The Interim

Book Review:

How Could You Do That? The Abdication of Character, Courage, and Conscience

By Dr. Laura Schlessinger,

Harper Collins

270 Pages, $31.00

Laura Schlessinger is talk radio’s hottest hostess. Nearly one million Canadians listen daily to the Dr. Laura Schlessinger Show. “Dr. Laura” as she is called, talks ethics without being academic and morals without being sanctimonious. If Geraldo’s guests glory in the garbage of their lives, Dr. Laura’s callers sort through the trash in order to transform their lives.

Schlessinger doesn’t simply make moral pronouncements. Nor is her show the pat question-and-answer format of the Ann Landers column. Like Socrates, she asks leading questions. And she doesn’t pussy-foot around. She is quite ready to grasp the moral dilemma by the horns without taking any bull.

Because she engages in dialogue with her callers, we get not only the answer, but the way to think through the problem. She drives relentlessly through the fog of rationalizations and excuses and offers moral reasoning that is so straightforward anyone can pursue it.

3,000 calls daily

The Los Angeles licensed Marriage and Family counsellor receives 3,000 calls daily to her internationally syndicated 90-minute program. Her show is heard on 30 Canadian radio stations, in all the top 20 markets in Canada. She has been broadcast in Canada for two-and-a-half years, according to Cathy McMahon, director of Affiliate Relations for CHUM Satellite Network. Her appeal? “Down to earth common sense,” says McMahon.

Her new book, How Could You Do That? is based on many of these on-air dialogues while offering more of her own insights and some appreciative letters from her listeners.

Dr. Laura often doesn’t ask what her caller’s specific dilemma is. “Not using the details as mitigations and rationalizations helps you focus on what you’ll have to live with over the long haul.”

When Mike, 27, calls in, she introduces conscience into the decision-making process:

This is something I would kinds like to do, but…

Mike, do you think this is the right thing to do?


Then when you have kids you are going to recommend this for them to do?


Then how can it be the right thing to do if you wouldn’t tell your kids to do it? So you know it’s not the right thing to do, but it’s adventurous… and you’d like the experience.


Mike, do you believe that after you do this thing, you would admire yourself?

No. I don’t think I’d admire myself.

Then why would you choose to do something you wouldn’t admire yourself for? What would be the point? What could be so good that tit would be worth that price?

Yeah. And I do stand to lose some things too.

So it might be fun and adventurous, but there is some potential loss attached to it. You could be hurt, you’d be ashamed to tell you children and it would diminish you in your own eyes.


So what’s your decision? Are you going to do it or not?

I’m going to do it.

“I work to focus my on-air dialogues on the essentials of right and wrong and pride and guilt and shame, because it brings the future to the now –where it can more adequately complete with the expediency and excitement of temptations.”

The anonymous nature of the call-in radio show creates a confessional atmosphere. To “reinforce the general conscience of the listening audience,” she asks, “’Would you want this act open to public scrutiny?’ if the answer is no, then no amount of rationalization is going to purify it.”

Many callers excuse poor past behaviour by claiming that they acted “out of character.” Dr. Laura has no time for such sentiment. “What you do is who you are. What you choose to do under difficult conditions speaks to who you are, more than what you do in so-called normal times.”

After almost 20 years of call-in radio, she feels too many people want to “feel good rather than do good.” Says Dr. Laura, “Choosing between an act of convenience and an act of conviction defines your character.”

For Schlessinger, religious traditions with their rules and values act as “bridges to carry us over the temptations of life.”

Even though a therapist herself, Dr. Laura writes, “Going to therapy is sometimes used to go into hiding from action. In therapy you talk. This is an extremely useful tool in its place, but talk without appropriate action is strictly a pacifier.

“Call me a heretic, but I believe that even with bad stuff in your past… you have choices. You need to activate your courage and move on. Of course, the typical argument is, ‘How dare you blame the victim for their unhappiness?’ I think there is a big difference between blaming the victim for the action of others and trying to get across the fact that perception, adaptation, and action are in their power right now.”

She advises people who are desperate for a relationship not to get intimately involved with someone who already has a bad track record. It takes courage and character as well as conscience to go to alone, until people can find someone better. “Being wanted for the wrong reasons is no blessing and certainly no compliment… Giving up your values to hold on to somebody is truly a sin against the self.

“The choice others make in their behaviour is not within your control. However, the people who choose to befriend and the behaviours you choose to tolerate are a measure and reflection of you and of your character.”

Premarital and extramarital sex is out with Dr. Laura. Nor does she consider kids “ being pointed towards the condom dispensing center any direction about morals.”

No divorce

Dr. Laura has no time for parents who abandon their children, whether to abortion, full-time day-care or to another relationship. “You don’t quit on kids. There must be no divorce between parent and child. Often the ideal (of a two- parent family and parental care of children) is possible, it just is not valued.”

The book reveals little of Schlessinger’s own life. A member of the Jewish faith, Schlessinger’s own life. A member of the Jewish faith, Schlessinger is 48 and the married mother of one child. She shares only a couple of her personal dilemmas and instead focuses on those of her callers.

Like Dr. Laura, we need to know how to translate our ethics and values into a language that will be heard by our culture. We also need to speak to our own souls when we are tempted to trade in character, courage or conscience for the quick fix of self-gratification or self-delusion.

Dr. Laura is a bracing tonic and a smart talker who practices tough love. It is obvious from her listeners’ letters that she has changed many lives.

How Could You DO That? was in the best sellers list for the first half of 1996. It is an easy and invigorating read. For more Schlessinger, try her first book with a title only a woman could get away with these days: Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess up Their Lives.