Judge Lynn Toler, author of My Mother's Rules, and star of TV's Divorce Court, appeared at the Velma Teague Library as part of the Authors @ The Teague series on Saturday, Jan. 10. If her television audiences enjoy her comments half as much as the audience for her recent appearance did, she must be a ratings success.
Lynn Toler is originally from Columbus, Ohio. She received her BA from Harvard University, and her JD from the University of Pennsylvania, before spending ten years as a practicing attorney, and then seven years as administrative judge of Cleveland Heights Municipal Court. In 2001, she hosted the TV show Power of Attorney. In 2007, she began appearing as the judge on Divorce Court. She's married, with two children.
Somewhere in there, she decided she wanted to do a memoir with rules attached. She said when she was most successful with cases, she used the lessons her mother taught her. But, when she told her mother she was writing a book, the book that became My Mother's Rules, her mother got mad.
Toler's mother had a number of reasons she didn't want the book written. She told her, "I don't want you writing a book about my life. I've already lived it." Her mother said, you don't have a job. What are you doing writing? Get a job. The most important reason was that Lynn's mother didn't want her to tell the story of her father. Toler's father was bi-polar, with psychotic episodes. He was a brilliant man, with an I.Q. of 145. He was born in West Virginia, and worked coal mines to put himself through school to become a lawyer. But Judge Toler's father was already dead by this time. He left her and her sister trust funds, and her mother is living on her trust. Toler's mother didn't want her ridiculing Bill Toler. She took great care in addressing the subject of her father.
And, Toler's mother said she didn't have any rules. She didn't, but they're Judge Toler's rules, based on what she was taught. She set her mother's intellect and lessons in a shape and form to pass them on.
Judge Toler's mother was born in Chicago to a young mother, who was ugly poor. She put the children in an orphanage on and off because she couldn't afford to feed them. But, she always came back to get them, and Toler's mother always appreciated that.
Toler's mother married her father, a man whose first wife had committed him to Chillicothe State Mental Institution in Ohio. Lynn's mother stabilized him. He could be relentless, but her mother handled him. When Toler's father went on a tear, she'd load the two girls up in the car, and they'd sleep at the drive-in movies. Lynn's mother couldn't fix her father, but she could contain him.
And, she made sure her two daughters were educated. She got them to school every day. They were signed up for every extracurricular class there was in Columbus, Ohio. Toler said she took ballet, track, gymnastics, violin (which she hated), piano, and baton twirling. Her mother held the family together. One of the girls, Lynn, went to Harvard, and her sister went to Dartmouth. Judge Toler said she's considered the failure in the family because she's not a doctor. Her sister is a neurologist.
Judge Toler said don't let anyone tell you they don't feel powerful when they're on the bench. They do a schedule, and tell everyone what to do. Tell them to show up at 9 a.m., and who's going to make you show up then? She felt as if she had some power as she told defendants what to do. But, then she had her "frequent fliers" who appeared more than once. And, she took it as a personal failure if people came back. Then there were the moments when someone hung their head, and said they got it, Judge. She realized those moments came about when she used the rules that came from her mother.
Toler's mother said people do things because of what they feel, not what they know. You have to talk to who they are to get them to understand.
It was almost impossible to insult Toler's mother. She said an insult spoke to the person who passed it on. Check to see if the insult is right, and if it is, you're a better person because of it. If you don't get insulted, it kills the insult. And, Judge Toler learned to handle things with humor.
People used to comment to Lynn's mother that she didn't get into Harvard Law after going to Harvard undergrad. It almost became a comedy routine that she did with her mother. She admitted she goofed off, and wasted her parents' money. Toler said her best moments were authored by her mother, who went to junior college, and didn't finish that because she married. But, the evidence of her mother's brilliance was Lynn's father, her sister, and herself. She made their lives a successful situation. So, Toler's job was to show her mother was right, without telling bad things about her father.
Judge Toler read the opening of her book, Her Mother's Rules, in which she discusses a time when she wouldn't come out of the closet as a child. Her mother's biggest fear was that Lynn would inherit her father's problem. Toler said she has a number of fears. She's afraid to drive, and afraid to fly. Her mother taught her to act in opposition, and face your fears. Make sure you have a good view of who you are. She said she knows what's wrong with her. She talks too much, too fast, and too loud. She likes to talk, which is why she became a judge, got on TV, and is paid to talk. She also worries too much.
In Her Mother's Rules, Judge Toler uses examples of people who appeared before her on the bench. They broke rules, and there are consequences.
She told the audience she would give them the inner scoop on Divorce Court. They called her on Wednesday, and offered her the job, asking her if she could be there on Friday. She said, no, she had a family, and arrangements to make, but she could be there on Monday. She's been appearing on the show since 2007. She knows it's not Masterpiece Theater, but, hopefully, it's funny. She tries to teach people, using humor. People watch the show, and sometimes have lives that relate to the episodes, and they can learn from the situations. She gets mail from people who say they had a situation, and they liked what she had to say.
