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Reading: Family Secrets

The undercover agents come off as more sociopathic and less honorable than the gangsters whose operations they are infiltrating.



In 1968, Peter Maas's The Valachi Papers was published, offering the first inside account of life in the Mafia as related by the first actual member of the Mafia to break the code of omerta and turn government informant. As such, the book was a literary landmark--it created a new genre. In the years that followed, other gangsters who became federally protected witnesses would pick up extra bucks by plying the literary trade: among the books, My Life in the Mafia by Vincent Teresa; The Last Mafioso, the story of James "the Weasel" Fratianno as related by Ovid Demaris; and the best work of the genre, Wiseguy, the story of Lucchese family associate Henry Hill as told by Nicholas Pileggi.

All these books are, in effect, seconds. The mafioso turns informant and sells his story, first of all, to the government in order to save himself from either an untimely death at the hands of his cronies or a long prison stretch. After that matter has been cleared up, he is free to sell his story again, this time for big bucks forked over by a New York publisher. For the mafioso it is just another racket, another hustle, and we don't think less of him for it. Some of the gangsters, particularly Teresa and Hill, we even admire in a perverted kind of way, for they bring to their tales an ironic intelligence, a Machiavellian insight into human affairs, and a wicked sense of humor.

But in the last few years a disturbing new Mafia-insider subgenre has developed--books written by or with the cooperation of law-enforcement agents who have infiltrated Mafia families. What is unnerving, even downright creepy, about these books--of which there are so far two--is that these law-enforcement agents come off, in their own ways, as more sociopathic and psychologically scary and, in some instances, less honorable than the gangsters to whom they are buddying up. It is not what we expect of our law-enforcement agents.

Published in 1987, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia by Joseph D. Pistone (with the assistance of Richard Woodley) details FBI agent Pistone's infiltration of a crew within New York's Bonnano crime family. Pistone, who posed as a jewel thief, eventually wound up close to Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano, a high-ranking Bonnano family capo, as well as to Benjamin "Lefty Guns" Ruggiero, a family soldier. While undercover, Pistone had to be careful to avoid certain things--using drugs, committing any serious violence, and getting involved with any woman hanging around mob guys. "Regardless of morality," he writes, "that kind of thing will come back to haunt you when you testify in court against these guys." Truer words were never spoken, as the undercover agent who is the subject of the second book, Joan Barthel's Love or Honor, was to learn.

To be sure, what Pistone and other undercover agents subject themselves to requires an incredible amount of courage, day by day, minute by minute. He writes, "In the beginning of my undercover role as Donnie Brasco, I had occasional fears about the dangers of being an agent. Now I also had fears about the dangers of being a badguy. As things had now developed into family warfare, I could get whacked for being either an agent or a badguy."

He was so deeply under cover that FBI surveillance agents studying photographs taken of gangsters as they emerged from Little Italy social clubs were stymied in their efforts to identify him. By the time his superiors decided it was time to pull him out, he moaned, "I was so close to getting made and becoming a real wiseguy that I could taste it . . . [Sonny] needed as a close ally a soldier he could trust and who could face other wiseguys as an equal." Indeed, at one point Sonny, who has been presented throughout the book as a decent, intelligent, fun-loving guy--apart from his criminal activities, that is--tells Pistone, "'Donnie, I'm gonna put you up for membership when the Old Man gets out . . . I love you like a brother. I can't trust anybody else in this crew. I know they're telling stories. You I got faith in. I want you to make sure that if I get whacked or anything, my kids and my wife get what's coming to them from my partners. You understand? I gotta trust you to take care of my kids. They're supposed to get a G-note a week.'

"'You can trust me, bro.'"

Ouch! What painful, haunting words. No more depressing exchange takes place in any nonfiction Mafia book I have read. After Pistone surfaces and other FBI agents have informed Sonny of "Donnie's" true identity, Pistone writes: "I am not inclined toward soul-searching [a trait he shares with the gangsters who write memoirs], and during this period I didn't have time to brood, anyway. I had some uncomfortable feelings because I felt close to Sonny Black. I felt a kind of kinship with him. But I didn't feel any guilt of betrayal, because I'd always maintained in my own mind and heart the separation of our worlds. In a sense we were both just doing our jobs. . . .

"Sonny was good at what he did. He wasn't a phony. He didn't throw his weight around. He was a stand-up guy. For reasons that are hard to explain, I liked him a lot. But I didn't dwell on the fact that I was going to put him in the can, or that he was going to get killed because of me. That's the business."

As it turned out, Sonny did get killed because of Pistone. Before leaving for a meeting with bosses in New Jersey, he turned over all his jewelry and cash and the keys to his apartment to the bartender of his neighborhood tavern. He knew he wasn't coming back. Realizing he was defeated, he nonetheless refused to deal with the FBI, nor did he run. He just went to the meeting--and a year later his badly decomposed body was found in a body bag in a Staten Island creek, his hands chopped off. Others closely tied to Pistone also got killed. And an open-ended $500,000 contract was put out on Pistone himself--highly unusual since American mafiosi generally steer clear of going after law-enforcement agents, figuring they're just doing their job. They must have decided that Pistone had crossed some line they had a gentleman's agreement about.

After Sonny disappeared, his girlfriend sought out the surfaced Pistone. "She was very sad, and she cried a little. 'Donnie, I always knew that you weren't cut out for that world because you carried yourself different, you had an air of intelligence, you know? I knew that you were much more than just a thief. You were a good friend to Sonny and me. Sonny didn't have any ill feelings toward you.'

"'I'm glad to hear that.'

