Television Judge Lynn Toler's Real-Life Struggles

Divorce Court's Judge Lynn Toler

Divorce Court's Judge Lynn Toler hide caption

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Long before she started issuing rulings from the bench of daytime TV's Divorce Court, Judge Lynn Toler had to navigate what she describes as a difficult childhood. She talks to Farai Chideya about her bipolar father, her mother's saving wisdom, and her new book, My Mother's Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

At the top of the show, we broke it down on money and relationships. But when the love and the money are gone, some married couples turn here.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Divorce Court")

Unidentified Man: All rise. Court is now in session. The honorable Judge Lynn Toler presiding.

CHIDEYA: Judge Lynn Toler runs a tight ship at TV's "Divorce Court," but she's still coping with a rocky childhood spent living with her mentally ill father. Toler credits her mother for helping her survive, and shares her wisdom in a new book, "My Mother's Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius."

She joined us from WCPN in Cleveland, Ohio, and defined the term emotional genius.

Ms. LYNN TOLER (Judge, "Divorce Court"; Author, "My Mother's Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius"): An emotional genius is a person who doesn't have everything under control, but knows how to manage their emotions and get things better under control day after day after day.

CHIDEYA: Now, your mother was someone who had to be a bit of an emotional genius because among other things, your father was bipolar. You really talk about how difficult it was. On the first page of your book, you write:

(Reading) "Daddy was an ongoing event. At our house, a mispronounced word could have us running for our lives. A dirty carpet could lead to gunplay."

That is very serious emotional trauma. How did you deal with that?

Ms. TOLER: Not very well in the beginning. I had two nervous breakdowns by the time I think I was 12 - mom's not quite sure. The first one I had in the fourth grade. And I was, as my mother often said, someone who fell a little too close to her husband's emotional tree. And that's why I found my mother's way of doing business so important, because she helped me walk from an emotional mess to one in which I can control how I feel and what I think.

CHIDEYA: You have 43 of your mother's rules in this book. And I guess that you're judge - your run for the judgeship would fall under rule number five: no matter what, keep coming. But you've also got rule number three: the bathroom mirror mandate. What is that?

Ms. TOLER: The bathroom mirror mandate is a requirement that one look in the bathroom mirror for their own fault. People want to look for the best in themselves, which is a wonderful thing. You should know where you're strong and what you're good at. But we don't spend a lot of time in the bathroom mirror looking for all our faults, our weaknesses, our fears. Don't just put your best foot forward - focus on the one that's dragging behind. I always lead with my weaknesses because those are the things that'll do your in, and they're going to hurt you more than they hurt anybody else.

CHIDEYA: So let's talk about "Divorce Court." You have this fabulous position in the big chair, but you began the show during its seventh season, replacing Mablean Ephriam. And the rumors about her departure were all over the media. So tell us about this part of your life.

Ms. TOLER: I was very concerned, because Judge Mablean was very well liked. And there was going to be a lot of negative response in the beginning. And, in fact, there was. Things have shifted now. I've gotten a lot of positive response, but I had to decide that I was going to block that out, make my show - don't try to be the next Mablean, because nobody can do Mablean like Mablean can. And I have since met Mablean on a couple occasions, and she has been one of the most gracious, kindest, lovely women I have ever met.

CHIDEYA: So when you look at the people who come on your show, who are already at this desperate moment of their relationship, what is the most common mistake that you see among couples or individuals that leads them to divorce?

Ms. TOLER: Money is always the big problem. People don't even know how they feel. They never sit down and have the conversation. How do you feel about money? What do you want out of money? So if you have different concepts of money, it's going to be very, very difficult to have a calm, cool and meaningful relationship without a lot of trouble.

CHIDEYA: Let's pull back from the relationship issue back to you yourself. You - when you were a municipal judge - went on Zoloft and you had a severe depression, which is, you know, I'm sure related to the stress of the job, to your childhood, to many different factors. Ultimately, how did that experience of taking psychiatric medication work out for you?

Ms. TOLER: The interesting thing was only three people recognized any difference in me, which was my husband, my mother and my sister. Nobody else noticed the difference. The one thing that taught me is that though the turmoil within me was raging, I was able to be calm, cool and collected, and always manage myself.

Number two, it taught me, boy, I did not know the rest of the world was feeling this good, and - not feeling this good, but just feeling this calm.

CHIDEYA: Not a lot of people have talked - especially black women - about dealing with mental health issues. What makes you brave enough to put this into your book? What makes you brave enough to tell your whole story?

Ms. TOLER: Well, I have to say, one thing was while I was on the bench, there were so many immensely ill people coming in my courtroom, and that we were their first line of defense. I know one guy - I remember one guy, please put me in jail so I can get back on my medication. And I thought to myself, this failure to deal with mental illness, I believe came twofold. One, because, you know, it's just economics, money, and all that. And two, nobody wants to raise their hand and say I'm mentally ill, because it had such a stigma to it.

Now if I'm going talk that talk, how can I not say my father was bi-polar and I struggled with issues myself? And I'm not embarrassed. I'm not ashamed. I've done very well in life. My father's done very well in life, and it is what it is.

CHIDEYA: It is what it is kind of sums up the last rule in your book, the dumb luck rule: just accepting things in life. So, give me a little bit more about that as a final grace note to our talk. What helps you accept all of the challenges, all of the joys, all of the career opportunities, all of the personal events in your life?

Ms. TOLER: There's a whole extra layer of pressure and stress you put on yourself if you say why me? I can't believe this. This shouldn't happen to me. I've been good. As a whole extra-emotional negative thing that you have to deal with - if you can get rid of that, say yeah, up. My turn. I'm up for a little problem. That's a whole another way of looking at it. And it's just the dumb luck rule when it has nothing to do with who you are or what you are or your value. It's just your turn.

CHIDEYA: Well, it sounds like it's your turn right now, judge. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. TOLER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOLER: Thank you so much for having me.

CHIDEYA: Judge Lynn Toler is the star of "Divorce Court" and the author of "My Mother's Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius."

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