Before she resigned last month as radio’s resident mistress of angst to ready herself for a TV show in the fall, psychotherapist Susan Forward routinely faced more grief over breakfast than Bluebeard’s wife on the day she charcoaled the toast. A typical weekday morning would have found Forward, in red velour robe and slippers, getting her daily earful of misery on her two-hour ABC radio talkathon. Picking at a sweet roll, she would listen to the voices of pain filtering into her sunny Los Angeles den: a man contemplating suicide, an 18-year-old who had been raped by her brother, a woman weary of her husband’s lust for kinky sex. By 9 a.m. Forward would have counseled a handful of desolate callers and dispensed healing wisdom to an audience of two million. Then she would go to work.
At the Encino, Calif. center she founded in 1980, and which is the focus of her life as a therapist, Forward specializes in treating women who have been victimized physically and emotionally by the men in their lives. To those who come to her with their self-esteem in tatters, having had it vandalized by husbands, fathers and lovers, she dispenses needed psychic repairs. “The message I try to give is that love feels good,” she says. “It should not make you feel guilty, unbalanced or frightened.” It is no coincidence that Forward is drawn to women who bear the scars of abuse; she has carried those wounds herself.
At the age of 15 Forward was molested by her father, an experience that skewed her childhood and shaded her relations with men. Her first marriage ended after eight years; her second, to a man she describes as a master of psychological abuse, lasted 15. Forward’s encounters with dozens of women locked in destructive unions like her own eventually inspired her best-seller, Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them (Bantam, $16.95), a self-help book that explores the depths of misogyny. According to Forward, true misogynists are Jekyll-Hyde personalities who slip mercurially from charm to rage and who tyrannize the women they profess to love. “The book was as much for me as for anyone,” says Forward. “It was very painful, but it was also healing to put my own experiences into a framework.”
As deeply troubling as her work frequently is, Forward’s nonprofessional manner is remarkably cheerful. As “Dr.” Susan Forward she is often brusque, blunt and opinionated. But curled up on the sofa in her immaculate living room, she seems more vulnerable, worrying that “people who think I walk on water will be surprised to hear that I still struggle.” Off the air Forward, a petite woman in her 50s, is garrulous, girlish and brimming with an unexpected romantic optimism. She seems proud to have prevailed over personal pain and determined to impart to others what it took her more than three decades to learn: that no one can prosper in any relationship without self-respect. A homely bit of wisdom, perhaps, but Forward believes there are multitudes who still need to learn it. “Women have to feel good about themselves without a man before they can choose a healthy, stable partner,” she says.
Forward’s counsel comes from experience. As Sondra (later changed to Susan) Dorn, she was the first of two daughters born to a man she describes as “loud, charismatic and volatile,” an appliance salesman who moved his family from the Bronx to Los Angeles when Susan was 13. Her mother, often ill and unhappy with her marriage, seemed a remote and ethereal figure, “a fairy queen who emerged from the bedroom to spend time with me.” It was Susan’s father who tended her sniffles and untangled her math problems. “He was a good daddy until I reached puberty,” she says. “When I got interested in boys, he was horrible.”
That was also when he began to molest her. “I was plump and he told me that if I were to have some sexual arousal it would help me lose weight because my glands would be working better,” Forward recalls uneasily. “I’d never had those feelings before, and the fact that the feelings were good only made me feel guiltier.”
The encounters went no further than fondling and ended after several months, when Forward simply said no. “There was no argument and it was never discussed,” she says, “but my father projected his guilt onto me and became very punitive. He would pick fights, then ground me before a date. He became very wealthy, but he made me grovel for everything.” Forward left adolescence feeling tense, uncertain of herself and obsessed with boys. “My experience with my father did terrible things to my self-esteem,” she says, “but at least it didn’t damage my sexuality. I was very assertive in getting male attention. I wanted to be loved, admired and reassured.”
