Mafia Madness or Christian Craziness—Which Tipped the Scales?


Most readers who know about my father’s mafia loyalties might be surprised to learn that my mother was, and still is, extremely religious—religious in an evangelical, speaking-in-tongues kind of way.  Sometimes her speech is peppered with “praise the Lord” and “thank you Jesus”—the language of fundamentalist, right-wing Christianity in America.  You get the picture, I suppose.

image via biblestudyjames.com

However, my point in sharing this is not so much to write about my mother—and certainly not to blame either parent—but to explain a bit about how crazy-making it was, as a child, to have parents with such radically opposing points of view—value systems so diametrically opposite one another that I wasn’t able, as a little girl, to contain the duality comfortably in my brain.  It was, quite frankly, bizarre and difficult to reconcile.

As much as one might like to blame the mafia-related trauma I experienced as a child for my later developing a chronic mental illness—having the FBI repeatedly knock down the door of our house, having my father indicted by a number of grand juries—that in and of itself was nothing compared to the crazy-making impact of my parents’ bizarrely, hardly compatible world views.

Yes, I know the medical community says mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder are genetic in origin and involve a chemical imbalance in the brain—that the illness is a medical as opposed to an emotional disorder.  However, most medical professionals also concede that there are, very often, environmental events that precipitate it—that the illness results from a “perfect” storm, so to speak—a perfect storm of genetic and environmental factors. 

Most would agree that the genetic predisposition for chronic mental illness is “activated” by something that happens, as opposed to something that simply is.

So—I would propose that, for me, those major activating events involved this disparity between my parents—one that created a cognitive dissonance destined to do me in, in psychiatric terms.

The obvious question remains—why did my mother remain with my father once she learned, upon marrying him, of his mafia connections?   Though this issue is one I can’t explore in-depth here in this post, let me very briefly suggest several reasons.  First, my parents married in 1961—a time when divorce was not nearly as common as it is today.  Second, early in their marriage my mom was not yet the born-again Christian she became several years later.  Third, my mother was always madly in love with my dad—or so she says. 

my mom and dad (1978 or 1979)

Fourth, and this is the kicker, once born-again, my mother adhered to a form of Christianity that demanded she, as a woman, submit to her husband—whether he was  a Christian or not.  Thus, though she knew what he did was illegal, she believed she should not, as his wife, confront that issue in their marriage, but rather quietly submit and pray for him.

Yes, I know this sounds bizarre—bizarre in its own right—an issue I’ll return to later.  However, it’s a part of my story every bit as important as my father’s connection to organized crime—and one that can only be understood in the context of the other.

I don’t want to go into enormously more detail quite yet—as I imagine this raises a good many questions in readers’ minds.  So, I’d like to proceed, as least in part, in the coming days, by addressing them and would appreciate your sharing the specific questions all of this brings up for you. 

What interests you most about this parental duality and the dissonance, as opposed to harmony, that resulted from it?  What do you wonder?  What questions might you like to ask?

Thanks to all of you for being part of this on-going, memoir-making dialog—an approach to autobiographical writing that only blogging makes possible.

42 thoughts on “Mafia Madness or Christian Craziness—Which Tipped the Scales?

  1. How can your father be mafia & your mother evangelical? That’s bizarre! It’s like they wouldn’t get on … but they do!

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  2. Women stay in all kinds of dysfunctional and damaging relationships and give a variety of reasons for doing so. “I love him” might be at the top of the list. And many people use religion to suit whatever purpose they need it to fulfill. After all, religion was created entirely by man, and so man changes/bends/breaks the rules as he sees fit. It sounds like your mom found a way to legitimize her staying with your dad without taking a stand. And/or maybe her evangelical bent made her feel that she was somehow saving the world, thereby making up for the damage your dad was doing out in the world.

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    • Yes, that makes sense. I hadn’t thought of religion being a way to legitimize staying with my dad–the easy way out. And your last statement, I think, is really powerful–the notion that her salvation could have been a way to restore marital balance. I can’t thank you enough for these insights, Renee. Great comment!

