A Wiseguy vs. A Goodfella: a mafia double feature

The True Story

Before Martin Scorsese’s beloved movie, there was just Nicholas Pileggi and his book about Henry Hill. The novel is written as if each chapter is a different interview-based article in the same series. The escapades of Henry and his friends, his fellow wiseguys, are told not exactly in chronological order and range from being a 12-year-old boy learning to park cars to being a grown man being told his best friends have been whacked by his other best friends. It’s not at all a glamorous story despite the girls and the cars and the clubs that are involved. It tackles domestic abuse and substance abuse, the way people get lost in gambling and the realities of being a mafia guy’s girl back in the 60s and 70s.

I really appreciated that this was someone’s life being told by a journalist rather than a true crime writer because I feel that journalists really know how to tell these kinds of stories and which details matter most. Being able to get the perspectives from not just Henry but from his wife, his girlfriend, and – towards the end – the officers that brought down the whole operation just rounds out the story so wonderfully. Getting all sides helps the reality of the situations take centre stage instead of it just being a “let’s rely on one point of view”. Karen’s interview moments were especially eye opening as she tells the truth about what it’s like to be a wife in the mob, to be told everyone will take care of you but how that really only happens in the movies. Honestly the way this book is written reminded me of how the 2016 documentary about Amanda Knox was filmed. Mafia stories these days are all about the money and the rules and the romance, but the reality of organised crime is so much darker and upsetting. I appreciated reading this book before seeing the film for the first time.

The Film

Right off the bat I noticed that things were changed. Other than Henry and his family, everyone else had different last names than in the book – which to me mostly just raises the question of what kind of permissions are needed to make a film like Goodfellas when it’s about very real crime family that could very seriously lash out. The use of narration from throughout the film is utilized wonderfully as it switches between Henry and Karen setting the scene.

There were a few minor changes, of course, to the story but if I hadn’t finished the book only the day before, I would still have enjoyed the movie. It was well acted by Ray Liotta and of course Robert De Niro was wonderful (and looking his best, might I say). Being a 90s kid to my core it was neat seeing Joe Pesci in this light, and he was great as the lunatic, Tommy. Having only really known who Pesci was from jokes on shows like Family Guy, I seriously enjoyed his cutthroat performance.

Was it the greatest movie ever the way people have told me it is? Not really, but I can clearly see why it is appreciated so much.

NON-FICTION REVIEW: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Murakami Haruki is best known for his quiet magical realism, and he brings that same careful hand to this non-fiction book of testimonies regarding one of the most horrifying acts of violence to strike Japan.

True crime fans may or may not know of the Japanese death cult known as Aum Shinrikyo that was responsibly for the horrifying serin gas attack on the Japanese subways back in March of 1995. It was a horrible event that could have been much worse had their plan gone exactly as they had planned. To most, 27 deaths from something like this doesn’t seem like much at all, but the hundreds of people who were injured and that are affected to this day is something that I don’t think many people – especially North Americans – truly comprehend.

Murakami Haruki does an amazing job with the care he put into interviewing the victims of the attack who agreed to step forward and be a part of this book. Their testimonies (while repetitive due to the similar nature of their routines) are so human and heartbreaking, especially when they speak of collegues and friends who died, of the PTSD they suffer, of the rage they feel on behalf of their family members. It is fascinating to read about so many people be so nonchalant about the event and then the contrast against those who are upset about what happened. It’s been three years now since Asahara Shoko (the founder and leader of Aum) was executed as per his death sentence, but it has been on a long time since 1995. I know that reparations are still owed to the victims even to this day. Their suffering continues on even though the source of that pain is finally gone from the world.

I think Underground is an important read to consumers of true crime. It is a very humanizing and humbling read that reminds you that these victims are real people who went through a very real and traumatizing event. It’s easy for us to look at the numbers and not think much of a domestic terrorism attack like this, especially when next to other death cult numbers (such as Jonestown at 909 deaths), but that doesn’t make the event itself any less significant.

I recommend to take this book slowly, reading a testimony or two at a time before setting the book down again, but I recommend it all the same.

