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Why Do So Many People Love Dr. Laura?

08/23/2010 10:46 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is anything served by progressives continuing to beat up right-wing radio host,"I'm-Only-A-Pretend-Doctor" Laura Schlesinger? (Note: Schlesinger violated professional ethics codes by fraudulently representing herself as a doctor. Her PhD was in physiology studying glucose-transport in rats.) Seems like we've done a pretty good job over the years. The evidence is overwhelming that Pretend-Dr. Laura is a homophobe, misogynist, routinely blames the victim, and is relentlessly cruel in both tone and content to people who call her show for help. The final straw--her use of the N-Word on a recent broadcast--was a natural extension of her personality and politics. When a black woman called and complained about her white husband's friends' use of a racial epithet, it was like throwing meat to a hungry dog. (Cue Schlesinger's outrage). The good doctor mocked and humiliated the caller by repeatedly saying the offensive word in question.

What concerns me is not Pretend-Dr. Laura's cheerleading for the worst of the right wing social agenda, but the mass appeal of her blame-the-victim mentality. The audience for her radio show and books is huge. People apparently resonate with Schlesinger's repetitive attacks on anyone "needy" enough to ask for help, or special consideration. If you're a teenage mother and go to work, don't let Schlesinger know that you leave your child at a daycare center or, as Schlesinger calls them, "day orphanage centers." If you can't stay home with your child Schlesinger believes you should give him or her up for adoption. If your kids do drugs, cut them off; if you do drugs, just stop. If your husband beats you, it's probably your fault. If your parents abused you, get over it. If you're unemployed, get a job. A mother of a 17-year-old boy once called in to ask what to do about the fact that her son had impregnated a 17-year-old girl who then insisted on having the baby. In the middle of this very sad story, filled with pain on all sides, Pretend-Dr. Laura interrupted and said something like, "Your son blew it. His life--as you know it--is over. He can't go away to college, he can't realize any of his dreams, because he has to stay and support this child. He should have thought about that before he acted so irresponsibly!" Good and smart people might disagree about the various options available to this young couple and their families, but to Schlesinger, it's always black and white, right or wrong. No one gets sympathy. No one deserves help. For Schlesinger, personal responsibility is always suffused with blame and harsh judgment.

Milder versions of Schlesinger's simplistic moral rigidity can be found in some of the "tough love" advice given to parents of limit-testing adolescents, as well as in the subtext of some of Dr. Phil's shows. Audiences like it when lax or overwhelmed parents are given a good harsh scolding, and are told to buck-up and get tough with their kids. Although meant well, and often helpful, this approach appeals to audiences in a special way. It's not a far cry from there to right-wingers like James Dobson, who advocates corporal punishment and to Dr. Laura who never met a troubled child who wasn't created by an indulgent, weak, or self-centered parent. Toughen up. Take responsibility. Quit complaining. Get off your soapbox. The drum beat of blame pounds on and on.

Don't get me wrong--even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and sometimes a confrontation with parents who are unable to control children or with people wrapping themselves in feelings of victimization and entitlement is just what the doctor--a real doctor--would order. But Schlesinger, Dobson, and others from the fire-and-brimstone school of family values have a deeper agenda. In their hearts, they have a passionate contempt for victims, the weak, the helpless, and the unprotected--either real or imagined. I say real or imagined because, of course, even the strict moralists like Schlesinger and Dobson would favor sympathy for the most obviously feeble and helpless groups in our society, e.g. the severely disabled, the very young or very old, etc. It's everyone else that they blame and condemn. And millions of people seem to share this attitude.

What motivates the gluttons for punishment who actually call the pretend doctor? And why is her mean-spirited "advice" something that millions of people apparently want to hear?

Based on my work over the last thirty years with many people who share this sensibility, I believe I understand the core psychological dynamic here. Most of us grow up with the unconscious belief that we're not supposed to be taken care of, that being dependent or helpless and needing anything resembling special consideration and protection is burdensome and toxic to others or just plain impossible. Whether a result of neglect, parental values, or chance events, such beliefs are extremely common.

In order to adapt and survive, we all make a necessity into a virtue. That is, we take what is and turn it into "the ways things are supposed to be." We lower our expectations. We do a lot with a little. We might even tout our stoicism as toughness and self-reliance. For example, how many times have you heard mean, cranky, and critical Uncle Robert or Auntie Roberta referred to as a "tough old bird?" We don't, however, give up wanting more care, attention, protection, or love. We just stop asking for it, except under extreme circumstances. We adapt, much like camels have adapted over millennia to go for long distances without water.

A patient recently told me that she had a pleasurable daydream about her husband dying. He'd had some health scares recently, but was basically fine. She loved her husband, and didn't want him to die at all. The pleasure came from the attention and care she imagined getting as his grieving widow. In her experience, it would take an extreme trauma to earn her the right to be taken care of and freed of responsibility for even a short time. Another patient told me early on in therapy that his father was strict but that it taught him manners. Later it emerged that his father was brutal and frightening. His son had rationalized this brutality with a story that let his father off the hook and put the responsibility on himself.

This is what most people do. They can't face the reality of their suffering at the hands of others and so blame themselves. A psychoanalyst once said that children would rather be "sinners in heaven than saints in hell," a reference to the need children have to maintain an idealized view of their caretakers, even at their own expense. They can't let themselves know that they have legitimate dependency needs that are unmet, that they need more protection, or that they feel invisible and want to be more important to other people. They--we--suppress these perceptions, wishes and needs. However, they don't go away. They have to be unconsciously kept in check all the time.

While this is an internal conflict, we make it into an external one, and it's in this shift that we can see the explanation for the appeal of Schlesinger, Dobson, Dr. Phil and other proponents of partriarchal authority, personal responsibility, and tough love. It's others who are complainers, petitioning the world for special consideration, holding up their victimization in a bid for help. We condemn them just as our consciences condemn similar wishes or needs in ourselves.

In fact, we begin to see this "problem" everywhere. We see it in the black woman who claims dispensation for her sensitivity to the N-Word. We see it in the rationalizations of people who have done something selfish and irresponsible and want to be bailed out. We see it in people who present themselves as victims needing restitution or reparation, or as weak and in need of protection, or as dependent and seeking help. And we get angry and condemn these people because they represent our own forbidden longings needs, and vulnerabilities. We judge and want to punish them in the same way that we judge and punish ourselves for our own secret longings for sympathy, care, and help. We externalize our own conflicts and play them out with those whom we can pigeonhole and stereotype into the living embodiments of our own forbidden wishes.

That's why we like to hear Schlesinger blame women who are raped, or teenage mothers who need assistance, or a spouse who feels misunderstood and aggrieved. That's why these poor folks call her with their claims of helplessness. They unconsciously believe they deserve to be taken to the woodshed for not being better camels. That's why we like to hear Dr. Phil lecture a father about his inability to set limits with his delinquent son. The father's crime is that he feels helpless and we don't like helplessness in others to the precise extent that we hate it in ourselves.

As people feel more injured, more dependent, more in need of protection, care, and help, they will paradoxically seek out scolds like Schlesinger or aggressive patriarchs like Dobson. They will readily scapegoat other groups with claims to assistance in an attempt to differentiate themselves from these external embodiments of that which they experience in themselves. Laura Schlesinger might be gone for now, but there will unfortunately be an increasing number of others to take her place.

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