Do as I Say

Dr. Laura's counsel is caustic and oftentimes hypocritical, but it is also persuasive

She's a fishwife and a bit of a kook, a woman given to comically dramatic changes of heart and habit, but Dr. Laura gives some of the best advice about marriage and family life available on the radio, or perhaps anywhere in popular American culture. I say this somewhat wearily, for it is no easy task defending this woman. To begin with there is her manner, which is famously off-putting; she is by turns cloyingly sentimental and caustically pragmatic. She can be primly shocked by her callers' most unremarkable revelations about their sex lives (anyone having sex outside of marriage just sends her around the bend), yet she is quick to give a conversation about almost anything at all a salacious—sometimes obscene—twist (to a caller who complimented her intelligence: "Ooh, lubricate me"). I recently heard her heave a loud, irritated, and impatient sigh after a grieving widower committed no greater transgression than asking her to repeat her advice on whether he should take his small children to their mother's funeral. ("She's a wretched bitch!" a friend of mine told me during kindergarten drop-off the other day, and after hearing that call, I was inclined to agree with him.) She is a person who has had to weather an extraordinary number of humiliating revelations about her personal life, and who has evinced a Clintonian ability to soldier on through the most embarrassing episodes you can imagine; when nude photographs of her showed up on the Web, I thought she'd have to fold up her tent, but it was only onward and upward.

In a nutshell, Dr. Laura believes that many of the aspects of adult life that I had always considered complicated and messy and finely nuanced are in fact simple and clear-cut; that life ought to be neatly fitted around duty and responsibility rather than around the pursuit of that elusive old dog, happiness. This is what makes her the most compelling advocate for children I have thus far encountered, because the well-being of children often depends upon the commitment and obligation of the adults who created them. If you want to know whether the divorce culture has been a disaster for children, tune in to the Dr. Laura show one day. The mainstream media have a cheery name for families rent asunder and then patched together by divorce and remarriage: they are "blended families." But the day-to-day reality of what such blending wreaks upon children is often harsh. The number of children who are being shuttled back and forth between households, and the heartrending problems that this engenders in their lives, is a sin. Every June, Dr. Laura fields multiple calls having to do with transporting reluctant children across vast distances so that court-ordered visitation agreements can be honored. Whereas an article in Parents magazine or the relentlessly upbeat family-life columns in Time might list some mild and generally useless tips for dealing with such a situation (have the child bring along a "transitional object," plan regular phone calls home, and so forth), Laura throws out the whole premise. What in the world are the parents doing living so far away from each other? One of them needs to pick up stakes and move. "I can't do that," the caller always says. "Yes, you can," Laura always replies, and when you think about it, she's right.

The first time I heard her tell a divorced father that he should give up on his first chance at real love—he had met his soul mate during a trip out of state and wanted to move and marry her—so that he could stay close by his children, I almost couldn't believe what I was hearing. She actually wanted the man to drop by his ex-wife's house every afternoon to help with homework and the yard work and play some ball with his sons, which struck me as a radical notion—as indeed it is. A conventional psychotherapist would proceed from the assumption that the man's happiness is the primary consideration in this scenario. Dr. Laura doesn't give a whit about his happiness; she cares only that he fulfill his obligation to his children. Happiness, she might argue, may be a by-product of doing the right thing; but even if it's not, all that matters is that you behave yourself. Her insistence (often shrill, sometimes hopelessly hypocritical) that certain of life's obligations must be honored at almost any cost is refreshing. For the first few years that I listened to her show, I never failed to be impressed by the notion that old-fashioned morality—inflexible and unforgiving—is sufficient unto any FUBAR situation human beings can dream up. I didn't always agree with her: she opposes legal abortion, which I support; she's against premarital sex, of which I dimly recall being distinctly and unapologetically fond. She once harangued a mother who was clearly at sheer wits' end that she shouldn't hire an afternoon babysitter—advice I could hardly bear to listen to, I felt so keenly the mother's desperation and exhaustion. But more than once I wondered if she might have been right about one or another of the points on which we differed.

From the archives:

"The Wifely Duty" (January 2003)
Marriage used to provide access to sex. Now it provides access to celibacy. By Caitlin Flanagan

Dr. Laura's new book, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands, is, like most of her other books, a bit of a turkey. She compiles them by reproducing the transcripts of calls about a certain topic along with listeners' letters on the same subject, and the results have the deflated, warmed-over feel you would expect from such a process. Laura Schlessinger has a genius for broadcasting: she's quick-witted and sharp-tongued, and she possesses a clear and arresting point of view, all of which makes her compelling on the air. But the exciting feel of the show doesn't come across on the printed page. The newest book combines the "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus" philosophy with the "Surrendered Wife" ethos. To Laura, men are simple creatures, their psychological complexity hovering somewhere between that of Boo Radley and Mr. Green Jeans. What they want is food, sex, and respect. Of course, there's some truth in this. Almost any marriage not marred by what Laura calls the Three A's—affairs, addictions, and abuse, any of which she deems grounds for divorce—can be quickly improved by a wife's simple decision to stop nagging her husband, make sure he has a hot dinner at the end of the day, and increase the amount of hanky-panky she's willing to offer. That a married woman has sexual obligations to her husband once went without saying; now the very notion is radical in the extreme. Our culture is quick to point out the responsibilities husbands have to wives—they should help out with the housework, be better listeners, understand that a woman wants to be more than somebody's mother and somebody's wife—but very reluctant to suggest that a wife has responsibilities to her husband. The only people willing to say so are right-wing conservatives, and they end up preaching to the choir; but I'm hard-pressed to think of a troubled marriage that couldn't be somewhat improved by a wife's adoption of a few of Laura's recommendations.

Presented by

Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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