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"Because they weren't raised in the same home, they didn't have that incest-taboo feeling," Klass explains. The pair ended up moving to another state and changing their names. Recently, he got in touch with them to see how they were doing.
"And they were delighted that I called," he says buoyantly. "They're happy, living a healthy, normal life." Now they even have grandchildren, he marvels, "and nobody knows."
Not all his patients fared as well. There was the long-term mother/son incestuous relationship, for instance. The only case of its kind in 30 years, Klass points out. "Problems developed, actually, when he wanted to start seeing other women his own age. The mother was quite a bit older and became outraged."
Politicians, celebrities, "they're no different from anyone else," Klass says. Like the psychiatrist in The Sopranos, he has seen patients who are part of South Florida's mobbed-up Mafioso. "The same: just overgrown bullies."
Best of all is when Klass can say his work helped someone, bettered someone's life. "I treated this guy who was a Nazi and was surprised by the number of Jews down here in South Florida. He had a great deal of difficulty when he found out his doctor, his dentist, and his landlord were all Jewish. I mean, he was a virulent anti-Semite. But he had an interesting time here, and in time, he mollified his attitudes."
In the course of a typical conversation, Klass drops tantalizing morsels like Hansel marking a candy path through the woods. "The things that go on in this town!" he says disapprovingly. "Things have gone on with very notable local people politicians and businessmen and I could really shock you. I'm not naming names, though I certainly could. But I can't, because it's confidential."
At times, it appears that hoarding these secrets makes him want to explode, so channeling that energy into some sort of memoir seems inevitable. "The one or two unbelievable cases you get a year become 60 cases," he marvels. "When I look back at these charts, I guess maybe I ought to just write a book. Something with therapeutic benefit to society but at the same time entice the reader and be interesting."
Joel Klass grew up in Miami, attending elementary and high school there. Today, he and his wife live in Fort Lauderdale. His twin brother, Michael, is a doctor in Half Moon Bay, California. His own children grew up with careers in the medical field as well. His father, also a physician, instilled him with a memorable motto: "'Service to others is the rent we pay for our stay on Earth.' Which I thought was original until I read it somewhere," Klass says with a quick grin.
With that in mind, Klass went to college at Tulane and New York University before getting a doctorate at the University of Miami's school of medicine in 1969. Sidetracked into cardiac research two years before he graduated, Klass wound up in London, where he rubbed shoulders with, among others, one of psychiatry's most vehement opponents: L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology.
"Instead of pudgy and balding, like he appears in pictures, he looked very tall and lean, with light blond hair," Klass remembers. "And he was a wonderful speaker, very impressive."
Learning of Klass' chosen profession, Hubbard railed against psychiatry's evils. "He was not as virulent then but still clearly negative," Klass recalls. "He was against people looking for answers in a pill."
During the course of the evening, however, Klass found Hubbard to be a smooth operator. "He was slick and clever, [and] the slickness was that he knew the things and ideas he'd devised were well-known and called other things. For example, he showed me what he called an e-meter."
The e-meter is a crucial part of Scientology's basic mechanics. The "auditing process" Scientologists use to "clear" practitioners of spiritual distress uses the e-meter to gauge the level of an individual's progress.
The "electropsychometer" Hubbard had patented was, in Klass' learned eyes, nothing more than a crude lie-detector with two tin cans attached.
"So I said, 'Well, that's a GSR, a galvanic skin response device, which measures electrical current on the skin.
"He said, 'That's right, but I'm calling it an e-meter. '
"I think he believed it," Klass says, "though his interest was clearly money." Klass acknowledges, though, that "it's provided help for many people. I believe Scientology can do good."
Although he counts noted skeptic and local celebrity James Randi as one of his true heroes, Klass doesn't dismiss things that work simply because he doesn't believe in them. For example, it amazes him that more study isn't devoted to the success rates of placebos. In many clinical tests of pharmaceuticals, he claims, the drug is proven to have an effect. But sometimes as much as 30 to 40 percent of the time the individuals taking placebos also see benefits. That's never looked at, because everyone knows placebos don't work. "But they do," Klass says. "I've seen it happen."
That pragmatism fuels Klass' approach to his craft. If something is proven to work, he believes, it should never be disregarded. To his chagrin, his colleagues don't always fall in line. "Not if it flies in the face of what their income is," he notes. "That troubles me, because empirical data is important."