By Mike Fiorito
THE HISTORY OF FEAR
My sister, Gina, calls me after she read my story.
“Oh my God, why did you write that stuff about Dad?” She’s not frantic, but she’s upset that I wrote publicly about our father’s gambling problems.
“I write about our family because it’s hard to write about,” I say. “Because it matters.”
“You know Mom can’t see this story,” she adds. And I know that too. Too many details about how he borrowed money, and the general despair we all felt. Though it was an almost daily discussion when we were kids, it’s now a subject to be avoided. When my father died twenty-five years ago, he became saintly. His earthly sins were buried in his grave.
“I know. I don’t want her to see it. I don’t want to upset her.”
“Well, I’m happy for you,” Gina says. She means it, too. “I’m thrilled for your success.”
My father’s worst critic, when he was alive, was my mother. I remember how it upset me to hear her talk to him. Before she moved out of our house for a few weeks, her attacks on him became even more vitriolic.
“If you have to get another job, do it,” she said. “I’m working all day, come home to make dinner, clean the house then sell jewelry at night,” she added, raising her voice. Then. “I don’t care if you never come home.”
This last statement clanged off the project building walls and rang throughout the house, like a rusted metal bell hammered on a steel stairwell.
My father didn’t respond. He had swallowed so much guilt, he couldn’t speak. The guilt stuffed his mouth, froze his throat and sank into his stomach. From there it went straight into the infinite space of his soul. Enough guilt to fill the universe. He looked down at his crossword puzzle and tapped his foot in his slipper. In silence.
Hearing the shriek in my mother’s voice bothered me as a kid. Why did she have to be so mean? Now I know better. She was out of her mind with worry. How will we pay rent? How will we make it to the next day?
She went on long into the night. Her voice searing and desperate.
But nowadays, my mother only praises my father. About how smart he was. How talented. How handsome. The truth is they did love each other very much. You could always see that. They hugged each other. Spoke kindly most of the time. And they enjoyed each other’s company. It was the gambling that poisoned their relationship.
And so now I am the Fredo of the family. The snitch. I say things. I write things. You have to understand that this tradition of keeping your mouth shut is very old. It goes back centuries. It is the modern form of omertà, or code of silence. Omertà is a dialect form of the word umiltà, “humility,” in reference to the code of submission of individuals to the group interest. Being taciturn, you’re serving the needs of a greater good. Shut up, don’t upset your mother. Keep your mouth closed, show respect.
The roots of our family silence extend back hundreds of years. It begins in Sicily and Southern Italy in general. Since Sicily was a crossroads for empires, it was often occupied by foreign powers. The Greeks, Romans, Moors, Normans, Bourbons, and Nazis, to name a few. Average Sicilians couldn’t count on government, or society, to help them. This was only compounded when Garibaldi united Italy. Although Garibaldi recruited the South to fight the Bourbons in the North, he then abandoned the South. The South suffered from lack of infrastructure: schools, hospitals and so on. And the villages were under feudal rule; if you were a laborer, there was simply no way out. They were trapped, like mice in a cage. The only thing they could count on was family. Family was their refuge. When Vito Corleone says “Never let anyone outside the family know what you’re thinking,” he’s referring to the tradition of omertà.
Given the tumultuous nature of Sicily’s history, its notable writers – Leonard Sciascia, Luigi Pirandello, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Elio Vittorini, and Maria Messina – have described an overarching narrative of paura storica, or history of fear. Fear of the outsider. Fear of the unknown.
In writing about my family, I’ve committed a sin. I’ve broken a long held tradition of silence. It’s as if I’ve woken my father from the grave. Only I can see him looking at me disapprovingly. Behind curtains, behind doors. Walking the halls of our project apartment, alone. Like I unleashed fear of the outsider on our family.
And while my sister and other siblings might be slightly wounded by my breaking the silence, they are also happy for me. And proud of me. That’s another contradiction in the Southern Italian soul. The love for family is so strong, you can hate someone, or really be annoyed at them, maybe never even talk to them, but still love them, still want the best for them. This isn’t always true with every family, but it’s true with mine.
So I continue to tell our story, our history of fear.