Judge Toler says she tapes 23 days a year. She thinks the people are interesting. She goes to work, and has a good time. Everything she does well on the show, she does as a function of what her mother taught her. The show is meant to be funny. She doesn't take herself too seriously. She addressed the men in the audience, and said she hoped they didn't take it personally, but she went to an all girls school until she was eighteen, and she had no use for men. She thought they were horrible. Then, her hormones kicked in.
She said she's OK with everything in her life. Judge Lynn Toler said, "The past is what you decide it's going to be." You can make it an excuse to use every excuse in the book for your life, or you can use it as a reason to be strong.
She said she has a PIP, a Personal Improvement Program. She's always on one. Her whole life is a continuation and process.
A member of the audience asked what her mother thought of the book. Lynn said she read the first three pages, cried, and said she couldn't read it. She's never read the book. And, she doesn't want to go to Divorce Court, because she doesn't want to be introduced. But, Lynn said she's going to get her there in March for a taping.
Toler said it wasn't a difficult book to write because she led with her own weaknesses. She can't spell, can't cook. She admits what she did in college. She wasted her parents' money because she played in college. The hard part was that her mother didn't want her to write the book. They were close, and they talk everyday. Her mother was upset with her when she was writing the book. She would only give her cursory answers to questions. Finally, she told her she wouldn't write the book if she didn't want her to, but her mother told her it was her life, too, so she wouldn't ask her not to write it. Her mother understands it now, and is OK with it, although she didn't want her to do it.
She said her mother was worried about what she'd say about her Daddy. There were people in the audience who spoke up, and said, it wasn't my father, it was my mother, or someone else in the family. Toler acknowledged there were other people in the audience who had lived it. You feel isolated when no one knows you're living it. You feel very alone.
Judge Toler was asked, why Phoenix? She said her husband likes Phoenix. She was commuting from Cleveland to L.A., and he wanted a warm climate. She wanted to live in a community with families, and it had to be a place with regular flights to L.A. Her choices were Phoenix or Vegas. She has the community she wants to live in here in Phoenix.
One audience member said she was amazed people would go on the show and bare everything. Judge Toler said she knows why people go on the show, because the limo drivers tell her.
1. Women want to be heard, and they want someone in authority to say to the man, you did her wrong. They want someone to hear their story. They want vindication.
2. Then there are the people who want to be on TV, and they don't care how they get there.
Divorce Court flies people out, and picks them up at the airport. They get to go to L.A., and they get a tape afterward. It's the highlight of their lives.
Divorce Court doesn't pay a fee or for the judgment. Some shows do. They fly them out, pay for their hotel room, gives them $250 for an appearance fee, in case they want to get a new outfit for TV. But, they don't pay the judgment. It is binding arbitration, though. The parties are contractually bound in front of the judge.
She was asked if she can practice law in California, and she said, no. Judge Toler passed the bar in Ohio. She thinks she'll try to pass the bar in Arizona, though. One audience member said he watches her show everyday, and she's wise young woman for her age.
Judge Toler did say they have a harder time getting people on their show than some do. They walk a thin line, because there is stuff you can't show on daytime TV dealing with divorce. They try to find the people that are in between, and are interesting. They can't be retiring and shy. They have to be vociferous, and loud, but with a true story. The producers sift through the applications to find personality, a story, and something to arbitrate.
Since she'd pointed out her husband in the audience, when she said he drives her, she was asked how they met. She met him at a Cleveland Cavaliers basketball game when she was 27. The late Congresswoman, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, was a judge at the time. She walked up to her, and said, "Do you have somebody?" When she said no, she said, "Come here." Jones' husband, and the man that would become Toler's husband, were at the bar. Jones married them two years later.
When audience members shared their family stories, Toler said, those are shining examples as how you keep secrets in difficult times. No one knows what you went through, and how hard it was. When it's your parent, it's your world, and you don't take it out of the house. Lynn's mother never called the police. And, her father's first wife had put him into a mental hospital. He made her promise never to put him in the state mental hospital, only in private facilities.
She was asked if she has any goals in life? Lynn Toler said she wants to write a novel. She's started three, and they were no good. But, that's a major goal. And, she wants employment security, so she's always looking for other work.
The last question was about the eight-year-old boy accused of murder here in Arizona. She said there is nothing between juvenile and adult, and that needs to be changed, with something that spans that age gap. An eight-year-old can't think things through. We have thirteen-year-olds who get sentenced for life, but they don't have a reasoning process yet. We should rewrite the laws for juveniles and adults. They need to be fixed.
Judge Lynn Toler presented a warm, enjoyable program, filled with laughter, to an appreciative audience. After autographing books, she was presented with a gift of an Authors @ The Teague mug.
Judge Lynn Toler has already blogged about the program, on her blog at http://tinyurl.com/8jljkh.
My Mother's Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius by Lynn Toler. Agate Bolden, ©2007. ISBN 9781932841220 (paperback), 300p.