plead ignorance or innocence.
Not only does Schlessinger stick it to all those tedious people who call up on the air, she does it, in spades, to those who pay for outside appearances. In 1997, she appeared before the League of Dallas at a benefit. It was a question-and-answer session. In response to what she thought was a dumb question, she said, "If you listened to my program, you'd know those are the kind of things I'm not even going to address: They are too frivolous."
Later, at another meeting, she said, "I'm glad to be in Dallas. You look so good. I expected to find a bunch of overweight people." Someone got up and says she wanted to know how to deal with being grandmother to "intermarried children." Laura snapped, "My grandmother's dead. I wouldn't say anything because my grandmother's dead."
The Dallas contingent paid Dr. Laura $30,000 to come and insult them. So be it. There are some fine people out there in the world of psychotherapy, those who have rare insights into families and the theories of family therapy, those who have spent years in the trenches --- people like Jay Haley, Cloe Madanes, Salvador Minuchin and Mara Selvini Palazzoli. Any organization fool enough to pay $30,000 for an appearance by a drive-time bug doctor instead of getting an honest professional for a tenth of the cost deserves, we do believe, what they get.
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Vickie Bane, the author of "Dr. Laura," writes for People magazine, and it shows. She's one of those writers direct from the breathless school of journalism, where a sentence, for some reason, is considered to be co-equal to a paragraph.
The book starts out with an interview with Schlessinger's mother, who Laura hasn't seen or called for 14 years. Bane puts it right up front. Now we know what kind of hypocrite she is, it seems to be telling us. But if Laura doesn't necessarily practice what she preaches --- who does? I've gone to psychotherapists who've had hideous family lives --- brothers and sisters not speaking to each other, parents murdering each other with hate, cheatin' husbands and wives. That didn't stop them from encouraging me to maintain good communication with a parent or with my siblings.
Bane quotes endless nosy speculations about Laura's psychological state-of-mind --- doubtful insights not from professionals, but from other on-the-air gab-fest shrinks. "My own observations were that Laura had experienced a great deal of childhood insecurity and need," intones Dr. Norman Kristy, who has his own on-the-air psychology pop show, "and that it had left her with a rather hard outer shell in which she was sardonic and humorous, and pretended to a degree of tough-minded strength that really did not go very deep."
Dr. Carole Lieberman, who writes a "celebrity psychoanalysis column," mutters darkly, "Dr. Laura has a lot of demons that are hidden, suppressed."
Marilyn Kagan, with her own television agony show in Los Angeles, says, "[Dr. Laura] has a right to her own opinion, but the way she expresses herself is so demeaning ... It supports the denial of her hostility."
As my beloved mother would say, "Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth."
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Marshall McLuhan famously opined that television was a "cool" medium, while radio was a "hot tribal drum."
"For tribal peoples, for those whose entire social existence is an extension of family life, radio will ... be a violent experience," he wrote in "Understanding Media." "It takes cartoon characters seriously." At the time, he was referring to Nikita Khrushchev --- but if McLuhan were alive today, these cartoon figures would be the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, Gordon Liddy, Toni Grant, Don Imus --- and Laura Schlessinger.
If you think of Dr. Laura as an expert, offering true psychological insight, forget it. She's an expert motivational entertainer, right up there with all the other McLuhanesque drummers. Her medium is the harsh, raspy voice of AM radio. With her terse comments, her impatience with her "clients," her famous rants --- she's perfect for the job of being the national nag.
I would also suggest that we have to love Dr. Laura not only for being so tacky, but also for having posed au naturel for an old sweetie. There are those of us out here who would give a pretty penny to have such a shrink; one with the chutzpah to strip down to nothing more than skin and bone for her honey's camera --- calling him "Your Tottle Bug" all the while.
Most of all, I believe we should love Schlessinger for her bubbles.
As Bane tells it, when Laura and her husband Lew moved to Lake Arrowhead, Calif., she bought a Cobalt --- what some call "the Mercedes of speed boats." After she got it, and more than once, according to people at the local marina, "She kept insisting there was something wrong with this boat because of the bubbles, and she wanted the owners to take it back."
Something wrong with the bubbles?
Yeah. She said that "the bubbles that come up from the back of her boat didn't look like everyone else's bubbles."
How could you not love her for that?