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The Doctor is Out. . . For Revenge
Laura Schlessinger made headlines when she uttered a racially charged expletive 11 times on her radio show. Now in a new book, Surviving a Shark Attack (On Land), America’s most infamous scold says SHE was wronged
Illustration by Daniel Adel
Dr. Laura Schlessingergreets me in the circular flagstone driveway of her sprawling coastal estate somewhere in Southern California (she insists I not say where). Her hair is just past chin length and blown into perfect arcs, as if her tight little face is caught between parentheses. Her nails are pink, much like the sapphires next to the diamonds in her twice-pierced ears and the sapphire in her belly button (pierced four years ago on her 60th birthday; the jewel is a half carat). Such a cotton-candy-colored rock would stand out affixed to anyone’s navel, but it is particularly eye-catching when flashed coquettishly by someone as petite as Schlessinger. The conservative talk-radio diva stands at 5 feet 3 ½ inches and is hyperfit, with a weekly fat allowance that some of us devour in one sitting. She wears a white tank top appliquéd with rhinestones, a bright blue cable-knit cardigan, and jeans she could have borrowed from a fifth grader.
“This is where everything happens,” she says as she leads the way through the six-bedroom house—8,788 square feet and positioned to embrace the Pacific Ocean, visible from almost every room—and out onto the patio. We are heading to her home recording studio, the palatial yet cozy building that sits between the pool and the fenced tennis court, the place where she hosts her enormously popular radio show and writes her best-selling books. Inside is a huge desk with a nameplate that says Go, Do the Right Thing, an oblong microphone, two computers, a fireplace, and an outrageous view of the water. There’s also a loom; in between taking calls Dr. Laura likes to weave. What’s more, she sails competitively, rides Harley-Davidsons, and works out with weights. Once, in response to an interviewer’s question, her husband and manager, Lew Bishop, predicted that someday, maybe, his wife would relax.
“That day hasn’t come,” she tells me now. “I relax by doing things.”
Just listen to all the things she’s done in the past six months. In August she used the N-word—the entire six-letter epithet—11 times on the air in less than five minutes. She apologized the next day, but the resulting furor led to her decision, announced August 17 on Larry King Live, to leave terrestrial radio behind when her contract was up. On August 18, in a rising-from-the-ashes moment she likens to when an earthquake destroys your house but you realize “You know what, I’ve always wanted to take down that wall,” Sirius XM called and offered her a job. Soon she would agree to move her unique recipe of moralizing, hectoring, and self-help to satellite radio (even though it meant sharing a platform with a talk-show host she detests, Howard Stern).
In October, to celebrate having “survived” her public drubbing, she got a tattoo that occupies most of the real estate on her well-muscled left arm. It is a red rose (to connote her “sweetie-softy” side) being clenched in the teeth of a glowering skull (to express that “I can be a tough-ass bitch when I need to be,” she tells me). She posted photographs of the inking process on her Web site.
Next she finished her 17th book, Surviving a Shark Attack (on Land): Overcoming Betrayal and Dealing with Revenge, which hit stores January 18. Most of it was actually written before her controversial August show—before “CNN decided to go all-N-all-the-time and have everyone on there calling me a racist,” she says, her green eyes flashing.
But in the wake of that, the book needed updating. After all, she says, she’d been attacked and betrayed again. So she plopped down behind the desk she’s sitting at now, looked out at the water, and began to type. She likes to write and move on, she says, never looking back. “All my books— all of them!—are first drafts,” she boasts, as if that is a guarantee of authenticity. The resulting final chapter, titled “Afterword,” leaves little doubt as to whether she’s a tough-ass bitch.
She begins it by recounting the events of August 10, when she took a call from a woman who said she was African American and married to a white man. “Jade” said she was frustrated by her husband’s white friends constantly asking her to speak for black people as a group. When Dr. Laura said she didn’t think that was racist, the woman asked, “How about the N-word?” Schlessinger didn’t hesitate.
“Black guys use it all the time,” she said. “Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is—” And then she said it. Three times, staccato. The word didn’t seem difficult for her to utter. Before the show was over, Dr. Laura would say the word eight more times, and when the caller said that offended her, Dr. Laura scolded, “Don’t NAACP me.”
In the book she writes of the “overreaction” to her on-air remarks about race: “I made a factual statement—blacks use the N-word in a variety of contexts—and you would think I was the reincarnation of John Wayne Gacy…. It was yet another moment for special interest groups and activists to raise a fist to prove they are victims.”
But to talk to Dr. Laura, who has spent countless hours on the air castigating women who “choose” victimhood, is to hear a lot about another victim who she believes has been lambasted, unappreciated, and unfairly singled out: herself.
“The genesis of this book is my personal rage,” Dr. Laura writes on the first page of Surviving a Shark Attack. “This book was to be—when I conjured it up early in 2009—an act of revenge…. The motivation for this book was my own accumulated and finally exploded pain and fury.”