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  3. I agree with what Renee said. In a way, your mother becoming Born-Again during the marriage makes sense to me, in that it gave her a legitimate reason to stay with him without trying to change him. If she hadn’t found religion, she may have needed to make some tough decisions that she wasn’t ready to make. While I don’t completely understand evangelical religious thinking, I get why people need it. It is a place of safety and comfort, and a place to make sense out of a world that does not make sense. So, what is fascinating then, is that you did not have (for whatever reason) a place of safety, so perhaps you looked for that safety in your mind and fell into an even scarier world of voices and hallucination. I don’t have any questions right now, just a complete fascination for your story, and admiration for you as a woman who has survived and thrived after such a bizarre existence.

    Hugs,
    Lisa

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    • One thing I’m thankful for, Lisa, is that you agree this was bizarre. Sometimes when one grows up in such a strange setting you begin to feel like your barometer for measuring bizarre might be off, somehow.

      And, actually, I’m kind of glad this doesn’t raise a lot of questions. This kind of allows me to move on with my story. Thanks for another great comment, my friend. Hugs to you, too!

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  4. Maybe it was out of fear: from change, from trouble, from ruin. Maybe religion was her strongest and most comfortable coping mechanism. Maybe it helped her mask her sadness. I’ve known lots of people where this was has been the case. Beautifully written, once again Kathryn.

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    • I’m pleased to no end that you think this is well written. This particular post may not be as strong as some others, but I didn’t have to time this weekend to craft it the way I’d have liked. So, I’m pleased it worked for you anyway. Thanks so much for reading. Your assessment means so much to me.

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  5. Holy shit, Kathy! Even if you didn’t have the genetic predisposition, growing up in that household was bound to warp you in one way or another. So, as to my questions:
    How did your siblings turn out? Anyone else suffering from mental illness, neurosis, etc.? Anyone else either deeply religious or involved in organized crime (not that I’d want you to rat on anyone)?
    What was your mom’s take on evil? Did she consider your dad or his associates evil? Did that color her relationship with him?
    Did your mom feel like she had to “save” you? If so, how did that look/feel?

    I’ve got more, but that’s enough. Wow, this story is amazing.

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    • I know–I was kind of damned from the start–right? I try to tell myself that at least it makes for a good story. I figure that’s what I get out of all of this.

      Your questions are amazing, Sandy. I will definitely try to address these issues. Long story short–no one else in the family sturggled in psychiatric terms as much as me. But, LOTS of neuroses and some significant issues with eating disorders.

      About evil–my mom tended to project evil on to one of my sisters and me more than the other two kids. One of my sisters was scapegoated terribly. Actually, this in my mind was a terrible form of abuse. I, on the other hand, always struggled with believing I was evil–that was always my first issue when I became symptomatic.

      Again, Sandy, thanks so much for taking the time to read, especially during this difficult time in your own life. I’m so sorry about your dad.

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  6. I feel like there is a connection with the Mafia and religion. I am only basing my comment on films… aren’t most mafia groups deeply devoted Christians (or whatever religion they are) ? They are church goers, follow rules… confess their sins to a priest…lead normal lives. Maybe they keep their jobs (essentially, the mafia is a job) separate from their family and the church.

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    • You’re right. Members of the mafia are usually very catholic and religious in that sense. However, my mom’s faith has nothing to do with catholocism and is much evangelical in its bent. I’ve never known any evangelical mafia members–but my exposure was limited to one mafia family in Pittsburgh. I certainly can’t speak for the rest. Thanks so much for asking this question. This is an issue that I think I needed to clarify. Great point!

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  7. Wow. This is very interesting. Do you think your mother turned to religion as a way of dealing with chaos of being married to the mob? For some strange reason, that kind of makes sense to me.

    How did your dad deal with your mom’s religious beliefs? Did he consider himself to be religious at all?

    Maybe this is skipping too far ahead and maybe you’re not ready to address these questions. But I’m also curious to know how, as a born-again Christian, your mother dealt with the news that you suffer from bi-polar disorder. And also with your coming out process as a lesbian. I’m guessing that disclosure was difficult, to put it mildly.

    Geez, you’ve had a lot to deal with in your life. More power to you for getting to where you are today!

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    • Even more great questions. No my dad was not religious in the least, and I suspect he dealt with my mom’s religiosity mostly by ignoring it.

      About my illness and my sexuality–

      My mom was not supportive in the least when I became ill. She never came to visit me in the hospital–refused to come when invited to therapy.

