It’s the Forgetting I Remember Most (Childhood among the Mafia)

Besides screaming at the FBI agent who tried to implicate my mother, I remember next to nothing about that night.

I  know that I was fifteen, that it was February, cold outside, my sister Susan’s birthday–that we were on our way for ice cream—my mother, father, two sisters, brother.

I know we lived in Pittsburgh, that it was 1978.

my father and I ( later the same year)

I remember that the steps were steep, that we had lots of them, bridging the distance from house to street, that our house was large and brick, that it sat on a hill.

I know that it was dark outside—except for the street light that brightened the cement stairway in front of our house.

I don’t remember the actual arrival of the FBI.  I remember that it happened, but not the actual happening itself–the unfolding.

It was a raid.  That much we knew for sure, standing on the stairs as it played out below, my father closest to the street as agents grabbed him, threw him against the car. 

I’m told  my mother had wanted my dad to hide his papers before we left the house, the sheets on which he’d recorded his bets, who had bet how much on which game.  We had a door whose top had been hollowed out and lined with tin—exactly the size to hold the folded papers. 

Before we left for ice cream that night my father had set the papers on the steps inside the front door, rather than securing them in the door upstairs where they’d be safe–more difficult to find, at least.

So, when the agents raided and we ran back to the house, my mother attempted to cover the papers with her purse—a vain attempt to hide the obvious.  The agents noticed this and threatened to arrest my mother in addition to my father–for obstructing justice, I suppose.

my mom and dad (1978 or 1979)

I myself only clearly recall being in the vestibule just inside the house, where my mother had set her purse.

I remember screaming.  Or rather, I remember hearing myself scream, “Don’t you dare try to take my mother!”–my own screaming surprising even me, as I’m not a screamer—certainly wasn’t one back then.

But then my memory goes blank again.  I don’t recall how events unfolded further that night, what resolution there might or might not have been.

In fact, it’s the forgetting I remember most about that night—the fact of having forgotten events both long before and years thereafter—broad stretches of blankness, nothing, no where.

How is it that such huge things happened, and I remember so little?  I don’t understand the blankness.  Don’t know how to navigate my own drained brain, empty of memory–empty–and alone.


I suspect that the event described above will be the opening scene of my memoir.  It will deposit readers in the middle of the unfolding drama—force them to feel the same disorientation I felt.  The same confusion.  The same disruption.  The ice cream run aborted.

I’m open to any suggestions you might have about the passage.  I include few details because I remember so little.  My questions—

1.     Should I try to fill in details that I imagine rather than details about which I’m certain—not details of what happened—but details about setting, dialog?  What’s allowable in a memoir?

2.     Which parts of what I describe above interest you the most?  What would you, as a reader, want me to elaborate on?  What would you want to know more about?


64 thoughts on “It’s the Forgetting I Remember Most (Childhood among the Mafia)

  1. Good piece of writing! Given what you are bound to discuss later (your problem with mental health and memory), I would leave the piece as it is i.e. just what you DO remember. As it is you’re remembering the most important details of what happened and conveying the terror you felt that night. And the frustration you feel today at not being able to remember more.


    • Actually, a few of these details I don’t recall, but have gotten from family members. I remember VERY LITTLE–really only screaming at the FBI agent–or hearing myself scream.

      I’m glad this worked for you, Lisa. What’s weird is how scared I feel now having published it. I feel panic. Strange, isn’t it?

      My inclination is the same as yours, actually.


  2. Excellent. Now you have me dying to know what happened, why the FBI came, the implications. I think it is a great way to start your memoir. I’d leave as little out as possible. That is what makes the reader want to know more. Very good!!!!


    • Thanks so much. I will do a follow up post with the backstory for some of you who weren’t reading when I shared it. I could have linked to it, but wanted to know also how it would affect readers who didn’t know what happened before and after. Does that make sense?

      But, gosh, I’m glad that you are curious for more. That’s good. Thanks, my friend!


  3. Oh the things you have seen, Kathy. I can’t imagine. I think in terms of your memoir, writing in as much detail as possible about the things you do remember will help with the blank spans. You can give the reader your panic as a teen watching her parents almost taken away, the sounds, the chaos, the fear of that.


