A Sociologist With Street Smarts : Professor Draws on His Own Experience in Youth Gangs

Times Staff Writer

Standing before a university class and delivering a lecture on criminal behavior, the professor betrays considerably more than mere textbook knowledge of the subject. Small wonder.

Lewis Yablonsky leads a life at the edge of crime. He grew up among East Coast gangs and he came within hijacking distance of going their way. He chose instead to become a sociologist who probes and deals with a range of difficult personalities--antisocial, abnormal, threatening, bizarre.

A sturdy and blunt-speaking six-footer who looks as if he could give a good account of himself in a gang slugfest, he delivers his findings regularly in lectures at Cal State Northridge, where Yablonsky was once awarded trustees’ recognition as “outstanding professor” among 9,000 faculty members in the state university system.

Authentic Lessons

Occasionally he calls on his students to relate their experiences with crime, and because not only police officers but ex-offenders have signed up at times for Yablonsky’s courses in criminology, “We tend to get some authentic lessons into the classroom,” he says with deadpan understatement.

Most of the lessons come from Yablonsky’s close encounters with crime. “Gangs are infected by a neurotic phenomenon of machismo ,” he told a class recently. “The hard core at the center of the gang is probably beyond reach, but it’s possible to take an artichoke approach to the peripheral or marginal members of the gang. They can be peeled away and redirected into more socially acceptable activities if we convince them that they are men without having to prove their manhood by chopping each other up every time they strut down the street.”

Yablonsky, 60, has also gained insights to the riddles of behavior--and a measure of fame for himself--as an expert in psychodrama. “Very few people know how angry they are,” he said in an interview. “Psychodrama allows them to act out their feelings of violence without hurting anyone. The idea is to get inside the other guy’s skin, to develop empathy.”

In addition to lectures on criminology, he conducts a class in psychodrama at Cal State Northridge, where the object, Yablonsky said, is “to explore social problems on a direct emotional level. In some sessions we deal with current events like a living newspaper.” His students have reenacted the crimes of the Hillside Strangler, John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of President Reagan, and other chilling events.

Yablonsky’s work does not stop there. Three times a week he holds group therapy and psychodrama sessions with troubled adolescents at a private hospital in Van Nuys. “It’s not exactly fun and games,” he told a reporter who accompanied him on a visit to the hospital. “With kids who have OD’d on pills, life or death is only a matter of degree. Just imagine a 14-year-old who has reached a state of depression where there seems no option but suicide.”

To help the youngsters see that there are alternatives, Yablonsky occasionally brings in youthful ex-addicts from such anti-drug groups as Cocaine Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and Delancey Street, the latter a therapeutic community for young veterans of drug involvement.

“The person who can talk most convincingly to a mixed-up 14-year-old is someone who’s had the drug disease, has had some kind of treatment, has gone through whatever it takes to change from addiction to non-addiction, is still faced with certain kinds of temptations and has to deal with those temptations.”

Training Workshops

Separately, for therapists who are studying the techniques of psychodrama, he holds monthly training workshops in his Marina del Rey apartment. In these sessions the therapists are encouraged to work on difficult situations in their own lives, and occasionally the participants are urged to scream, shout and even to pound each other with a battoca, a foam-rubber paddle, to let out their anger.

“The total experience becomes cathartic for everyone involved,” Yablonsky said. “I can give you a close-to-home example of how psychodrama opened up my life. When I was a youngster I felt that my mother was oppressive and over-involved with me. But in psychodrama I saw that many more people had the opposite problem--a mother they resented for not loving them enough. It gave me perspective and mellowed my resentment.”

Surrounded by poverty, anger and crime, Yablonsky grew up in Newark. “To call it a tough environment doesn’t begin to describe it,” he said. “My father drove a laundry truck 10 hours a day and he earned about $30 a week. On Saturdays I helped him with deliveries. His paycheck put us a tiny notch above lots of neighbors who lived in cellars, got drunk on their welfare checks and shot off guns routinely to celebrate the weekend.

“As a boy I was beaten up by Nazi bundists because I’m a Jew, and by blacks because I’m white. On the streets I’d hang around with dice hustlers and get involved in gang wars. Some of my pals were real psychopaths. I was raw, skinny and scared, but I tried to keep a cool, hip image. It was the only way to survive.

“But in school I began reading in a serious way, wolfing through Shakespeare and other great writers, trying to find out what made people tick. I led a strange kind of double life, keeping one foot on the streets and another in school.

“For some time I wasn’t sure where I belonged. But when my best friend went to prison for hijacking a fur truck--a really stupid experience where the truck ran out of gas in the Holland Tunnel--I realized I had to get on one side of the law or the other.”

After a hitch in the Navy, Lew Yablonsky entered Rutgers University on the GI Bill, and there “I picked up my first book on sociology. The subject really knocked me out, because it opened doors to all the things I was interested in: why people do what they do, what motivates them to violence and crime. It also became the beginning of a lifelong inquiry into the role of the victim.”

