Dan Gottlieb’s Heart

The ground floor of Philadelphia radio station WHYY houses the two-room studio of the 18-year-old call-in show, Voices in the Family. In one room the host, psychologist Dan Gottlieb, interviews his guests and whatever callers his producer puts through to him. The second room, separated from the first by a large glass window, holds computers, sound equipment and the few viewers who gather to “watch” the radio show.

Today, Feb. 3, I’m one of the watchers. I asked if I could come to a show to see Gottlieb in action, and he readily agreed. “It’s a particularly busy show,” he says. “Usually I only have one guest plus the callers, but today I have four guests.”

The show is every Monday at noon. He meets me at 11:30, right before he welcomes his guests in the station’s lobby. I notice two things about him immediately: He smiles a lot, and covering his joystick is the Sesame Street character, Elmo. He tells me when one of his daughters was 5 years old, she came back from a birthday party with a floppy finger puppet and said, “Daddy, this puppet reminds me of you–it’s got nothing that works below it’s neck and it’s got floppy arms.”

“So I put it on my joystick and spent years with this wild googly-eyed finger monster,” he says. “But then after 10 or 15 years I thought I should be more mature about it, so I switched to Elmo.”

The title of today’s show is “Teaching Tolerance,” but once the show’s underway it’s clear Gottlieb is most interested in his guest’s views on teenage violence. He has gathered quite a panel: a Holocaust survivor, a college professor, an author and a middle-school teacher.

Gottlieb asks gentle, probing questions to get at each panelist’s core beliefs. He’s kind, he’s safe, his guests relax and open up to him on the air, sharing their beliefs with–potentially–millions. Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein tells Gottlieb about her adolescence, much of it spent in a concentration camp. She travels the world giving advice on how to deal with the aftermath of hate, advice taken from her own life. Each experience can be used to further our humanity, and even when faced with extreme adversity, our humanity can survive, she says. “Pain should not be wasted.” Gottlieb agrees with her.

Jody Roy, author of Love to Hate–America’s Obsession with Hatred and Violence, shares with Gottlieb her view that just as hatred is learned and supported by society, so can it be unlearned if society stops supporting it. “But don’t you think emotions like hatred are part of our hard-wiring?” asks Gottlieb.

“No,” she answers, “no, I don’t,” and gives a lengthy exposition. When she’s through, he gently asks her the same question again, the closest he gets to interjecting his own opinion in the panel discussion.

After the show is over and the guests have dispersed, he tells me it’s important to recognize all that goes into being human, not just the feel-good emotions like love and joy. “If we deny our dark side, we may give it power. We are hard-wired for hate and so on. … Really, we’re hard-wired to deal with terror, being terrified.” But, he quickly adds, we don’t have to be ruled by our darkness. “We can be empathetic, compassionate with each other, and I choose to side with the heart.” He also confesses that usually he feels free to include his thoughts in his show, but since he holds passionate opinions on the subject discussed, this time he felt he should hold back.

Opening His Heart
Gottlieb has hosted Voices in the Familysince 1985. Surprisingly, he first went on the show as a guest. “The show was just magical, wonderful,” he says, and the producer asked him if he’d like to be the host. “I was in the depths of my post-accident depression at the time and if I had better judgment I probably would have said no. But I was desperate to connect with something, somehow.”

After the 1979 accident that made him a quadriplegic, Gottlieb’s self-esteem plummeted and the show became his lifeline. Over time, he revealed more personal details about himself on the air. “The more I opened my heart to my audience, the more responsive they were, and we’ve developed a fabulous relationship. It feels very intimate.”

In addition to Voices in the Family, Gottlieb writes a biweekly newspaper column for the Philadelphia Inquirer called “On Healing.” Again, before he was the columnist, he was the columnist’s subject. “There was a columnist in the Philly Inquirer named Darryl Seifert, a well-loved, great columnist. He did three or four columns on me, and he and I became friends. He died on vacation in about ’92 and it just seemed natural for me to step in. About 20 people contacted the paper to say they should get me.”

Readers send him questions that deal with subjects such as abuse, coping with illness or disability, and getting along with other family members. He seeks to understand what the reader feels, and if he thinks he doesn’t know how to answer a question, he calls in experts from other fields.

