Growing up, Joel’s 10 siblings called him “Negro.”
Born to a Mexican family in Chicago, Joel was the only child without light skin or fair eyes. His mother marked the contrast between her children by calling him a “f—ing monkey.”
“That’d bring down my self-esteem,” said Joel, 26, who still considers himself “ugly.”
Joel is not particularly tall, maybe 5’8, but he’s wiry and athletic (he fights in mixed martial arts on the side) with light brown skin and closely-shaved hair.
He walked into class a little after 9:30 with an unopened bag of hot Fritos and green headphones, and almost immediately teased one of his peers, a man we’ll call Javier, for saying that he’d been there since 8:30.
“He’s really dedicated!” Joel joked as everyone wondered why he’d shown up so early. (The answer, Javier suggested, was that he didn’t have anywhere else to be.)
Despite the good-natured ribbing, Joel has a dark side, a rush to rage he says he inherited from his abusive mother.
“I look up to my dad [because] he puts up with a lot of my mom’s insults,” Joel told me after the session. She’s “one of those Mexicans with a loose tongue.”
Joel has been attending domestic violence counseling at Healthcare Alternative Systems, which runs a 24-week group therapy program for domestic abusers (the bare minimum under state law), for about two months.
Unlike many of his peers, Joel didn’t physically beat a girlfriend. Instead, he abused her psychologically and emotionally, backing her into corners and screaming while refusing to grant her escape.
One of his core problems is jealousy, which leads Joel to become controlling. His girlfriend “ “likes to go out” at 12 and stay out “until 6 A.M.” as he wondered, “What the hell is she doing?”
“If you wanna [go out] come home at a f—ing reasonable time,” Joel recounted himself saying. “That’s not lady-like.”
The girlfriend balked.
“You don’t tell me what to do,” she’d say, according to Joel. “You aren’t my husband.”
As he explains the circumstances leading him to a dingy, bare room with barely-padded black and blue seats in Logan Square, Joel nervously crumples domestic violence handouts from the program coordinator.
“I would raise my voice, I would scare her, I’d get her on check and that’s what it was,” Joel said. Then she did something he didn’t expect.
She told him about her fear.
That disturbed Joel, he told the group, because he knew what he was doing. He knew that he was scaring her, and he wanted her to be afraid.
He didn’t want her to tell him he had accomplished his goal.
At the start of class, clinical supervisor David Schilling asked his students to introduce themselves.
His students include former gang members, a man from the suburbs and an Ecuadorean, Jimmy Lituma, who’s there by choice (my colleague Jeff Kelly Lowenstein wrote about him here).
For a group of people whose greatest common denominator is domestic abuse, it’s an engaging community. The men tell each other stories of their lives and crack up.
A young black man with “MOB” (short for “Money Over B—-es”) tattooed on the back of his hand, Charles grew up in a rough environment, with parents who smoked crack instead of feeding their children. In and out of the foster system growing up, he later joined a gang.
Several years ago, Charles was grazed by a bullet and thought he was dying, until his mother – “The OG,” as he calls her – came out and told him to calm down.
“Get up!” she said. “You just got skinned!”
Schilling’s program is called Domestic Violence PAIP, short for Partner Abuse Intervention Program, which he writes on a whiteboard for the students to elaborate on.
For a few awkward moments, several students guess what Schilling is aiming for until Charles gets it right.
“Do I get the little star?” Charles asked Schilling, who drew one next to his name.
Collectively, the goal is “To prevent abuse and violence with intimate partners and within the family.”
Javier, a young Latino man who says he was shot in the head (there is no visible scarring) is here because he beat up the mother of his daughter. Esteban beat up the mother of his son.
A scrawny young man who speaks very slowly (he, too, beat the mother of his “kid”), Ferdinand is the first to say he’s had a “rough week.”
Ferdinand borrowed his mother’s car, made extra copies of the keys, and took it to visit a girl. He was busted after leaving an unopened Code Red Mountain Dew under the seat.
This is a source of comedy for the room, but not for Schilling. He asks Ferdinand if he knows that he could be arrested for stealing the car.
“Being so thirsty to take the car,” Javier added, “he’s liable to crash it.”
Ferdinand answers that he’s a “mama’s boy,” so his mother wouldn’t call the police on him. But Schilling persists in asking him if he knows the potential consequences of his actions.
Almost grudgingly, Ferdinand answer affirmatively.
Midway through class introductions, David Schilling stops and makes a point. Compared to domestic abuse victims, the perpetrators’ stories often go untold.
“Our story is way under-represented,” Schilling said.
The group members discuss their stories for nearly two hours. One student says he’s got a “bad habit of using the B-word,” which he’s working on because Schilling has taught them that cursing is often an expression of intimidation or anger.
Several of the students deliver positive messages and say that their group therapy sessions have made them stop before they do something violent or angry.
But sometimes, it’s not entirely clear what they’ve learned.
For instance, Kevin is here for his last session. A tall man who spends much of the class hunched over as if in prayer, Kevin was sent to PAIP after he got into a fight with an ex-girlfriend at a bar.
He parrots the conclusion: “I learned a lot. Learned I was manipulating women, using anger and violence, drugs and alcohol play a part.”
Although the woman declined to press charges, the altercation was recorded by security cameras and a bystander, who Kevin tellingly says “decided to stick her nose” in his business.
His voice is full of more resentment than reform.
By contrast, Joel seems genuinely interested in becoming a better person.
He says the change has been noticeable to the mother of his child. She is not the woman he was convicted of abusing.
To this day, Joel still yells at her, “gets ticked off over [the] kids” and becomes angry and aggressive. But he says he’s shown signs of improvement.
“Since I started here, she actually told me, ‘Why aren’t you yelling?’” Joel said. One day, a few weeks ago, the woman gave him a ride home after he visited their children.
He thanked her.
“I’m the type of person who doesn’t always say thank you,” Joel said.
During the session, David Schilling showed a clip from the movie “Fireproof” where a man backed his girlfriend into a kitchen corner.
The couple argued about who pays the mortgage and who ate the last slice of pizza. In the film, the man trapped his wife against the wall and screamed at her.
Joel slunk in his chair as he watched the movie.
Later, David asked for closing thoughts from his pupils.
“Groups like these really help me,” Joel said. “Gangs don’t interest me. But videos like this [help me] picture myself being that guy in that movie.”
(A note: All names, except for Jimmy Lituma’s and David Schilling’s, have been changed to protect their identities.)