I rationalized that I wasn't doing harm because the dilemmas I "solved" were relatively lightweight. How much damage could I inflict telling well-meaning mamas on a "Mom's Pushing Me to Marry" segment to "butt out or risk creating reverse Romeo-and-Juliet scenarios for their altar-shy kids"?
But I craved integrity, and resolved never to exaggerate my credentials. When Montel came calling, I warned his producers not to let the irrepressible host call me a shrink; I was a "relationship writer." (I never voluntarily wore the "expert" tag.) The day before the taping, I received a 15-page fax containing preinterviews from the troubled guests. My stomach sank; this was tough stuff. (Dominica: "I don't want a boyfriend to be faithful; he'd want me to be faithful." José: "If my woman no be faithful, I sleep with her best friend.") The producers requested that I be "fun."
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Borrowing from the shrink Bob Newhart played in his first TV series, I role-played with the couple: "To be more empathetic, you need to put yourself in the other's shoes. Dominica, pretend you're José, who values fidelity. Now imagine how he'd feel to discover his woman had cheated …" I was cookin'—until Montel scolded his rambunctious studio audience to "Let the doctor speak."
In the sudden hush, I winced, then thought, "Mom wanted me to marry a doctor: I hope this will satisfy her."
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"Doctor" label aside, that escapade left me feeling queasy. Helping couples cope with possible infidelity could have infinitely more toxic consequences than advising women whether or not to pay on a first date—especially since Montel's "aftercare" consisted of my delivering a five-minute post-taping consult in the dressing room.