      I didn’t come out to my mom unil about 5 years ago. And frankly she has been surprisingly supportive–though I think that has more to do with my being with the daughter of one of her dear friends. Yes, Sara’s mom and my mom were friends for years before we met, and, in fact, we did not meet through our mothers. Sara’s mom had died about 5 years before Sara and I met, but I remember my mom’s grief about Ruth’s illness and death–NEVER imagining I might have ended up with her daughter 5 years later.

      Truth is, indeed, way, way stranger than fiction. In fact, no one would ever write a novel with a plot resembling my life, as it wouldn’t be realistic or even believable.

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      • WOW! That’s crazy. Did you know Sara through your mom’s friend at all? Or did you meet randomly and then later find out that your moms were friends?

        I totally know what you mean about truth being stranger than fiction. I feel the same way about my own life. If you had told me five years ago where I would be today, I never would have believed you in a million years. Sometimes I still can’t believe it. It’s just too bizarre. But I guess that’s what makes life wonderful, and terrifying 🙂

        Can’t wait for more of the story!

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      • No, Sara and I had never met until we got to know one another in a totally unrelated way. When I first told my mom about my friend Sara, she’s the one who suggested Sara was her friend’s daughter and asked me her mom’s name. And amazingly enough, my mom was right. Sometimes I think these things are just meant to be–two people are destined to be together and the details work themselves out in the most amazing ways. Truth is stranger than fiction–and way weirder–and, as you say, terrifying because of that.

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  8. I can believe that being torn between your parents beliefs has contributed to the way you are. It can’t have bee easy growing up in that house. I was lucky, I was brought up without religion. My father would not have it mentioned in the house. His father was Jehovah’s Witness and he hated it, so he rejected religion completely. I thank him every day for this. I think forcing religion onto children is brainwashing and leads to all sorts of guilt problems later in life. My mother tried to teach us some religion and it caused problems between my parents, but Dad always won out on this one.
    I am really interested in your life story. I hope writing about it helps you to work through your difficulties.

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    • Thanks, Deb. I’m glad the story interests you. I think you are right. It’s very wrong to force any form of religion on children. They will find their own way, and that’s for the best. Mostly, this strange split between my parents and my mother’s pretending that was not an issue had a huge and confusing impact on me. At my sister likes to say jokingly, “It’s a wonder any of us [our siblings] are walking-around kinds of human beings!”

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  9. Wow, Kathy. You’ve managed to make that family dynamic and the struggle it must have been as a child even more intriguing to me than what you’ve written to this point. My parents were very much aligned in their beliefs, though perhaps not in their approaches to child rearing, that the only room for confusion, came from my own questions and experiences – which was plenty. I would almost be more curious as to how your dad didn’t leave your mom (which was more common divorce or not), but as you say, maybe ignoring things was his tactic, or maybe your mom’s beliefs didn’t bother him at all. It shows just how much we can be shaped by and react to what’s happening around us. I can’t wait to hear more. Fantastic post!

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    • I never got the sense that my dad was ever inclined to leave my mom. They genuinely seemed to care for one another, which, weird as it was, was also wonderful. I remember very little conflict between them–which amazes me now as an adult.

      I’m so glad this story still interests you– and delighted that you think this was a good post. I’m doing my happy dance! Thanks, Rose!

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  10. I may be reaching here, but would there be a connection between evangelicalism and organized crime in that each has its own social code that’s sort of outside the norm of most of society. If you’re in either of those groups it’s important to follow certain traditions or risk being thrown out of the group. Those take precedence above all else.

    Either way, you’re right that truth is stranger than fiction! Good luck in getting all of this down on paper.

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    • I think your observation is interesting, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it weren’t that aspect of both groups that appealed to my mom. At least, knowing my mom, I think that’s a real possibility–not that she would eveer have thought that consciously at all. Thanks for reading, Jackie. Truth is too, too strange. It makes fiction look remarkably mundane.

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  11. I agree with Renee’s comment as well. From my experience, we tend to find ways to support the beliefs we want to hold onto. Attraction is a magnetic power not easily resisted. Besides, your dad sounds like a decent guy.

    Religious belief systems are tricky. I understand how we can get caught up in them. Personally, I like to take a more eclectic universal approach.

    Thanks again for sharing your story. You are an inspiration for sure.

