Anyone who watched television or listened to the radio from the late 1950s to the mid-2000s probably caught Dr. Joyce Brothers in one of her many roles, whether as the nation’s attractive dispenser of psychological advice, as a cameo performer in a film or TV show, or as a guest on late-night talk shows including "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and "Late Night with Conan O’Brien."
In a manner at once professional, reassuring and consummately feminine, the nation’s first media psychologist coached viewers and listeners on everything from why we choose our mates and how to make our marriages work, to more taboo subjects like coping with menopause or a mate’s frigidity. In one memorable chat with Conan O’Brien, she candidly and humorously discussed the latest research on penis size, claiming, to O’Brien’s skepticism, that women don’t care about it.
"She has a terrific media personality," says former APA and Div. 46 (Media) President Frank Farley, PhD, Laura H. Carnell Professor at Temple University. "She had a sense of humor, she could go with the flow, she was relaxed and informal — all of which was a very attractive persona for psychology to present to the public."
Brothers applied her talents in a staggering number of venues, including a succession of her own TV and radio programs, a syndicated column that appeared in more than 350 newspapers and a monthly column in Good Housekeeping magazine that ran for four decades. She also appeared in dozens of popular television shows and films including "Frasier," "Melrose Place" and "Analyze That," typically playing herself or a fictional psychologist or doctor. She wrote several books that have been translated into more than a dozen languages, including the acclaimed "Widowed" (1992, Ballantine), written after the death of her husband, New York internist Milton Brothers, MD, in 1989.
"As the most durable of popular psychologists, Joyce Brothers kept her finger on the pulse of what many Americans, particularly women, [were] concerned about," writes Sydney Stahl Weinberg in "Jewish Women in America" (Routledge, 1997). "She made the seeking of help from a psychological expert respectable."
The $64,000 genius
While it may seem that Brothers stepped into her role fully formed, the self-described "mother of media psychology" came upon her path circuitously.
A graduate of Cornell University, she then earned her PhD in psychology from Columbia University in 1949. She stayed home to raise their daughter Lisa while Milton attended medical school.
She and Milton soon realized the difficulty of scraping by on his meager resident’s pay. In 1955 — feeling certain she could memorize everything there was to know about a finite subject — Brothers decided to audition as a contestant on "The $64,000 Question," the popular quiz show that pitted lay contestants against experts in a given field.
She chose boxing because she knew something about the sport from Milton, and understood that novelty was an important ingredient for making it onto the show. Reading 20 encyclopedia volumes and watching historical fight films on the sport, she outsmarted the experts and won the show’s top prize, all the while wooing the public with her brainy charm. She went on to do the same thing with the show’s replacement, "The $64,000 Challenge." So impressive was her performance that the shows were investigated for rigging, charges exonerated in a Senate subcommittee hearing, according to Weinberg.
The shows and their notoriety made Brothers a household name. NBC soon asked her to co-host a popular sports feature program, "Sports Showcase," and her growing visibility propelled her to ask NBC to let her host her own show — one that would combine her psychology background and her ability to communicate easily with the public.
"I think she was inspired by the concept of Ann Landers and Dear Abby, but she wanted to base it on true research," recalls daughter Lisa Brothers Arbisser, MD, an ophthalmologist in Bettendorf, Iowa. "She was very serious about sharing information that was valid and very concerned about not hurting anyone."
Her first show, "The Dr. Joyce Brothers Show," aired in 1958, giving her a platform to share psychological knowledge on love, sex, marriage and childrearing. She soon received another offer to host a late-night talk show, giving her the opportunity to address such then-verboten topics as sexual satisfaction and impotence in a way Americans could hear and accept.
Her seemingly unflappable drive to realize her vision was the result of both outer and inner resources, Arbisser adds. Brothers’ parents, both attorneys, drove home the idea that she could do anything she wanted if she worked for it. She was also unafraid to fight for herself or for what was right, a trait that enabled her to attend Columbia, where she vied for a slot against a young man less qualified than she, Arbisser says.
Brothers also possessed a strong resourceful streak that showed itself early on. In college, she taught herself plumbing and wiring. As a young mother intrigued by the ideas of anthropologist Margaret Mead, she devised a precursor to the "Snuggly" baby carrier so she could carry Lisa around with her. She also developed a prescient childproofing system so Lisa could roam freely through the house.
"She is very intuitive, very determined, very strong, very self-assured," says Arbisser. "I don’t think she was ever plagued by doubt."
A misunderstanding with APA
While the public loved Brothers, there was a point at which part of her profession did not. Early in her career, a cadre of APA members asked that her membership be revoked because they believed sharing psychological advice outside the office was inappropriate, recalls Div. 46 APA Council Representative Lenore Walker, EdD. In addition, an otherwise laudatory 1999 A&E "Biography" program on Brothers quoted an APA member making negative comments about her contributions.
"We came out of a tradition that said the patient did the talking and you did the listening," says Walker. "Giving advice was absolutely forbidden."
That changed when media psychology became a bona fide part of APA’s division structure in 1986. "In retrospect, she was just doing what the late [former APA President] George Miller told us to do: giving psychology away," Walker says.
In 1999, APA mended its relationship with Brothers. That year, Farley organized a miniconvention at APA’s Annual Convention in Boston called "Love, Sex, and Psychology." Only vaguely aware of Brothers’s history with APA, he asked her to speak alongside other famous sexologists, including John Money, PhD, and former Kinsey Institute Director June Reinisch, PhD. When Brothers expressed to Farley her distress about the views expressed in the documentary, he quickly asked then-APA Chief Executive Officer Raymond D. Fowler, PhD, to write Brothers an official letter stating that the member was expressing her personal views rather than an official APA position. Fowler did, and on receiving the missive, Brothers immediately agreed to attend her first and only APA convention. She went on to give a riveting address on love and sex in the media, and the miniconvention audience "ate it up," Farley recalls.
Today, at 83, Brothers still maintains a syndicated newspaper column, and occasionally does radio spots and public service announcements. But she spends most of her spare time enjoying the company of Lisa’s family, including four grandchildren and one great-grandchild, with another great-grandchild on the way. "She is very generous with her time that way," Arbisser says.
As for her legacy in the field, Farley believes Brothers did psychology a service by simultaneously demystifying and professionalizing psychology for the public.
"Whether you agreed or disagreed with everything she said about relationships and human behavior, she was the first to introduce many people to the concept of a psychologist and to connect it to the term ‘doctor,’" he says. "She presented psychology through an attractive and likeable persona, and connected it to the widest possible audience."
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.