As a child, he had been sexually abused by his stepfather, who later pleaded guilty to child-endangerment. The abuse was so shattering, Joel slept with a knife under his pillow.
When he was just 11, he spent five weeks in a psychiatric hospital. He recovered enough to finish grammar school, high school and college.
But he had not healed.
That process began when Joel met Nina in Temple University's graduate journalism program. She was taken by his gentle eyes. He was taken by her open heart. They fell in love and married.
And then hell broke loose as Joel resisted Nina's attempts to forge a deeper emotional connection with her new husband. The more she pushed, the more he numbed out. Sex stopped, but so did other communication as he went silent on her, for days.
They realized that his childhood abuse had left him terrified of vulnerability. They also knew their marriage wouldn't survive unless Joel did the excruciating work of healing - and if Nina didn't figure out how to stand by Joel while protecting her own spirit as he faced his past.
They entered therapy, alone and together, at Women Organized Against Rape as Joel relived buried memories and confronted family about the past. Step by step, he and Nina resumed intimacy.
And now, her swollen belly is evidence of how far they have come.
"I can't believe this is our life," says Nina, as she and Joel relax in the sweet nursery they've created for the baby in their Center City apartment. "Life was hell for us, and now it's not."
Their story is so much more painful and complicated than words can convey in this column. It is also more beautiful and redemptive. Thankfully, Nina and Joel tell it themselves in The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse. It's a collection of more than 50 essays by sex-abuse survivors and by those who have been affected by the abuse of someone close to them.
Nina is a former copy editor at the Daily News and now a senior editor at Philadelphia Weekly. Joel is a government worker and college journalism instructor. Together, they edited the anthology, an e-book produced by Review Publishing, which publishes PW.
The book grew out of an essay Joel wrote for PW about being an adult survivor on a mission to save his marriage. Reader response was so powerful, Nina penned an editorial calling for submissions of first-person stories from sex-abuse survivors, their loved ones and advocates. She and Joel had been so transformed by his healing process, they hoped stories of healing would give strength to others.
"Most survivor books are written by psychologists who use anecdotes from patients," says Joel, whose serious demeanor is countered by Nina's brilliant smile. "Or the book is just one survivor's story. We wanted a lot of voices, to expand the pool of people a reader might identify with."
While the details of the stories differ, most are linked by the denial that victims experienced from those who didn't believe that the crimes happened, or who looked away as it did. Others write of staying silent and dying within.
Reading the stories, it's clear that abuse doesn't damage only the victim. It sends shrapnel into those who suffer from the unhealed pain of those they love.
In Joel's case, Nina's love made him feel safe enough, for the first time in his life, to fall apart. But then he had to put himself back together, for the sake of that love. And Nina had to be strong enough to endure the loneliness of allowing Joel the space to reckon with his past.
"Joel is the bravest person I know," she says. "He clawed his way out of a dark grave to be my husband. People have such a warped idea of what love is and what it is supposed to look like. But sometimes love means you have to do really hard things. It's ugly and sometimes it's cruel."
And it's the only thing that can save a broken life.
Author proceeds from The Survivors Project will support Women Organized Against Rape and the Philadelphia Children's Alliance.