Shrink wars

Dr. Joy may have beaten Dr. Laura to the tube, but she can't win on the bestseller lists.


Sally Eckoff
March 23, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Observers of the human zoo, have you
been noticing a surge in animal behavior
in unlikely places? There's been a lot
of nature-show activity on the radio
lately. You've got your noisy males
carrying on with their puffing and
snarling, despite the torpor of the one
alpha guy who's firmly glued to his
roost. Spend some time sorting out the
territorial noises, the shrieks from the
gurgles from the motherly cooing, and
you'll see that the real story is with
the nesting females -- the
past-breeding-age ones who are into
monitoring the flock. Catch them at the
right moment and they're scrapping like
mad. Yes, bird-watchers, the radio
shrinks are at it again. Listen to the
song of the small-clawed bottle-blond
(Dr. Laura Schlessinger) in the presence
of the larger but less aggressive
ruby-throated handholder (Dr. Joy
Browne). You may need earplugs. Though
the first species has been much in the
news of late, the second is making a
viable bid for dominance.

Not long ago, these two birds inhabited
such different regions of the dial that
their opinions seldom collided. As the
traditional daytime gal, Dr. Laura
razzes the working stiffs, including
mothers who have the kinds of jobs that
allow them to listen while they drive,
cook, iron or type. Dr. Joy, in
contrast, has always been the psych babe
for the desperate hours, crooning
through the midnight road trips, the
insomniac intervals with crosswords and
Scotch. A couple of years ago, though,
something began to shift in the Dr.
Laura habitat. Her feckless listeners --
the ones who provided the juicy
entertainment -- realized she was going
to shred them every time, and stopped
calling. There would be no more "I've
dated this girl for two months and now
she's pregnant; do I have to marry her?"
no more puzzled roui pondering his
conquests on the air and suddenly
bursting into tears. Now her show is all
people who want to discipline their
pastors and outlaw co-ed camping, salted
with dispatches from ex-spouses screwing
around with each others' visitation
schedules.

Advertisement:

Meanwhile, Dr. Joy has been flying
reconnaissance missions into Dr. Laura's
airspace. She landed a daytime TV show
months before the one promised
Schlessinger by Paramount. Not only
that, but in some key locales, Joy's
radio gig has been moved to daytime,
enabling listeners to toggle back and
forth between the two. Now you can
compare them more closely than ever
before. Joy and Laura never mention each
other by name, but for those who closely
observe their behavior, it's obvious
there's a covert rumble going on.
They'll be ramming each other head-on
any minute.

Dr. Laura is naturally irritating to
begin with. Her voice evokes the
high-pitched "whaaang!" a skinny board
makes when you rip it with a table saw.
Not that we can blame her for that:
Early listeners will remember her
frustrated joking about having to take
singing lessons. She really should
consider not ratcheting up the aural
pain any further, though: Her robotic
disco theme song (by Patti LaBelle) is
so screechily out of tune that Quincy
Jones' music director once faxed the
show, begging Dr. Laura to find
something else.

Schlessinger's an East Coast gal
originally, but she displays a showoffy
gloss that seems like it was picked up
during her conquest of L.A. A photo of
her in Vanity Fair showed her flexing
her stringy muscles next to her pool in
a Bob Mackie-looking jeweled evening
gown, her glittery blonde hair teased
into a foofy helmet. Her cutesy lingo --
"Boonchkin" means child, "warmies" are
sexual attraction -- doesn't help,
either. A dispassionate listener might
conclude that in her world, there's
something morally expedient in having a
tin ear.

Dr. Joy, from New Orleans, can afford to
disagree. Even on a bad day, she sounds
like Eve Arden mouthing off to James
Stewart in "Anatomy of a Murder":
mature, smoky, wryly secretarial. She
talks too fast, but it adds to the
impression that the weight of her
knowledge makes her nervous. This cagey
woman does her broadcasting from New
York, which gives her a tastier range of
sonorities in her callers; weary
Brooklynese trumps flat-voweled
Californian any time. Browne's also the
only radio talk-show host to slip the
Ink Spots and Esquivel into her bump
music.

Dr. Laura could smear Dr. Joy in a
snowball fight, no question:
Schlessinger has a black belt in
hapkido, after all. But on the tube,
Browne's got some pair of legs to go with
that voice. Furthermore, her attacks of
silliness in front of her studio
audience make her fascinating and
vaguely alarming to watch, like a
continuously exploding souffli. A
typical episode has her listening to a
man whose affair, he claimed, was an
accident. He hadn't meant to have sex.
It just happened. "Oh please!" Browne
bellowed at him, jumping up so fast in
her agitation that she nearly fell over
backward. "You have to unzip your pants"
-- she gesticulated wildly, whirling her
arms like windmills -- "You have to whip
it out" -- grand penis-presentation
gesture here -- "It doesn't just
happen!" Try that in an Ann Taylor suit
sometime.

