Klassified

From the files of Broward supershrink Joel Klass: The Chicken Lady, the Phantom .38 Killer, and more


After launching his psychiatry practice in January 1977 in New York, weather beckoned Klass back home, so he set up an office on Stirling Road in Hollywood. South Florida, he soon realized, presented its own unique quirks affecting its populace.

"The most common, most obvious problem down here is what I call the transplant syndrome. A lot of people — families — moved here for the weather but found out they were losing their whole world. Families who originated in other parts of the country move to South Florida and often don't adjust very well."

Other issues, like the violence perpetrated against homeless men by teens in Plantation, has more universal roots. "Television, especially," he says, "and videogames. By the time those kids were 15, do you have any idea how many acts of violence they'd witnessed? Thousands."

Klass the storyteller frequently changes gears to become Klass the problem solver. For example, he has turned his attention to the problem of obesity. One afternoon, he was hanging out in the doctor's lounge, munching away on brownies someone had baked and brought in.

"Klass!" barked another, quite overweight, physician. "I can't believe you're having another chocolate brownie! How the hell do you stay so thin?"

"I don't know," shrugged Klass, who still sports the toned physique of an athlete. "I can gain or lose ten pounds anytime I want." While researching the obesity epidemic, he was dismayed by the thousands of diet books and their myriad approaches and inevitable fads and failures. "And more troubling was that not one had to do with people who had an easy, successful experience with weight control. I realized I was one of the winners."

"Ninety-eight percent of diets fail," he says. "Do a two- or five-year follow-up and you'll find almost nobody succeeds. It's rare. But no one studies the winners." Since he resided in that rarefied category, he used himself as a case study in a book (tentatively titled The Winner's Weigh). "I just kept doing what worked and ignored stuff that didn't."

Even dreams, he maintains, play an important role in weight and health, and Klass used dream interpretation in his study. Many of his contemporaries, he's aware, rarely touch dream interpretation during the course of treatment.

"Because they don't understand how to get the therapeutic benefit from it!" he says. "I mean, it's something human beings do every single night of their lives. And dreams, more than anything else, can explain the central issues of what someone is really about. A dream is a message straight from our true self. An uninterpreted dream is like an unopened letter."

Klass is interested in another unconventional method with regard to marital separation: having both parties sit down with the same attorney for an initial consultation. That may not be workable in reality, points out Fort Lauderdale mediation specialist Mike Carbo. Still, as a former family magistrate, Carbo frequently heard expert testimony from Klass as a witness in divorce proceedings and found the doctor's approach refreshing.

Many of Klass' concepts centered on "alternatives to the cost of litigation," Carbo recalls. "He was ahead of his time in terms of alternative dispute resolutions. He thought there was a better way to get people to resolve their differences, and now that's more commonplace because of formal mediation. We were both on the same page long before a lot of other people were."

Klass' front-row seat during contentious child-custody disputes and divorce proceedings gave him insights into the tactics used when things get ugly. During the 1990s, he was called to testify during the notorious Habie battle, when a Guatemalan textile baron put his kids on his Learjet and secretly flew them to the Central American nation. His Boca Raton wife, who had been awarded custody, didn't see her two children for the rest of the decade.

Klass published a paper last year in the American Journal of Family Law titled "Threatened Mother Syndrome: A Diverging Concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome." Judges and guardians, he contends, may display biases during custody hearings — particularly if the father appears stable and collected and the mother is "enraged, out-of-control, and hostile." But this Threatened Mother Syndrome, a natural reaction to any perceived danger to established maternal bonds, he argues, "is ready grist for the legal mill to charge her with... unfitness to parent."

Those years of divorce cases, coupled with an interest in psychoanalytic child psychiatry, put Klass at odds with a system he decries as adversarial. "I just saw too many egregious cases — the stuff soap operas have to compete with. Winning is very important to many big-gun attorneys."

His experience led him to begin work on Games Divorce Attorneys Play, a tome he doesn't expect to win many fans among his lawyer friends. The book stems directly from what he experienced during his practice.

"I saw cases that could have been settled out of court," he rails, "cases that never should have ended in divorce. I saw cases where legal costs eroded couples' savings. I found collusion — both explicit and implicit — active efforts to sway the parties and increase discord and hostilities. And when I would propose simple solutions that would curtail the divorce, they would get upset."

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