Eventually earning a doctorate in criminology at New York University, Yablonsky helped pay his way by working as counselor at a juvenile jail in Newark.

“Lots of social workers came from a sterile background. They’d practically faint at the sight of a knife or gun. But I felt right at home with jailed kids. I could understand their fury.

“I figured it was my responsibility to tell society why these kids were violent, and at the same time to explain the attitudes of civilized people to the kids in jail. I began to see my role in life as sort of a translator between these two very separate worlds.”

Crime Prevention Program

Subsequently hired to direct a crime prevention program in New York City, Yablonsky spent five years working with street gangs and gaining insights to the cause-and-effect relationship between drugs and crime. “I would rather do live research than depend on questionnaires,” he said, and his findings led him to write a book, “The Violent Gang,” a widely acclaimed study of urban delinquents.

Yablonsky also worked--first as a student, later as a colleague--with Dr. J. L. Moreno, a psychiatrist and founder of psychodrama. Yablonsky gradually came to see psychodrama as “a theater of life in which human scenarios can be raised to a higher level of consciousness and comprehension for the purpose of enlarging humanistic communication and compassion.”

Yablonsky is by temperament a searcher and innovator rather than an evangelist. When in 1961 another criminologist alerted him to Synanon--a then-new center for drug therapy in Santa Monica--Yablonsky headed for the West Coast. He introduced psychodrama to Synanon’s drug addicts, and he later wrote a book about the experience, “Synanon: The Tunnel Back.”

At Synanon he met and married an ex-addict. When after 17 years they were divorced, psychodrama helped Yablonsky to understand that he was not entirely blameless in the outcome.

“Trading roles,” he said, “I could see that my priorities were sometimes out of whack. I don’t share enough. My wife and our son, Mitch, needed more of my time, but I’ve always been busy with, among other projects, writing books, and I keep too much of the pleasure and pain to myself.

“The pleasure is doing research, going out and interviewing people, exploring situations in depth, reading books, collecting data. The painful part comes when I close the door to my study, and for another year sit there alone, collating material, abstracting data, defining themes and writing the book. The walls of my study are a prison where I am both the warden and the prisoner. I don’t want any visitors and I can’t stop to make civilized conversation with another person.”

Following the book on Synanon, he spent three years visiting hippie communes around the country, including Haight-Ashbury and Big Sur, gathering firsthand research for another drug-related book, “The Hippie Trip.”

Yablonsky said: “A friend once told me that I have a knack for putting myself into the middle of a complex social situation and then writing my way out of it. It’s true. For example, one time when there was a typical father-son strain in the relationship between Mitch and me, I began asking questions of other fathers and other sons.

“I interviewed hundreds, and various prototypes began to take shape: autocratic, egocentric and distant fathers, compliant and rebellious sons.

“My interviews led me into the emotional ties between fathers and sons; their interactions and interdependencies; their individual rights and duties and their obligations to each other; the normal and pathological conflicts between them and how mothers and daughters can intervene constructively in such conflicts; the degree to which a father’s status in the world can affect his son’s aspirations.

“After exploring in depth a great many dimensions of this complex relationship, I put it all together into a book, ‘Fathers & Sons.’ And in personal terms let me say that my son, Mitch, who is now 20, is majoring in sociology and criminology at Cal State Northridge.”

Currently, Lew Yablonsky is writing a book on victims. “My interest in the subject began way back when I took my first course in sociology,” he said, “and I’ve been involved with victims all my life. But now my focus is on the victim’s role--why people play it and how to avoid it.

“My research indicates there are actually three basic categories of victims. One group consists of those who are non-participants. An example of this is the adult harmed by an unknown assailant, or a child who might know the offender but has no power to resist.

“A second category consists of victim-prone people. An example here is the person who participates on some level in victimization by failing to take realistic or obvious precautions and thus makes himself or herself vulnerable.

“A third and by far the largest group consists of victim precipitators and participants. These are people who--consciously or unconsciously--set themselves up as victims; they are often people in search of victimizers. In this group you find people of low self-esteem, including the battered wife or battered husband, whose attitude is, ‘I don’t deserve any better.’

Rescuer Syndrome

“In this group there are people who have delusions about a relationship that encourages victimization, an attitude of ‘He really loves me, even if he treats me badly.’ And it includes the person afflicted with a rescuer syndrome, an attitude of ‘I’ll help him overcome his alcoholism. He’ll change and then we’ll both be happy.’

“And still others who, having been abused as children, take part in a vicious circle: Filled with rage that is not understood, they act out the consequences of their own victimization on other victims as they grow older.

“Therapists take various approaches to try to help victims; my own way is often psychodrama, and I’ve seen it help many times. But there is also a real need to structure places to which victims--such as a battered wife who does not know where to turn for help--can escape and become devictimized.”

Yablonsky himself is occasionally a victim of overwork. “At times I’m just plain exhausted, and it’s as if I’m re-enacting my father’s role, those 10-hour days on a laundry truck, six days a week. But what I’m doing is not a job. Being a professor and a therapist and a writer of books is, altogether, one hell of an interesting and exciting life.”