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

January 06, 1985|MARSHALL BERGES | 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.

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