I was sitting in therapy describing an in-law I like, and quickly heading for a "but."
"He's a loving, caring, selfless man -- but his politics are all about hatred," I said. "He's not educated, and more significant, he's ignorant -- he actually listens to Rush Limbaugh."
I waited for a "Whoo boy!" or a sympathetic smile, but my shrink just stared at me, expressionless.
"I assume you're not a Limbaugh fan," I ventured, assured that this woman, so nuanced in her thinking, couldn't possibly be a Dittohead. She was so reasonable that I couldn't imagine her getting off on Rush's demented tirades. She didn't seem square enough for his politics, and I was certain no hate radio fan was capable of her intellectual sophistication. Besides, she was an educated urban Jewish professional, and Rush's audience consisted largely of white suburban males.
She held my gaze a few excruciating seconds longer. "Actually, I am," she said. My moral compass began spinning wildly. I was suddenly sitting with someone new. The levelheaded sage in whom I'd confided for nearly a year had been replaced by an off-the-rack ideologue.
There were five minutes left in the session, and I felt like running. "Well, this could devolve into a whole political discussion, so I'll just finish the story," I rallied.
For the next week, I struggled with an overwhelming sense of betrayal. It was as if she'd been rooting around in the drawers of my mind under false pretenses. I had entrusted her with my darkest secrets: We'd covered the deaths of my father and stepfather; family troubles; career worries, everything from nightmares about rape to -- even worse -- a recent dream in which I was sleeping with the man I considered to be the epitome of 20th century masculinity gone wrong: John Wayne. And he was paunchy.
My shrink was fair in her thinking, focused in her probing, able to see all sides of an issue. Yet she considered Rush Limbaugh to be an acceptable human being? An arrogant, small-minded, hypocritical bigot? The family-values man who's been married three times and blames the divorce rate on liberals? The soapbox patriot who didn't vote until he was 35, and then only because a journalist outed him? I couldn't square her sensitive touch with the knowledge that she bought into Rush's bone-headed binarism and uncivil discourse.
When I told one of my sisters about my discovery, she responded flatly, "You can't see her anymore." She didn't see how my therapy could succeed if I didn't trust my therapist's judgment. "Well, we all have our quirks," my other sister said. "I watch 'Survivor' every week." She shared my misperception that educated people don't listen to Rush -- except as a form of cultural slumming in the ill-mannered freak show of talk radio. "Maybe her interest in Rush is ironic," suggested a friend who, like me, listens to shock jocks now and then just to see what the radical right says the liberal conspiracy is up to, and to marvel at how much air time they devote to bashing Democrats, exposing their own ideological unease. But my shrink's Rush habit wasn't an ironic posture or an idle tour of enemy territory. She was serious; her admission was unqualified.
At the next session, I told her that her disclosure was a huge problem for me, and we spent the hour talking about Rush, who had just entered rehab. I enjoyed saying the words, "It doesn't bother me that he's a drug addict," before explaining that I couldn't reconcile his ideology of snarling intolerance with her professional persona. I granted her that I didn't even find his recent Donovan McNabb gaffe worth losing his ESPN gig over, and neither did most of my black journalism students, but I wouldn't forgive him for telling a black caller, years ago, to take the bone out of his nose and call back later, among other cracks. She'd never heard this. I didn't mention that he'd called 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton the White House dog, or that he'd claimed that all composite illustrations of criminals look like Jesse Jackson, or that he'd joked about AIDS.
When I told her that -- with all due respect -- I had never met an educated person who listened to Limbaugh (a college dropout), she insisted that many of his callers are educated. "I think he's a very intelligent man," she said.
"He may be very intelligent," I said, "but his mind is a corkscrew." I mentioned that Limbaugh's diatribes, heavy on ad hominem attack and logical fallacy, embody the sort of faux-reasoning I trot out for my composition students to illustrate how not to write an argument. Then there are the Stephen Glass-caliber fabrications, which both filled a 1995 book published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and helped Al Franken land a bestseller. (Quoth Rush: "There are more acres of forestland in America today than when Columbus discovered the continent in 1492.")
But mainly, I said, I couldn't understand how my shrink, a champion of civility and personal accountability, could buy the vitriol of hate radio -- not to mention the self-serving sanctimony of a rehabee who advocated jail for all drug addicts. ("If people are violating the law by doing drugs," the pill-popping pope of WABC has opined, "they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up.")
She listened patiently, then said she didn't hear the hatred or lies I heard on his show. She wasn't defensive. She didn't care if I detested Rush, and she didn't see why I cared that she liked him, though she did admit that she should never have revealed it in therapy.
"Do you think I've helped you?" she asked.
"Absolutely," I answered.
"Does the knowledge that I listen to Rush change anything you've learned here?"
"No." But secretly I feared it would now. I felt like Larry David in the season finale of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," an episode in which he's happily being seduced -- until a photo of Bush 43 on the woman's dresser kills his passion and turns his stomach.
The next week we picked up where we'd left off two weeks earlier. Rush faded into history but continued to haunt me. There were moments when my shrink warned me about the dangers of taking responsibility for too many people around me, and I thought, "Is this just the selfish, boot-strapper, I-got-mine Republican approach to human interaction? Is it what Dr. Laura would advise?"
Outside of therapy, I wondered, Would my shrink condone Laura Ingraham's adolescent on-air mockery of people like Terri Gross? If Ann Coulter were sitting in my shrink's office saying she wished Timothy McVeigh had blown up the New York Times building, would my shrink suggest she start coming twice a week? Would the words "danger to society" come to mind?
And how would my shrink, a successful professional in New York, counsel Rush, who believes that "feminism was established so that unattractive women could have access to the mainstream of society"? Would she tell him that his dismal marital history might be rooted in his infantile belief that "if you want a successful marriage, let your husband do what he wants to do"?
Professionally, she counseled against virtually all of Rush's rhetorical techniques: name-calling, "provocative" language, finger pointing and mudslinging -- diversions, she would say, from the project of self-realization. Privately, she got something from Rush. I would never know what it was -- but by now it hardly seemed worth pondering, if it hadn't affected my therapy. Week after week, my shrink impressed me with her insights. She may have been a hate radio subscriber, but in the cloister of her own office, she didn't judge. She met me on my own terms, which required precisely the kind of tolerance Rush rejects. And she taught me lessons that changed my life.
I only wish she could do the same for Rush.