An op-ed appeared in the NY Times earlier this month titled “When America Barred Italians.” Despite the title, the author was actually peddling her new book Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family and Forgiveness in Southern Italy, as well as a polemic favoring wide open borders.
I can’t say how true her family story is but author Helene Stapinski, whose background is in lifestyle journalism, informed readers that “[southern] Italian women were commonly the victims of institutionalized rape. There was a practice known as ‘prima notte’ that allowed the landowner to sleep with the virgin bride of his worker, which extended into the 20th Century.”
Reading these lines reminded me of the movie Braveheart set in 13th Century Scotland. Was Stapinski’s ancestral Italian village settled by 13th Century English landlords? Otherwise, methinks she confuses hyperbole for history.
Among her other books about her odd clan is Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History. One biography says this of Stapinski: “[her] Italian grandfather, brought his grandchildren birthday presents stolen from the city library and museum, where he worked as a security guard. She had a cousin who was a ‘mob consigliore (sic),’ her grandfather did time for murder and once threatened to kill her whole family.” Add these characters to her grandmother from Matera, who allegedly murdered someone, and you have quite an Italian crime family – perfect for media success.
Is Stapinski her maiden or married name? With her genes ethnic diversity can only be an improvement.
Whatever her DNA, Stapinski is on a roll. Not only did the Times print her version of Italian history but her new book, Murder in Matera, has piqued interest. Newsday’s Peter Gianotti wrote of Stapinski’s overactive imagination: “There is another Italian expression that applies to Murder in Matera: The best word is the one left unsaid.” Furthermore, the gritty-loving Calandra Institute, an Italian American academic center at City University of New York, will host Stapinski’s book presentation in October.
Many a paesan has hit the jackpot on stage, screen, and television peddling some form of our “dark side.” Italian Americans are the only ethnic group I know that treat their heritage as chopped liver. It’s purely commercial for us. But wait! We may have met our match in the Scots-Irish.
The book Hillbilly Elegy has been on the Times Bestseller list forever, a memoir by J.D. Vance of his miserable life growing up Scots-Irish. They may be called hillbillies or rednecks – inhabiting the interior of the country – but rarely do we classify them by ethnicity rather than geography. Did you ever view Beverly Hillbilly‘s Jed Clampett as Scots-Irish? Do you even know what Scots-Irish are? Briefly, they are Lowland (vs. Highland) Scots whom the English planted in Catholic northern Ireland (they were Presbyterians) who later immigrated to America settling along the colonial frontier where land was cheap or free.
Vance’s Elegy is a lament for the appalling culture of his Scots-Irish people. Think of Appalachian feuds, meth labs, multiple marriages, white welfare, kissing cousins, alcoholism, and those cheatin’ Country Music themes and you’ll know why they are often called “white trash.” But the ultimate mission of Vance’s book is a call for change. The difference between Vance and our Italian American writers is we don’t lament the dark side of our culture, we magnify and mythologize it. We are second to none in industry, creativity, family values, dignity, soberness, and self-reliance, but all we get are bottom-feeding raconteurs, uninspired academics, and type-cast celebrities to tell our story. The Scots-Irish have escaped ethnic defamation while we willingly wear that Scarlet Letter.
Vance’s Elegy might be the end of my Scots-Irish story, but it linked me to Born Fighting, a book by former U.S. Senator Jim Webb. Himself mostly Scots-Irish, Webb regales us with facts and figures that give his folk credit for 90% of what we consider American culture. From Daniel Boone to General Patton, from the Silent Majority to fourteen presidents, the Scots-Irish are the backbone of this nation, according to Webb.
The only Italian American who documented our 500 year contributions in this manner was Giovanni Schiavo in 1952. But, his spirit has been washed away by a tsunami of chopped liver. -JLM