There comes a time in every person’s life where we discover that our parents are not quite the people we thought they were. In Never Tell Our Business to Strangers, Jennifer Mascia relates a rather extreme example of this, as she writes the thrilling account of her life as the daughter of a man she discovers is in the Mafia.
Never Tell Our Business to Strangers is told chronologically, and spans nearly twenty-five years of Mascia’s life. Throughout the book, her narrative moves effortlessly between the voice of an innocent child and an incredulous daughter who has discovered her family’s deepest secrets. Mascia is an only child, raised by her Italian father, Johnny, and her Jewish mother, Eleanor, who are very close. The author dreamily recalls events in her childhood as if they were fairy tales. In 1983, when the author is five, the FBI arrives at her home to arrest her father. Assuming Mascia is too young to remember, she is kept out of the loop. “It’s not real,” a family friend tells her as her father is led away in handcuffs. “They’re making a movie.” Johnny is allowed to return home shortly after the arrest, and Mascia only has vague memories of her father’s absence.
Despite blips of suspicion, Mascia grows up blissfully unaware that her family is hiding something from her. She goes to an expensive Catholic school in southern California, takes dance lessons, and adores her parents—especially her joyous, doting father. Mascia and Johnny bond over silly impressions at the dinner table, like the wisecracking Bruce Springboard, inspired by Bruce Springsteen. In their free time, Mascia and Eleanor go on impulsive, expensive shopping trips. “In addition to Williams-Sonoma, we visited the bedding departments of Saks, Neiman Marcus, and Robinson’s, and my patience was rewarded with goose down pillows and Laura Ashley comforters,” the author recalls. The shopping trips are illustrated in exhausting detail, as the author rattles off pages of brand-name clothing, makeup, fragrances and kitchen appliances that she and her mother purchased.
Despite her joyful upbringing, Mascia remembers strange, unexplained events, like the time her family suddenly packed up their home in California, relocated to New York, and sent Mascia to live in Miami with her glamorous aunt for a month. Around this time, Johnny is arrested again and sent to a place Eleanor calls “the facility.” At “the facility,” Johnny can only speak to Eleanor and Mascia through a wall of grimy glass. As the author becomes more curious about her father’s whereabouts, she reaches out to her mother, who explains that her father should not be in jail, and that he is the victim of mistaken identity. “He was arrested because of a ticket,” her mother explains. But possibly the most suspicious thing of all is that Eleanor insists their family’s business must be kept a secret.
Never Tell Our Business to Strangers is packed with nearly 400 pages of small details of the Mascia family’s whereabouts, relationships and habits throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. I don’t want to ruin the book too much for potential readers, because the story unfolds so well as a mystery. Mascia’s fierce, unconditional love for her parents combined with the slow realization that she is one of the central characters in an elaborate crime and murder ring is told with decades of stored-up passion and fear. From the additional name, “Cassese,” that is mysteriously added to Mascia’s own last name, to an accidental glimpse of Mascia’s Aunt Rita smoking a strange-looking cigarette, each small, seemingly harmless moment builds into an enormous tidal wave of vital information. The author’s calm, delicate way of piecing together her family’s life may seem tedious at first, but each detail soon reveals itself to be an incredibly important addition to the story. As Mascia and the reader work to uncover the secrets of her father’s tumultuous past together, the book transforms from a straightforward narrative to a chilling, heart-wrenching mystery.
Although the story of Johnny’s double life is captivating, what I found even more fascinating is the author’s psychological evaluation of her parents and their relationship. Mascia, who in her adult years is a news assistant at the New York Times, works like a detective to discover everything there is to know about her father’s past. She meets with a forensic psychologist, who, to Mascia’s dismay, suspects her father is a psychopath. In the book, Mascia expresses her own rationalization for her father’s wrongdoings. Mascia suggests that although her father had committed horrible crimes in his lifetime, he also had the capacity to be a kind and loving father to her. “I had a childhood filled with love, so now I can give my children the same thing,” Mascia writes. Although she is heartbroken that her own family was dishonest with her, she argues that an upbringing devoid of love would have been far more terrible.
While reading, I felt that the serious implications of Johnny Mascia’s crimes never fully sink in for the author. Instead, she seems to find the unearthed secrets dramatic and exciting, as if she were not connected to the events at all. Although I was captivated by her story, I couldn’t help but wonder why Mascia, an aspiring journalist, didn’t take her mother’s advice to “never tell our business to strangers,” to heart. And in the book, rather than addressing the severe emotional turmoil and feelings of guilt she must have experienced upon discovering her father’s murderous past, she dismisses his crimes and excuses him. Whether she was trying to create a happy ending and some closure for her book, isn’t being entirely honest with her readers, or really has come to peace with her father’s crimes, is impossible to tell.
Through self-reflection, Mascia acknowledges that, throughout her childhood, she was given enough stability to be happy and carefree. By hiding the truth of her father’s life of crime, her parents had given her a gift: A new life of her own, to fulfill her dreams away from the dark shadow of her parents’ crime-filled existence. Never Tell Our Business to Strangers is a must-read for any individual who is coming to terms with a difficult upbringing filled with strange family secrets. If Jennifer Mascia can find a way to work through it, so can the rest of us.
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