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  12. Maybe a lot of it has to do with the era more than the fact that he had mafia ties and she was of an evangelical faith. Or a combination of all three, in fairly equal doses. It was a different time then…

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  13. This is a great way to explore your feelings about your memories, Kathryn. I think speculating in a public forum is a great way to hash out all the intense thoughts. With you and other readers commenting on whether it was crazy or sane, what would have been the psychological result of such conflicted parents, etc, you are transforming your own private hell into a shared experience, which is one of the many terrific benefits of writing a memoir. You are gaining those benefits even as you try to sort out all the possibilities. Thanks for sharing this. I look forward to tapping into the ongoing effort.

    Jerry
    Memory Writers Network

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    • Thanks for your feedback, Jerry. I love the notion of turning a private hell into a shared experience, benefiting all involved. Memory, though personal, is also collective, and blogging builds that collective memory even while I’m drafting. I can’t thank you enough for this insight! And thanks for subscribing, as well. Great to have you. Welcome!

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  14. You Know Kathy, I think when two people are meant to be they work it out what ever way they can. I think your mom loved your father very much but may have suffered from a bit of guilt due to his working circumstances so in order to get rid of the guilt she turned to religion??? Must have been rather confusing to you and your siblings. Sometimes though the strangest combinations can make for an interesting life – I’m sure adrenalin was not lacking in your home.

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    • Fascinating comment, Jackie. Why did this never occur to me? What you suggest makes so much sense. She was trying to compensate for feeling guilty–this could be so true. Can’t thank you enough fro this feedback.

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  15. I don’t know. I’m not really very surprised that your mother stayed by your father’s side all of those years. As you said, the era in which they married dictated that divorce was not really an option. Most women were homemakers. Only a few were actually gainfully employed. So even if she were to take a stand and walk away from the marriage, how would your mother have supported herself and her children on her own? And of course, there’s the issue of love. Love trumps all. I think people are able to justify many things in their minds in the name of love and what is “right.”

    I guess what I’m curious about is whether or not your mother was always supportive of your father, or whether she ever voiced doubts, worry or anger over his activities. You’ve said that your family lived very comfortably. I would imagine it would be hard to ask a husband to change his ways at the risk of having to live with less. Did you ever see any signs of these issues between your parents?

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    • Actually and surprisingly, I didn’t. I can’t imagine that my mom wouldn’t have expressed something about the inappropriateness on the heels of an FBI raid, but I never heard her do that, that I recall. I’ll ask my sister what she remembers. But, yes, I think my mom enjoyed the lifestyle.

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  16. I wish I could look straight into your mother’s brain, honestly, but definitely not at the cost of losing your reflections on these matters! The final explanation you share is one that resonates with me, and a reason that my mom stayed with my dad so long in the face of everything he did. Being a good wife meant doing what your husband asked/demanded; if you as a woman failed, there were consequences.

    I’m glad my mom stepped out of that thinking. She was never free of it, but awareness of how it influenced her changed how she behaved before her illness took full root.

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  17. I think that religion is a socially acceptable form of “therapy” for people who need comfort, support, and help– sometimes it’s the *only* place some people can turn to in a time of need. (This sounds especially true for your mother, in a time when divorce was not common or sanctioned. She couldn’t exactly have gone to a traditional therapist and ratted out your dad in her sessions, whom she still loved!)

    I think the juxtaposition between your father and your mother stands as perfect symbol for your own cognitive dissonance. Who *wouldn’t* get confused growing up in your childhood environment?

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    • Great point, Dana. Why had that not occurred to me? I had always thought of church as an escape for my mother–money laundering for the soul. But it may, indeed, have been therapeutic. Thanks for this insight, my friend!

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  18. Obviously your mother is a survivor. It’s vaguely like my partner’s mother’s 2nd hubby: she felt sorry for this guy who had a roaming eye, had alcoholic fits while his mother, bless her was a lovely patient woman loved by all and quietly Catholic. My partner, thank goodness learned /emulated more from his mother’s best traits.

    And you are survivor to have parents so radically different! My mother a picture bride has a volatile temper, direct manner while father is a mild even tempered man, ever-dispute mediator. He also helps her cheerfully aorund the house after he retired. They have a traditional marriage. (There were 6 kids). So I know vaguely about having parents so different.. but not on value systems.

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    • I suppose there’s a difference between partners who balance one another and those who live on seemingly separate planets. Your parents sound like the former. Can’t tell you how happy I am to hear from you today. Hope you’ll stop by again soon. Thanks for your comment.

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