WHEN MOST OF DR. LAURA SCHLESSINGER'S Woodlands, Calif., house burned to the ground in an electrical fire two years ago, she admits that she was "terribly upset." Still, Schlessinger, all 5'3" of her, turned out the next morning for her 10-hour hapkido karate black-belt exam—and passed. Since then, the determined doctor of the radio waves has weathered Southern California's devastating January earthquake and the trauma of her husband Lew's heart attack last year. "Every six months we have a disaster," she says with a wry smile. "But I just get into gear and take care of business."
Which is more or less the philosophy she tattoos on listeners' minds five afternoons a week on her four-year-old KFI-AM, Los Angeles, Call-in show, The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Show, which went national to 25 cities on June 27. It's also the message that drives the 47-year-old's first book, Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives (Villard, $19.95), in its eighth printing since publication last February. "What sells these days to women is the message, 'You're not to blame!' " Schlessinger says with a sigh. "I'm telling women, 'Stop blaming men or society or anything else for your personal disappointments.' "
Them's fighting words to feminist hard-liners. "Some of her views—such as women as whiners—I consider to be stereotypical," says Gloria Allred, a prominent women's-rights attorney and rival L.A. talk show host. "Many of the problems she talks about are inflicted on women by men. I think she thinks she's helping women, but blaming the victim is not helpful or fair in many cases."
But Schlessinger has a gallery of fans who listen when she chastises them for things like "Stupid Subjugation" (No. 8 of the 10): being "held hostage by their own obsessive need for security and attachment." "When I'm in the car, I sometimes pull over to hear this lady," says Leeza Gibbons, host of Leeza and cohost of Entertainment Tonight. "She takes a hard-line with her callers. She doesn't put up with whininess, and she won't stand for women being victims."
Schlessinger says her detractors miss her point. "I have the ultimate feminist mentality," she says, on the deck of her rebuilt ranch-style home. "In this country women can do anything they want. We pick our education, the time we conceive, the man we do it with. I'm just begging them to pick with more courage." And, she adds, to be accountable. "If a guy is screwing around in front of his girlfriend, he's a jerk," she says. "If she keeps him in her life, she's a jerk."
Schlessinger's tough-love likely derives from her own hard road to success. She grew up in Brooklyn and Jericho, N.Y., the daughter of civil engineer Monroe Schlessinger (he died of stomach cancer in 1990) and his Italian-born war bride, the former Yolanda Ceccovini. Her mother was "filled with negativity," says Schlessinger, adding that she and her sister Cindy, now 35 and a marriage and family counselor in L.A., suffered the brunt of their mother's dissatisfaction. "She blamed everyone for her unhappiness," says Schlessinger, who hasn't seen her mother since Yolanda walked off her job as Laura's secretary eight years ago after Schlessinger suggested she learn to type. "That was it—she just evaporated," says Schlessinger.
Her father, Schlessinger adds, was also verbally and even physically abusive. She retreated into her studies in high school, won a scholarship to Columbia University and eventually received a Ph.D. in physiology in 1974. "I've earned what I am," she says proudly. School left another scar, though—a marriage to a fellow student that ended in divorce in 1978. By that lime, Schlessinger was teaching physiology and human sexuality at the University of Southern California.
A year later she called an L.A. radio show with an answer to its daily question, "Would you rather be a divorcée or a widow?" The show's host, Bill Ballance, was so impressed with her candor (she chose widow) that he asked to meet her and eventually persuaded his radio station to give Schlessinger her own discussion show about human sexuality. "I discovered I had a talent for clarifying people's subconscious needs," says Schlessinger, who simultaneously earned a license in marriage, family and child counseling at USC.
She also met Dr. Lew Bishop, now 61, who taught science at USC, and they married in 1984. After the birth of their son, Deryk Schlessinger, now 8, she slopped working for three years to care for him. In 1990 she traded up to her current call-in show, honing her format of hard-shell advice, personal revelations and flippant humor. Her show never flagged during her sequence of crises despite her "tremendous anxiety" over her husband's heart attack and his six bypass operations. Still, she says, he pressed her to get her book done, "even though I gave up a thousand million times."
Schlessinger is not totally immune lo self doubt. "I'm hard on myself about everything, and I do want people to like me," she admits. "But with a caller I only have three minutes, and I have to make a point. I do not see it as my mission to make anybody feel better. I want them to get better."
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles
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