On a cool afternoon in mid April, Marjorie Kovler Center’s clinical supervisor Mario Gonzalez is sitting cross-legged in a children's playroom; thousands of rainbow Legos, noisy wheely-trucks, and chunky wood blocks are littered around the floor. It's one of the torture-survivor center's many unconventional therapy rooms.

As one of Kovler's founding employees, Gonzalez is the face of the center; he's conducted intake interviews with close to 1,500 survivors of state-sanctioned torture. Kovler itself, which last month celebrated its 30th anniversary (the second oldest of such centers nationwide), has seen over 3,000 survivors from 80 countries and is considered one of the most influential in the country.

At 64 years old, Gonzalez's face is deeply lined and joyful. He pauses to think before answering a question about why, for so many years, he has pursued this difficult work. “Torture survivors are afraid that their pain would contaminate you, hurt you even, and they don’t want to hurt someone else with the pain that they have inside,” he explains. “As a psychologist, I have the tools to help them liberate themselves, and in turn somehow I have liberated myself by assisting them along their journey to a sort of personal freedom.”

Torture survivors are more common than people might expect: Forty-four percent of refugees in the United States are survivors of torture, according to the National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs. Since its doors opened in 1987, Kovler Center has been a national leader in creating a holistic model to address the mental and physical health consequences of torture. It provides for people's psychological, social, and legal needs while breaking down cultural barriers that might stop survivors from accessing treatment.

“You can see this not only in the therapy room, but at every point of contact from how they [torture survivors] are greeted at the door, to how they are accommodated for a medical exam based on their torture history,” says Mary Lynn Everson, Kovler Center’s senior director. “Rebuilding community is a pillar of our service, as is access to justice.”

The Kovler Center uses unconventional therapy techniques to help torture survivors. That includes activities for kids (left) and ways to preserve people's culture, like this Indonesian tea service (right). Photos: Courtesy of Kovler Center

Survivors come from all over, and most arrive by word of mouth. Some make the journey as stowaways on ships crossing the Atlantic; some take the arduous human smuggling route across the Mexico–U.S. border. Eventually they all find their way to Kovler Center’s unmarked doors in a former convent tucked away on a tree-lined street in Rogers Park.

For Gonzalez, it was also word of mouth that brought him to Kovler Center. Before graduating from university in Guatemala, he had already started working with family members, close friends, and classmates who had been tortured in his country’s ongoing civil war. Afraid of reaching out to outsiders for counsel, they turned to Gonzalez.

“I flat-out told them, ‘Listen, I’m not prepared to give you therapy,’ and I remember them saying, ‘Well, at least you are better prepared than me,’” says Gonzalez. He began by trying techniques such as relaxation, visualization, yoga, and zen breathing techniques and movements—all methods he would use later at Kovler Center.

When Gonzalez finished his degree in psychology, war reached his home in Guatemala’s western highlands. The U.S.-supported Guatemalan military was targeting leftist organizers, teachers, university students, Catholic clergy, and the indigenous Maya. Gonzalez says he was forced to flee with a wife and two small children, ages 6 and 10. “When bombs and gunfire are in the distance, and you can’t keep your children safe, you leave,” he says.

It’s estimated that at least 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or “disappeared”—the vast majority of them indigenous Maya—during the 36-year conflict funded by U.S. tax dollars funneled through the C.I.A., according to a 1999 United Nations-commissioned report.

Gonzalez and his family eventually made their way to Chicago. As he settled into his job developing curricula at City Colleges of Chicago, word started to spread that a Guatemalan psychologist had come to town. Other Guatemalans living in Chicago, many who fled the same war, started asking him for support and therapy. Out of necessity, he started counseling them collectively instead of individually;  he was surprised at first how well Central Americans took to working in therapy groups.

“The fear of sharing was [overcome] by the warmth of sharing collective memories in a group,” he says.

His work caught the eye of Traveler's and Immigrant's Aid of Chicago, now known as Heartland Alliance, which was looking to start a torture-survivor treatment center of its own. It instead folded Gonzalez's therapy groups into the organization, and eventually founded Kovler Center in 1987 with Gonzalez as a co-leader of groups, later hiring him full-time as a clinical supervisor.

Gonzalez's work contributed greatly to Kovler Center’s unique, free-of-cost approach for survivors of state-perpetrated violence. “Even today we are still tailoring therapy to the person and the culture they come from. It is hard to really find what is different for each group. But we learn from each ethnic group, and we tailor our therapy based on their level of education, way of life, whether they are religious or not. A scientific-minded person might have a very different approach than working with someone who views everything as God’s will,” he says.

Central Americans taught Kovler the importance of the collective approach. He says it worked well with Bosnians during the 1990s. “Bosnians all suffered the atrocities at the same time: the concentration camps and the massive graves were collective experiences. By having them in a group, they recovered the power of the collective,” he says.

Cambodians torture survivors helped Kovler focus on adapting therapy to the beliefs of each client, he adds: “I had a case where we had a woman who believed in Buddhism karma. She would say, ‘I was tortured and raped because I was probably an abusive husband in a former life. It’s my karma.’”

Gonzalez eventually brought in a Buddhist monk to challenge her perspective. “We said, ‘Listen, maybe you are not seeing this in the right way. Maybe you have given so much in your prior life that in this life, it is your time to receive and let people take care of you now.’ She finally got into the therapy after that because we solved the challenge on how to culturally approach her therapy,” he says.

While the national origin of Kovler Center’s patients change with the waves of global conflict, their method can help everyone who walks through their doors move from being a victim to a survivor. “It’s an empowering process that happens inside of the individual. It’s not that you as a psychologist are giving power, no. They are discovering their own internal power and transforming themselves,” Gonzalez says. 

If his experience of working with survivors of the unimaginable has taught him anything, it is the importance of empathy and a love for collective humanity.

“All of us, eat, drink, love, we are afraid. We are humans and closer than we believe to each other. What makes us different is less than what makes us the same,” he says.