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If your finger slipped on the radio button while you were driving recently and you chanced to hear an American woman shouting about homosexuals being a "biological error" and basically a gang of pedophiles, well, that was Dr. Laura.

Laura Schlessinger, 53, is not a doctor in any medical sense although she uses the title. She has a talk show but she does all the talking. She doesn't offer help, she lavishes insults and gives orders. She speaks quickly and coarsely on a narrow band of problems on which she has been given skimpy information by people who seem both miserable and hapless.

The effect can be entertaining in its extreme simplicity but, as the antigay remarks have revealed, is pleasing to bigots and is getting Schlessinger more attention and more trouble. She was censured by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council last week for being "abusively discriminatory" towards gays and lesbians, a decision that stations will have to read out on the air.

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Schlessinger's product is a highly specialized brand of venom, but listeners lap it up like cream. It is a hit in the United States and to a certain extent in Canada and naturally, it has made her very rich. She will be richer still when her television show, produced by Paramount, goes on the air this fall.

Schlessinger was born in Brooklyn in 1947, the daughter of a Jewish father, Monty, and a Catholic mother, Lundy. Schlessinger has said in interviews that she disliked her "angry, critical, argumentative" father and she felt contemptuous of her unambitious mother who was "frustrated and angry" about her life but took no steps to change it. It was not a loving household, she has complained.

Yet it was exactly the kind of family Schlessinger now praises -- strict discipline for the children and parents who stay together for the sake of the children. Honour thy father and mother, Schlessinger has written in her most recent book, The Ten Commandments, on how to live according to God's laws. Yet she has not seen her own mother in 15 years and is long-estranged from her sister. (Her parents divorced in 1977 and her father is now dead.)

In 1972, when Schlessinger was a 25-year-old graduate student, she married another young student. They divorced three years later, an event that Schlessinger refers to briefly in her 1994 book Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives, blaming it on "fears of autonomy" and "issues of aloneness impacting on identity."

One imagines the Mount Vesuvius that would erupt from Schlessinger today should a caller explain her divorce with such shrink-speak: "Excuse me? From where in your brain are you getting this?"

Contradictions seem to dog Schlessinger.

She denies that she had an affair with her radio mentor, Bill Ballance, although he has produced a mass of evidence including letters and 12 nude photos of her that are readily available on the Internet.

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Schlessinger, who condemns sexual freedom for women with all the fury of someone who has never been kissed, in fact has a blissed-out look in those photos.

Ballance, interviewed in Vickie Bane's Dr. Laura: The Unauthorized Biography, describes Schlessinger as a caustic, nasty woman (although he does report that he used to call her Ku Klux because "she was a wizard between the sheets.")

She was always vicious, he says, particularly to waiters and waitresses. Almost everyone who knows Schlessinger describes her cruelty to other women, from open rudeness to calculated sabotage, to the point where they conclude that she really does not like women at all.

In 1978, Schlessinger moved in with a pleasant, mild-mannered man, Lew Bishop, after luring him away from his wife and three children. They were married in October of 1984. She had her tubal ligation reversed and gave birth to a son, Deryk, after which she worked part-time.

On her radio show, Schlessinger now tears strips off women who have affairs with married men. She also despises mothers who work outside the home, even part-time, or who hire nannies. She and Deryk, now 15, are very, very close, to the point where Schlessinger tells her 20 million radio listeners how Deryk will sit with her and tsk-tsk over the sexual behaviour of young women.

Schlessinger explains away the contradictions by saying that she has made mistakes, repented and now doesn't want others to follow in her path. Indeed, after a much-publicized conversion to orthodox Judaism, she believes she has reached a state of extreme holiness and moral worth ("I am a prophet," she has said).

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Nevertheless, Schlessinger, who wrote a measured Globe and Mail piece yesterday defending her attacks on gays, is notoriously thin-skinned. "I have to eat a lot of shit," she told the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 1998. "It makes you want to get vengeance but I control it."

She erupted on her radio show when asked by Leslie Bennetts of Vanity Fair about the meaning of one of her mystifying but hugely appealing slogans: "I'm my kid's mom."

"Can you believe she asked me such a stupid question?" Schlessinger raged.

Bennetts, who had only wanted an explanation in Schlessinger's own words, was shocked by the woman she had at first admired.

And when she asked for a list of friends to interview, there wasn't a single friend of more than 18 months. Everyone else, Schlessinger suspected, had grown to hate her. Worse, Bennetts found out she was right.

Envy? No, says Bennetts. "They have all hated her since long before she became successful."

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But Schlessinger has millions of fans in talk radio, a world that is exploding in popularity.

As Sheenah Hankin, a Manhattan psychotherapist who treats media personalities, has said: "Psychologists on radio and TV are now part of pop culture. And these days we also live with a ridiculous amount of self-pity with catastrophizing and histrionics."

Americans have misunderstood the Declaration of Independence, another commentator notes. It says they have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. "People are forgetting the words," says Washington law professor Clifford Fishman. "Happiness is not guaranteed, just the right to pursue it." No wonder callers always sound so miffed, so cheated.

Confused people can call any number of talk docs, including Dr. Toni ("Life is not a dress rehearsal") Grant; Dr. Joy ("There's no trying, only doing and not doing") Browne, and Dr. Judy ("I love you so you love you") Kuriansky.

And of course there's Dr. Frasier ("I'm listening") Crane. The sitcom Frasier ran an episode in which a foul-mouthed harridan, a KACL radio shrink called Dr. Nora, ran screeching out of town when Frasier tracked down the mother she hadn't seen in decades. One of the most prominent protesters against Schlessinger's TV show for Paramount (which produces Frasier) is Frasier writer David Lee, who has actually led a rally against her at the studio.

But you're not reading about the others, only Schlessinger, because she attacked homosexuals in such a calculated, public way. If she hadn't done that, Elton John would not be saying about her: "I hope all her kids turn out gay."

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Her strategy to be more extreme -- as dreamed up by her staff and new PR advisers in the runup to the TV show -- has worked.

However much the media are filled with talk about grief counselling, "feeling your pain" and exploring issues of healing and reconciliation, the fact is that mean is in style. Proof that mean works? Schlessinger's Ten Stupid Things points out obvious things that women shouldn't do, e.g. marry a child molester. It isn't feminist advice as much as sane advice that is helpful to women.

That was six years ago. The Schlessinger in that book is much more restrained that the one on the air now.

"Righteous indignation gives people a licence to be cruel," one of her former friends told Bane. Righteous indignation is Schlessinger's stock-in-trade.

Without it, she would still be where she started in 1975: As a caller to Bill Ballance's Feminine Forum talk show, giving her opinion on whether she'd rather be a widow or divorcée.

Widow, she said. "Everybody feels sorry for you. They come over and cook for you." She was separated at the time. What she was saying on air was that she wished her husband was dead.

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She was always on the attack. It's just a question of degree.


Classic Laura Schlessinger remarks:

To a woman who called in about a friend who has one-night stands: "Your friend is a drunken slut."

To a woman caller whose boyfriend wants her to have an abortion: "You got knocked up by a guy who wants to kill your child (sucking it in the sink)? Get a backbone transplant here!"

To a male caller worried that his wife and children will find out he's gay: "You made a decision to hide, to deny, to get married and have children. You made a covenant -- now be man enough to live up to it."

It isn't just the flippancy of the answers that is astonishing, it's the fact that, by all accounts, Schlessinger herself has in the past been precisely the type of woman she now excoriates.

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