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“All rightee.” The voice is tight, cynical, high-pitched. The first syllable rolls through the back of the tongue and out the nose, richly signalling skepticism, and the last rises facetiously, tart with impatience. This smug little phrase follows a commercial, usually linking the fade-out of some pop-song snippet chosen to illustrate a fraught psychological state—rocky shoals, romantic loyalty or longing—with the introduction to the next caller. By the time that caller is being welcomed, the host has already indicated her own state of mind: No nonsense will be tolerated. The guests know their part: “It’s an honor to speak with you, Dr. Laura.”

You don’t have to have heard Dr. Laura Schlesinger to have heard of her. She is a radio psychologist whose blunt self-help books—The 10 Stupid Things Women Do To Mess Up Their Lives, a similar volume for men, and How Could You Do That?—are hugely popular on the level of semiserious non-pop psychology for the masses. Her nationally syndicated show, which airs from 9:45 to 11:45 a.m. weekdays on WMAL (“I’m here on the weekends, too”) reaches an estimated 18 million people. She’s on the Armed Forces Radio Network worldwide. Her web site (www.drlaura.com) is a cultish hot spot of “fun faxes,” transcripts of on-air monologues (so poorly punctuated they read like a madman’s rant), quotable quotes, a reader’s forum, and a downloadable photo gallery of the good doctor in action.

There’s no way to convey the full range of tormented, codependent sadomasochism that is Dr. Laura’s show without hearing her voice. She lays claim to a virtually Shakespearean repertoire of vocal nuances and half-truths. She’s redolent with supercilious frustration when faced with a vacillating caller, titillatingly abrupt when her barked-out queries aren’t heeded, girlish and coy when digressing about herself. Dr. Laura’s voice leads her subjects on a merry chase through a maze whose center—absolution—is constantly shifting.

That people are seeking redemption—or at least approval—through a radio shrink is itself revealing. The advent of psychiatry in the early part of this century was, along with the theory of relativity, Pasteurization, and other major scientific advances, part of the second pulse of the Enlightenment in Europe and America. The intent of such new fields and innovations in old ones was not to quantify human experience but to clean it of obfuscating 19th-century morality, and Victorian repression and superstition. Science’s very nature is to observe without judgment and, where possible, to improve human life with universally applicable and clinically disinterested methods.

Because Victorian morality was a product of the Anglican church and Queen Victoria’s homeland Protestantism, science was seen not just as a backlash against that morality but as a secular undertaking, as indeed it was. Many of science’s—and particularly psychiatry’s—foremost innovators were Jewish, which for all intents and purposes implied secular; Judaism’s tradition of intellectual curiosity posed a major threat to unquestioning Christian dogma. Assimilation has muscled out most modern perceptions of a Jewish stranglehold on laboratory science, although as late as the 1950s, it was still considered the province of cold-blooded Semitic eggheads; but psychiatry retains that stereotype in orientation if not in fact.

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Dr. Laura’s gimmick in the crowded self-help game is religious dedication and moral probity, but for her it is not about the improvement of the self, society, or the world, but about disseminating propaganda against the current state of the social union. On its surface, her children-first, pro-marriage, Commandment-hewing philosophy is refreshing: Quit whining; tell the truth; when given a choice, do the thing that will benefit your children most, society next, and yourself last. But the way she conducts herself reveals that much more is at stake—Dr. Laura is advocating a return to the very sin- and threat-based repression that her field originally undertook to strip from a society more in need of help than opprobrium. This queer circular methodology eliminates any possibility that help is the goal, since all of the necessary elements for disinterested psychological judgment are missing.

In her rigidity, Dr. Laura is playing the Christian right’s game, but as an ostentatiously practicing Jew, she dissociates herself from the right’s reputation for nuttiness. Still, her patter is indistinguishable from the most hard-core non-Catholic Christian moral rabble-rousers’. There’s a strong flavor of overcompensation that brings to mind both the high-WASP posturings of the formerly Polish Martha Stewart—another shining blond figure who bullies while pretending to help—and the lapsed more-Christian-than-thou convert Kathie Lee Gifford. Like Kathie Lee, Dr. Laura trots out references to her own no doubt terrified offspring, holding them up against the squalor of modern-day motherhood.

She is right that therapy culture has created a world in which cruel, stupid, or cavalier behavior is glibly justified by “feelings.” (I had a draining friend in heavy therapy for a divorce who used to begin Monday conversations with a big crocodile smile and the words: “I hated you for not calling me over the weekend; I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t tell you that.”) And teaching children by example, not being hypocritical to one’s religion, resisting transient impulses and harmful indulgences, and holding out for the greater good are solid lifestyle guidelines for anyone seeking them.

But if, as with the most infuriating of pop-culture interpreters—Camille Paglia, say, or Rush Limbaugh—there’s a kernel of truth to her attitude, the value of that truth is bestowed by her own bizarre moral grid. Never mind that promoting goodness and hard work in kids and adhering to decency on the individual level is smart long-range thinking and societally beneficial—Darwin might say the same—Dr. Laura believes that because this system is difficult to sustain it is pleasing to God and therefore rewarding.

