GMO Takes a Recess with Divorce Court’s Judge Lynn Toler

Monday, 07 November 2011 03:51 Written by  Shardae D. Smith

Growing up with a father who suffered from a mental illness didn’t steer TV’s Divorce Court host Judge Lynn Toler from achieving her goals. A mother, wife, graduate from Harvard University, author and star of a nationally syndicated television show, Toler is looking for ways to make a name for herself behind the scenes of the screen. In 2006, Toler published “My Mother’s Rules,” a memoir filled with situations that helped guide her through her emotional struggles.



GlossMagazineOnline: Why did you decide to pursue law?

Lynn Toler: I was supposed to be a doctor, as was my sister. I got to college, couldn’t do the math and my dad said I had to go to graduate school or he wasn’t paying anymore bills. So, I just picked law school out of the blue because I wasn’t ready to be on my own. It wasn’t any grand magical decision; it was just something practical at the time.

GMO: Were there any obstacles along the way?

Lynn: I can’t say as a student there were any particular pressures or difficulties because I was black or a female. I did notice a shift in opinion when I started to get into the working world. I recall my first legal interview with a law firm in which the interviewer expressed with great surprise, and she said to me, ‘You’re so articulate.’ Now, I have a degree in English from Harvard University, why would you be surprised that I’m able to speak the King’s English? I was the only black female in the first two law firms that I went to, and they were both very large and there was a sense of not being in the club. I don’t think it was intentional, but they did what they did in a way that they did it and I wasn’t inclusive in that.

GMO: You stated in “My Mother’s Rules” that there was a point in time that domestic violence wasn’t taken seriously. Have your thoughts changed about that?

Lynn: There was a point in time where no one took domestic violence seriously, about 15 years ago. When I became a judge, we were specifically playing on how to deal with domestic violence because the laws didn’t use to be enforced, and 20 years ago it wasn’t taken seriously and these days it is taken more seriously.

GMO: What are your thoughts on verbal abuse?

Lynn: When you say verbal abuse, a lot of people don’t have a clear definition. When I say verbal abuse, I mean not because you guys are cursing and yelling at each other, but when you communicate to your partner things that denigrate, humiliate and chip away at them over time. Abuse in all forms, physical and verbal, is a process of dehumanization and making somebody weaker. Verbal abuse isn’t just everybody whooping and hollering. It is a certain type of language designed to create a certain result, and I think if you can make that clear to the people about when you speak about verbal abuse, then more people would understand why it’s so important.

GMO: What advice do you have for women that are being physically and verbally abused?

Lynn: The first thing I’d [tell them to] do is go to someplace public, a friend’s house, a public computer and get on the internet and find out where you can go locally or call an abuse hotline. Sometimes municipal or county courts have information about protection orders and domestic abuse shelters. Even if you don’t have to go to a shelter, they can tell you about what things are available to you as far as assistance is concerned and how to get out [of the situation] safely. A lot of times, the actual act of leaving an abusive situation can be a dangerous time for the abused. So what you need to do is get information, but in a manner that they can’t catch you doing it. If you use your own computer, they can use your history and see where you’ve been looking.

GMO: What are differences between traditional municipal court and how we perceive court on television?

Lynn: Everything (laughs). I put people in jail, I do protection orders and I set bonds for murderers [in municipal court]. On television, I’m a binding arbitrator. They agree to set forth a particular issue in front of me that I can resolve and that’s the limits of my powers. In municipal court, if you were rude or crude to me, I can put you in jail for contempt. On TV, I can just ask you to leave. I have the power to resolve the issue before me and it’s still legally binding, but I can do so much more as a municipal court judge. It’s more daunting and stressful.

GMO: What’s your favorite memorable TV moment?

Lynn: The day that I had someone in court who wanted to get a divorce because on the wedding night, the bride slept with the best man, as opposed to the groom.

GMO: Some would use the fact their father suffered from a mental illness deter them from their goals. How did you use this to persevere?

Lynn: I think that everybody has a bad story they can tell and some are worse than others, but as soon as you know what’s going wrong and you have an opportunity to step away from that, you have to make a decision that what has already happened to you isn’t going to define what’s going to go on with you tomorrow. It’s easier not to do anything. It’s more comfortable. It’s less frightening and that’s why so many people do it, but at the end of the day, you’re allowing yourself to be re-victimized by any negative circumstances. My father didn’t do anything bad to me; he was bipolar and it was an extremely chaotic childhood. You can either live in it, live through it or live past it, and I chose to live past it.

GMO: What you want readers to take from “My Mother’s Rules”?

Lynn: That they have the ability to decide how they can feel and there’s a way to get it done and you can learn it.

GMO: What advice do you have for couples contemplating divorce?

Lynn: I’m a big fan of marriage counseling. It might be expensive, but it’s less expensive than a divorce. Give yourself an opportunity to get a second set of eyes on the matter and exhaust all options that you have to make this thing work. Sometimes you can just live through it. You’re not going to be happy all the time and sometimes you have to work to get happy, as opposed to acknowledging the fact that you aren’t happy and deciding not to be in that situation anymore. Sometimes it’s something dumb the two of you are doing or failing to communicate, but you can’t think of a unique or innovative way to satisfy that and you. You don’t have those kinds of tools and marriage counselors do.

Shardae D. Smith

Shardae D. Smith

Shardae D. Smith is senior at Columbia College Chicago majoring in magazine journalism, and she's the assistant campus editor for The Columbia Chronicle. She's also an intern for on-air personality Special K at 103.5 Kiss FM and a campus correspondent for the Columbia branch.

She can be contacted at