Belly Up to the Bar with Zak Mucha

Zak Mucha is a therapist in private practice and the supervisor of an Assertive Community Treatment program, providing services to persons suffering severe psychiatric and substance abuse disorders in Chicago’s Uptown and Edgewater neighborhoods, and an advisory board member of the National Association to Protect Children. He is also the author of the novel THE BEGGARS’ SHORE, co-author of the bully-tackling graphic novel HEART TRANSPLANT with Andrew Vachss and Frank Caruso, and his short story “Community Reintegration” appears in Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT. I had the pleasure of reading his upcoming novel HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF NOTHING, a gritty blue-collar tale of youth in Chicago. You can read an excerpt here.

Heavyweight Champion of Nothing

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’re an LCSW, licensed clinical social worker. And from what I’ve read, it informs your writing in a profound manner. What led you to the profession, and what has the experience taught you most?

zakZM: I never in my life planned on being a social worker. The guys I hung out with through most of my life, no one thought much of social workers. I mean, really, that was someone you had to see only if you got caught. Social workers were never any type of role model, especially male role models. They’re still not.

What led me to this profession was I eventually accepted writing was not my profession. To keep writing, I was going to have to keep another job. Most of the jobs I’ve had have been manual labor. I would work a job for so many months and when I had enough money, or because it was seasonal work, I would lock myself in and write for a few months. I’d come out broke and have to get back to work. It’s a lousy and unintelligent way to live, but I did it because I wanted to write at the time…
But while I was jumping jobs, I tried a couple social service things. I had a vague idea I wanted to do something I was hesitant to call “meaningful” or “good.”

I didn’t go back to school for a Bachelors until after Beggars’ was published. So that book was published and I found myself still scrambling for a living. I tried a social service job, which was basically thug work in a juvie shelter for wards of the state. At the time I only had a high school diploma. I left quickly, but took several more years before I agreed with the idea that if I ever wanted any autonomy, I needed to get a college degree. At one point I was teaching writing in a women’s prison which was fun but really I wasn’t accomplishing much.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I really enjoyed HEAVYWEIGHT, which if I had to describe it, is about a young guy coasting along at a moving company, drifting into crime, avoiding responsibility for his mentally ill girlfriend and chronically ill father while figuring things out. You capture that aimlessness of extended adolescence, and the difficulty we have with owning our behavior at that age. And yet, the book is startlingly funny and tragic at the same time. The narrator is exploited throughout, by bosses, women and friends. What inspired the book?

zakZM: Being exploited is a part of it. By people in all three categories. The narrator has no blueprint to figure much out, does he? He bangs along. It’s a revenge fantasy, but I didn’t want to step away from reality when describing how a young man learns the rules of the world. I did work on moving trucks for a long time. The fictional content of the book is a little thin at some points.
I saw a couple old pals the other night. We worked together for years. And for years I heard, “You should write a book about this place…” I was pleased that these guys understood it. They haven’t read the thing and they don’t need to.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: In America, we tend to define ourselves by what we own and what we do, jobs and possessions. And movers get to touch everything we own. There are even packing services, where they box and wrap everything for you. Yet the job is almost treated with contempt, like it’s not for a grown man. The middle-class disdain for blue collar work. I only worked construction for a short time, but I felt it, a sort of paternalism. To a different extent, we see this with wait staff. For the duration of a meal, the middle class gets to rent the experience of having servants. Your book gets this.

zakZM: If you’re ever stuck at a social gathering, that’s the general question: “What do you do?”

Once a pal and I were working a moving job at a hospital… We were, at the moment, under a fume hood, trying to take it apart. Some doctor was talking to us. All we could see were his ankles. At one point the doctor said, “You seem like intelligent guys, why are you doing this work?” My pal under the hood with me actually owned the company.
My pal said, “Hold on. I’m going to look at your face when I answer you.” He got up and introduced himself.
The doctor introduced himself as Doctor Whatever.
My pal said, “No, what’s your Christian name?”
This felt real good. We weren’t going to accept his status.

Sure, if you’re doing the dirty work for a living, you feel the disdain. You end up having to really check yourself from assuming the disdain is always there. This is why I wanted the introduction on crime and narcissism included in the book.

How you treat the people doing the dirty work says a lot about you. Do you take grief all day at work and wait until there’s a barista to sneer at? Or do you get that huffy and entitled with your boss, too?

Waiters, they have a rough job. They have to take such an egregious amount of crap from people. Of course, the potential for vengeance is huge. Any waitress I knew had awful stories about what happens to meals ordered by rude customers.

