Dr. Laura cuts thru Hot Air


BY COLLEEN GIBBS

Question: What's 5-foot, 3-inches, talks faster than a car salesman at year-end, is armed with knitting needles and a martial-arts black belt?

Need more clues?

OK. She carries a Screen Actors Guild card, wields a hefty resume of academic degrees, packs a wit as sharp as a Ginsu knife and an intellect as biting as an alpine wind. And she's always right.

She's your grade-school principal, your high school track coach and your parish priest. She's Jiminy Cricket with an attitude. She's your mother; and she's on the phone, waiting to tell you how to straighten out your sad, sorry self. She's Dr. Laura Schlessinger, and she's your wake-up call to reality. On the air she takes on the lamentable lack of moral integrity and personal responsibility that runs rampant through the populace. "My values are an oasis in the middle of a moral nothingness," she said. "I'm single-handedly trying to change this lack of values and ethics." And, indeed, if ratings are any indicator of her brass-tacks philosophy's far reach, Dr. Laura just may succeed. Rated No. 1 in Los Angeles in her time slot among adults 25 to 54, her radio call-in talk show was recently syndicated nationally. The rest of the country is about to get an earful from the former human sexuality instructor from Brooklyn. Her callers bring a long list of problems to her show. Mothers with leeching grown children, men with vacillating girlfriends, women with troubled marriages and even kids dealing with playground alienation are among the many people willing to wait up to an hour on hold until Dr. Laura can diagnose their private ills on the very public airways. But caller beware: This therapist is no Dr. Feelgood. There is no hand-holding. And laying the blame on society, alcoholic parents or deprived youth is not allowed. No excuses. "To feel good, you must be in charge of the situation," she said. "Most people don't want to go to the trouble to change a behavior or a bad situation. They just want to feel good."

By example, she cited a caller whose live-in boyfriend was still dating his ex-wife on the side. "This woman saw that her only choices were to make him stop what he was doing or just to accept it and feel good about it," she said with an incredulous look on her face. "You can't just feel good! First you have to do what's right; then you'll feel good! But that's not always easy or comfortable for people."

"Doing what's right" is what Dr. Laura is all about. She is a sort of 'Everymom,' telling callers and listeners alike what they probably already knew, but that they didn't want to hear. "I am philosophizing, teaching, nagging, clarifying, advising and directing," she said, ticking off the verbs on her fingers. "I'm here to hold up a light and point a way." One of those lights she holds up for the befuddled, value-deprived masses is her popular book, "Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives." The work draws upon Dr. Laura's experiences in broadcasting and in private practice as a certified marriage and family therapist. The new author stresses that women are not stupid, but many of their behaviors appear to be. "This book wrote itself," she said. "It was written from passion. It is clear to me that so much of what is wrong in women's lives is self-induced. Women are not taking responsibility. They are not doing the best things for themselves and for their babies." While Schlessinger admits that her book's title could have included many more than 10 stupid things, she is uncharacteristically and surprisingly irresolute when asked about a similar list for men.

"I don't know what it is to be a man; I don't feel passionate the same way," Schlessinger said, tentatively. "Probably, it [the list] would end up sounding like a textbook." Among the obvious attributes she would include is men's reticence about discussing their emotions. And Schlessinger asserts that they seem to have their priorities out of whack. "They define success by things other than their family relationships," she said sadly. In her book, as well as on her show, Dr. Laura lambastes those who will not look the truth squarely in the face and make the effort to change it. She takes to task those who blame their upbringing, their spouse, "the system," their job or their traumatic pasts for the misfortunes of their present lives. Schlessinger nimbly leaps from soapbox to soapbox, regularly admonishing her radio callers for: not using birth control, cohabitating before marriage, staying in abusive relationships and mistaking passion and sex for intimacy and love. Her demeanor is at times brusque, almost harsh, and her remarks are frequently sarcastic and impatient. She interrupts and talks over her callers, and brooks no arguments contrary to her point of view. But as with the obese caller who wept as she related her brave confrontation with a shockingly cruel boy and his boorish, contemptible father, Dr. Laura can be startlingly empathetic, supportive and abundantly kind. "You can lose weight and correct that problem," she said gently to the caller. "But for them, there is no such thing as a character transplant." Despite the litany of misfortunes and complaints that she addresses daily, Schlessinger claims never to be disheartened by the repetitious nature of people's mistakes and problems.

"Oh!" she said. "On the contrary, I feel energized every day. There is too much positive happening." She admits that she used to "fret and worry and get very tense" wondering if she was really helping her callers, until she realized that her real clients were the listeners. With radio as her facilitator, Dr. Laura is able to reach out and help thousands of people, a task that she says has made her a better therapist. "I do the call for the listener," she said. "I have given up feeling compelled to change the caller. I can help so many, many more people that way. There are listeners out there identifying with each call, going, 'Oh. That's me.' If the caller gets it, that's icing." Lest her listeners think that Dr. Laura, radio therapist, is a media creation, she would most emphatically tell them that what they see (and hear) is what they get. "I practice what I preach, and I follow my own advice," she said with a touch of self-satisfaction. Schlessinger unabashedly toots her own horn, reminding callers and listeners that she herself is a success thanks to her own strength of character and determination. With an impressive list of degrees and certificates under her black belt (in Hapkido, a Korean martial art), she is a walking, talking (and talking, and talking...) example to her radio audience. This is a person who has, in her words, taken on the day. Having opted out of an unwise marriage early on, she later married Dr. Lewis Bishop, ("the greatest guy in the world") who is her manager. While working as a marriage and family therapist and a teacher, she called in to the Bill Ballance show and sufficiently impressed her host that he called her back afterward. The famous talk show host launched Schlessinger's broadcasting career. She took a hiatus to be a stay-at-home mom for son Deryk (now 8), something Dr. Laura recommends to all prospective parents. She and her husband now share all child-rearing responsibilities. ("And he does the grocery shopping.") Pride in her myriad accomplishments is evident in her relatively tidy studio office. One wall is dominated by a mammoth, framed print of her book's cover, a souvenir from one of her many, well-attended book signings. A still from her guest appearance on "Star Trek, The Next Generation" hangs on another. Photos of herself with her son and Gov. Pete Wilson are displayed behind her desk. The confident radio therapist admits to few faults. She owns up to driving too fast in her 5-liter Mustang while blaring oldies rock and to nagging occasionally. "Generally, I want my way, and I want it now," she said. "Aside from that, I don't have any bad habits." While most mere mortals might be seduced by the lure of a trashy novel, a bag of Oreos or a neat brandy when struck by a bout of the blues, radio's Dr. Know-It-All gets busy. "I knit," she said. "I go to karate. I ride my bike. I talk to Lew." If she sounds a mite compulsive, perhaps it harkens back to her student years when she kept her day schedules on 3-by-5 cards, including mealtimes and study sessions. "I was not a frivolous child," she said, stating the obvious. "I was very serious. I worked on science experiments in the basement. I did not fit in. I was too busy being a brain. To fit in, you had to sort of loosen up, and I refused. But I was not a nerd." Since those days, she may have loosened up - slightly. Personal anecdotes wend their way through the text of her show, and, occasionally, her own on-air homilies will provoke her to explosive laughter. But Dr. Laura embraces discipline in her personal life and preaches its virtues to her listeners. She frequently reminds callers that life is difficult and that sacrifices need to be made to earn and to keep self-respect, to attain goals and to merit happiness.

"My job is to be a kick in the pants to people who have a million reasons why 'they can't,'" she said solemnly. "They can. They know they can. They took the first step by picking up the phone."