Cracked: Putting Broken Lives Together Again - Drew Pinsky, Todd Gold (2004)
LOS ANGELES HAS two distinct flavors. By day, it’s a sprawling metropolis by the ocean. No matter how far inland you go, the city is still defined by the surf, sand, and sunshine. At night, it is a completely different story. The vibe is neon and nasty. With the lights on, you hear the Beach Boys and think about Hollywood. When the lights are off, you hear Jim Morrison and the Doors and think about Heidi Fleiss.
My life changes after dark, too. Five nights a week, between 10:00
P.M. and midnight, I take on the role of Dr. Drew, the co-host of Loveline, a syndicated call-in radio program where young people—the curious, the disenfranchised, the stoners, and the kooks—phone in with questions about sex, drugs, and everything in between. About four hours after leaving Amber, I arrive at the Westwood One radio complex where the show is broadcast. My co-host, Adam Carolla, shows up a few minutes later. By then the studio is abuzz with activity as our producers line up phone callers.
“No way! You’re lying,” I hear Brad, one of the screeners, tell a caller before breaking into a full-on laugh. Soon the other screener is laughing, and then one of the producers joins in.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
Brad puts the caller on hold and explains: For the past couple of years, the caller claims, he’s been acting on an unusual compulsion.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“He says he eats dog poop.”
“He wants to know if that’s weird. And if he can get sick.”
“That’s a fake,” I say, though I give the caller credit for being funny, in a twisted sort of way.
“Hey, man,” says Brad. “I don’t know about your call. You might be goofing on us. If you aren’t, try calling a vet.”
It’s one of the few calls we don’t take on Loveline. One of the things I love about doing the show is our no-holds-barred policy. Our job is to give information, not pass judgment. Callers can ask whatever they want, and they do, every night we go on the air. If a kid has a question about the workings of a penis or a vagina, this is the place to call. If a kid has never talked to anyone about an orgasm, Loveline can help. If they’ve tried pot and want to know what it does to them, or they’re curious about Ecstasy, they can call the show and find out the truth. The program has created a community, a place where healthy dialogue can lead listeners to healthy decisions. If those decisions lead to healthier lives, then I’m doing my job as a doctor.
The show is one of the things I am proudest of, but it was a happy accident. In 1983, KROQ, a small FM station in Pasadena, was redefining pop music by playing the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and Elvis Costello, then cutting-edge artists taking over from the well-worn 1970s acts like Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, and Foreigner who’d gone before.
As the station took off, the program director, himself an addict, was looking to put a community service show on the air, and he assigned two of his wilder DJs, the Swedish Eagle and the Poorman, to create one in the midnight-to-3:00 A.M. slot on Sundays. These were talented, creative guys who designed a call-in show around the topics they talked about all the time—sex and drugs—figuring listeners would be interested in the same thing. Then, to give it at least a taste of public service, they came up with the idea of a regular segment called “Ask a Surgeon.” All they needed was the surgeon.
A mutual friend recommended me. I was no surgeon, of course, just a medical student. But Eagle and Poorman didn’t care. “We just want you to use big words,” they explained. I declined, thinking they were too silly for someone as serious-minded as myself, but they persisted. We had a very weird meeting at our friend’s apartment, during which Poorman, in a terry-cloth vest and shorts nodded off in midsentence after we were introduced. Later, he had me discuss the show while he took a shower.
After all was said and done, I told him I still didn’t get it.
“Dude, don’t worry about it,” he replied. “Just show up.”
By the next day, the guys were on the air promoting the new show and promising there would be a real doctor talking about VD and other cool stuff. That weekend, I appeared on Loveline for the first time. Listeners couldn’t talk enough about sex and relationships and drugs. They had a million questions. The show took off.
Despite my naiveté, I realized what I’d stumbled into: the chance to do something unique by talking to young people, to give them the facts they needed and couldn’t get elsewhere. The average listener, fifteen to eighteen years old, was starved for honest information. AIDS was still known as GRIDS (Gay Related Intestinal Disease Syndrome). The phrase “safe sex” hadn’t been coined. Condoms were still sold from behind the pharmacist’s counter. Dr. Ruth had just emerged, offering her own brand of frank talk about sex, but she didn’t have much credibility among kids, or knowledge of the medical consequences of their behavior. And as for drug use, it just wasn’t discussed. “Just say no” was all there was to say. It was a joke.
I was only twenty-four. I didn’t preach or moralize. I didn’t tell anyone not to do drugs, or to abstain from sex. I couldn’t, without sounding like a parent, and I certainly wasn’t anyone’s parent. I knew I would be most effective simply by providing facts and explaining the consequences. Straight up.
Not everyone agreed. I didn’t go looking for publicity. That wasn’t my thing. But after an article about the show was printed in the Los Angeles Times in 1985, the doctor supervising my internship at Huntington Memorial Hospital, a brilliant man who specialized in liver disease, gave me a dressing-down for going on the radio and acting in what he considered an unprofessional manner. Devastated, for the first time I found myself doubting something I knew was right and good.
