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Dan May


When you retire from your job, you're supposed to cart away your old coffee mug and the framed pictures of your grandkids and, of course, clean out your files. For psychiatrist Dr. Joel Klass, that has meant revisiting hundreds of disturbed Floridians, combing through the misdeeds of criminals, delving into the private lives of the state's patented brand of misfits and down-and-outers.

Lately, Klass, who shut down his practice last year, has been spending afternoons at his old office complex on Stirling Road, shredding old case histories. "After seven years, you're no longer required to keep files, and they take up so much space," he says. During his years in the psychiatry profession, Klass estimates he professionally evaluated 17,000 to 18,000 patients.

Devoting all of that time to examining South Florida's psychic underbelly gives Klass a unique grasp of the mental health of the region. There's something about the local population's rootlessness and impermanence that gives it its special warp, he says. The FOB immigrants, the economic refugees, snowbirds who have elected to stay, alienated natives — they have all turned our percolating three-county strip into a mental health lab.


Joel Klass

Still looking as skinny and quick as a teenager, with casual faded jeans and old sneakers, the 64-year-old Klass sports a bouquet of ballpoint pens sprouting from the pocket of his long-sleeved shirt. Two thinning tufts of white hair bookend a bald pate, and occasionally, memory lapses will leave him hanging in midsentence, the right word just out of reach. Retirement, he explains, hasn't exactly agreed with him.

Tending to the mentally ill since 1977 has had its rewards, he says. Beyond monetary ones.

"Yeah," he says quietly, eyes toward the floor, the crow's feet at their corners creasing, "I miss it. I really miss working with children. It's been hard for me to stay away."

Klass is a well-respected (maybe even feared) court expert, an important voice in criminal trials, like that of young killer Lionel Tate (Klass was a witness for the defense). He was frequently appointed as an expert witness by judges who could count on him as a straight shooter. In truth, he says, he's seen it all. Almost.

Most of his old files made for uninteresting reading, he concedes. "It sounds exciting, but 99 percent of the cases are coughs, colds, and sore holes — the standard everyday phobias, anxiety, depression. But every now and then, your jaw just drops. And as proof of my advancing senility," he chuckles, "there were some I'd just totally forgotten about. I guess I didn't always give it much thought at the time. Only when I look back do I say, 'Wow. '"

That 1 percent continues to boggle his mind. There was, for example, what Klass terms "the weirdest case ever": The Chicken Lady. He slips into it like a comfortable pair of slippers, like an old joke he's told and retold since he was a kid.

A Pakistani couple had come in to see Klass for a counseling session. "She clearly didn't want to be there," he remembers. "He was compelling it, coercing her."

The problems began, the husband told Klass, when his wife decided she wanted a pet. "But everyone has a dog or a cat," she pointed out. "How about, to be different, we get a chicken?" Soon enough, a chicken joined the household. Then one day, she mentioned, "You know, people don't like to think about it, but chickens have to be slaughtered. It's a fact of life. Maybe we should learn how to do it."

As a younger psychiatrist, Klass was unprepared for the rest of the story. "Slowly but surely, she worked the chicken into their sexual routine," he says, still shocked. "She'd get her husband to decapitate a live chicken at a certain point." It didn't take long for the couple's bedroom to look like a slaughterhouse. "I'm sick and tired of changing the sheets!" the exasperated husband complained.

They were among Klass' first patients. "I was in training, and I went to one of my supervisors and said, 'Let me run a case by you.' Halfway through, I noticed his mouth was open too."

The couple, he recalls, never came back. "I had visions of her referring to him as Colonel Sanders," he says. "Turns out she was a sadist; she could only come by doing sadistic things."

Intensely private — he refused to be photographed for this story — Klass nonetheless ended up as a key player in some high-profile courtroom dramas. For example, as a judicially appointed expert witness, he testified in Lionel Tate's murder trial. A board member for the grievance committee of the Florida State Bar, as well as chairman of the psychiatry department at the Hollywood Medical Center and Memorial Hospital and president of the Broward County Psychiatric Society, Klass regularly got his hands dirty in the legal system's innards.

His retirement was far from insignificant, and some legal professionals are already starting to miss Klass' brilliance in the witness box. In a sea of high-priced attorneys cutting deals and stabbing backs, Klass' voice of reason was welcome.

A prominent area matrimonial attorney and nationally renowned divorce expert, Melvyn B. Frumkes, is dismayed at the prospect of no longer encountering Klass during trials.