    • The problem is I don’t remember the details. I will have to approximate them, I guess. Does that make sense? Generally as much detail as possible is best, but I need to know if approximating them is okay. I have an obsession with honesty. I feel like I’m not being honest if I imagine what they might have been. I do know for sure what the stairs looked like, basically. But, for example, I have no actual memory of the FBI’s arrival or anything that happened after I screamed.


      • Maybe I’m misinterpreting, but I think what Tori means is that in scenes where you remember details you can include them, in scenes that you don’t, that’s okay too. Maybe I’m superimposing my opinion (sorry, Tori) As for honesty, I feel like anything that comes will be honest.

        I too love it just the way it is and think it’s a great teaser opening scene that raises so many enticing questions. I would definitely keep reading! I imagine you’ll refer back to the scene occasionally, and could always speculate them about how it went, or how you wished it went, if you felt like it.

        Taking a moment like that and writing about it so beautifully – huge kudos to you!


      • Oh, Rose, thank you! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this response. I would agree that I should include whatever detail I remember. And, indeed, I would use this as an opening scene only to the degree that it could funtion as a pivot around which I can construct the rest of the narrative. I suspect that I might use another opener, if I find that another piece funtions better in this regard.

        I’m delighted you think this part works well! Thank you for saying so. Thank you!


  4. How about your brothers and sisters? Do they remember?
    This is a great opening, I agree.
    What happened as a result of the raid? This must have been a turning point in your life.
    Perhaps more details not necessary – we know whatever happened you were sufficiently traumatized by the events. Now I want to know what was the after math? How did this event shape you?


    • Most of the detail I include here I already got from my sisters and mother. My brother was too young to remember. I definitely need to share what happened after this. I need to provide context, for sure.

      But my question is–
      Does this work as the actual opening scene? If you opened a memoir to this, would you keep reading?


  5. Great start to a memoir! Also, I love the photo of your parents. I’d like read more about how you actually felt at the moment you were screaming, and how you felt when you saw the FBI slamming your father against the car.

    Looking forward to more.


    • Actually, I don’t remember the moment when the FBI grabbed my father. My sister described that to me.

      Also, I think I may need to explain that I also have a dissociative disorder, which means that in situations that were traumatic I split off parts of the expereince. I may remember the event, but not the emotion. I may lose parts of the actual memory–repressed them. For example, in relation to this experience, I only clearly remember screaming. And I don’t remember any actualy feeling. That’s why I say, I heard myself screaming–like I was observing, listening to someone else scream. Does that make any sense at all?


  6. In answer to your question, I have to ask you a question: How much did this event shape and impact you? Did it have a huge influence on who you feel you are today? If so, then yes, I think it’s a great opening. It’s gripping, for sure, and I’m left with lots of questions. I would certainly read on to find out more.
    These are exciting steps for your memoir!


    • Great question, Deanna. I do think it had a huge impact–especially the cummulative effect these kinds of events had on me–as there were more, before and after that were similar. Maybe that’s part of what’s so weird about my life–that our home was raided a number of times by the FBI.

      Thanks for offering some feedback. I hope you will read more as the story unfolds.


  7. I agree with everyone’s comments, but the reader will know from whatever you decide to call this memoir that the Mafia is a major character. That’s not a knock that they’ll know it’s another angle on this subject that has so much voyeur-appeal. Considering the popularity of just “The Godfather”, “Goodfellows”, and “The Sopranos”, stories about the mob clearly excites people. Your opening is very compelling and as fellow commenters have suggested, it makes one want to keep reading and know more. That said, you mentioned to Deanna, “… our home was raided a number of times by the FBI.” Instantly, I thought, “Whoa, was this the first raid, the last raid, were there ones before? How many were there?” It’s a very intriguing topic, but wow, had I experienced what you experienced in your youth, I would be suffering a nervous bowel for life, possibly because I’d remember too much. You can also weave into the fabric of your memoir that fellow witnesses i.e., family members, have helped fill in the blanks for you. You’re not making this story up like that memoir scofflaw, James Frey. Possibly because you’re divulging something so personal and traumatizing, you’re suffering fear about how it will be received. If so, I think that’s normal, but I also think you’re onto something and hope you will continue to work on it.


