Could it be that America's #1 talk radio shrink is calling us to a higher moral standard than many of the most renowned spiritual teachers of our era?
Our exploration of popular spirituality in America had taken us far and wide—from the cafés and bookstalls of Andrei Codrescu's New Orleans to the peaceful, makeshift northern California Tibetan temple where we met with Georg Feuerstein to a Hilton hotel conference room in western Massachusetts filled to near capacity with a thousand admirers of Deepak Chopra. But, as our plane descended through the thick blanket of L.A. smog that hot, already summer morning in late May, I couldn't help thinking that here, the heart of so much of American popular culture, home to Hollywood and Beverly Hills, Venice Beach and the Valley, was somehow the last place on earth I expected to find myself seeking clarity on the confusing picture of contemporary American spirituality. As our pilot banked a turn over the crowded beaches that have made Coppertone a household name, my thoughts drifted back to northern India, to the day I first heard about the media phenomenon known to millions as "Dr. Laura."
It was February of this year, at the beginning of our annual retreat in the Indian holy city of Rishikesh and our editorial team was meeting on the ashram rooftop to discuss plans for our next issue. "Check this out," my colleague and friend exclaimed, producing a newspaper clipping from the San Francisco Chronicle
weekly entertainment supplement, "this woman sounds unbelievable." The full-color front page spread bore the smiling image of a blond, coiffed forty-something woman in a brass-buttoned bright blue suit, and the headline: "This Doctor Is In: A Radio Shrink Is Captivating the Country by Talking Tough and Preaching Morality."
While I make every effort to keep an open mind regarding our editorial content, that day I apparently missed the mark. "Sounds interesting," I responded, "but we don't have a lot of time so perhaps we should stick to discussing people we're considering for this issue." "But that's why I brought this," my friend replied, "I think we should
consider her for this issue." "A radio shrink? But I really don't see . . ." Realizing it was probably time to give him the benefit of the doubt, I let my protestations fade to a mumble, and he began to read. "Dr. Laura Schlessinger is on a mission," the article began. "Her aim? A reversal of the 'anything goes' excesses of the sixties. Her method? Drilling into her listeners' brains the message that they won't find happiness in doing their own thing, but in sacrifice, personal responsibility and duty." While I have to admit my initial impression was only slightly changed by this lead-in, there was something in it that caught my attention. Characterizing Dr. Laura (now the number two talk radio host in America) as a tough, no-nonsense ex-therapist who is unafraid to tell callers and listeners alike exactly what she thinks of how they are living their lives, the article went on to explain that she considers her primary work with people to be in the areas of ethics, morality—and spirituality. It also described, among other things, her critical views on the self-help movement, including her feeling that thirty years of self-searching and psychotherapy has helped to foster a climate in which the pursuit of self-fulfillment at almost any expense has been elevated to nothing less than a sacred quest—and that because of this, people in general no longer feel obligated to anything but themselves.
I think more than anything it was this last point that made me start to change my tune. For in our own exploration into the modern spiritual predicament, this was one of the most troubling observations we had made—that much of what is currently taught in the West in the name of spiritual transformation often seems to make people more narcissistic than they were before they became interested in spiritual matters. And now here it was in black and white. With little to go on but a torn newspaper clipping from a distant corner of the world, I began to wonder: could it be that she, a radio therapist presumably in touch with a far different sector of the culture than we were, is actually responding directly to the very predicament that we wanted to address in this issue? The thought was intriguing. For if what the article said was true, Dr. Laura seemed, in her own way, to be calling into question many of the fundamental ideas of the modern human potential movement, many of the seemingly revolutionary views on personal growth and human nature that over the past two or three decades have come to be accepted as truth by a vast sector of progressive America. And what's more, she seemed to be taking a strong stand with her callers on the most challenging moral issues. (In this vein, the article also mentioned her conservative views on a number of social issues, leading us to assume that we wouldn't necessarily see eye-to-eye about everything.) But that a radio psychotherapist—someone whose ratings and therefore career depend entirely on her ability to keep the interest of a popular audience—seemed to be presenting a challenging, even hard-hitting message sure to carry callers and listeners alike well beyond their comfort zones was not something we could easily ignore. That she might also even be rejecting many of the most fundamental precepts of the psychotherapeutic paradigm from which her entire profession was spawned, on that day beneath the blinding Indian sun, seemed more than I could fathom. There, against the flanks of the rugged Himalayan foothills, looking out on the Ganges swirling by, I began to seriously consider the possibility that we might actually have found a comrade of sorts in that most unlikely of places—the popular American media.
It wasn't until we arrived back in the States over a month later that we finally had a chance to listen to Dr. Laura. And on that particular afternoon, she delivered everything we expected—and then some.
