In 1977 when Orin and I married, I gained a grandmother out of the deal, Lucy (Mecca) Domenico. Little did I know at the time how profoundly this acquaintance would affect me; I mourned her death more than my own grandparents, or, truth be told, in terms of intensely felt grief, more than my parents. I entered her life at a time when hers was winding down, her large size alone an indicator that she would likely not be one of those who would live into her nineties. But she did live, entirely vital and healthy, to 86.
The summer after we married, Orin and I painted Lucy’s house in Rome, NY. On the days we came to work she fed us sumptuous lunches, joking about her habit of keeping her freezer full of prepared meals at a stage in life when company had become so rare, her kitchen now fully “applianced” when labor-saving was no longer urgent as it had been back when she was raising 5 sons. And so on. She clearly loved to laugh and it could be said of her, as of Santa Claus that when she laughed the whole bowl of jelly shook. Life, she concluded had been good to her, her sons all successful in various careers, despite the fact she’d had to go to work in the kitchen at the Rome School for the Deaf to make ends meet.
Later, much after the painting job had been completed, while our kids watched her color TV in the living room, she told us her stories as we sat around her kitchen table, the stories of a poor, plain, pious “Basiligata” girl married into a family of Sicilian mobsters. I think her sense of it was she’d been selected; on her own she would have held no illusion that such a handsome man from a well-off family would have given her a second glance. Likely the marriage had been arranged to provide a virtuous, well-behaved woman to raise children the correct American way and “whiten” the family’s notorious image. From the start, her in-laws were mean to her – likely because they knew no other way. She told us she ended up in tears after every visit to her father-in-law’s house. Her husband took her side in these instances, but overall her marriage caused her much pain. She cried, as unselfconsciously as she laughed – when she told us of her husband’s philandering – never calling it that in so many words, but clearly she knew. She told us as well of her sisters-in-law, two of whom had been put in mental institutions. She did not say why, but we were told by someone in the know, one had been put away for being a “loose woman.”
I, who had never known an adult so willing to speak her truth, to share her grief with me, felt as if touched by a good fairy’s supernatural wand. To have someone reveal her soul was the greatest gift anyone had ever given to me. When Lucy died, it was in the night, unexpectedly, of a heart attack. My father-in-law, when he told us of his discovery of her where she’d fallen, managed one last unkind jibe at the mother he remembered mainly for her cruelty, and lovelessness. This was also a first for me – a vivid instance of the fact one’s life can be viewed so differently – even oppositely – depending on who’s narrating it! Time after time, I heard my father-in-law’s take on Grandma Lucy – a complete nullification of mine – faithfully repeated among his children. Not that I couldn’t imagine her being capable of harshness toward the children she was expected to render law-abiding and successful in conventional professions. But for me the experience of being allowed to glimpse the soul of another, coming as I was from a home where emotions were never visible, except in the tantrums and tears of the very young (“crybabies”) was a call to which my own fairly “armored” heart could respond.
Despite her great sorrow, her advice to me as a new wife was conventional: “Make him think he’s the boss,” wink-wink, etc. This advice, which I dismissed of course, made a striking contrast with her self-revelations: a disconnect between truth and the familial ideal she was committed to preserving.
Not until after her death, Orin discover the fuller truth of the Domenico family secret; his banana importer great-grandfather was indeed a murderer who’d been a defendant in two trials locally, in 1902 and 1920, without convictions. The ruthlessness and hardness was real, and yet the distance between knowing that and changing behaviors because of knowing that, was the distance yet to be crossed, as it has to be crossed in America as we come to grips with our shared history of violence, genocide, barbarism. And mostly will not be.