Schlessinger’s anger revolves around her abiding sense that she’s been wronged. It’s hard to imagine why. For 30 years she has said and done pretty much whatever she’s wanted on the air. She has bossed people around, interrupted them, dispensed her blunt-bordering-on-harsh pseudo-therapy. And she has gotten very, very rich doing it (in 1997, she and her husband and a partner sold her show to Jacor Communication for $71.5 million).
Still, when Dr. Laura’s words have offended people, she has often been the one to cry foul. She likes to cast herself in the role of a doting parent; sometimes she calls herself Mother Laura. “I’m Mom,” she’ll say, “if your mom had any sense and wasn’t drunk.” But Mother Laura can also come off as a petulant child. If people criticize her, fine—she’ll pack up her toys and go home.
“I want to regain my First Amendment rights,” Dr. Laura told Larry King when she announced that her days on terrestrial radio were numbered. She might as well have handed Howard Stern a stick of dynamite and a match.
The next morning Stern not only replayed excerpts of Schlessinger’s remarks on his show, he also provided running commentary. Schless-inger, he said, was simply being an “asshole.” “Just because you have First Amendment rights doesn’t mean all your speech is appropriate,” said Stern, something of an expert himself on that distinction. “What is she talking about?… She hasn’t lost any rights. Some people just didn’t like what she had to say.”
For her part Dr. Laura finds Stern repugnant. “I really don’t get him,” she says, calling him “so vulgar” and “so mean.” “To say he wanted to have sex with Larry King’s rotting skull and wanted his children to have AIDS? Did the Columbine murderers have sex with the girls before they killed them? That’s not an opinion that puts forth a dialogue. I don’t get the existence of somebody who will say things like that.”
So it’s ironic that they’re both on Sirius XM—especially since in the late ’90s, she ceased negotiations with CBS’s syndication arm when she discovered that the TV giant carried Stern’s show. (Stern promptly took to the airwaves and accused her of sleeping her way into the radio business.) Sirius XM CEO Mel Karmazin, who happens to be the same guy who tried to woo her to TV in 1998, asked her what happened to nix that earlier deal. When she told Karmazin she hadn’t wanted to share a home with Stern, “he said, ‘I thought you would understand that if I protect his speech that I would certainly protect yours,’ ” she recalls. “And I must admit, my mouth dropped.”
So did that make her feel more comfortable joining Stern’s network? “Actually he came back to my company,” she quips on the morning that Stern’s five-year contract renewal is announced. “He just re-upped. I’m there already.”
Even before she let loose with the most divisive epithet in American history, Dr. Laura was no stranger to offending people. She condemns parents—particularly working mothers—who put their kids in day care. She is anti-choice, anti-divorce, anti-shack-up (if you’re engaged to be married, OK, she says; but no living together just for expediency’s sake).
In her latest book, which she describes as the most autobiographical (more so than the revealing Bad Childhood—Good Life, which tells of her unhappy upbringing), she seeks to “commiserate with you all,” she writes, by telling her own stories of betrayal. Specifically she goes after people who she says betrayed her, including an ex-boyfriend (she calls him a “mentor”) who sold nude photos of her to Hustler and a magazine writer who profiled her in Vanity Fair in 1998. Schlessinger wishes the former, who died in 2004, were “alive and well” so he could “experience the profound pain of knowing that his attempts at assassination ultimately failed.” The latter? Well, Dr. Laura simply calls the writer, Leslie Bennetts, fat.
“I still remember the first day she sat with me to watch me do my show, and she, obese, ate the ultra-mayo tuna salad sandwich, sneering down at my body as I went to sit at the microphone, declaring, ‘What are you? A size zero?’ As I said, I knew right then and there that I was in trouble,” Schlessinger writes of her encounter with Bennetts.
In our interview Schlessinger goes further, implying that some of the most damning reporting in Bennetts’s piece was motivated by the fact that Dr. Laura is thin and Bennetts isn’t. “I think that added to the agenda she came with. The envy factor seems to come in a lot,” she says. “It’s not the sisterhood that we thought we’d have in the ’60s. See, my favorite kind of woman is a strong, confident woman. I groove, I resonate, with strong, confident women because they don’t envy. If it’s not a strong, confident woman, I’m going to be crucified.”
What tactics did Bennetts use to nail Schlessinger? Meticulously she chronicled Schlessinger’s hypocrisy: Dr. Laura herself has been divorced; she herself “shacked up” with her current husband, who was a married father of three when they met; she herself, a strident critic of women who undergo fertility treatments instead of adopting, spent lots of time and money to conceive her son, Deryk (she had to have a tubal ligation reversed). The thing that appears to have bugged Schlessinger most, though, was Bennetts’s assertion that she was a brutal betrayer of other women—the crime that Schlessinger now accuses Bennetts of.