"Good afternoon. I'm Dr. Laura Schlessinger. My number: 1-800-Dr. Laura, that's 1-800-D-R-L-A-U-R-A. Mark, welcome to the program." Her first caller that day was a twenty-nine-year-old man who, after a brief testimonial to the life-changing impact of her show, explained that, out of fear of obligation and responsibility, he was having trouble with commitment. "I guess I'm selfish is what it comes down to," he told her. Conditioned by my psychotherapeutic training to expect a soothing rebuttal to his negative self-judgment followed by a series of probing questions into the source of his anxiety, I did not anticipate her response. "I think most creatures are," she began. "Let's face it. The first instinct is self-survival, right? That's the animal in us. But our opportunity in life is to go beyond being merely animal, which is to make ourselves in God's image by our efforts." After a short discussion about the merits of commitment, in which she twice forced him to stop in his tracks and reflect on what she'd said, she responded to his statement that he was probably overanalyzing and just needed "a nudge," with the following: "You're not overanalyzing. You're facing a dilemma that all human beings face—how do I rise above being an animal? And the only way you do that is to give
. There is no nudge. There is nothing that is going to change your mind completely. There is nothing that is going to make you feel sanguine. There's you having the courage to be a man and not a male animal. It's courage. And courage doesn't come from being convinced. When men go over the hill to fight a battle, are they convinced they're not going to die? Are they convinced in advance that they're going to win the battle? They're hopeful. But they're not convinced, and they do it anyway. Because the goal is worthy and they have faith in that goal and passion for that goal."
For those of us whose frame of reference is the free association of Sigmund Freud, the reflective listening of Carl Rogers and the dream analysis of Carl Jung, such an impassioned call to honor seems a far cry from therapy. But over the course of the one-hour slot we were able to catch (she's actually on a full three hours, five days a week), we were witness to six such encounters covering everything from dealing with aggressive in-laws to homophobia. In one particularly demanding dialogue with a schoolteacher trying to navigate a troubled student's apparently malicious parents, Dr. Laura even launched into a riveting discourse on the failure of the psychiatric establishment to recognize the existence of evil. Evil? On a shrink show? By the time the hour was through, three things had been indelibly impressed on my psyche: First, by no stretch of the imagination, could this be called a shrink show; second, Dr. Laura did
have a more conservative worldview than I could personally embrace; and third, if our issue was going to be complete, I had to speak with this woman. It was clear that the perspective Dr. Laura was bringing to every dilemma that crossed her path would, if nothing else, provide a stark and compelling contrast to almost every popular approach to personal growth that we know.
If numbers are any indication, Dr. Laura seems to be having an impact. In the three years since her program entered national syndication, her popularity has been skyrocketing. In the U.S. alone, her show is now heard by over 20 million listeners tuning in on over 450 stations (a close second only to right-wing propagandist Rush Limbaugh). She is the number one talk radio host in Canada, and with international syndication now carrying her throughout the U.K. and into South Africa, it appears that the entire English-speaking world will soon have an opportunity to get her daily blast of moral and spiritual adrenaline. With as much energy as she seems to have for her work, it should come as no surprise to find that she is as active with the pen as with the microphone. In addition to writing a syndicated weekly newspaper column and a monthly Go Take On the Day
newsletter, in the past two years she has produced two bestselling books, the second of which, How Could You Do That?! The Abdication of Character, Courage, and Conscience
, is at the time of this writing third on the New York Times
nonfiction bestseller list. Her third book, Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives
(a companion to her first similarly entitled book for women), is due out this fall. Even in cyberspace, she seems to be making waves. Now online with a full-scale website—merchandising catalog and all—she held her first online chat room in May. With over 300,000 responses in the first fifteen minutes (the largest response ever to an online chat), her enthusiastic wired listeners crashed the server and the virtual discussion was postponed until further notice.
I spoke with Dr. Laura in the studios of her home station, KFI radio in Los Angeles. There, surrounded by framed magazine articles and covers displaying her beaming smile, she was humorous, friendly and surprisingly unpretentious for a person of her celebrity, in most ways identical to the Dr. Laura I had by that time grown accustomed to hearing on the radio. During the course of our conversation, which lasted just over an hour, she revealed much about herself, and particularly about the strong
religious worldview from which her passionate conviction arises.
"When I do anything, I do it one hundred percent," she told us, and that is no less true for her religious life than for her martial arts practice (at age fifty, she has a recently attained black belt in karate). Having always identified with the Jewish roots that came to her from her father's side of the family, in 1996 she "converted" to Orthodox Judaism. She keeps kosher. She observes Shabbat
. She attends synagogue. She believes in the covenant. And because of her high-profile position, she has the good fortune of an ongoing Jewish education under the guidance of a legion of rabbis across the country with whom she corresponds and converses regularly.
So I was intrigued when, early in the interview, she confided that in her own spiritual life, she feels a lack of intimacy with and connectedness to God. As our conversation continued, though, it became increasingly clear that Dr. Laura is not so much a woman of spiritual depth as a woman of faith, that her passion and conviction come not from direct spiritual experience, but from her unwavering belief in the ideas and ideals of her chosen religion. In light of our issue on modern American spirituality, it is
almost ironic that while Dr. Laura seems to have no concept of enlightenment, and is in no way attempting
to teach a path to transcendence, she actually seems to be holding people to a much higher standard than many of those who do claim to be guiding others to that ultimate attainment.