Do as I Say

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

By Caitlin Flanagan

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.

I find Dr. Laura to be a less fascinating cultural figure these days than she once was. Not surprisingly, a huge number of her supporters are fundamentalist Christians; the fact that they were so eager to take moral, sexual, and even religious advice from an Orthodox Jew—one who gabbed on, with the zeal of a convert, about keeping kosher and observing Shabbat—made her of unique, perhaps historical significance. But she has recently shocked her audience by announcing her decision to no longer practice Judaism. Further, her opinions about homosexuality —she believes gays should try to go straight; she went on record calling homosexuality a "biological error"—are also recently hatched. It was always refreshing to hear her—in the midst of exhorting callers to homeschool their children, go to church, and fight every move of the ACLU—blast someone for not accepting a gay relative. (The "biological error" comment came just before the debut of her television show, and many gay activist groups gleefully take credit for the show's demise, but they had little to do with it. The show tanked because it stank.) And she used to be an avid proponent of fathers who stayed home with their children while their wives worked; she didn't care which of the parents raised the kids, so long as they didn't resort to daycare. But The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands gives me the impression that she's taken the final step toward conventional ultra-conservative thinking: there isn't a single mention of a stay-at-home dad this time. This is a bit of a letdown, since it makes her less of an iconoclast. The book is also undermined by her old bugaboo, hypocrisy. Men need to be breadwinners in a marriage, she says, although she makes millions of dollars a year while her husband—whose career had faltered so severely before his wife's success that the couple was on the verge of bankruptcy—is employed only as her manager. Women ought to cook for their men, but it has been widely reported that her husband does all the cooking (he also converted to Orthodox Judaism; the possible switch back could be a load off for him in the kitchen). Men need old-fashioned respect in their homes, we are told, but Laura kept her maiden name, and their son bears his mother's surname and not his father's.

To a person, just about, my friends are liberals, and when I try to talk to them about Dr. Laura, they think I've gone completely cuckoo. I took her first book on a family vacation a few years back, and my father read it one night and then sat me down for a very serious and disappointed discussion about my declining literary and political tastes. But none of my loved ones, if they could tease Laura's central argument about children and marriage from the tissue of arrogance and crackpot harangue in which it is embedded, would disagree with it in the least. Part of Laura's problem is that she has been a victim of her own poor advance. If she had admitted up front that as a young woman she lived a life of sexual liberty and experimentation (rather than waiting for the press to discover and reveal this past, one humiliating episode at a time), and if she had explained that motherhood had produced profound changes in her, she would have earned herself a lot less derision and ire. There are many of us who understand that once you have children, certain doors ought to be closed to you forever. That to do right by a child means more than buying him the latest bicycle helmet and getting him on the best soccer team. It means investing oneself completely in the marriage that wrought him, for there isn't a person in the world who won't date his moments of greatest happiness to the time his family was the most intact, whole, unshakable. I wish there was someone a bit more hip and glamorous than Laura standing up for this simple truth, but in our time and place there isn't.

"Do as I say, not as I do" might be Schlessinger's motto—never a particularly inspiring credo, yet I am often inspired by Dr. Laura. More than once I have thought through a problem and behaved in a way that's made me proud because I've followed advice gleaned from her show. The measure of a person, she believes (and I have come to believe), is found not in what one thinks but in what one does. Action is everything. It's a lesson I could have learned from Aristotle, I suppose, but Aristotle doesn't have a three-hour slot on AM radio. Nor could he have imagined the complete mess that so many Americans have made of family life.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/01/do-as-i-say/302861/