Almost everyone I know, myself included (excepting the Italian-Americans who fear being unfairly stigmatized), has a fascination for the mafia that allows them a loophole in the moral rule against inhuman hardness and, well, murder. Just think of the salivating news headlines when a mob boss goes to jail, or the ambivalent regard for killers like Al Capone, Scarface I & II, The Godfather, The Sopranos, etc. (Recently Orin’s niece’s boyfriend, whom we’d just met, when we told him about Orin’s writeup of the Domenico ancestors’ escapades – The Bad Bunch – eagerly took a copy. He told us his father, a doctor in France, eats up everything about the American mafia.)
This “Mafia exceptionalism” is not partisan, like rightwing approval of the January 6 hooliganism in the Capitol. It does not overtly partake in an attitude of vengeance; its appeal, rather, is pornographic. Like drug dealers killing other drug dealers, mafia murders do not evoke our sympathy for the murdered. Rather the jokes are about concrete shoes and sleeping with the fishes. In The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa wrote that in their place and time the Sicilians were gods. The near- universal fascination points to an archetype, the Killer, completely forbidden at the conscious level but ever present in the psyche’s vast cast of numinosities.
In any case, Orin is currently coming to grips with the-soul deforming consequences of his cultural inheritance. He is taking it on in the only way one grapples with an archetype – that is, creatively, artistically. The hardness, translated to American soil and no longer serving an approved function, like a language that has nearly died out, exists still in his family as an active, and subtle misogyny belonging to a vestigial patriarchy. His mother, like Lucy but lacking Lucy’s deep Catholic faith, had to survive in this untender environment, be deformed by it and at the same time struggle to keep alive the ideal of “la famiglia.”
Orin writes poems attempting to forgive? transform? the misogyny in his own soul disguised for many years under anger at his mother – through poetically investigating the sexual libertinism of his youth in the 1960’s. This period and these behaviors have largely gone uncritiqued in liberal society – the sexual libertine falling under the same pornographic fascination as the mafia killer – but bequeathed real harm in the web of relationships in his life, and, he extrapolates, in society as a whole.
The pervasive fascination for mafiosi that parenthesizes its harm to actual people in order to be titillated by it, is yet another way that fear of and anger at the (feminine) soul can remain unresolved. For anyone willing to look, the fascination for the Killer exposes the vast systemic defense upheld in all segments of liberal bourgeois society against the power of the soul. Whereas identity politics wants us to be offended by “everyday” sexism, (or “trans-ism” in comedian Dave Chappelle’s case), misogyny – animaphobia may be a more accurate term for it – is far more determinative in producing the harder, meaner, racist and exploitative society we have. If the Sicilian model is a particularly explicit expression of it, it exists, implicitly, in the entire society of – as Chris Hedges unfailingly reminds us – American sadism.
Archetypal psychology teaches the gods are not dead, but existent in the amoral “multitudes” in our souls. In our liberal rejection of the “religious sense” that is organic in our human make-up, the soul’s imaginative capacity, long subservient to power, is simply not up to the task of finding that unifying, protective, inclusive “Other” that can deliver us from moral bankruptcy and the macabre co-dependency of sadism/masochism. (Did I mention Orin’s sister is a dominatrix, making her living from this psycho-social dynamic as it plays out in people turned on by pain?)
In both men and women, in gay and trans people, in goddess-worshipers, atheists and pagans as much as in zealous followers of St. Paul, this fear/hatred of the soul’s otherness, the refusal to go within and meet it, exists and influences (dominates) equally. Individuals who have no experience of authentic soul- strength – knowledge of inclusion in a greater reality – cannot but treat the”feminine” realm of feeling, relatedness, compassion, creativity and sexuality – as prized-but-despicable. That is, we cannot help but swing back and forth, in the shallow identities we’re left with, between the twin poles of worthlessness and grandiosity, locked within our own flattened subjectivity, obedient to an unchecked ego, individualities (“othernesses”) stillborn.
