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For Some Trial Devotees, Life After O.J. Is Humdrum : Psychology: 'There's a sadness, an emptiness,' says one. Others find their post-verdict days liberating.

October 18, 1995|NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lee Dillworth used to tune four televisions to the trial of O.J. Simpson in separate rooms of her San Fernando Valley home. But today there is only desperate channel surfing.

Dillworth, like thousands of other trial junkies across the nation, suffers the crankiness and ennui of cold-turkey withdrawal.

"Nothing means as much," says the 55-year-old West Hills telemarketer, who works out of her home. "There's a sadness, an emptiness. There's nothing to look forward to in my life. I used to get up like I was going somewhere exciting, only it was my living room and I was going to court."

For many Simpson addicts, the wholeness of the day, the connectedness to a special world, is gone. Some are rediscovering the real world with gratitude. Others, such as Dillworth, are still struggling. This, after all, is a woman who stopped answering the phone while court was in session, who ate lunch when the jurors did, who timed doctor appointments around Judge Lance A. Ito's schedule, who called by first name scores of people she'd never met, from lawyers to television anchors.

At first it seemed these addicts would get a gentle letdown. There was an avalanche of post-verdict analysis, then speculation about what the football great would say to Tom Brokaw. Then came the chatter about what it meant when Simpson abruptly backed out of the TV interview. Now there is only an occasional morsel.

"Like any withdrawal, people are going to be feeling anxious, depressed, irritable, empty and overwhelmed with their life," said Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who studies the impact of media on society. "Since the trial went on so long, people put their lives on hold for 1 1/2 years. Now it's suddenly off; they can still hear little tidbits, but it isn't enough to feed the voracious appetite that developed."

Lieberman believes that the large number of people captivated by the trial reflects social malaise. "If this had been a time when people were more involved in their lives and more hopeful that their own productivity was going to have a positive result, then there wouldn't have been so many who became addicted," said Lieberman, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA.

*

For some, the post-trial life is liberating. It means they can resume schedules consumed by the case. Cyril La Tendresse, a 78-year-old retired Michigan farmer who became the resident trial expert in his small town of Chassell (population: 730), has returned to his normal social habits. He now regularly saunters into town and visits with his buddies--a practice he'd relinquished to watch the trial. No more jamming chores on the 200-acre farm into the morning hours before testimony begins; now he can leisurely mow the lawn twice a week and tend the chickens without rushing.

The lure of the trial was so powerful that it was able to transform even non-television watchers into ersatz couch potatoes. Barbara Levine, a 65-year-old Sherborn, Mass., resident, does not usually watch television. She and her husband, however, fell under the spell of the trial. Because they missed Marcia Clark's closing statement, they watched a taped rerun at 4:30 a.m.

Today, like many addicts, Levine is paying the price: She faces a pile of paperwork on her desk, tasks she kept postponing that she has only now begun to tackle.

Yet the obsession brought an unexpected benefit, she said. Because she and her husband sat side-by-side through the court proceedings, sharing them together, a special bond blossomed between the retirees.

"We definitely got even closer than before," Levine said.

Others say that withdrawal seems to have magically expanded the hours in the day. Lisa Hughes, a 41-year-old Pacific Palisades resident, says her life has become easier to manage. No more daytime TV. She watches the news in the early mornings and nights. That's it.

"It frees up more time in your day," said Hughes, who works promoting Santa Barbara as a film site. "I don't feel compelled to watch the trial rather than run an errand. I feel like I have a lot of time, a huge, great abyss of time."

For Hughes, who moved to California in May from Washington, the trial provided an instant conversational icebreaker. At the beach, at stores, everyone was talking about it. Now people talk about the verdict. It's still a topic that allows an outsider to feel like an insider.

It's also, for many, a subject of embarrassment, a habit that seems in retrospect beneath them.

"It was much more addictive than soap operas," said Hughes, a former stockbroker. "The moment I'd get home, I would turn it on."

Adversity proved Hughes' ally. During a two-week language course in a small town in northeastern Italy, she made a startling discovery: No phones. No radios. No news, except Italian events. Eventually she found a hotel with a TV and would go there for short fixes of CNN. But she missed the closing arguments. She got back to the United States in time for the verdict, but by then felt cured.

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