Dr. Joy may have bested Dr. Laura on the
TV front of her multimedia assault, but
there's one arena where she can't seem
to catch her tiny rival: Browne doesn't
have the knack for penning bestsellers.
She's written six books already, but
"Dating for Dummies" and "Why They Don't
Call When They Say They Will" just
aren't going to have the is-what-am of a
zingy Dr. Laura title. "Nine Fantasies
That Will Ruin Your Life (And the Eight
Realities That Will Save You)" is
probably Browne's best attempt to get a
bounce from Schlessinger's "Ten
Stupid Things"
gimmick. But you see
the problem: a nonjudgmental, rolling
method of assessment ("nonjudgmental" is
Dr. Joy's middle name) is no match for a
neat Dr. Laura concept you can
flagellate yourself with. "Nobody's
Perfect: How to Stop Blaming and Start
Living" (another Dr. Joy opus) will
never cut it when there's Schlessinger's
"How Could You Do That?!" to chew on.
Shame saps energy and depotentiates
change: That's Dr. Joy in a nutshell.
Shame keeps people in line when nothing
else works: Dr. Laura. The comparisons
get starker the harder you look.

Advertisement:

Self-righteousness is the gateway to a
fruitless life, Dr. Joy admonishes in
her "Nine Fantasies" book. She might as
well slap Dr. Laura in the face with a
steelhead; "Self-righteous" is the
No. 1 epithet assigned to morality
warriors like Schlessinger who think the
Ten Commandments aren't
self-explanatory. (Dr. Laura wrote a
book about them. She loves things in
groups of 10.)

Nine fantasies plus eight realities
makes 17 concepts for Joy to cram a lot
of meaningful advice into. She tries,
but the effort to make a measured,
cohesive concept out of the enterprise
is doomed by her compulsion to drag
nonjudgmentalness into everything she
says. Fantasy No. 1, "There's No Place
Like Home," is not terribly different
from No. 4, "The Truth Will Set Me
Free," at least the way she explains it.
No. 6, "Ignorance is Bliss" is a lot
like No. 8, "Good Always Triumphs," but
directly opposed to No. 4, which
collides resoundingly into Reality No.
7: "People Do Things For Reasons."

Using a Q&A format in which Browne
apparently pens the questions as well as
the answers, she's able to skew the
proceedings any way she wants to. But
she always comes to the same conclusion:
The letter-writer winds up in the
doghouse for meddling and smugness, even
when the complaint is that the
letter-writer's brother may be beating
up the letter-writer's niece. (This was
filed under Reality No. 1, "Never Tell
Someone Something They Already Know.")
You probably can't help the girl, says
Dr. Joy. "You can do quite a lot,
however, about your own shortcomings."

What Dr. Joy is about is examining
yourself before you hop all over other
people. "Queenie" probably should have
done that instead of writing to say she
feels unloved because her bridge club
didn't appreciate her gift of two dozen
brownies. Dr. Joy gave herself an earful
on that one. (It falls under Fantasy No.
7, "Stick to Your Guns.") From
admonishing Queenie for doing good just
so she can score a little gratitude,
Browne launches into a definition of
socialization ("Somebody has to invent
ways of increasing the probability that
individuals will do the right thing")
and eventually winds up nosing into one
of the Big Questions: "Who determines
what's good and what's evil?" Queenie
may think the subject is brownies and
thwarted generosity. The real deal is,
she wants those bridge ladies punished
for lacking the virtue of thankfulness.

Advertisement:

From brownies to moral certitude in
three paragraphs: That's either too much
caffeine, or an agenda. Browne, now
definitively off to the races, warns us
away from catastrophic personality types
like Queenie: "Heaven protect us from
folks who are only trying to ... Help/Be
Honest/Be Kind/Do The Right Thing," she
says. The alert shrink-watcher will spot
that red flag: "Do the right thing" is
how Dr. Laura signs off every hour. It's
been her habit for a year, possibly two.
Habitual listeners can hear her yelp
that phrase 15 times a week.

"Knowing your own agenda is a good
beginning," says Dr. Joy. If the
Enquirer is to be believed these days --
big if -- Browne's agenda is to make
sure people recognize Schlessinger for a
bully and a fraud. Dr. Joy has a Ph.D. in
psychology, she'll have us know. Dr.
Laura's is in physiology. (But Dr. Laura
doesn't go around saying she's a
shrink.) This name-calling turned up in
an article in which Dr. Joy confessed to
having snorted coke in the Reagan White
House. Everybody's a hypocrite, even
me, the confession implied. But we know
lots of much bigger hypocrites, don't
we? Especially proponents of premarital
purity whose naked how-do-you-dos have been
flashed all over the Internet.

Dr. Laura had to endure that nasty
little scandal. But that was nearly two
years ago, and she's been acting as
freaked-out as if it were yesterday. The
few minutes of social commentary she
uses to kick off each hour have begun to
mutate and grow into surprisingly
vitriolic rants. Either she's getting
not enough sleep or too much karate or
maybe both; Dr. Laura seems to be coming
unglued. She's started coming down all
over her callers before they get a
chance to blurt out two sentences.