Sadism is the inevitable consequence of the suppression of individualities. Absent our “otherness,” the “otherness” of others is near impossible to bear. (Hence, the near ”salvific” attraction to social media technology.) Sexual relationships come to depend upon keeping the mask on our projections, easily becoming addictive, obsessive (sado-masochistic), in effect, functioning like a non-aggression pact preventing the emergence of “otherness” and individuality. Unable to see through our projections (to individuate) we’re stuck with the projections as our media for relating with social others; they being either “friends” with whom we can easily identify, or as “persons of suspicion,” with whom we cannot.
Thus the central task in regaining/repairing the social aspect of humanness is that of allowing othernesses to emerge. All top-down policies and reforms that attempt to force others to behave in ways that respect the dignity of the other will fail. Re-humanization of society happens bottom-up and bottom-up transformation needs the “vessels,” the traditional relationships and loyalties to family, community and places that, contrary to popular belief, are neither disposable nor re-inventable.
And saying that of course gets me dropped directly into the dustbin of history.
A few days ago I looked out from within this “dustbin” at the young friend we had not seen since before the pandemic, in town to attend a funeral and visit family. Taking a lively interest, as always in Orin and my creative work, she asked him about the poems he’s working on currently, what are they about. When he said they’re about “saving his feminine soul,” she laughed, abruptly but good-naturedly. Her reaction showed me that in our social context, these words are just words, and as merely words, are justifiably objects for dismissal or even scorn, unless the “talk” is “walked.”
But, hey, that dustbin contains more than one useful idea for individuals having enough imagination to re-use, re-cycle, walk their talk. When I speak of reclaiming traditional relationships, I’m not suggesting anyone can or ought to return to patriarchal arrangements like the mob I married into. But I am saying we don’t end sadism by distinguishing ourselves from it as though we are not of it, nor by finding excuses for the meanness that has become routine. In my view, we have not advanced socially beyond the conditions that were so cruel to both Lucy and Toni. Moreover, one cannot expect the process of healing a violent, hardened, racist society – to be a quick fix. Questions such as “What about him/her, he/she isn’t willing to change” or “How long will this take?”- (unless he/she is beating you up!) – are self-serving and disingenuous from the viewpoint of the process that is not under one’s control. Professional help may be called for, but allowing the process to be, trusting it, is the real help we can give to it, and that is everything. The time table is not in our hands, but the power to creatively re-imagine our reality is!
Am I talking to myself? Most certainly I am! I write untiringly on this subject both because I have experienced in my life a transformative “before” and “after,” and to keep real what I know. My “before and after” is no triumphal “makeover.” Transformation, in my case, is in my changed capacity to keep the story going, living with its unfinished ultimacy, trusting (though ever imperfectly) in process (or “God-at-Work”). Forty-four years ago fate gifted me with a partner, a man of great spirit and personal magnetism whose deep mistrust of the Feminine was disguised for me by his vivacity and by my own naivete. The “warning signs” were loud and obvious but for me not actionable.
But what is meaningful action? In liberal reality, we have so many ways of dismissing relationships that, we conclude as we wash our hands, “should not have been.” We have so few ways of actually entering the deep waters of transformation. We – all of us, no exceptions- live within a catastrophe of sadism, of sociopathy, exemplified in every relationship, whether it is an incapacity for any relationship at all, or for only “serial” ones, whether the relationship is bland and untroubled, tempestuous or just “impossible.” The licentious, scheming, disloyal, vengeful gods are directing the show, basking in the freedom from moral concerns liberalism grants them!
The fact is, my husband’s misogynist mistrust and its related defenses was not and remains not my “problem.” My problem in short, is the same as his: it’s reclaiming my individuality, my otherness, through the testing and trials of experience, instead of allowing it to slip back into the patiently waiting death of banal sameness. Change, I’m convinced, begins at the bottom, and that means here, with the closest “others,” where the pain of social disintegration is personally experienced and for which there is no magic antidote.
One could say – and not be wrong! – Kim pays dearly for her voice. Is my life, then a mistake? But I believe to have one’s voice – the great prize – cannot come much cheaper.