After hundreds of columns, Gottlieb says he still doesn’t consider himself a writer. “So many teachers said my writing sucked and I hear their voices in my head.” But over time he’s become more comfortable writing, and the conversation he’s always had with his radio audience is carried over to his readers. Since no conversation is one-sided, Gottlieb often shares how his own life is going.

Learning From Tragedy
From his columns we learn he has two daughters and one grandson, Sam, whom he dearly loves. We know his fears for his grandson, who was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, a type of autism.

We know that his marriage crumbled after his automobile accident; he slips that fact into a column answering a question from a woman whose husband died after a short illness. Gottlieb’s wife came to see him in rehab during physical therapy one day and they tapped a beach ball back and forth to each other. “After about 15 seconds, we were hitting the ball at each other a little harder than necessary. … By the end, we were slamming the ball at one another with our teeth bared!”

They were furious with each other and eventually found a way to talk about the incident. “I believe we both felt betrayed by one another. After all, we promised–as unrealistic as it may be–to take care of one another. Through no fault of our own, we both reneged on that promise, and we were furious.”

We discover that even after the divorce, his love for his wife survived. She died in 1987 of anaphylactic shock–from penicillin given to treat pneumonia. He still mourns her.

We sit with Gottlieb through all his tragedies. We are with him at his sister’s house as he watches her fight cancer–“I felt like my hand was in a brook and I was trying to grasp water. As she deteriorated further, it felt as though the water was flowing faster but still I was unable to hold on. It seemed that what I was losing was rushing through my fingers more quickly every day.” We nod our head understandingly when he shares how much she’s changed, but how much he still loves her after each change, and we cry with him when she dies.

He tells us his dreams about his dead mother and his thoughts about his father’s last days. His father was very old and dying of congestive heart failure when he visited him at the beach on vacation. “Without looking up,” says Gottlieb, “he took my hand and kissed my left thumb and gently rubbed his cheek on it. This is the only area on my hand where I have sensation. The last thing I can remember of my father was the feel of his face on my hand. In the first several days after his death, whenever someone asked if I needed anything, I began to cry, thinking, ‘Yes, I would just like to feel his face on my thumb one more time.'”

From Childhood to Legacy
Gottlieb grew up in Margate, N.J., right next to Atlantic City, and says his family life was far from normal. “It wasn’t normal because it was wonderful,” he says. “I grew up with two good parents. I mean, they were neurotic, but all parents are. And Margate wasn’t too big, or too small … it was just right. We played touch football on the beach.” On one particular beach block, where he lost his virginity, he hopes to have his ashes buried. “If I found heaven there once, I can find it again.”

Gottlieb knew he wanted to be a psychologist when he was 12 years old. School was hard for him because of a learning disability–he was labeled an underachiever. “I had a seventh-grade teacher and he was the only adult in my life who really believed in me.” His teacher was a master’s-level psychologist and Gottlieb wanted to be just like him, so he decided he would also become a psychologist. “It was the right thing to do because my only skill was really with the other kids. I had a lot of friends, kids loved me, they’d open up and talk to me.”

He flunked out of his first college in the middle of the Vietnam War, but avoided service by enrolling in a full-time night school. Eventually, after much perseverance, he earned his bachelor’s, then his master’s, and finally his doctorate.

But his real achievements are his show, his columns and his books. His first book, Voices in the Family, was published in 1993 and deals with the milestones of childhood, marriage, aging and death.

His second book, Voices of Conflict, Voices of Healing–a collection of his columns–was published in 2001. It’s easy to see Gottlieb’s relationship with his readers in this book: They share their pain, and he reciprocates. He also shares his joys, his wisdom and his hard-earned experiences.

Soon, there will be a third book, a collection of letters Gottlieb is writing to his grandson Sam, “They’re about life, what it means to be a man, what it means to be human, and what it means to live with a disability and be alienated … what it means to not quite fit in.”

He says as he gets older he is increasingly concerned with his legacy, and that’s one reason he writes books. “I’m almost 57, and I’ve been a quadriplegic since I was 33. Nobody I know expected me to live this long. … Every day is a gift.”

Over time the sharpest memories become dull, but books offer a kind of immortality. His children can flip through them long after he’s gone. They can pass them down to their children and their children’s children, and in this way he can speak to future descendants he hasn’t even dreamed of yet. “I’m very aware that my life could and probably will end before I’m ready,” he says. “I just want my children, especially, to know what’s in my heart.”

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