Monday, September 26, 2005

Dr. Laura

I am so sick of this woman.

In Vegas, our radio afternoon-talk options are pretty limited. Dr. Laura is on the most prominent talk station, and she's on every weekday from noon to 3, which is the time when I'm most likely to be on the road. It's either her, a stock program or a sports program - slim pickings. Again and again, driven to choose one of these three choices out of boredom, I end up saying "Well, I'll give Dr. Laura one more chance." I always regret it.

Let me expose Dr. Laura's one trick. Becuase, it IS just one trick. Here goes:

People call in with personal problems: relationship problems and family problems. The problems range from fairly minor tiffs to "my children just died in a fire" and everything in between. Dr. Laura listens, diagnoses, and advocates a course of action. The caller wipes away a tear and says "Thanks, Dr. Laura." Goodbye. Next caller. Okay. Dr. Laura's technique is to take any situation and make it conform to a preconceived 3-act story of problem/personal growth/resolution.

Dudn't matter what the problem is! Could be any problem at all! She's performing a magic trick - the same trick, over and over. The thing about these callers is, their problems are usually fairly complex; they're layered, they have shades of gray, they involve years of relationship history, they involve deep-seated behavioral patterns and psychological turmoil. These aren't simple problems with simple solutions. But Dr. Laura will take this problem, interrupt the caller as soon as she has heard enough of it to put it in one of her standard pigeonholes, and perform the magic trick. The magic trick is that surprise! Your problem is really quite simple! See, in the Dr. Laura philosophy, there are only about eight problems. There's the woman who's getting stepped on and has to assert herself. There's the lazy, weak woman who's shirking her obligation to God and husband. There's the woman who's boyfriend has some bad habit and needs to be given an ultimatum. There's the man who needs a wakeup call that his childrens' welfare is paramount and all other concerns are secondary. And a few others I might be forgetting. Once Dr. Laura has established which of the eight problems she is currently dealing with, she can cut off the caller - his role is over. Now the story proceeds to its climax. The caller knows she is being stepped on / abused, she knows it! Furthermore, she knows what she has to do! Why are we even wasting Dr. Laura's time with something so obvious? All that's left is a tearful acknowledgement from the caller that Dr. Laura hit the nail on the head, and it's another one in the books.

Dan Savage, who writes Savage Love, also has this kind of kick-in-the-pants, tough love style of advice giving. He'll tell it to you straight and he won't mince words. There won't be any sensitive preamble, and he won't be delicate. But Dan Savage is also capable of changing gears and acknowledging a difficult, complex question with no clear answers. He'll sometimes change his mind. He'll post responses from readers and experts who weigh in with divergent opinions. He's quick to say "Dump the Motherfucker Already" but he's equally likely to see a gray area and seek compromise. When have you ever heard Dr. Laura talk about compromise?

See, Dan is thoughtful. Dr. Laura is a parlour show. The people who admire Dr. Laura do so because of the one trick: here was a problem that seemed terrifyingly complex, but as it turns out it was really quite simple. Only Dr. Laura could have cut through all that underbrush to expose the real problem. She's amazing.

Is it normal to listen to a relationship advice program and find yourself violently disagreeing with the expert advice? Here are a few standard Dr. Laura concepts that just seem dangerously wrong to me.

1) If you're not in love with your husband anymore, what you should do is pretend that you love him... go through all the motions of loving him... in every way act the same way you would act if you really did love him. Then, in time, the love will return.

Me: Huh? How does that work exactly? What if there's some actual *reason* that the woman doesn't love her husband anymore, beyond the possibility that she's lazy and weak and is ignoring her duty and promise to God to love him always? You know, what if there is some actual *problem* with the marriage? Do you think maybe that's worth exploring? Nah.

2) Even though you love him, you should dump your boyfriend. He's a drunk (or a liar, or a cheater, or a gambler, or whatever) and people never change. Time to move on.

Me: Of course people can change you miserable shrew. Don't want to get sidetracked here, but when Dr. Laura was making her moral argument against homosexuality, wasn't the idea that men are naturally beastial and weak and lustful and somewhat savage and that it takes the love of a woman to temper man's sinful nature? This argument was making the rounds for a while. So that's why homosexuality is ultimately futile - because a man without the guidance and temperance of a woman's influence will always be a savage. How does that jive with Dr. Laura's frequent conclusion that errant men are incapable of change and should be abandoned? If the woman loves him, can't she work on him? Can't she help him? Shouldn't she "temper" him like she's supposed to? Why the contradiction?

And how about Dr. Laura's supremely condescending manner toward every caller? Dr. Laura is never, ever happy until she's made it clear that you're five years old and gotten you to admit it too. I think this is tied in with "the trick". Dr. Laura is the great simplifier of problems. She needs you to admit that you've been foolish, carrying on as if your problem had any nuance to it, any hint of a third dimension. You child. You ass. Don't you see how black and white it really is? Why are you hesitating? Kick him out and change the lock. Of course you go pick him up from the airport. She absolutely cannot get an earring.

You know, Judge Judy can get away with an attitude like that. She's talking to people who have broken laws and and misbehaved in a variety of ways. Maybe they need a little Judge-Judy dose of stern authority. But the people who are calling in to Dr. Laura are good, decent people who are doing something difficult - reaching out for help with the most personal kinds of problems. Seeking help of this kind is itself a gesture of humility. These people don't deserve to be ridiculed and belittled. Like your low level supervisor always reminding you that he's the boss, it's cruel and cheap for Dr. Laura to always squeeze every last drop of superiority that her radio-doctor position affords her.

Here, for your convenience, is every on-air Dr. Laura conversation that ever happened, condensed into about one page.

"Hi Dr. Laura, thanks for taking my call."

"How can I help you Denise."

"Well............ it's my boyfriend. He's been living with me for about a year...."

"How old are you?"

"I'm thirty six.... He was injured on the job last March.... He works for the Coast Guard...."

"How old is he?"

"He's my age.... He lost the use of his legs..."


"And he gets around in a power chair....."



"Did I ask you if he was your age? I asked how old he was."

"I'm sorry Dr. Laura. He's thirty six."

"Okay, go on."

"He gets around just fine, and he hasn't really lost any of his independence. It's just that.... well... he's not the same man he used to be."


"He doesn't seem interested in staying active..."



"Denise, what is your question."

"Well... okay... see we used to do everything together, but lately he always finds an excuse..."

"Denise you haven't heard me. What is your question?"

"What should I do Dr. Laura?"

"Do you have children?"


"Denise, he is either going to have to change his attitude in a hurry, and I mean soon, or he is going to lose you."


"You know what the right thing to do is, don't you Denise."

"(sniffle). Yes."

"He is either going to rediscover his joy in life or he can be miserable all by himself."

"(sniffle). Yes."

"But he is not going to drag you down with him."

"(wipes a tear) Thank you Dr. Laura."

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