• U.S.

Classroom for Hotheads

7 minute read
John Cloud

It’s not a good idea to laugh at fellow participants in an anger-management class. But it is hard for classmates to suppress their giggles as “Lou” tells his story. Last year, Lou says, he discovered that his wife’s Internet tastes ran to the louche–specifically, sex chat-room sites. Worse, he suspected that she had begun to date a guy she had met online. The man even phoned their house. Lou, a round-faced immigrant with a soft voice and tortoise-shell eyeglasses, tried to persuade his spouse to be faithful to him. She wouldn’t.

So one day he followed his wife, who was “all dolled up,” to an assignation with the lover at a restaurant. To make a long story short, the cuckold beat the lover senseless with a motorcycle helmet–sending him to the hospital–and for good measure, rammed the lover’s Jeep into a hydrant. The police came, lawyers were hired, Lou and his wife split–and Lou ended up here in a classroom in Brooklyn, N.Y., as part of a plea bargain with prosecutors. Though the others chuckle at the fate of Lou’s victim–after all, they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t want to kick someone’s butt–instructor Alan Greenfield presents a good reason to count to 10 next time. “You could have put this guy away,” he warns Lou. “You would have been doing a lot of time, regretting something for the rest of your life.”

Prosecutors across the U.S. are sending thousands of criminals for anger-management instruction each year. District attorneys offer the classes mostly to first-time offenders like Lou, folks who seem to have forgotten how to take a time-out. There are no solid figures on how popular the courses have become, but six were given last month just for those in the New York City criminal-justice system–roughly double the number for the same period last year. (Each class has about 20 students.) Several other courses were held throughout the city by therapists and the new breed of anger consultants.

New York is surely an irascible city, but similar classes are cropping up in much quieter places, towns like Medway, in southern Massachusetts, and Sumter, in rural South Carolina. In Chicago, Leonard Ingram, a.k.a. Bhagwan Ra Afrika, incorporates “Western, Eastern and African approaches” into anger treatments. And Thomas Nelson Publishers of Nashville puts out an Anger Workbook that reminds enraged Christians that Jesus said we should love our neighbors as ourselves.

Companies around the U.S. have begun asking short-tempered employees to sit through such classes, and anger management is often included in drug treatment and couples counseling. New Hope/Anger Management Inc., based in West Palm Beach, Fla., which has conducted 200 courses in the past seven years, started out treating halfway-house criminals but works today with wealthy businessmen, the homeless and children as young as eight. Even the six-year-old in Flint, Mich., who killed his classmate in February had reportedly been scheduled to undergo anger therapy. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who gunned down 13 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., had taken anger-management classes a year earlier for stealing from a car.

Hotheaded celebrities have also found themselves in the classes. Courtney Love is an anger-management alumna. Mike Tyson’s sentence last year for a flare-up of road rage included the therapy. In 1997, after breaking a beer bottle over a car, actress Shannen Doherty agreed to attend eight anger-management sessions. Blowing off such courses, or at least blowing off steam about them, has become something of a Hollywood rite. “I gotta leave this, my favorite place in the world,” said rocker Tommy Lee on MTV last month, gesturing around a music studio, “to go to f______ anger management. That makes me angry.” He added, “Instead of forcing it on people, what if I just go when I’m really in the mood to accept it all–and be receptive to it?” It’s hard to trust a white guy with dreadlocks (not to mention a spouse abuser), but Lee is on to something. There is little evidence that anger-therapy programs work.

They are designed to impart kindergarten-level lessons about self-control. At the Brooklyn class, Greenfield came up with more or less the same advice after each person told his story: think about the consequences of what you do when you’re worked up. The lone woman in the class is there because she got in a fight “with a girl who tried to cut me.” Greenfield asks why she didn’t call the police instead of fighting back. “If it starts in the street, it’s handled in the street,” the woman spits back. “That’s what I’m talking about,” Greenfield replies, a little exasperated. “You gotta think about these things… Sometimes we can lose control in a split-second.”

The classes at New Hope/Anger Management are similarly straightforward. “We teach a simple approach–how to look at the big picture, how not to let small things bother you, how to be a good listener, how to accept someone else’s opinion without going ballistic,” says Larry Beard, a senior instructor.

But can you make people learn something they should already know? Pamela Hollenhorst of the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Legal Studies has reviewed academic studies of anger-management instruction and found little data to show it is effective. “It’s promising, and it can be beneficial, but anger management is being inappropriately applied to people whose problems can’t be addressed by such programs, people who need other kinds of therapy,” says Hollenhorst. She points to those convicted of animal abuse, behavior that can lead to an anger-management sentence in some states. “Are those people really lacking control over rage behavior, or were they cruel and manipulative?” she asks. “Anger management is designed to deal with spontaneous rage, not cold, calculating people.”

Researchers writing for the Justice Department called anger management a “controversial” approach when applied to those who batter their significant others. Their 1998 report cited several concerns raised about anger-management programs, chiefly that they “address a single cause of battering, ignoring other, perhaps more profound causes.” Yet hitting your sweetie is one of the easiest ways to end up in anger management. About a third of the guys in the Brooklyn class are there for menacing their wives or (often former) girlfriends. “Pedro,” for instance, says he had to attend because he “accidentally” banged his wife with a door when he was drunk.

Neither New Hope nor the Education & Assistance Corp., a nonprofit agency that runs the anger-management classes for New York City, has data on whether its programs work. New Hope has just launched an after-care session for graduates of its eight-week course, since the company usually loses touch with them. And the New York agency, whose classes have more students than most but run just six hours, plans to begin collecting recidivism figures this year.

To be sure, mental-health professionals say that anger-management classes can work, that making mature decisions is a skill that can be taught. But to be effective, the courses must involve committed students over a long period. Psychologist Eleanor Cole, an expert on anger management for the American Psychological Association, says her clients typically need about a year to overcome their anger issues.

There is a tiny bit of anecdotal evidence in New York. The city’s most famous graduate is Sean (“Puffy”) Combs, the deposed impresario of rap. He took the course in Brooklyn that Lou and the others have completed–only Puffy had a limo waiting outside. A few weeks later, he was arrested and charged with gun possession after a nightclub shooting. Combs has denied the charges. Greenfield, the instructor, offers the Combs case as a cautionary tale, pointing out that if Puffy is found guilty this time, he won’t slide by with an anger-management course. Adds Greenfield: “I don’t know how well it worked on him.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com