SCOTT SIMON, Host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Jennifer Mascia is a news assistant at the New York Times. She grew up in Southern California, South Florida and Staten Island. One year she'd have to talk to her father through the thick Plexiglas of a prison visiting room. Another, she and her parents would go holiday shopping at the swankiest stores in a shopping mall.
As she learned later, they were on the lam.
She's written an extraordinary book about growing up with parents who both love and lie to you, and finally learning their grim secrets. The book is, "Never Tell Our Business to Strangers."
She joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
JENNIFER MASCIA: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: What did your father do?
MASCIA: He was a carpet cleaner.
SIMON: Anything else?
MASCIA: Yes. He was an associate of an early incarnation of the Gambino family. He had his own little drug dealing crew, and in Brooklyn he was revered for it.
SIMON: You were five when you saw your father arrested?
MASCIA: He had just taken me home from school, and when we got home there were people waiting for him. And they wanted to take him away right then, two men, but they couldn't because they would leave me unattended.
So my mother was working as a secretary for a commodities trader. Her boss drove her home. And when I saw her there, I asked her boss - who I knew very well, he was a friend of the family - I said, Jesse, are they arresting my daddy? And he said, No, honey, it's not real. They're making a movie.
SIMON: You moved around a lot.
SIMON: When did you begin to eventually learn about what was going on during those years?
MASCIA: Well, when my father was arrested, we were living under two names. Our last name was Cassese(ph), which was the last name of a friend of my father's. And my father was known as John in the house, but Frank outside the house. And I thought all daddies had two names. Like Bill and William or Richard and Dick, I thought John and Frank were derivatives of the same name.
When we moved back to New York, when I was 17 years old and surrounded by the people who knew my parents the best, I leveled with my mother and said, Please, tell me what he did. Because I know there's something you're not telling me. Everyone around me knows and I feel like a fool.
So she told me that my father had been in jail for 12 years before I was born, for racketeering. You know, the standard litany of RICO violations. But I came to find out that wasn't the case.
My father was diagnosed with cancer in 1999. About a year later, I read in the New York Post that a lot of records were migrating online. Some of those records were from the New York State Department of Corrections, and finally I was able to look up my father's crime. And it was not RICO violations or, you know, robbing houses, stealing cars. When I looked up his rap sheet there was only one charge on it, and it was murder.
SIMON: Yeah. Who'd he kill?
MASCIA: He killed an informant named Joe Vitale, aka Joe Fish, when he was 26. He had been running around the neighborhood committing petty crimes for about 10 years. He'd been in jail a couple of times for stealing a car. And he moved on to drug dealing.
And Joe Fish was addicted to heroin and informing on them to the cops. So he took him into Owl's Head Park in Brooklyn and shot him five times and stomped on his skull.
SIMON: There were some other - well, there was some other killings too, weren't there?
MASCIA: You know, when I confronted my mother with the criminal record when my father had lung cancer, she told me that - well, she told me the true story about how my parents met. She'd always told me they met through friends. It turns out that my mother was a teacher in East New York going around visiting prisons with a Quaker group.
And she met my father behind the glass. It was during the prison reform movement, so Attica was in the news. And my father, it turns out, had cleaned up his act behind bars and became something of a prison reformer.
SIMON: Or a reformed prisoner.
MASCIA: Yes. Well, he worked with the warden. He helped people craft legal briefs.
MASCIA: He taught himself. I mean, I actually went and found - some of his appeals were handwritten. You know, he sounded like a lawyer.
MASCIA: I mean, he really taught himself. He had to fight for himself. He tried to get out for so many years before he was paroled.
And, you know, my mother told me that when he got out of jail they got married and he was going to turn his life around, but he didn't. She thought he did, but to tell you the truth, she wasn't 100 percent disappointed when he went back to drug dealing.
The lifestyle - I mean, she was burned out as a teacher, to her, you know, defense. But the lifestyle. I mean, they went through so much money. And during the course of that drug dealing people crossed him. People didn't give him money he was owed, and he killed them.
SIMON: Why did your mother stay with your father?
MASCIA: Because he was Johnny.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MASCIA: That's what she would say. He was your father, like that explained everything. He was charismatic. He could be very loving and he told her everything. And for women who like to fix men, men who unburden their souls, it's like a match made in heaven. He really did open up to her to an unprecedented level and made her believe that he couldn't live without her, and I don't think he could.
So she profoundly loved him. She was also 43. She'd just had her first and only child and she wanted...
SIMON: That was you.
MASCIA: ...a family more than anything. She wanted a family because her first family, with her alcoholic father and chronically depressed mother, it was a household in turmoil. She wanted another chance.
SIMON: I do, having read and been deeply affected by your book, want to point out that you, the three of you, this trio - by whatever names you were - were a very close family.
MASCIA: We had dinner together every night. If my father wasn't there, it was strange. We told each other everything. We were our only counsel, our only confidants. The three of us were a unit. We seemed like fugitives even after we weren't.
SIMON: Well, in a sense, you still were though, 'cause you were sitting on a lot. You were...
MASCIA: Oh, yeah.
SIMON: I'm struck by when he got sick, the cancer that took his life rather quickly....
SIMON: ...I believe you told your father - and when you read it in the book, you have no doubt that you absolutely meant it - you said to your father: I wish it could be me instead of you.
MASCIA: It's funny. Because my father is not here - I can't question him about this - I never actually spoke with him about his crime of murder. My mother convinced me not to because he was sick.
MASCIA: I mean he was 11 months away from dying when I found his criminal record, so actually I could have. But I didn't because after he was facing his death, I did not want to scare him. I didn't want to make him think of what could possibly be waiting for him, as death was so close. I would not be the one to do that to him.
So I never spoke about it with him, and because of that it's like there are two John Mascias - the one I knew, the one who sang songs to me and snuck me candy under my pillow - he's preserved in amber; and this new John Mascia, this John Mascia of FBI files and criminal records and court transcripts, is totally different and never the twain shall meet. It's a very strange phenomenon to have like two fathers.
SIMON: I don't want your life and your parents to sound even vaguely glamorous.
MASCIA: Yes, I agree.
SIMON: And, you know, because I despair of any young person thinking you can kill half a dozen people in cold blood, but as long as you love your wife and daughter, it's okay.
MASCIA: Yes. I don't want anyone thinking this is a sexy Mob story. This is a story about a man who couldn't shake the criminal sphere, who'd put crime above his family on a number of occasions. He lost his first family because he went to jail. He had two children and his wife - his very young wife was pregnant with a third when he went to jail for 12 years, when he went to Sing Sing.
And he lost quite a bit because of his flaws. And I don't want anyone thinking that this is a way to live. No one should put anything above their family.
SIMON: Jennifer - may I call you Jennifer?
MASCIA: You may.
SIMON: Thanks so much.
MASCIA: Thank you, and I really appreciate that you really got the book, that you were moved by it. Thank you.
SIMON: Jennifer Mascia, her new book, "Never Tell Our Business to Strangers."
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