Joyce Brothers
The Founding Mother of
Television Psychology

Kathleen Collins
(Rowman & Littlefield)
Dr. Joyce Brothers did not begin as an on-the-air psychological expert. No, she started as a contestant on The $64,000 Question, an immensely popular program in the early days of American television.

A supposedly "normal" human being with a normal life an a normal job was brought in to be questioned on some abstruse subject that he or she had taken up as a hobby.

If the contestant won the first session, he or she would return in follow up and, if successful, at week eight the contestant would take home $64,000. Dr. Brothers, whose expertise was psychology (a Ph.D from Columbia) chose boxing.

A psychologist and, even more unusual, a female psychologist as an expert on the manly art? It was all carefully worked out ahead of time by Dr. Brothers and her husband Milton, an M. D. who was gaga about boxing. They worked with the producers of the program to dramatize the oddity of the mix.

Once Joyce had met with them, and before her appearance on the show, she boned up on the facts of boxing. Day and night, week in and week out, she studied Ring magazine, "studying statistics and memorizing as much data as possible in a preposterously short period of time." Thanks to Milt, her husband,

    she was coached by former Olympic boxing champion and New York State Athletic Commissioner Edward P. F. Eagan and by boxing writer Nat "Mr. Boxing Himself" Fleischer, the editor of Ring and an acquaintance of her father.

Joyce Brothers had a mind like a sponge, and she was able to sop up all this information and - - - having a natural cool - - - able to disgorge it over the next weeks' programs.

Remember, this was back in the dark ages, a time when television was busy taking over the nation. It was also a time when the woman of the house was supposed to stay in the kitchen and mind (and produce) babies.

Indeed, in the media of the fifties, the "little lady" was only to be heard on "women's programs" about cooking and cleaning and doing baby things. These programs usually ran from ten to noon in the mornings, aimed at "housewives" - - - e.g., women who were, presumably, married to their houses.

In contrast to this, Brothers was astute, well-educated, and years ahead of her time about her rôle in life. In fact she was so much ahead of her time that the owners of Revlon, the sponsors of The $64,000 Question got angst-ridden as she kept building her cash stash, week after week.

    After the first several weeks, however, the very program that had courted her was not entirely with her. In fact Revlon's cofounders, brothers Charles and Martin Revson, found it irksome that Bothers didn't wear lipstick and didn't put forth the type of feminine image the company desired.

As Charles Revson's biographer writes, "It was thought that the lady boxing expert . . . had a grating personality that turned off viewers. In her final appearance,"

    Brothers correctly named the cestus as the glove worn by gladiators in ancient Rome; Daniel Mendoza as the first scientific boxer to become English champion in 1791; John Jackson as the English champion who taught boxing to poet Lord Byron; and Jack Dempsey as defeating Luis Firpo nine times in a battle lasting three minutes and fifty-seven seconds.

So sure were the Revsons that she would be knocked out in the final round that they were forced to give her a rubber check for the $64,000. They just hadn't thought that they would need that much moolah when she was done.

§   §   §

It was Brothers herself who took the next step. She approached the New York television station WRCA-TV about answering readers' letters on the air about psychological problems. She was hired on for a month in 1958 as a test, and "to the network's surprise, it was an immediate hit, and the station received thousands of letters each week from people seeking her attention to their tribulations."

Brothers was in her element. As one critic noted, she did this by having "a positive genius for making private areas public without incurring offense or embarrassment."

    She does this by a neutralizing process of her own that makes sex a therapy, marriage an investment, and love a word. She can discuss sexual maladjustments as an electrician might discuss a faulty connection, and dispose of male appetite as a form of athlete's foot.

§   §   §

Collins spends a fair amount of time on Brothers' ability to scarf up information and repeat it in terms that the typical middle-brow American could adsorb. She came across as professional . . . astute, concerned, and supremely wise. She didn't have the usual professional shrink's habit of using big words. And, she was always alert to the television stations most important objective . . . that is, to make buckets of money.

But she was also sensitive to the changing face of American radio and television, and how the media could use fear to make a successful program. What do I do when my husband starts looking at other women? How do I deal with my son's affection for dolls? How about my wife getting fat? The usual life problems that people thought could be cleared up by a word from an expert.

What she (and her audience) did not get was that old adage of the real experts: "If you have a problem, you have a dilemma; it's only when you have a choice that you are truly free."

Joyce Brothers fed on fear, and fed on the fact that an Expert could have the answer, no matter how brief, that would solve any problem. She played the trivia game with the public, and she played it well, keeping her name in front of all in succeeding years by writing columns in newspapers, by publishing books, by appearing as a guest on television and radio. She appeared over ninety times on the Tonight show with Johnny Carson ("Maybe she can solve some of our problems tonight . . . Help is on its way friends.") And she never missed a chance to appear in silly venues. Towards the end of her career, she appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in "Spring Break Survival Guide" where

    O'Brien warned that sometime if you drink too much in poorly-lit bars you could be surprised at who you wake up with. He presented clips that portrayed women finding themselves in bed in turn with an ugly man, a Great Dane, and then Joyce Brothers sitting up in bed in her tailored suit.

§   §   §

I suspect that those of us who knew about Brothers from a distance were offended by two things. The first was the knowledge that many psychological needs and agonies were not to be solved with a couple of minutes of chatter on radio or television, that the profundities of true psychological insight could not be explicated - - - much less demonstrated - - - in one episode of the Dr. Brothers Show. For instance, Freud's profound insight into the psychology of the very young appeared in Brothers-speak in an article in The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in 1972:

    A little boy has it easier than a little girl in the family relationship. A little boy normally falls in love with his mama. He's competitive with daddy. But daddy is away a good part of the day. When daddy returns, the little boy gives mama back to daddy, but, at least, he had had her for himself a while. Daddy is the love object for the little girl. Mama is her competition. The little girl is in a tough spot. Mama takes care of you. You're dependent on mama. The little girl can't go up to mama and express her hostility . . . When the girl grows up, she has a load of unexpressed hostility to women, especially women of authority.

And for those who came to age between the 50s and the 60s, Brothers was just another banality that was the wasteland of American media. We knew that the Russians were knee-deep in weapons that could murder us, and our children, and our families, and the world as we knew it. We also knew that America was knee-deep in weapons that could do them all in, as quickly, and as viciously, as they would us.

The Cuban Missile Crises was just the most noticeable of the sword-rattlings that gave most of us nightmares; anyone studying the history of those years will discover how close we came, several times, to blowing up our whole universe. The last of these near-disasters was only prevented by a couple members of the Russian military who refused to push the button after being ordered to do so.

It didn't help that we knew that the people who would be making fatal choices for the rest of us were safeguarded on this side by special shelters built for the president, the senators, the representatives . . . and their families (and all their their aides and, they say, their dogs and cats.) The rest of us were SOL.

That our radio and television stations would spend hours on questions of kids beating up their peers or men cheating on their wives or wives dodging out on their husbands; and, at the same time, our TV and radio stations were ignoring the virulent danger represented by untrammeled military force. We felt cheated by a media that paid less attention to our deepest nightmare and more to bed-wetting children or nosy mothers-in-law. We felt that the power displayed both by the media, the politicians, and the generals was irresponsible, obscene, and barbarous.

The fact that no one seemed to get it - - - that we, all of us, were resting uneasily in a bomb sight, and that nothing could be done about it (or for us) - - - turned us sour and angry. And deeply troubled.

We knew that the well-polished one-minute answers provided by Dr. Joyce Brothers were no help at all for our nightmare fears.

--- Pamela Wylie
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