    • It’s interesting that it didn’t even occur to me that folks would be interested in the fact that there were multiple raids and where this one fell in relation to the others. Actually, I think this one was one of the later raids, like the next to last–depending on whether or not one counts if I was or wasn’t home when it happened.

      Also, another friend told me she thought this story has even more appeal than the mental health aspect of the story–the Mafia, angle that is. The subject has always interested me, but I didn’t know if, perhaps, that’s because I had lived it.

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful feedback. It helps enormously!


  8. Great start. I understand the frustration of memory. Many times relatives ask me if I remember such and such and I honestly don’t have any recall whatsoever of the situation they relate. As a reader, I would like to know more about your relationship with your parents and siblings. I would like to know about your feelings then and now, regrets, celebrations, positive/negative aspects… stuff like that. Also, how did your body physically feel when all this was happening? What were your siblings doing at the time? These are just some thoughts, Kathy. BTW, you have a nice smile in the photo with your father and you look happy. Nice photo of your parents also.


  9. This opening grabs my attention and doesn’t let go. Given the spotty details, it serves to intensity my need to read more/know more. That said, the issue of staying with a rendition that depends solely on more gaps than solid ground could be a problem. But there is a way to deal with it. Remember, this memoir is being written by you as an older adult about an adolescent’s experiences. It is entirely acceptable to add what you now know (in terms of life experience, if not in terms of details) to what you went through then. You are not cheating. Imagined details, as long as they are expressed as such, can be every bit as effective for the reader as an actual moment-by-moment telling. Plus, you are adding the wisdom and insight you have now to “make sense” of what was then, something that made no sense at all. Have you ever read Sue William Silverman’s book, Because I Remember Terror, Father I Remember You? She was faced with the same problem in writing about her childhood of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Read it to see how she dealt with the great memory lapses of her childhood. I think you are a stronger writer.


    • Okay–great thought, Renee! I’m relieved to know you think it’s okay to add what I know now. I’m going to have to do that–because my memory is so damn spotty. I can get lots of good detail from one of my sisters who NEVER FORGETS! I don’t know how she does it.

      I will check out the book you mention. I haven’t read it, and actually, hadn’t heard of it.

      Thanks so, so much for taking a look, Renee! I value your insight enormously!


  10. I would be intrigued to see this written as a narrative, a story, with the gaps included. Like other comments above, I think other sources of information about what happened that night, what led up to it, what followed could be included, but the gaps in your memory are as interesting as the actual story.


    • I wonder if I should experiment telling it both ways–with and without. I personallly think the gaps are interesting, as well, as that’s how I experience my life–like Swish cheese. I just don’t think most people will appreciate a story told that way. I think you have to be a pretty sophisticated reader to enjoy that kind of narrative. And, of course, you are one of those readers–part of what I love about you, Sandy!


  11. I personally feel that the gaps in memory and detail make the piece more dramatic and make me want to read more! The gaps make room for really big questions, and as your reader continues reading your memoirs, they will learn about your mental health and dissociative states, etc.

    It almost reminds me of “The Curious Incident of the Dog…”– written from the perspective of an autistic boy, which makes the style make perfect sense. In your situation, the blanks and gaps make perfect sense– forgetting is part of who you *really* are! Love it– can’t wait to read more!


    • Gosh, Dana, I’m so happy this works for you. What you are saying makes perfect sense. I’ve not read “The Curious Incident of the Dog.” But, again, what you say about the memory laspses being what makes the story truly mine is the clearest articulation I’ve heard in support of leaving the narrative gaps in place. Thank you for this comment, dear Dana! Hope you have a great week!


  12. Pingback: Room with a View: Pony-Tailed among the Mafia | reinventing the event horizon

  13. Linked short stories would make the memory fragments even more powerful. Beautifully written, particularly in that you respect the gaps. ‘Perhapsing’ emotionally appropriate and kept me in thrall! Looking forward to one day reading your memoir.


    • I can’t thank you enough for reading and taking the time to comment. I’m relieved to know that you too think the gaps are okay–maybe even good–in a narrative sense. How wonderful that you will read my memoir. Thanks so much! You have made my morning a little brighter.