A UCLA graduate with a theater arts degree, and still a virgin at 23, she married a musician who was as passive as her father had been aggressive. “It was one of my more self-destructive decisions,” she says, “because I gave up an acting career to become a little housewife in blue jeans in a little tract house.” After the birth of two children, Forward returned to acting over her husband’s protests. “The bottom line was always that I was deficient,” she says. “I couldn’t give enough or love enough.” The marriage collapsed.
Four years later she found herself smitten with Walter “Buzz” Forward, a flashy entrepreneur she characterizes as always seeming to be one deal away from the big killing. They married after a four-month courtship. “No one ever adored me the way he did,” she says. “It’s awfully hard to realize you’re being abused when somebody’s telling you you’re a goddess.” But her husband’s praise, she says, was punctuated by fits of rage that began shortly after the honeymoon. “Anything that displeased him could provoke the most awful tirades,” says Forward, “and I was programmed to be a good girl. It felt normal to me to have a man be so inconsistent because my father had been that way.” Forward speaks sadly of the impact of the marriage on her daughter, Wendy, a law student who lives with her mother, and son Matt, a molecular biologist. “I know they felt betrayed by me,” she says. “I didn’t step in to protect them.”
In 1965, dissatisfied with her career in television and local theater (“I was always playing second leads”), Forward switched to volunteer work in the psychiatry department at the UCLA Medical Center. That led to a master’s degree in psychiatric social work from USC in 1970 and a license to practice psychotherapy four years later. In 1978 she published her first book, Betrayal of Innocence, on the subject of incest. Her work quickly became grist for radio talk shows, and Forward found herself a celebrity. Her doctorate, in fact, was partly a matter of public relations. Before beginning her national radio show in 1982, she obtained a Ph.D. from Kensington University in Glen-dale, which she describes as a “university without walls,” and which a spokesman describes as a correspondence school for people who haven’t the time or the money to go to college. (Kensington offers a Ph.D. in psychology based on work experience, home study, a “dissertation” of 50 pages or more and a fee of $2,875. Although unaccredited, it is authorized by the state of California to grant degrees.)
As her career flourished, Forward’s marriage crumbled—a consequence, she says, of her husband’s resentment. Still, she wanted the marriage to survive. “When it was good, it was the best I’ve ever had,” she says. “His attacks were never on my attractiveness, but that I was selfish or unsupportive. So what? We were great in bed.” Still, she divorced him in 1979, and Buzz Forward, now remarried, chooses not to protest: “I have as much interest in what she has to say as I have in whether the sun is going to come up in 2050 when I’m long gone. She’s a very unhappy lady.”
“The end of a marriage is a death. You have to allow yourself a period of grieving,” says Susan, who spent two years in therapy following her divorce. “It’s a mistake to shortcut that by getting into another relationship.” But time, she believes, really can heal some wounds. Forward herself is flirtatious with men and emphatically non-analytical. “I am not Dr. Susan Forward on a date,” she declares. “I don’t want to make meaningful conversation all the time. I want to have fun.” For any eligible man who is interested, fun for Forward means dancing, opera, theater, shopping, charades, riding and romance. She may have had a rough ride in marriage before, but she isn’t necessarily averse to trying again. “I’m always eager to meet new men,” she says. “I’m not antimen, I’m antiabuse.”
At the moment success is less elusive than romance. Men Who Hate Women has spent 28 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, the TV movie rights have been sold to NBC, and a first paperback printing of more than 1.4 million copies is due from Bantam in June. All this has brought Forward financial security, along with a white Jaguar and a Benedict Canyon house now undergoing frenzied renovation. Meanwhile, she has added to her staffs at therapy centers in Encino and Tustin, Calif. She is under contract to write another book—on destructive parents—and has signed on as the star of Strictly Confidential, a syndicated TV series starting next fall that will be based on marital case histories. “I used to be driven just to prove that I was okay,” says Forward. “If I had enough audience approval, enough success and enough fame, then maybe I could prove it to myself. Now I know I’m okay, and the drive comes from the work. That,” she says brightly, “is a much better place to be.”