Dr. Laura wouldn’t countenance Dr. Laura, that’s for sure. If the radio talk show host—who has written a slew of best-selling books and who regularly encourages her readers to “do the right thing”—got a call about a bullying, abusive friend who has an instant, headstrong opinion on everything, who views patience and compassion the same way Sarah Palin views science, it’s easy to imagine her response. She’d quickly adopt her incredulous lilt—a combination of “I can’t believe I’m wasting my time with this” and “I can’t believe you’re this stupid”—and tell the caller to cut her friend off immediately. If the caller persisted with a “But Dr. Laura...” or, worse, a “But maybe...”, she’d upbraid her for being so damn weak.
If Dr. Laura’s career isn’t over, it’s close; in the wake of a bizarre, n-word-laden rant, she announced on “Larry King” Tuesday that she’ll be retiring from the radio after more than 30 years on air. Still, it’s not as if she’d avoided controversy before this week. In 2000, her TV show didn’t last due in part to the uproar caused by some anti-gay comments she’d made earlier, such as calling homosexuality a “biological error.” Her biography, a whirlwind of naked photos and divorce, also clashes violently against her proclaimed on-air values. Yet for the most part, she hasn’t gotten quite the attention she deserves given her popularity and reach. She gets around eight million listeners a week, which is on par with Glenn Beck’s and Michael Savage’s radio shows, according to Michael Harrison of Talkers magazine. Liberals regularly work themselves up into a lather over the steady stream of invective spewed by the likes of Beck, Savage, and Rush Limbaugh, but have tended to give Dr. Laura something of a pass—all she does is give lame, retrograde advice, the thinking seems to go. At least she doesn’t misinform about politics.
This view is understandable. While in one sense the Becks and Limbaughs of the world are merely telling their audiences what they want to hear, they’ve also shown a nefarious ability to shape the political discourse simply by broadcasting any crazy rumor (Obama’s a Maoist! Death panels kill!) to millions. Still, though, Dr. Laura is worse. She spits a different, more powerful sort of awful. And it all has to do with the bizarre psychological dynamic between her and her audience.
Other right-wing hosts have a very simple, superficial relationship with their audiences—one couched in a comfortable sycophancy. Rush fans proudly proclaim themselves “dittoheads,” since they agree with everything he says. Sean Hannity’s fans greet him on the air by calling him a “great American.” When liberals call in to these shows, they yell at the hosts and the hosts yell back. It’s all sport: everyone knows her part and no one goes home with scrapes or bruises.
Dr. Laura’s show is another thing altogether. Her callers are sycophantic, yes, but also desperate and masochistic. They wait breathlessly to seek her wisdom even though they know she is likely to yell at or humiliate them. She’s erratic. Sometimes she’ll let callers fully tell their stories. Other times she’ll get immediately impatient. During one recent, surreal sequence, she told a caller with stepmother issues to sum up her problem in a single sentence, then, a minute later, told her to stop being so vague. Then she told her again to sum up her problem in a sentence. And then again she excoriated her listener for being too vague. “I’m not gonna get anywhere here,” she sighed, and one can’t help but think the hapless caller felt the same way.
The awfulness of Dr. Laura’s advice is proportional to the severity of the caller’s problem. A young woman named Jamie called in last week, thoroughly broken-sounding. She choked through her first words, thanking Dr. Laura for taking her call and thanking God for letting her get through. When her husband does certain things in bed, she says, sentences dissolving into tears, “it reminds me of being molested when I was young.” She wants to get past it, to live a healthy life with her husband.
Dr. Laura has a question: “Why are you still crying about it?”
“Because it still bothers me, because I...” she starts to say before Dr. Laura interrupts.
“Oh whoa whoa whoa whoa!” she says. “Don’t give me the usual nonsense here.”