  14. Nobody has a true photographic memory, Kathy. It’s okay to include dialogue in a memoir – makes it more interesting, even. The reader is going to know that you aren’t recounting a verbatim conversation from decades earlier, but rather writing about the gist of what happened instead.

    I think this is an excellent start to your memoir, by the way. You’ll want to grab the reader right off the bat – and with this passage, mission accomplished!


    • Mark, I love your enthusiasm. I know deep down inside that this is an incredible story. I know I could probably get some kind of book contact based solely on the intensity of the story, if nothing else. However, I don’t know how to do that exactly. This is something for me to work on.

      Also, I think it is this childhood that ultimately brought on the mental illness that followed me into my early adulthood. It’s not easy to recover from this kind of childhood. I understand that there’s a bilogical component to mental illness, but the kinds of experiences I had with my father surely must have triggered it.

      Sometimes, I fear that the story is too intense to be believable–especially when you add to it the crazy, disaster-responding life Sara and I live today. It’s been one hell of a life, and that life translates into a whopper of story.

      I can’t thank you enough for this comment, Mark!


  15. A very interesting read, indeed. It certainly leaves the reader hanging on, but not to a fault. Memoirs can be tricky, especially when we, as authors, tend to describe our memories in the same way we “remember” them. My memoir was difficult to piece together, but the flow returned when I told myself the story first and then repeated myself in writing. Just a tip that I found to be helpful.


    • Thanks for the advice. I guess that’s partof my struggle. I’m aware that telling a story exactly as I remember it doesn’t necessarily make for a good memoir–the problem is deciding exactly how to do that. I guess my question is then, how does retelling yourself the story as your remember it help? Does that make sense?

      Again, thanks for the insight. I hope you’ll come back and read more.


  16. I say just let it flow. I followed along with ease, and enjoyed your ‘inner-voice’ narrative. I’m all about natural storytelling (and you have the story and the excellent writing ability to pull it off!

    Thank you for sharing all of this here…


    • Thanks so much for taking a look. I’m glad to know the story speaks to you, and my method of telling it works, as well. I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment. Hope you’ll come back. It was wonderful having you.


  17. I have a friend who was a sexual abuse victim as a child. She had no recollection of it whatsoever until after her 3 children were born. It was a terrible thing for her to remember. I asked her how it was possible she remembered none of it and she reminded me there are probably many holes in my memory too. We remember most of what we want to remember and our brains protect us from the rest.

    I found myself fascinated by the description of your father’s papers and the hiding place. I’d love to hear more detail about what it was he did on a day to day basis… how your family carried on a relatively normal life in spite of his activities.


    • Memory is often suspect–certainly not something we have any control over. Sorry to hear about your friend, but she (and you) are right–our psyches protect us, allowing us to remember only what will not damage the mind’s ability to operate.

      Actually, this was our normal–that seems strange to say now that I realize how bizarre this all was. But I look forward to painting my dad in more detail. He was a delightful person–fun, generous, etc.


  18. I have a feeling that, if you leave this as is, you will eventually find yourself filling in details later in the book. You may return to this episode with more detail and explanation. Or maybe not. One of the things that often annoys me when I read memoir is when the author fills in exact details that you know they can’t really remember. It is impossible to remember everything in life, especially traumatic moments that tend to become brief pictures of memory as we exclude the more painful details. I think this is a glorious beginning. I want to know why your mother suspected a raid that evening? Why did your father choose to keep those papers out? How much of your father’s dealings did your mother know and understand. I can’t wait to read more.


    • Actually, we always suspected a raid anytime during football season–especially surrounding the Super Bowl. My mom’s concern would not have been out of the ordinary. We had to maintain a degree of viglilance–and rightly so, seemingly.

      I’m so pleased you think this a good start! You have made my day, my friend!


  19. Kathy,

    I’m sorry it took me so long to respond. What a post! It definitely drew me in and I was bummed to see it end. It must have been a frightening and confusing night, with everything that happening so fast. I can’t wait to read the next posts and hopefully one day I will be able to read the entire memoir.