Surviving a Shark Attack is not the only venue in which Schlessinger has trashed Bennetts. She’s referred to her repeatedly on the air and on her blog, and Bennetts has not ever responded. Now she does.
“In my 40-year career as a journalist, I have never had an experience like what happened with Laura Schlessinger,” Bennetts wrote in an e-mail. “After I interviewed her, I received calls from scores of her present and former colleagues, friends, and associates who gave me detailed accounts of their experiences with her dishonesty, viciousness, hypocrisy, ruthlessness, vengefulness, and treacherousness. These reports were verified by the extensive reporting I did in tracking down other people who had not come forward, all of whom had similar experiences. During the dozen years since my Vanity Fair profile was published, Schless-inger has never refuted any of the facts I reported; her endless public attacks on me have all been personal, mean-spirited, and obsessed with my weight—an interesting example of sisterhood. Schlessinger maintains that I wrote what I did because I’m jealous of her dress size, but curiously that problem has not arisen with any of the slender movie stars and supermodels I’ve profiled during my 22 years at Vanity Fair. Whatever self-serving excuses she may invent to divert attention from her own record and character, my real crime was finding out and reporting the truth about her.”
Dr. Laura says she is many things—among them “testy” and “a pain in the butt”—but “racist” is not one of them. “I have gone to war with the National Association of Black Social Workers for 30 years because they say interracial adoption is genocide. I say it’s adoption. OK?” she says. “I have gotten tear-ass with people who call and say, ‘My daughter is dating somebody black!’ And your point is? Never once has anybody even alluded to the fact that I could possibly be a racist.” Not until last August.
Since then she has had dark moments in which “I didn’t want to wake up in the morning,” she confides, strangely giddy. But she has bounced back, she says, buoyed by her certainty in herself. “You have to look at what really happened. I didn’t call anybody a name. They just wanted to destroy my voice because I had power.”
To be sure, “they” are those she calls out regularly on her show: “The Left,” which “does not discuss. They assassinate,” she tells me; the “special interests”; the “feministas” who belong to NOW, which she calls “the National Association for I Don’t Know What Kind of Women.” But there’s a broader “they” whom Dr. Laura seems to have in mind as well: the sharks who have criticized her reasoning, betrayed her confidences, and questioned her credentials (she’s no psychotherapist; she has a Ph.D. in physiology and a license in marriage, family, and child counseling). After a few hours with Dr. Laura, it starts to feel like “they” are anyone who’s ever disagreed with her.
“I have survived so many shark attacks and each time I’ve simply regrouped—or as Sarah Palin texted me, ‘reloaded,’ ” she writes, perkily, in her book. But in person Schlessinger evinces more rancor. “Most everyone who has ever shark-attacked me got away with it. And that was probably the bitterest pill,” she says. “I’ve been bitten up one side and down the other and left for dead, and I am still here.”
Sitting in front of her microphone in December, getting ready to take to the free airwaves for one of the last times before her satellite show debuts in January, Schlessinger tells me about e-mails she sometimes gets from listeners complaining that she cuts callers off before they’re done explaining their problems. They want her to let them finish. “I don’t need to,” she says flatly. “Where they’re going is irrelevant. They’re taking me that way because they’re scared of going the way they need to go.”
In a few minutes she will show me what she means, cutting off a caller named “Marie” by saying, “Don’t talk over me. I get bitchy.” She will tell Marie about how masturbation can be therapeutic and how the actor Jason Statham makes her “horny.” She’ll exhort “Nicole” to butt out of her in-laws’ holiday traditions and insist that “Alana” break up with her freeloading boyfriend. Dr. Laura will do all these things with characteristic impatience and scorn. But first, to kick off her three-hour show, she looks out at the ocean through the picture windows and delivers a full-on screed.
“I’ve been warning you, folks—warning you and warning you,” she says of the would-be “fascists” who she imagines want to muzzle her. She flexes her tattoo—she shed the cardigan before going live. Adrenaline warms her up. “I’ve been telling you to be afraid, to be very afraid, of the Al Sharpton types who wish to control media content—of course, to their own political ends.”
Her real target today isn’t Sharpton, the civil rights activist, but the Federal Communications Commission’s Michael Copps, who recently suggested that because broadcasters use the airwaves for free, they should be required to pass a “public value test” every four years to renew their licenses. “This is just a thinly veiled attempt to control what you hear. The marketplace is supposed to do that in a free country,” she says, accusing Copps and those who agree with him of being “frustrated by a society that doesn’t swallow their brand of syrup, so they’re trying to manipulate the brands of syrup allowed. So be afraid. Be very afraid. And say hallelujah to satellite.”
Amy Wallace is the editor-at-large for Los Angeles magazine. She wrote about actress Melissa Leo in the November issue.