Advertisement:

She's also fresh out of patience with
people who can't, or won't fit in: "They
give you what you want so you won't hurt
them," she once memorably admonished a
woman whose lesbian teenager had lied
about being gay. That was the old Dr.
Laura. The new one is big time into the
biblical idea of homosexuality as a sin.
They can't get married, she fumes, so
they want to destroy marriage. The Gay
and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation
is taking out newspaper ads to protest this recent hobby horse.
And as for those feminists, well, they
won't be happy until everybody gets
third-trimester abortions. Dr. Laura's
son just entered teenhood. Maybe she's
afraid an army of perverts is
about to swoop in and nab him.

Dr. Laura also got obsessed with the
American Psychological Association --
for a while, she was ripping it every
day -- because it supposedly printed a
study's findings on the nonharmful
aspects of adult sexual relationships
with children. This makes out the APA to
be flag-wavers for NAMBLA, pederasty and
homosexual 'recruitment', or so
Schlessinger seems to think. Did she
ever see the article? Listening to her
show, and I mean a lot, you can't tell.
When was it published? Is this male
adults and female children, female
adults and male children ` la Mary Kay
LaTourneau and her sebaceous Romeo? Can
we even be sure that this study exists?
The APA awarded Dr. Joy its presidential
medal the year "Nine Fantasies" came
out; we do know that.

Even grazing far outside Dr. Laura's
normal stomping grounds, Dr. Joy hasn't
been able to resist saying things
guaranteed to make the Conservative
Canary go nuts. Dr. Joy's newest book is
about male-female relationships. Dr.
Laura doesn't do relationships.
Relationships lead to dating and dating
leads to sex. Discussing any of this
would mess up the gestalt of her theme,
which is that we should cease and desist
from sexual frolicking so we can sort
out whose children are whose. Dr. Joy's
idea of a fresh perspective on the whole
sexual mess, the 1999 book "It's a
Jungle Out There, Jane: Understanding
The Male Animal," posits that an
accretion of animal social habits makes
the human male incomprehensible to
women.

Advertisement:

Dr. Laura, of course, is of the
Katharine Hepburn (as in "The African
Queen") school of social intercourse: We
were put on this Earth to rise above
nature. Browne tries to improve the
relations between the sexes by
explaining tarantula motility and the
territorial habits of grouse. She uses
zebra herd behavior to help explain why
it's better for men to be adaptable
rather than simply brawny. "Men aren't
from Mars and women aren't from Venus,"
she insists. No, men are from the jungle
and women are from the fireside. It's
basically the same concept in a rougher,
more macho-friendly form.

That's Browne's idea of a happy
biosphere: Women playing along with
men's inner zebras or bears or ferrets,
making heterosexuality so much easier.
Harmony in the home, however, demands
that we not entirely knuckle under to
nature, according to Browne. No matter how
bonded Mom may feel when she's nesting
with her kiddies, she's got to get out
of the house and make some money. "Real
change won't happen until we decide that
our children are as important as work,"
Browne says. "And children won't be as
important as work until women take some
of the financial responsibility off
men." That leap of logic is a Dr. Joy
trademark.

Last week, a stressed-out mother of kids
ages 3, 5, 7 and 9 called Dr. Joy's
radio show. The advice? "Get a job." If
Dr. Laura is famous for any one
pronouncement (after "homosexuality is
deviant"), it's that day care is the
worst thing to happen to American
children since polio. She'd be flinging
Joy's book right across her Beverly
Hills living room if she knew what was
in it. Dr. Laura's ideal of an
everpresent, homebound mother may be
extreme, but it's grounded in compassion
for confused young minds. Dr. Joy's
contrarian view that the female of the
species ought to get the heck out of the
nest isn't an effective counter to
Schlessinger's position. In fact, it
doesn't dent it at all. Get out of the
nest to make room for what? A jungle
dude who thinks nurturing is femmy?

This is getting weird. Schlessinger and Browne may
be guilty of exaggerating the contrast
between their personal views and what
they think the competition is saying.
But in much the same way that some of
Schlessinger's views seem to be skirting
some terribly vulnerable territory in
her own life, Browne appears to be
trying to exculpate some painful moment
of her past.

Advertisement:

It looks as though we're being
entertained by a pair of know-it-alls
who can't get a line on their
Weltschmerz for long enough to wrestle
it into submission. This could drain all
the fun out of being a radio voyeur
because it means we have to decide which
one of the pair is closer to identifying
the real demons in human nature. Whether
we like her or not, Dr. Laura wins.
Swayed by her own fears, bent by odd and
irrational prejudices, she judges, and
invites judging. That's a whole lot more
illuminating, and ultimately more
interesting, than listening to a
nonjudgmental woman not judging.

It takes a lot of work to sift through
this cacophony of shrinkish squeaking
and shrieking in search of something
useful -- not to mention true. There's
more harmonic justice in tuning out
these media starlings, opening the
window, and giving a listen to the real
thing.


Sally Eckoff

MORE FROM Sally Eckoff

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

Books Psychology




BROWSE SALON.COM
COMPLETELY AD FREE,
FOR THE NEXT HOUR

Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address

•••


Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •