"That's when I started getting abusive," Diessel said later, recalling the moment when he first violently laid hands on his wife.
The recent gathering in a windowless room of a Rolling Meadows office building is part of one of 80 programs in Illinois that aims to stop domestic abusers from battering. Born in the 1980s out of the feminist movement, the programs subscribe to the theory that abusers are overwhelmingly men who use violence to exercise control over women and that society sanctions, even encourages, such behavior.
This gender-based, one-size-fits-all approach to reforming batterers is strongly endorsed by victims' advocates and the state agency that oversees such programs. Every year, judges order thousands of people convicted of domestic abuse to participate in the programs, often jailing those who don't comply.
Get tickets to Chicago Live!, a stage show brought to you by the Chicago Tribune and The Second City >>
But critics say there's no sound evidence that these programs work. They point to research that shows many abusers suffer from psychological problems and substance abuse—and are just as likely to be women as men. As they see it, batterers should receive therapy tailored to their individual experiences and issues.
"It's a very contentious field," said Larry Bennett, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an expert on batterer intervention programs. "A lot of mental health professionals never bought into [the gender-based model].
"But others worry that if we redefine it as a mental health issue and place the problem of domestic violence between the ears, we are pandering to the denying and blaming mechanisms that many batterers use."
Both methods teach abusers to express themselves without abuse, though they differ in important ways.
The batterer intervention programs use group discussions, written exercises and role playing to show how batterers are similar, and how gender and socialization fuel their behavior. (The handful of Illinois programs for women convicted of domestic battery assume that many are victims and focus on helping them recover from trauma.)
Under the tailored approach, gender plays no role in treatment. Batterers receive therapy to address childhood neglect and other causes of psychological problems linked to abuse.
The debate over the two methods is occurring at a time when more than 100,000 domestic-related crimes are reported each year in Illinois.
The stakes are high: One large study found that the most important reason for a victim to take an abuser back was his decision to attend one of these intervention programs.
'Because I'm a man'
The first intervention programs drew inspiration from the feminist-consciousness-raising movements, preaching gender equality. They made it up as they went along.
"We were clueless," said Bennett, who launched such a program in McHenry County in 1985. And "we certainly weren't evaluated."
But judges were hungry for alternatives to jail, Bennett said, so they began ordering men convicted of domestic battery to participate. Guidelines came in the mid-1990s when a statewide committee of victims' advocates, academics and government officials crafted the Illinois Protocol for Partner Abuse Intervention Programs.
In 2008, nearly 14,000 people went through such programs in Illinois. Some participants had slapped or shoved girlfriends or wives. Others nearly beat them to death.
At the recent gathering in Rolling Meadows, the men ranged in age from the early 20s to middle-age. They sat around a table while the female facilitators prodded them to discuss conflict in their relationships.
Some were eager to share; others stared at the ceiling or picked at their nails.