Limbaugh is actually providing a corollary service using a similar message—whereas Dr. Laura poses as a clinician to rain fire and brimstone upon single parents, working moms, live-in couples, and anyone who has second thoughts about “a past” (although in the last case, repentance is still a possibility, if heartfelt enough), Rush advocates wacko conspiracies and predicts baleful secular Revelations scenarios in the guise of giving us the truth about the news. Their true roles as propagandists are manifest in the language they use—Rush’s “feminazi” for every female to the left of Phyllis Schlafly, Dr. Laura’s “fornicate” and the unlovely “screw” for sex outside of marriage. Loaded speech, generously deployed, is a basic partisan weapon. Dr. Laura’s patented pronouncements may grace innocent T-shirts and coffee mugs, but there’s plenty that goes unsaid in her recurring mantra “I am my kids’ mom.” Callers announce themselves this way, to Dr. Laura’s reserved approval, and woe betide the childless sinner who tries to cajole her with “I am my dogs’ owner.” (Don’t even mention cats; Dr. Laura hates cats. So much for scientific disinterest.)

Fluffily blond, with the bone-thin figure and tightly cranked smile of a moneyed Los Angeles matron, Dr. Laura offers a bevy of glossies to choose from on her web site—her weight (110 lbs., ladies) is mentioned as a frequent admonition to the congregation. When she sighs that it’s hard to do without bread during Pesach, one female caller relaxes enough to share a joke: “I consider it my spring diet.” “I’m already thin, so nice try,” snaps the doctor. Vanity does not seem to be among the worst sins in her book.

As in dog training, what the voice has to say isn’t as effective as how she says it. The interaction between Dr. Laura and her callers is the sickest relationship on the air. Some people do call for advice they can take and move on from, but most are seeking intangible beatification. You can hear it in their voices when they’re first put on the air—the querulousness, the fealty. By all accounts, Carolyn, the show’s screener, effectively knocks the nonsense out of them off the air, but there must be some implicit or explicit agreement between her and the host that amorphous, unanswerable nonquestions may be passed through, because by the time a caller gets on the air he or she has been effectively intimidated but hasn’t, it seems, been urged to make either the situation or the question clear.

And clarity is Dr. Laura’s ostensible No. 1 concern: “What is your question for me?” she asks frequently and irritably. But keeping things short and simple, despite Dr. Laura’s protestations of impatience, is not what the show is about. She uses a number of tricks for actually prolonging a call, combined with an intricate pattern of giving and withholding that breaks down callers’ resistance and leaves them mewling. I’ve even heard her refuse to accept one young woman’s admission, “You’re right.”

“Don’t keep saying I’m right!”

she snaps.

“OK,” submits the caller.

“Why did I tell you to stop saying I’m right?” scowls the doctor.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, think.”

A typical Dr. Laura call begins with the host drawing things out. “How many, how old?” she asks whenever the caller waves the proud-parent banner. She wants to know if the guest is married and for how long, and whose kids these are. Then the explanation begins, usually phrased as “a dilemma” (Carolyn’s suggestion?). As the parade of friends, relatives, and in-laws takes its place, Dr. Laura shuts down. “You’ve lost me.” If she’s feeling giddy, she’ll play the dumb-female card, a grotesque proposition amid the barking and sighing. She’ll either propose without a shred of conviction that she’s having “a stupid day,” or kittenishly regret that she can’t fit all these big hard facts into her silly little head. Otherwise, it’s cut-to-the-chase time: “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” And it begins again.

Then there’s the mind-game gavotte, in which no one knows the steps. The relatively media-savvy callers are very aware of dead air, and they babble to fill the space allotted them, until Dr. Laura announces they have not been allotted that much space. They shut up. She snarls, “What is your question for me?”

They rev up again: “I guess I’m asking”

“Don’t guess,” hisses she. Pause. “What is your question for me?”

“Now my brother-in-law says he won’t come to the wedding if”

“I don’t care.”

“OK.”

The longer the pause, the more uncomfortable the caller sounds when she steps back up to the podium. Finally, after this push-pull of silence and interruption, Dr. Laura begins to speak. Indifferent to her own admonishments, she gives her opinion and gives it again, loops back over the question and her answer, speckles the monologue with nasty asides—such as this, to a surrogate birth mother: “Did you tell your mother? Sure, why not? You’re so proud of it. Tell everyone!” Stretches of silence punctuate these diatribes, and the caller who jumps in is made to feel foolish for not knowing that she’s hopped onto a moving train. It ends with a direct insult and patented Dr. Laura coinage, a curt dismissal of the acolytes, dripping with implied disdain for attending Mass at all. A downward swoop at the beginning and then a racing ascension: “Now go take on the day.”

The daytime-talk show aspects of radio advice are amplified on Dr. Laura’s program because of the host’s firm stance on moral and sexual issues—some of the juiciest scenarios to be trotted out before the public get aired, thanks, perhaps, to Carolyn’s keen ear for a call’s entertainment potential. Kids’ days, in which callers under 18 are encouraged to phone in, are utterly useless for the children who want to know how to help a friend who seems withdrawn and possibly suicidal, or how to cope with divorcing parents, but they do provide an extra Jerry Springer-like frisson of exploitation.

But most adult callers know their participation is about lining up with Dr. Laura against Sodom, offering megadittoes to the Dr. Laura way of life, and seeking a pat on the head for a scorched-earth policy against the moral transgressions of friends and family. Giving practical advice is too easy to make great radio—and Dr. Laura provides indisputably great radio, for those with the stomach for it—but it’s telling that, on the easy ones, she usually produces sensible straight answers. (And tolerant ones: Don’t kick your 16-year-old son out of the house for spending the night elsewhere without calling; do attend your best friend’s wedding even if her fiance made a drunken pass at you a year ago.) The hard calls are the ones tangled up with egos, histories, and investments too human to unravel, and they’re about parading the caller’s own moral righteousness past a one-woman reviewing stand. No wonder she has to keep asking what their question is. It is an unanswerable one: “Am I good?”

—Arion Berger