Helene Stapinski is US writer, journalist, wife and mother. She comes from Jersey City, which is well described in her Five-Finger Discount – an amazing autobiographical book with family portrait painted in black and white tells a story story of a swindler man who happened to be the grandfather of the author.
Michiko Kakutani, from New York Times, wrote about Five-Finger Discount “By turns hilarious and Alarming, uproarious and depressing, [Stapinki’s] book reads on the surface like something by Damon Runyon and Elmore Leonard, with a dark undertow of real-life pain and disillusion”.
What does the word “criminality” mean to you?
I think the word “criminality” is generally used in describing a certain group that is prone to commit crimes. It can often be used in terms of racial discrimination. While researching my new book, The Concubine of Basilicata, I studied the attitude of people toward Italians in America in the 1800s and early 1900s, around the time my family emigrated. I was shocked to see how discriminated against Italians were – particularly Southern Italians – for their “criminality.” I studied the work of Caesar Lombroso, a doctor at that time who claimed that Southern Italians were more prone to crime than other immigrants to America. It was really very disturbing to see the lens through which people viewed Italians at that time. It was such a popular impression that immigration laws were reformed in the 1920s, more or less stopping the flow of Italian immigrants to America. That attitude survives today with the idea of the Italian Mafia, but it’s faded a bit with the influx of groups like the Chinese Mafia and the Russian Mafia. I think the image of Italians as all “being in the Mafia” has really lost traction in the United States. After all, there are millions and millions of hard-working Italian families who never had anything to do with the Mafia or with crime. Unfortunately, my family was not one of them! The research I did on Italians at the turn of the century shed light on the situation in America right now regarding Mexican Americans and Middle Eastern refugees. You can’t lump together whole groups of people and call them “bad.” It’s just ridiculous. Donald Trump built his campaign on a fear of immigrants, calling Mexicans criminals and rapists and calling for a ban on Muslim refugees. I think the things Trump has said made him popular among the less educated, more racist people in America. But I think – and hope – that his racism will be his downfall. I have to hope (and pray!) that Americans are smarter than all that.
How was it to write a criminal story about your family, and why exactly do you feel the urge to relate to it?
It wasn’t easy to dredge up all those bad memories and negative history. But I realized – as a writer – that this was my story to tell. It was my family, for better or worse, and those stories were my inheritance. Some people are left polished silver and fine linens. But all I had were these stories. When I was in graduate school at Columbia University getting my MFA in creative writing, I had no interest in writing these stories, but they kept bubbling up during homework exercises. Every time I wrote one of them (many of them are chapters in Five-Finger), my professors were thrilled and said, “What great material you have!” It wasn’t until about two years out of graduate school that I started to realize they were right. It WAS great material And as a writer, you have to work with the material you’re given. And so I did. Also, after I started writing the book, it really turned into a form of therapy for me. I hadn’t realized what a toll all those events had had on my psyche growing up. But when I wrote the book, I was able to work through it all. For instance, I’m very distrustful of people when I first meet them, and I think part of that comes from growing up in a place like I did. It takes a lot for me to make a new friend, to trust other people. I think that comes from my background.
Jersey city was a “place where everything can happen”. In this place of possibilities for migrants from all around the world, something went wrong and some of them have chosen crime, mafia and swindle. For example Richard Kuklinski, the most famous hitman from mafia, was born and grew up in Jersey City. What was in your opinion the leitmotif of crime in this city, what was its’ background?
Jersey City was a city of immigrants and I think much of the culture was transferred over from the cultures where people came from. For instance, the political bosses in Jersey City were mostly Irish, and the structure of the system – based on patronage – came directly from the counties where these people came from in Ireland. They carried it right over with them to America. It was planted here on new soil and developed a character of its own. I think the idea of being in a place where “anything is possible” (America) gave the politicians the freedom to take that political corruption to new levels. Sort of a super corruption based on the American drive for success. So in most American cities, you had these “boss” systems – not just in Jersey City but in places like New York and Chicago. In Jersey City, the population wasn’t very large, and so I think that feeling of taking what you can and running with it trickled down to all the people who lived there. If the mayor was stealing, why shouldn’t you? It was sort of your birth rite. And this way of thinking still exists in some places in Jersey City. One of my cousins was arrested a few years ago for taking an illegal bribe. Everyone else was doing it. So why shouldn’t he? I think that when the leaders are corrupt, it makes it okay for everyone to be corrupt. And that was the culture of Jersey City.
The use of humor in your book is abundant. Why have you chosen this style for the topic of your book?