Over the course of the next six and a half soul-eating minutes, Dr. Laura explains some things to Jamie. She needs to just get over being molested. God gave her sexuality, which she’s wasting “because some jerk did something evil. Makes no sense to me. To me that’s affronting God.” It’s foolish for Jamie, at 29, to spend time thinking about what happened when she was 8. “It manipulates a man real good,” Dr. Laura says, and that’s what Jamie’s doing to her husband with all her whining about being molested. She convinces Jamie that she’s mad at her husband and is using this whole molestation thing to punish him. When Jamie explains that she wants her husband to hold her more, Dr. Laura says, “You’re emasculating your husband so he’ll be a father, because you don’t have sex with your father.” She has a solution: “Tonight, you’re gonna seduce your husband, and you’re gonna have a damn good time.”
That’s it. That’s her advice: Don’t worry about it. Seduce your husband. “Stop with the crying, stop with the sniveling, stop with the whining.” I sent the clip to Dr. Bruce Perry, an expert on child trauma. He wasn’t amused: “She was insensitive and distorted what this woman said,” he wrote in an email. “She bullied the caller into affirming some detailed, overly-simplistic interpretation of the caller’s problems with minimal information. In sum it was an unprofessional and uninformed way to respond to the problem this woman presented.” Then, in his next email: “[H]opefully the woman will seek real professional help.”
But that’s the problem: There’s no reason to think she, or the vast majority of Dr Laura’s callers, will. There’s some brutal self-selection at work here: Dr. Laura’s callers are, by definition, the people who will call into a nationally syndicated talk show to attempt to resolve, in five or six minutes, oftentimes major problems. A mostly over-35, female crowd, according to Harrison of Talkers. Most of the callers are big fans. They listen every day and read her books and internalize her shallow advice. They call in either in spite of or because of the fact that she will strip them down, bully advice into them, toss aside nuance like unwanted fat on a steak.
Her appeal to this demographic is less mysterious than it appears at first. They call in with problems that appear life-sized, and Dr. Laura turns them into Post-It-sized caricatures that can easily be folded up and tossed away. So what if they have to endure some paper cuts to get there? For all they know, they deserve it—or why else would their lives be such messes?
And because her callers seem to yearn for punishment, Dr. Laura provides it in the form of sweeping pronouncements and dire predictions. “Well, they’re not really your friends,” she says to a woman whose close friends made plans that conflicted with her schedule. “You’re going to have a miserable life,” she says to a young bride-to-be with future-mother-in-law issues. When a woman calls in asking for advice on how to help her two-year-old son adjust to the impending deployment of her military husband, Dr. Laura tells her that he might be OK, but “you, on the other hand, will be a basket case.” It sounds playful at first, but it goes on: “Yes, you’re going to be wrecked. You’re going to be messed up.” There’s a thrill to her voice as she delivers the prediction.
An obvious theory bubbles up out of all this anger and pessimism and naysaying: Dr. Laura hates her callers. But that’s not quite it. It’s more that she hates human foibles, the complexity and gray areas and awkward, unwieldy social and familial arrangements that make homo sapiens such a simultaneously fascinating and infuriating species. This comes through clearest whenever, during the awkward silences she generates with the same efficiency with which China produces portable electronics, a caller laughs nervously. “Why are you laughing?” she’ll ask, like a robot who simply can’t understand the human behavior she’s observing. And the callers eat it up. Tune in. Come back for more.
There’s a real risk that Dr. Laura could become a footnote, mostly forgotten and mentioned only in reference to her bizarre, career-ending diatribe. This would be a shame, because although she may not foment asinine theories about Obama’s citizenship or encourage Tea Partiers to protest the government programs they themselves benefit from, she nonetheless deserves a space in the pantheon of radio antiheroes. Yes, for her sheer focused damage to individuals and for potentially life-ruining advice delivered to millions, we should erect a big statue of Dr. Laura, her aging Barbie Doll rictus grin glaring down at visitors and always judging, judging, judging.
Jesse Singal writes for The Boston Globe‘s opinion pages. He can be reached at [email protected].