Worried that my future might be in jeopardy, I took a six-month break from the show, and during that period I noticed a shift in the culture. A new openness began emerging about the very subjects I’d been talking about on the radio. Suddenly everyone seemed to be discussing things like safe sex and condoms. They were now seen as legitimate concerns. Vindicated, I went back on the radio. And best of all, three years later the doctor who had reprimanded me asked whether I’d consider stepping aside—to let him take over.
Adam and I are opposites. We get along, and somehow we share the same sensibility. But we’re very different. As he once told the Los Angeles Times, “When Drew was nineteen, he was premed at Amherst. When I was nineteen, I was cleaning carpets out by Edwards Air Force Base at three in the morning and hanging out with a scary guy named Everlastin’ who smoked a joint while driving our van at ninety-five miles per hour.”
You can hear the difference, too. Adam is funny. He’ll say anything. I try to be a little saner, always authoritative, and usually appropriate. Our first caller this evening brings that out. She’s in her early twenties, and she asks a question that reminds me that we’re still filling a vital need two decades after Loveline debuted.
“Is anal sex related to respect?” she asks. “I mean, my boyfriend wants to do it, and I agreed.”
“You already did it, right?” says Adam.
“Yeah,” she admits.
“This issue of respect you mentioned,” I cut in. “Does your boyfriend abuse you?”
She’s silent. Adam prods her for a response.
“Yes, uh-huh,” she says reluctantly. “Sometimes.”
“Was your father an alcoholic?” I ask.
“Did he hit your mother?”
“Did he abuse you?”
“He didn’t hit me, but…you know, like any kid, when I was bad…”
“Do you and your boyfriend get high?” I ask.
“Does he drink?”
“Is that when he hits you?”
“Sounds like a party to me,” Adam chimes in.
“It’s not a party, though,” I say. “Your boyfriend is like your father, and you’re playing the role of victim, which you’ve played your whole life. You’ve cast your play perfectly.”
“Drew, I’d say your performance with this caller is outstanding,” cracks Adam, trying to lighten the moment.
“I know you called about something else,” I continue, “but you know what? You need help. You need treatment. You need to make different, healthier choices in your life.”
“Yeah, I guess,” she says.
“The pattern of repeating is not unusual,” I say, wrapping up. “It’s normal. It’s a kind of compulsive destructive thing. If you’re totally honest right now, I bet you’ll admit the little voice in your head has often said, ‘Not this guy again.’”
Eight more calls are waiting to get on the air. On average, we’ll talk to fifteen or twenty people a show. Men typically phone in with sex-related questions, usually about adequacy and performance. They want to know if they’re normal. Women are more interested in relationships. They also ask about the way men’s minds work. Why does he want a threesome? How come he likes lesbians?
But the calls run the gamut. They’re entirely unpredictable.
“Hi, I cut myself with a rusty knife this morning and now my arm is red and it hurts real bad,” says the next caller. “Should I go to the hospital?”
“Have you heard of flesh-eating bacteria?” asks Adam. “You moron. Of course you should go to the hospital.”
“Yeah, get it checked,” I concur.
No questions are stupid to us. There’s no problem too small or weird or way out. Anyone who thinks otherwise has only to imagine a kid twenty years ago asking about “that new gay sex disease.” Those who criticize the show for being too graphic don’t get it. They need to ask why the language is real and direct. There’s a drama behind every question. There are other Ambers are out there, and often we’re the only people they can speak to openly and without fear.
Never underestimate the power of the airwaves. I remember being interviewed in Portland, Oregon, by a reporter whose questions were unusually perceptive. As soon as his show ended I asked him a few questions, and he confessed he’d been a heroin addict on the streets, turning tricks to maintain his habit. I wasn’t surprised. He said he’d been sodomized as a kid by his minister father, who screamed epithets from the Bible as he raped his son.
His story made me ill, but he wasn’t telling me all that to make me feel bad. The opposite was true. He said that when he was on the streets he and his gang of teenage homeless prostitute friends would gather around the radio and listen to Loveline, and for whatever reason he allowed himself to connect with me. It was the first time he believed an adult could actually care about a kid.
Motivated to get help, he went to the department of psychiatry at the local university, got a referral, and saw a therapist every day for years. Describing the pain of those sessions, he said, “Sometimes I wanted to fuck my therapist, other times I wanted to kill him. But I couldn’t stand it if I was away from him.”
The show also affected his friends deeply. According to him, many of them couldn’t tolerate listening to an entire show. If Adam or I were connecting with a particularly poignant or disturbed caller, they’d drift away from the radio, literally walking away. They couldn’t handle the raw emotions coming through the radio. They were connecting that strongly. It was as though the thought of a caring adult reminded them of how differently they’d been dealt with by adults. It was too painful.
“Let’s take another call,” says Adam. “Neal, you’re twenty years old. What’s up?”
“My girlfriend and I have trouble having sex,” the caller says.
“What kind of trouble?” I ask.
“I can’t do it unless I’m watching porn,” he says.
“Unless you’re paying the thirteen-fifty they charge at hotels, I don’t see the problem,” Adam says. “Drew, why don’t you handle this?”