"I loved having him for a witness on my side!" he bellows. "He was great. Very clever." But running against Klass had its advantages as well: "Oh, I enjoyed that too! A great debater. If he was still in practice, I'd use him again."

Family lawyer Charlotte Karlan, who argues custody cases in Broward and Miami-Dade courts, says: "I've never heard people criticize him. He has a very common-sense approach, and he's well-respected by the judges — obviously, they've appointed him again and again in both counties. In several cases we were involved in, I found his conclusions were right on the button — and very quickly, without all these fancy tests!"

Of course, Klass' no-nonsense methods don't sit well with everyone. During a high-profile murder case that reached the Florida Supreme Court, the doctor's methods were called into question. Defense attorneys representing Matthew Marshall, a convicted murderer on death row, wanted to discredit Klass' evaluation of their client. The court ruled against Marshall, saying it wouldn't waste time hiring another mental health professional.

"He usually goes to the nub of matters," Frumkes adds. "And he's very innovative sometimes."

Granted a unique ringside seat into the meshings of the criminal justice system, Klass has amassed enough material on South Florida's legendary cases to fill a library.

In the well-publicized Tate case, for example, Klass testified that the 12-year-old's aggressive behavior (which led to the death of a 6-year-old girl with whom he was demonstrating wrestling throws) didn't constitute "proof that [he was] a danger to society." He also testified that the boy was unable to show remorse because he was so terrified of jail.

Now that Tate has reentered the abyss, a 10- to 30-year sentence looming, Klass is saddened when the case is brought up, not just because his prognosis was apparently wrong but also because of Tate's gloomy prospects. "He lacked inferential capacity to an astonishing degree," he says glumly. "A lot of adolescents end up short on that end, but I wonder what was going on in his mind. Family influence, peer influence, incarceration experience, and a lack of inferential capacity — put them all together and it spells jail."

In retirement, Klass is working on several books. He says he has released others under a pseudonym — though he won't say what they are or discuss them. "Professionally," he says cryptically, "they wouldn't be helpful. I don't want to get into it."

The only available Klass-penned title is Herpes: Prevention and Treatment, co-authored with Donald A. Kullman. "A terrible book," he dismisses. "Took all of two hours to write." The books he's working on now stem from what he learned during his practice.

Still, those odd, crazy cases keep coming back. "Some are just so hard to believe," he muses. "I keep forgetting just how astounding the range of human behavior is. Just incredible."

On a recent sparkly midwinter morning, Klass is in animated conversation, discussing a recent crime that's all over the news. But when he hears the phrase ".38 right in the chest," he stops, and his eyes widen.

"Oh!" he says suddenly. "That reminds me of another case!"

"A daughter," he begins, "whose parents owned a well-known restaurant chain. She came in to see me because she was having guilty feelings. She kept saying, 'An eye for an eye, an eye for an eye. But maybe I did a life for an eye.'

"She had started hanging around some bad kids, didn't tell her parents... One night, they were all drinking and smoking pot, and a couple of guys raped her and then beat her up. They did awful things to her."

She was too humiliated and embarrassed to call her family, Klass says. "So she stayed at a friend's house for a couple of weeks, recuperating."

Then, Klass explains, she decided to settle the score. In broad daylight, she drove to the home of one of her tormentors and knocked on the door. When he answered, she said, "Remember me?" — then shot him in the chest with a .38. "She didn't care. She was so beaten up." She got back in her car and drove away, unseen by any witnesses on the suburban street. But a few years later, the pangs of guilt drove her into Klass' office.

"You always wonder if stories like that are true or not, so I took it upon myself to call the [Hollywood] police department and ask if there'd been a homicide on such-and-such a day. They were able to look it up, and the cop told me, 'There was a drug dealer who got shot in the chest with a .38. He was one of our baddest dudes.' So they figured it was a drug deal gone bad. An unsolved homicide."

Klass and the young woman are the only ones who know the truth. "Nobody else. To this day." He hasn't spoken to her in years but often wonders how she ended up.

"If I run across her chart, I might give her a call one of these days."

He does remain in touch with the subjects of his more unusual stories. Years ago, a man and woman walked into his office with a dilemma on their hands. Each had grown up in a foster home, and when they met in their early 20s and fell in love, even the shocking discovery that they were, in fact, brother and sister couldn't stop them from marrying and raising a family.

"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."

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."

Year after year, he continues, he'd watch opposing sides try to bring out the worst in the other, attempting to foment conflict. "When a husband or wife approaches a divorce attorney, they're in a state of anger and disgust. And the attorney will often become an accomplice to that.