Of course, it would be more honorable for the waitress to take her complaint right to the customer. But, say you need the job because you have kids. Or if you have a mountain of school loans (the only loans you cannot bankrupt out of—the owner of the restaurant, he can walk away from debt, but his waitstaff  paying for school cannot) your choices are limited. The power dynamic is right there. While the customer feels his behavior is justified because he can pay for the meal, the waiter loses her job for defending herself.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I bused tables ran a factory cafeteria at night, and my mother waited tables at a country club a while, so I know that first hand as well. It’s a form of tolerated bullying. I found your work through HEART TRANSPLANT, the graphic novel you collaborated on with Andrew Vachss and Frank Caruso. One of the messages in the book is that you can’t lose by fighting back, and the way the Gent teaches this to his young charge is ingenious. I wish I’d gotten the same lesson, but it’s not for everybody. The tough problem with bullying, as I see it, is that we reward aggression. We need a certain amount of aggressiveness, as ambition and competition, but in America, success absolves all sins. If there were an easy solution- like “teach everyone that protecting those weaker than you is the true test of adulthood” we’d have done it. Is there any good first step we can take in schools, or at home, start changing things for the better?

zakZM: If you mean aggressiveness as a means of self-defense, sure, we do need that. The lesson is for everybody, but it also had to be presented differently to different people. One guy may have no trouble defending himself from a physical threat. But an emotional threat gets right through his gloves. He was never taught to recognize that as an attack, much less how to defend himself from it.

I’ve been doing workshops on emotional self-defense ever since Heart Transplant came out. Changing the culture is about confrontation. Confrontation is uncomfortable. The slogans – hell check Facebook – are useless at best and offensive at worst.

A lot of the anti-bullying stuff isn’t working because the message, “Don’t be a bully, be nice to other people,” is being thrown at kids (and adults) who have already developed a lack of empathy for others. And every time that person is not challenged on their behavior, that lack is more and more calcified, as well as justified in their own minds.

Once empathy is clearly absent, we can’t infuse it into a person. But we can teach people it’s going to cost them if they try to hurt others. I’ve given workshops where the teachers are burnt out and they’re telling me to tell kids, “Don’t fight,” while I’m also seeing which kids are totally intimidating the teachers and the class without ever throwing a punch.

There are a lot of people who will gladly protect others in a heartbeat, but have a very hard time protecting themselves.

The lessons of emotional self-defense are simple. But they go against the cultural grain. It’s true that the measure of a person is whether they protect others, but before they can truly do that, they have to be able to recognize when they themselves are in pain and be able to defend themselves.


Tom Pluck BeerTP: Chicago is a city with a soul, but it’s a stranger to me. It has its own flavor of corruption, its own blues, and a rough history going back to the stockyards. I was there for a business trip once, I only had time to go to the Billy Goat, the top of the Hancock building, and speed down Lower Wacker Drive. Were you born there, and what keeps you there?

zakZM: I’ve considered leaving it a lot of times. I have left it a few times. The only reason I would leave again is to be with the people I love. They don’t live here. That’s the only reason I would leave.

I was born here. I like the history of the city, but that’s becoming such a distant memory across the whole city. You drive through and try to remember what used to be on this block or that block.  But you can still go to the IWW office and see Joe Hill’s urn. You can see some decent boxing matches. My pal, Ric Addy, DJs the fights. He also sings in a country punk band and runs a fine bookshop. I can go out and see Jon Langford and Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan, and Freakwater singing in bars. I hardly do that as much as I’d like, though.

The city itself is changing. The team I run during the day, part of our job is to help clients who are at the very bottom of the socioeconomic barrel. People who are frequently homeless, psychotic, drug-addicted — housing for them is disappearing. There’s a real push to get “those people” out of the neighborhood. I want to ask: Didn’t you see them when you moved in? They were here first. For decades, our neighborhood has, historically, been the shunt valve for the state and private mental hospitals.

The first book I wrote, Beggars’ Shore, was about this same crowd in Uptown. I was not a social worker then, I hadn’t even gone to college, but I was living in this neighborhood and I don’t think it’s a coincidence I ended up back here, working with this population. What I wanted to do with that book —  make some sort of change – was *never* going to happen with that book. But it does happen with the ACT team I run. Writing a book is easier. You can fix your mistakes the following day and there’s no damage. I’ve had days on the job where I knew I wasn’t going home until I found a place for this psychotic person to sleep. And then when I got home, I would get called out again for someone else’s crisis. We’re on-call 24/7.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You have a career, where hopefully you can see some small mark you leave on the world. You help people, or at least attempt to, on a daily basis. So, what drives you to write? You have a strong voice, so I hope you have more books in you.

zakZM: If I have any drive to write, it’s really not fiction. Maybe years down the road if I retire from one of the jobs I have… But Heavyweight Champion of Nothing is marking the end of one life for me.

Maybe because I’ve found a couple other jobs that have a real importance to me, offer me some opportunity to change things on maybe a couple levels, I have less interest in writing fiction.
I don’t think the shift in my writing goals is coincidental.