"She said he had told her about the agents coming to talk to him, and he didn't believe what they told him--there was no way I could be an agent, because of the things we had done together, the conversations we'd had, the feelings we'd had. 'You know what he said? He told me, "I really loved that kid." He was really broken up when he found out that you were an agent, but he said that wouldn't change the way he felt because of the type of guy you were. You did your job and you did it right.'

"'I always liked Sonny,' I said. 'That hasn't changed with me, either.'"

Which, no doubt, Sonny would have been pleased to hear.

Joan Barthel's Love or Honor, just published, is even more disturbing--and problematic. Its subtitle is "The True Story of an Undercover Cop Who Fell in Love With a Mafia Boss's Daughter"--a no-no, as Pistone could have told the cop. Barthel, the author of two previous best-selling crime books, A Death in Canaan and A Death in California, tells the tale of Chris Anastos, a New York City police officer of Greek ancestry assigned to infiltrate a Greek gang in Queens. Through connections made in that community, he winds up as an associate of a Long Island capo in either the Lucchese or the Colombo crime family. I say "either" because Barthel, unlike Pistone, changes names, probably for sound legal reasons--which become clearer as her depressing tale unfolds. But changing names also makes it more difficult for the reader to understand just what Anastos accomplished. For though the book hints that his undercover work contributed to both the Pizza Connection heroin-conspiracy case and a case on John Gotti, his involvement in either case is not spelled out.

Anastos, like Pistone, finds himself wheeling and dealing in the New York underworld, and like most gangsters he discovers that he enjoys the manic activity, bouncing around from club to club. Like Pistone, he too is married, but his marriage fails to survive his years under cover--fails to survive his involvement with the capo's daughter.

When he first meets the woman, Marty, he tells himself that he will date her in order to get closer to her father. But Marty, elegant and graceful, has little to do with her father's world. She studied art in college, including a year abroad in Paris, and works in the graphics department of a Manhattan advertising agency. A young, independent professional woman, she lives in her own apartment in Manhattan, prefers the Metropolitan Museum of Art to nightclubs, and enjoys talking about history, art, and movies: "Most wiseguys didn't know anything about [history, art, movies], and didn't want to know. Chris felt that if you hung around wiseguys for any appreciable length of time, you could lower your IQ by fifty points, easily."

Chris starts dating Marty regularly, and soon is sleeping with her as well as joining her for Sunday dinners at her parents' Long Island mansion. Soon after, her capo father, a taciturn man, has Chris chauffeuring him as he makes the rounds of Little Italy social clubs and his businesses, which include pizzerias staffed by Zips--young imported Sicilian mafiosi. Marty's mother takes a genuine liking to Chris, and as he gets more deeply involved with Marty, he begins to feel increasingly alienated from his wife, whom he hardly sees. One New Year's Eve he finds himself doing a delicate balancing act: he's with his wife at the stroke of midnight, as he had promised her, at a party in Westchester, then races into Manhattan to join Marty at a nightclub, as he had promised her. As for Marty, she is in love with him and tells him, much as Sonny's girlfriend told Donnie Brasco, that she doesn't think he really fits into her father's world, he seems too sensitive, too intelligent for that. (Both Pistone and Anastos were able, in a relatively short time, to get closer to ranking crime-family bosses than made guys who'd been around for years. The reason is simple. Both Pistone and Anastos were smarter, sharper, than the average hood, and as such inspired confidence in bosses who, if nothing else, recognized and welcomed intelligence when it reared its head.)

For his part, Anastos finds himself growing so involved with Marty that instead of using her to get at her father, he winds up protecting her father for Marty's sake. One Sunday at her parents' house he realizes that a garment-district businessman at dinner is an informant trying to set Marty's father up for a loan-sharking charge. So he crashes the conversation, steering it off in other directions whenever it is about to enter incriminating territory--essentially he obstructs justice.

Over time, both Marty and her mother start hinting at marriage. Even though he has divorced his wife, Anastos realizes the impossibility, the absurdity, of this. Finally, before surfacing, he says good-bye, though without ever letting Marty know that she won't be seeing him again. The dutiful girlfriend, she drives him to the airport for a trip to Los Angeles. "He wanted to cheer her up. He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her, tell her everything would be all right. But he had lied long enough. So he just held her face between his hands and said what he'd always found so difficult to say. He told her the truth.

"'I love you,' he said."

Famous last words. But of course they weren't the truth--for she, poor innocent, did not know just who that "I" was.

In what could be a bad Freudian joke, Anastos develops testicular cancer in the course of his undercover work--and it's almost always when he's in bed with the capo's daughter that he becomes aware of the painful lump developing in his groin. To her credit, Barthel never spells out psychosomatic illness or even suggests that's what his testicular cancer is. But this illness runs like a dark inevitable vein through the book.

One other thing disturbed me about these books. Pistone writes that the FBI did not try to turn Sonny into an informant--that the opportunity was always there if he so chose, but to suggest it to him would have been an insult. But I wondered. I wondered whether a part of Pistone was calculating that perhaps there was only one book in this story, that the publishing world wasn't big enough for the two of them. As people on both sides of the fence--mafiosi turned federally protected witnesses as well as undercover law-enforcement agents--start crowding the publishing field, it's inevitable there'll be some conflicts of interest. The question is, will fewer manuscripts piling up on agents' desks mean more bodies piling up on the streets of Brooklyn?

Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia by Joseph D. Pistone with Richard Woodley, New American Library Books, $18.95, paperback $4.95.

Love or Honor: The True Story of an Undercover Cop Who Fell in Love With a Mafia Boss's Daughter by Joan Barthel, William Morrow and Company, $17.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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