Most of you in your youth, I'm sure, were Lake Woebegone children – strong, good-looking and above-average. Not me. I was no fledgling genius. My not-the-brightest--bulb-on-the-Christmas-treeness was no more apparent than the day in the late 1950's when my parents appeared on the TV game show "Treasure Hunt." A toddler, I wailed to my grandmother that my folks were "stuck in the box" when she encouraged me to watch the program where my mom and dad had just won a trip to Rio de Janeiro. To be fair, my generation had little of the media savvy of today's tots (who have grown up tethered to their mobile devices). Still, looking back, I can't help but be embarrassed by my anxious four-year-old self.
I recalled my youthful TV angst last month, when Dr. Joyce Brothers, the psychologist renown for counseling the masses on the milestones of their lives from love to grief on radio and TV shows, died at age 85. Why did Brothers' passing remind me of my folks appearance on my grandparents black and white Dumont TV screen? Because Brothers, before becoming known as "the mother of media psychology," obtained her foothold on fame by appearing on the 1950's quiz show "The $64,000 Question." Brothers' career was launched when she galvanized the nation by giving the winning answers to difficult questions on boxing on first the $64,000 Question" and later "The $64,000 Challenge."
Later, the nation held its breath, when after these quiz shows became embroiled in scandal, Brothers (who did nothing scandalous), successfully proved her integrity before a Congressional hearing. Years later, my Dad told me that after he was on "Treasure Hunt," he'd been asked to appear on "The 64,000 Question." "Thank God, I said no!" my father would say, "When they asked me, it just smelled fishy."
Over the decades, Brothers was a ubiquitous TV presence. The number of shows on which she appeared boggles the mind. At any moment, like the id or super-ego rearing its head, the good doctor could be seen everywhere, including: "Easy Living with Joyce Brothers," "What's My Line," "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour," "The David Frost Show," the "1.98 Beauty Show," "Entourage" and "The Simpsons."
Now that Xanax has become as commonplace as Starbucks and even dogs have psychotherapists (I've had 552 years of therapy), it's easy to dismiss Brothers. From our sophisticated and ever-so-ironic vantage point, she can seem suburban or campy. (Brothers, who had a sense of humor, knew this about herself.) Yet, when she came on the scene, most people except in rarified circles, didn't talk about mental illness. Psychoanalysis was in vogue in some quarters culturally in the 1950's and 1960's (think Nickels and May and the burgeoning Woody Allen). But stigma against psychology, therapy and psychiatry was rampant. In my small town, if you went to see a therapist, you were nuts or maybe a crazy poet. If you had problems with your love-life or marriage, you kept them to yourself. Brothers, through her homespun wit and wisdom brought our psyches with their lusts, loves and wounds out of the shadows and into the light.
Joyce, we salute, you. R.I.P.