There’s non-fiction I’m working on right now, one thing with Marc MacYoung.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: MacYoung, like Andrew Vachss, has written things which changed my life. With Vachss it was “You Carry the Cure in Your Own Heart,” where he broke the taboo about emotional abuse. It’s not macho to admit that works “cut sharper than knives,” as INXS so succinctly put it. And MacYoung, he taught me that all my MMA training, weapons katas, stress fire target shooting at the range was trying to fight the fear within myself. It had become a cold shadow following me, the fear of being attacked, or not being able to protect my loved ones. And I think a lot of men have that fear with them, like that Zimmerman guy who shot Trayvon Martin. A lot of people are defending him, that’s how common the fear is. Whether the media drives it, or the NRA, or politicians. All three. Can you tell us a little about what you and Marc are working on, because I will be first in line.

zakZM: Marc and I are working on a book about what to do in situations or relationships where people are not following social scripts. This one is not a physical self-defense book, but more about how to keep a situation from building to violence. In conversation Marc and I found we had a lot of the same ideas. The fear you’re describing is a part of it—we’re looking at how we use our own responses to assess a situation and how to possibly triage our own families.

Marc’s a guy who’s been through a lot. He doesn’t need any more violence to prove he’s a man. He gets it that whatever fear we have, we put it on someone not like ourselves. We provoke them and then use that to justify our behavior. I’m having fun writing this book. This might be the only book I’ve enjoyed writing, but that would be because of Marc.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: In writer interviews, they always ask what authors are your influence, but especially our generations, I think everything from music, movies, TV and video games counts. I’m gonna ante up, one of my favorite crime novels is Prowlers, by your Chicago native Eugene Izzi. What would you say your influences are?

zakZM: Reading and writing were more insufficiently masculine activities, like being a social worker… You didn’t want to get caught doing such things. I had one high school teacher, a man named Jerry Stefl, who could see through me, so he’d slip books to me, knowing I would resent any assignments or instructions. This same teacher ended up getting me a scholarship to an art school. All the deadlines were past, and this being Chicago, I imagine he called on some sort of marker.

I lasted about a minute in art school. I had no clue what I was doing. I remember sitting and drinking with a couple guys who were talking about their trust funds. One guy’s dad owned a newspaper, the other a record company. I thought they were putting me on. “There’s no such thing as a trust fund…” But while I was skipping classes, I hung out in the library. I grabbed everything I could, whether I understood it or not.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I don’t know if it began with Reagan, or after Geraldo Rivera exposed the abuse at the Willowbrook mental institution, but I think we treat the majority of mental illness, especially violent cases, as a criminal justice issue instead of a medical one. As someone on the front lines, can you give us a picture from your turf, and tell us what we should seek for reform?

zakZM: Persons with mental illnesses have been treated horrifically since the start of time. A Google search would give you more information than you could ever want.

I’ve talked to enough people with really violent and psychotic plans. It’s scary because it is not an argument you’re going to win with logic.

A small percentage of cases do become criminal issues. But those cases get such a disproportionate amount of coverage. The program I supervise, we’re almost too late. We’re trying to minimize damage and get people back onto some kind of track after the system has already failed them.

The really vital points of intervention would be much earlier in a person’s life. And only recently are people starting to discuss trauma as a factor in psychotic disorders. For a long time, psychotic disorders were seen as genetic. That’s a part of it, but trauma is a factor. Makes sense — trauma threatens all perceptions of the world and how a person lives in the world. Psychosis is an inability to define the boundaries of the self: What’s me, what’s the outside world, and where do I make that boundary? Think of that and look at emotional abuse – where the abuse demands the victim change their sense of self, diminish the self in order to appease the aggressor. The brain tries to defend itself, but when a person’s perception of themselves is challenged and the person’s perception of reality is challenged inescapably, then the sense of self becomes more and more fragile.

There are really limited resources for outreach programs. I wrote a piece about the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, where I suggested somebody heard his plans. Later, we all learned that he definitely did explain he wanted to hurt people.

We need to have a system that can triage adolescents as they move into adulthood.
We need a system that will provide intensive services to that adolescent and young adult population – and have it be more than just warehousing in a psychiatric nursing home.
We really need a residential program to handle cases that need more services than an ACT program could provide. We need ones specifically designed for young adults – there’s a real different set of goals there as compared to working with a more middle-aged population with chronic psychotic symptoms.

If anyone wants to argue about the cost to the taxpayer, then they should also justify the cost of ignoring the problem like in Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, or Aurora, Colorado.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: We tend to think of violence as a force of nature, like there is no way to prevent it. It’s easier that way. The quarterly massacres we’ve come to endure as commonly as yearly hundred-year storms have put gun control, mental illness and gun culture into the conversation. I hope we treat mental illness properly within our lifetimes, but I have a feeling we’ll be discussing the same issues fifty years from now. Thanks for coming by and giving us a lot to think about. I think my readers will enjoy HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF NOTHING as much as I did.

BW Beer Mug

3 thoughts on “Belly Up to the Bar with Zak Mucha

    • Thank you, Barry. It’s a common subject here at Belly Up to the Bar. Chad Eagleton and I discussed it in depth as well.
      I’ll have to interview you sometime.

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