In Practice

A practicing doctor's views on psychiatry and contemporary culture.

Taking Comfort in Radio: A Psychiatrist Listens to Car Talk

How "Car Talk" sustained a troubled patient.

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I see by the papers that PBS is launching a television cartoon version of “Car Talk,” the NPR automobile advice show hosted by Tom and Ray Magliozzi, “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers.” I have a special attachment to “Car Talk.” It sustained a patient of mine.

The radio can have odd functions for patients’ (and all of our) psyches. I once treated a man who resented the same program, “Car Talk.” He was in the auto business, and he thought that the Magliozzis had usurped his niche. He wanted to be the national authority; he had years of experience. He seemed not to take into account the roles played, on the air and in life, by the attributes that make people likeable. Or if he did understand, he resented that reality and felt all the more jealous.

Patients can feel diminished by radio talk for a contrasting reason: it exposes the limits of their knowledge. Once, it was easy to imagine that you were an expert. If you grew up in a small town and frequented the library, seemingly you could absorb all that there was to know about baseball, the statistics, the classic anecdotes, and the fine points of strategy. But radio demonstrates that in every market there are people who know more than you. The same is true in many spheres. Politics, indie music, film, fashion — you name the field, there are mavens. Expertise aside, radio demonstrates repeatedly that, there are guys and gals who are snappier and funnier, even grosser than you and your friends.

Here we are speaking about narcissism, or the constant need to measure self against others, but certain patients have that problem. For them, the skills on display across the dial eat away at the sense of self. And then there is the World Wide Web . . . If we choose to see our surroundings that way, our capacities are sadly limited.

But then, most of us see the other side of the coin. Information enriches us. We are pleased to be able to access expertise. More fundamentally, we enjoy the sense of personal connection that radio offers.

The patient who endeared Click and Clack to me had severe social limitations. She had never had a friend. She rarely looked people in the eye. She was moreover, something of a saint, or at least, she has informed my image of saints. Plagued by a guilty conscience and a compulsion to justify her existence, she devoted herself to service, working through her church with the poorest of the poor. She had no pleasures, would not allow herself a television. But her car came with a radio. I suggested she listen, and later that she take a radio into her home.

What my patient liked best was “Car Talk.” The reason had nothing to do with cars. She found Ray and Tom emotionally trustworthy. They had little edge, little false pride. This woman had experienced injuries and disappointments. Ray and Tom did not threaten. Outside of psychotherapy, Click and Clack constituted her most intimate social exposure. I believe that they were responsible for my greatest success in her care, her allowing herself to adopt a dog, a substantial enrichment in her life. In time, this patient left my practice. She has since died, but I think of her often. Actually — every time I hear “Car Talk.” Patients do populate doctors’ lives in this way and shape our understanding of the world.

For most of us, good radio enlarges our social sphere. Darwinists might say that talk shows tap into pre-wiring we carry for contact and community. Whatever the mechanism, it seems to act in response to radio more strongly than for other media, so that radio, rather than television, is the electronic hearth or hot stove. When it is not contentious, it can be unthreatening in the way that my patient found it, comfortable and warm.

Peter D. Kramer is a psychiatrist and author. His books include Against Depression and Listening to Prozac.

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