The Godfather's Daughter

The recent release of the film Anna Karenina has reminded many of Tolstoy's wry comment, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Little has changed in the over a century since it was penned: Each troubled family does seem to have its own signature disturbances. So it is for the infamous family whose tale is told in The Godfather's Daughter.

Vincent ("the Chin") Gigante was the head of the Genovese mafia family, and with that status he also was the boss of the five clans that ran the underworld of New York -- the Lucchese, Genovese, Gambino, Bonanno and Columbo families. He was also husband to Olympia and father of five children, named according to the rosary to reflect all their names: Roseanne, Olympia, Sal, Andrew, Rita and Yolanda. But that was just one of his two families, since he had a second, ongoing marriage to another woman (also named Olympia), with whom he had three more children. Of course they were Catholic, where divorce is anathema and I suppose so is murder. But no matter, this is not a family that abides by the rules.

For decades, Rita's father not only led this double family life, he also pretended to have chronic schizophrenia, shuffling the streets of New York's Greenwich Village (before it was trendy) in the same worn-out bathrobe while muttering incoherently as he went from his hovel of an apartment on Sullivan Street, where he lived with his mother, to a "social club" nearby where he played cards with his friends and commanded a vast mafia empire.

We peer into this wildly dysfunctional family through the eyes of Rita Gigante, who gives us this memoir, the subtitle of which is "An Unlikely Story of Love, Healing and Redemption." Rita lived in New Jersey with her mother and siblings; the other family lived in Manhattan. The Chin would visit New Jersey infrequently or she would have Sunday visits with him and "Gram" in New York City. Rita did not meet her half-sibs until 1997, as an adult, when her father was finally brought to trial for extortion, racketeering, interstate conspiracy, violent crime, and first-degree murder, among other charges. He was sentenced to prison and died there from heart failure at the age of 77, after having admitted feigning mental illness for all those years.

But that was just Dad. Mother was a chronic depressive with frequent periods of withdrawal and on lots of psychiatric medications. Rita spent her youth under a cloud of depression, anxiety and panic attacks. She was a tomboy and given to violent outbursts herself, true to the powerful men in her family. Later she realized she is gay: Now, try to tell that to devout Catholic parents, never you mind that the father had violated about every major biblical injunction. How could he call another Catholic kettle black? Well, no one said the Gigante family code was built on logic or fairness. It was a family operating in an orbit removed from reason and amply endowed with the tools of deceit, pretense, and hypocrisy.

Yet Rita fashions, slowly, painfully, arduously, a life of her own. She is the beneficiary of lots of therapy, faith (not in the institution of the Church, but in Jesus, Mary and the Holy Spirit), and a community of healers who practice massage, yoga, reiki, herbal remedies, laying on of hands, spiritual counseling, and connection to other worlds (especially those who have left this earth, including her father). Rita finds the power of love: love with gay partners and love rediscovered with her mother and her family of origin, and finally -- as the book details -- reconciliation with her father before his death and all the more so after he passes.

Rita Gigante's life surely was different, probably close to unique. Hers has been a journey of a "painted bird," a bird of different colors, as Jerzy Kosinksi portrayed (in a novel so titled), that was an alien "other" to its own kin, an object of exclusion worthy of cruelty, yet who finds a way to evolve among other birds of a different feather in order to return to her family, where she can be both separate and the same. A Godfather's Daughter has us join her on her path and her passions. You want to root for her, since her heart is big enough to forgive, not forget, and because she is a person who can find what bit of goodness exists, even in the most evil of men and the most troubled of families.

Dr. Sederer's book for families who have a member with a mental illness, The Family Guide to Mental Health Care, will be published by WW Norton in the spring of 2013.

The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.

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