Everyone in Jersey City has a really good sense of humor because without it, I don’t think they would survive. Many of the people I grew up with are hilarious. When I was in graduate school, I met this fellow writer who was so funny, we bonded right away. It turns out he grew up in Jersey City, too! It was a very tough place to grow up, and I think being able to laugh about things helped people get by. Many of the funniest people come from harsh backgrounds. I think laughter is a way of survival. Also, I didn’t choose my voice. It simply is my voice. So if it’s funny, it’s not because I’m choosing to be funny, but simply the way I speak and relate to people. I recently reread the book and actually thought it was more sad than funny. Though it did make me laugh a couple times.
While reading the book we find ourselves in a parallel universe. You’re telling us about your family, and the consequences of your grandfather behavior. We can understand the feelings of every character, but how did it really feel to live with an outlaw?
It was incredibly nerve-racking and frightening. I was very young at the time, so I think I internalized a lot of the fear and got off easy. My sister and brother were older than I was and I think they had it much worse than I did. Right now, Five-Finger is being made into a documentary film for publictelevision and in the film, the director interviews my brother and sister. They describe what it was like after my grandfather got out of jail after trying to shoot us. He used to stand across the street from our apartment and look up at our window. He was supposed to have gotten another gun. And my brother and sister, in the film, talk about looking out through the slats of the blinds to check if he was out there every night and day. When I saw the interview, I started crying because I had never heard that part of the story or really understood their fear, which was much greater than mine, since I was so young. I present it in the book from the perspective of a five-year-old, only partially understanding what was going down. But for them, I think the experience was much more terrifying. I think it still affects us psychologically. And we’re a close-knit family because of it.
How was your family able to go forward? Have they ever become a victim of public shame and have they ever felt the burdain of the guilt left by your grandfather?
I think by staying close to one another, it helped us overcome a lot. My mother was – and still is – a great mother. She’s a good, moral person and instilled that in us. My father was a pretty good father, too, but my mother gets the prize for amazing parenting. For years she was made fun of because she was “Beansie’s daughter.” I don’t think that carried over to us necessarily, but after I wrote the book and told these stories publicly, my family had to deal with the outcome and backlash. It wasn’t so much the burden of guilt or guilt by association with Beansie or the criminals in my family, but it was because of the things I wrote about Jersey City. Calling it ugly and corrupt was easy for me, since I had moved to Brooklyn! But my brother still lived in Jersey City when the book came out and my sister still works there now. So they have had to battle people over the years, people from Jersey City who hate me and my book. I feel very guilty about that. It wasn’t something that occurred to me as I was writing it. Maybe if it had seen that coming, I wouldn’t have written it. But my brother and sister are tough. And they’re also proud of me. They tell people to get lost and to write their own damn book if they don’t like it. Strangely enough, many people who complain about my book have never actually read it. I think they have heard that it badmouths Jersey City and that makes them angry. But I think I present a very loving, rounded portrait of my family and the place, even though there’s certainly some negative information. If they give the book a chance, they usually wind up relating to it and liking it. I certainly have many more fans than detractors, but unfortunately, my family has had to deal with my detractors more than I have.
You are half polish and half italian, and both of your families have stories related to crime. For a writer is a gold mine because you can describe and report as a journalist can do. While writing how did you approach the subject of crime inside your own family?
I had to interview so many family members for this book. Most of the stories came from my mother and brother and sister, but I also spoke to cousins and uncles and aunts and politicians and historians and anyone who was willing to talk to me. I went to the library practically every day and looked up newspaper stories about the crimes my family committed. I also found police records on some of the crimes. I found court records on some of the more recent crimes. So it was really a research project, not just pulling things out of my memory. If I hadn’t been trained as a reporter, I never would have been able to write the book. I tell the story in memoir form, but it is truly a reported piece of writing.
Your next book will be a redemption story about a woman accused of being a killer thatthanks to your research has been upgraded. Can you give us any plot hints?
I don’t want to give anything away! But I came to Basilicata ten years ago to research a murder that my great great grandmother and great great grandfather had allegedly committed before fleeing to America in 1892 with their sons. With Imma’s help I finally found the murder file last summer. It was completely different than what I expected and happened 20 years earlier than I had thought, in 1872. It turns out Vita Gallitelli, my great great grandmother, had nothing to do with killing the man. And let’s just say my great great grandfather wasn’t who I thought he was! And the vistim wasn’t who I thought he was either. I can’t say much more without ruining the surprise ending. In the book, I not only describe what happened, but try and describe – with Professor Angelo Tataranno’s help – what it was like to live in Bernalda in the 1800s, how difficult life was. I take you with me in the story as I search for the crime in the present day, but as I find little bits of information, I recreate what happened with details of what life was like then. And I keep going right up until Vita arrives in America. I take you through Naples and the experience of leaving Italy. And as Vita is leaving, so am I, heading back to America. Researching the book, I truly fell in love with Basilicata, with its beauty and culture and food, and with its people. And I think that comes through in the story. It’s a very special place on earth and holds a very special place in my heart. I keep telling my husband we should buy a house and retire to Basilicata!