Jennifer Mascia was 5 when the FBI came for her father. The feds couldn’t arrest him because they didn’t want to leave the little girl alone in the Irvine, California condo.
“Are they arresting my Daddy?” Jennifer Mascia asked when her mother sped home with a friend.
“No, honey,” the friend replied. “It’s not real. They’re making a movie.”
It’s an engaging start to Mascia’s tender, wry, utterly depressing and stranger-than-fiction memoir, “Never Tell Our Business to Strangers.” You’ll have to wait a while before learning the true nature of charming, lovable Johnny Mascia’s crimes, about his infidelities and addictions, his drug-dealing and his improbable romance with Eleanor, a Jewish schoolteacher and prison reformer who met him while he was behind bars and went on the lam with him after a parole violation.
After the arrest that opens the book, Johnny Mascia spent five months in jail in New York before being reunited with his family in Miami, where they stayed with Jennifer’s wacky, sexy Aunt Rita, his partner in the cocaine trade.
Several years later, living in California again, Jennifer was so terrified by a silly chain letter, warning that all her secrets would be revealed if she didn’t pass it on, that she confided in a friend about her father’s incarcerations and then asked her mother why he served time before she was born. Eleanor said it was a “simple case of mistaken identity.”
Hers was a mostly happy childhood, filled with dance recitals and drama classes. True, the family suffered drastic swings in fortune; there were extravagant shopping trips where they would “bust out” the credit cards; they made abrupt cross-country moves, stayed in cramped quarters with relatives and engaged in expletive-laced shouting matches. Eventually, they wound up on Staten Island and Jennifer went to Hunter College.
When Mascia was 22 and her father had lung cancer, she decided to look up his prison records online. Johnny Mascia wasn’t convicted of racketeering, as her mother had told her after abandoning the mistaken-identity story. He served almost 12 years for emptying a revolver into a stool pigeon named Joseph Vitale.
Johnny Mascia died of lung cancer in May 2001 at 64; Eleanor died at 71 of complications from a heart attack in January 2006.
Just weeks before she died, Eleanor Mascia told Jennifer that her father had committed another “four, maybe five” murders with impunity and Johnny had killed at least one of those men as a hit for a mafia family.
“He wasn’t a made guy, but he worked with made guys,” Eleanor explained.
After her parents’ deaths, Mascia started seriously reporting her own bizarre family story. Dr. B., a forensic psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, concluded that her father was probably a psychopath and her mother an enabler who craved excitement.
So, where does that leave Jennifer Mascia, now 32, and a news assistant at the New York Times?
In the end, what disturbs Mascia most isn’t that she’s the spawn of two dysfunctional beings who lied to her. It’s that she has lost the two people she cared about most in the world.
“And if we could choose our parents, I still would have chosen them,” she writes. And she really means it.
“Never Tell Our Business to Strangers” is from Villard (383 pages, $26.) To buy this book, click here.
(Robin D. Schatz is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the writer of this story: Robin D. Schatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.