"I've seen them lock in large retainer fees so that when they try to pull out, they can say, 'Well, you've already spent so much.' And what filters down to the children is prolonged parental discord, hostility, and financial hemorrhage. I'd like to see the whole system revamped."

To circumvent the game-playing, Klass suggests leveling the field by having divorce-settlement cases heard by a panel of social workers and psychologists who "don't know who's paying who. They wouldn't make the decision but provide data to the court."

Not surprisingly, he's run the idea past several divorce lawyers, who seem quite unenamored of its radical departure from the status quo.

"I think it's wrong," Frumkes says sternly when Klass' suggestion is proposed. "I don't agree with him. I don't think that divorce should be taken out of the judicial system, that we should abolish adversarial proceedings in custody matters. He has his own discipline, which he thinks is very good, and we have ours."

However, at least one prominent attorney and mediator agrees with Klass. "He's not just a gun for hire. He's been in it long enough to know that the system doesn't work," says Ellen Gilbert Rose, who is leaving her Fort Lauderdale practice after 20 years for that very reason. "It's a great idea that the lawyer can be the mediator. Absolutely, it could make a difference."

Along the same lines, so many of the cases that Klass saw involved cheating spouses and breakups due to infidelity that he became an expert on that topic as well.

So he began work on yet another text, this one called Adultery: 40 Causes, One Solution. "I'm almost done," he says with a smile. "Thirty-nine chapters done, one to go."

In going through his old charts, Klass noted cases involving affairs and was surprised that he found so many diverse causes. "There were variations," he reports, "but I found some common denominators that seemed present in every case. I started talking to others in the field, started writing, and I came up with 40 reasons — cultural or familial attitudes, peer pressure, vengeance — and I figured there's no way someone is going to find a cause I haven't listed in the book."

But a colleague took a look at the list and in less than three seconds said, "I don't see 'just for the hell of it' on this list!"

"So now I guess I have 41 chapters," Klass deadpans.

As far as that elusive single solution, Klass quickly folds his cards and says: "I don't want to give that away. I just started looking at couples who have gone through it but had worked it out, who've been able to overcome and reconstitute the relationship."

Over the years, Klass says, he's learned that the simplest, most obvious answer is often the correct one. Yet he would often encounter resistance when he tried to implement that discovery. "People don't like accepting facts when it's contrary to what they have invested interest in or if it poses a conflict with their religious, family, or social backgrounds."

Through a fellow psychiatrist at his clinic, Klass was introduced to Fort Lauderdale businessman and writer Ron Bibace. The two are collaborating on a book. The doctor, Bibace says, "is very bright and often sees what others don't."

From his position outside the profession, Bibace has been working on a treatise on what he calls "the single unified theory of human behavior." A self-described "philosopher/generalist," Bibace says his revolutionary theories of interpersonal relationships are lent much credibility by Klass' involvement.

"The source of human behavior is different from what psychologists say it is," Bibace maintains. Instead, he says, the driving force behind much of our folly is the limbic brain — a secretive and selfish subentity that needs immediate, unconditional satisfaction. "It only wants to feel good now," Bibace explains. "And Dr. Klass is the only professional to wholly endorse, at the very least, what he regards as a novel and effective approach to correcting people's problems. He has come along much further, and much more quickly, than anyone else."

Klass' strength, reckons Bibace, "is that he's a pragmatic man who wants to do some good."

True to that assessment, retirement has spurred Klass to one humanitarian mission after another. Common, everyday problems without solutions vex him. Troubled by constant reports of nursing-home patients suffering from hip fractures, he decided there must be a way to prevent them. So he devised an inflatable device, worn around the waist, triggered by a mercury switch if it became off-balance.

"But it was too complicated, too cumbersome," he laments. With the issue of bedsore prevention, though, he had better luck. In fact, he's secured a patent for a hospital gown with bubble wrap. So obvious.

Another glaringly obvious area in need of improvement, Klass says, is television. "It's a crime that there's such a wealth of opportunity with television and movies and so little therapeutic benefit to society. Some studies says kids are watching five hours of TV a day. So do inmates in prison. It's horrible, and there should be talent directed toward the amount of good one could do."

According to Klass, a good example of a film with therapeutic potential in a mental-health context is Remember the Titans, a true Jerry Bruckheimer/Denzel Washington inspirational tale of good over evil.

"Now that I have time," Klass adds, "hopefully I can do someone some good."

First things first, though. That Chicken Lady file has to be around here somewhere.


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