    In regards to the lack of memories, I can relate. Although my childhood was not traumatic, I was diagnosed with ADD at the 7. For the next few years I saw a therapist three times a week, to work on all of my issues. My parents and I decided not to put me on meds, so our only other choice was intensive CBT therapy, where the therapist would breakdown my mental state and personality, and forcibly recreate it. As a result, I don’t remember much of my childhood, only a few fragmented memories exist. It was as if I didn’t have a childhood and for awhile this scared me. One my therapists tried to convince me this was not a problem and I should just stop thinking about it, another therapist was so confused that she just ignored me and tried to find another subject. However, that never stopped me from trying to recreate my past. When I started blogging, a few of the memories returned, but I’m still lacking massive amounts of my past, which sounds like what you are experiencing.

    What would be interesting is to try and analyze why this happened and put that into your memoir, as a way to pull back and look at your past in various ways. Or- What about contacting family friends or relatives, who could possibly help fill in the holes? Or, are there any police records or public records of your family?

    I know it can be frustrating not remembering your past. There are times I wish I knew what my childhood was like, but I have realized that I most likely will never know what happened, except for the few bits and pieces that floating around in my head.

    As I said above, I can’t wait to read more of your story and I will be one of the first people in line to buy your memoir 🙂 I hope you are doing well,



    • Thanks Dave for this great comment. I hope you will keep reaing, as I have posted a number of pieces since this one, that continue the story. In one, several post later, I include links to newspaper articles from the time. I also plan to get trial transcripts and file a freedom of information act to access my dad’s FBI file.

      Also, I have a post set to go in the morning that puts a lot of this in an historical context, in terms of new laws passed as of 1970 that allowed federal prosecutors to intervene in matters such as this.

      I’m sorry to hear about your memory loss. Yes, I think mine is simillar. That therapist’s attempt to “break you down,” or whatever you said, sounds bizarre to me and borderline unethical. I hate that you had to go through that!

      At any rate, I hope you will keep reading the already-published posts that follow this one and stay tuned for more, as well. Thanks for reading and sharing your own story!


  20. Wow. This is an excellent post. I think that leaving as is is far more powerful than filling in with someone else’s memories, whether they be fact or not. You have let me know how powerful this moment was in your life by telling me what you remember, and what you do not. Don’t change it.


  21. As an opening to a memoir, I think this passage is great. Details about setting and dialogue are not important, I would say, because that sort of meaty stuff can be hashed out later. I would say that the only room for improvement I see is maybe focusing more on your subjective experience. I liked the part about you screaming even though you’re not a screamer. Everyone has seen mafia movies so you can trust that the reader can use their imagination to fill in the setting, but it’s your personal experience of it all that makes it a unique reading experience.

    I look forward to reading more of your memoir, and Happy Birthday!


    • I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this feedback–especially the comments on what works well and less well in terms of writing. This is extremely helpful. I’d love you to read a sticky post called “Kids Make the Best Bookies,” as I have also considered using the end of that post as a memoir beginning.

      Thanks for reading and thanks, as well, for the birthday wishes! Hope you’ll stop by again soon.


  22. If you can get details from third party sources–or information on how these things usually happen–I think that would help a lot. I’m immediately hooked by the notion of hearing from a child of a Mafia family, but at the same time I worry that there won’t be enough details for me–who has absolutely no experience with this–to stay interested.


    • I have a good many other posts in this series that do include a good bit of detail. I have gotten stories from family members, even from local newspapers from the 1970s. My next goal is to file a freedom of information act to get my father’s FBI file.

      Thanks so much for your feedback. I’d be curious to hear what you think having read some of the more recent posts, ones written once I began to track down sources. I have another post in the works, based on a story my cousin told me this past weekend, so stay tuned.


  23. I didn’t read through all the comments, so I’m not sure how many billions of times it’s been mentioned already. But, I’d like to have more back story as a reader about your father. I’m not making light of the situation, but I love *mob* stories. I want to know more about the gambling background, as well as what kind of trouble he got into. I’m not sure what the rules are when writing a memoir, but as far as filling in the gaps go, I would lightly embellish. Write about what you think happened based on all of the bits of information you can recall. I like reading inner monologues — first person stuff. Hope this helps?


    • Thanks for the feedback, Adam. I have filed for my father’s FBI file. If I ever get it–it’s been since last May that I began trying to gain access to it, then that should help me fill in a lot of the details. I have also been able to get some info from newspapers. I appreciate your comment. Great to hear from you.


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