REVIEW: Hunting Charles Manson

I’m going to make this a quick review for a few reasons. The first is that this is obviously non-fiction and about Charles Manson. The second is that I was not fond of this book at all and, if I’m being entirely honestly here, I ended up skimming most of it.

Having had something of an obsession with Manson for many, many years now, I have read countless books on the Summer of ’69 as well as books about what factors made Manson who he was. Earlier this year I reviewed an ARC for Nikki Meredith’s The Manson Women and Me, which I absolutely adored. This time, Lis Wiehl’s book Hunting Charles Manson: The Search For Justice in the Days of Helter Skelter is bland and includes many things that I question.

The first red flag for me was the author stating in the Author’s Note that she is a prosecutor and reporter who believes in a Christian brand of justice. It seems like an irrelevant thing to bring up in a book about a cult who was fairly against organized religion that didn’t centre around Charlie himself. Not only that but several times throughout the book, some of the profanity is censored out and some of it isn’t, causing me to question what facts have been twisted for the sake of the story and the author’s personal opinions.

Next up is that she doesn’t automatically use the names of the victims in the murders on Cielo Drive (aka. The Tate Murders), instead saving them for the following chapter when the “survivor” in the guest house in brought into the mix. It felt disrespectful to me and most people my age probably don’t know what the victims looked like (other than Sharon Tate) so only using descriptors felt like an odd choice. Not only that, but when Wiehl does go into the life of William Garretson, she focuses a lot on his drug habits and his friendship with the immigrant groundskeepers of the property. In other words, there’s a lot of irrelevant information here.

I’m not going to say any more because, quite frankly, I’m really disappointed. This time period that helped spark the Satanic Panic while also doing so much politically is fascinating to me, but this author does not do a good job of getting her points across, instead choosing to rehash the facts in a way that feels censored and manipulated. Not to mention that unless readers are truly familiar with the members of the Family – meaning both their names and their “Family names” – it can be confused to remember who is who.

The only decent thing about this book is that it got me working on my cross-referencing and fact-checking skills as I often found myself looking at other sources to make sure the information was accurate (which, based on my knowledge, not all of it was).

If you want a good read about the cult, I highly recommend you read Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, The Manson Women and Me by Nikki Meredith, and Manson by Jeff Guinn.

36576143Author: Lis Wiehl (with Caitlin Rother)
Published: June 5, 2018
Pages: 336
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
ISBN: 9780718092085

Synopsis: In the late summer of 1969, the nation was transfixed by a series of gruesome murders in the hills of Los Angeles. Newspapers and television programs detailed the brutal slayings of a beautiful actress–twenty six years old and eight months pregnant with her first child–as well as a hair stylist, an heiress, a businessman, and other victims. The City of Angels was plunged into a nightmare of fear and dread. In the weeks and months that followed, law enforcement faced intense pressure to solve crimes that seemed to have no connection.

Finally, after months of dead-ends, false leads, and near-misses, Charles Manson and members of his “family” were arrested. The bewildering trials that followed once again captured the nation and forever secured Manson as a byword for the evil that men do.

Drawing upon deep archival research and exclusive personal interviews–including unique access to Manson Family parole hearings–former federal prosecutor and Fox News legal analyst Lis Wiehl has written a propulsive, page-turning historical thriller of the crimes and manhunt that mesmerized the nation. And in the process, she reveals how the social and political context that gave rise to Manson is eerily similar to our own.

REVIEW: The Manson Women & Me

I received a free copy of the e-book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I finished this book a few days ago but it has taken me since then to really think about how to go about this review. It’s a bit of a sensitive topic, even now so just bear with me on this one. Also please note that while my review is free of triggers, links to various examples listed in this review may contain graphic and potentially triggering content. I would also warn that the book also contains unsettling content, so please be aware of the crime it is discussing before reading should that sort of thing be triggering to you.

Nikki Meredith’s book, The Manson Women & Me: Monsters, Morality, and Murder is as much an autobiography on the author as it is a true-crime depiction of the very real lives of Pat Krenwinckle and Leslie Van Houten while they were with Charles Manson as well as their lives in prison. Woven into the lives of these young women is the life story of Nikki Meredith, herself, as she faces a different kind of struggle between her own morality and finding herself in her Jewish heritage. It a true crime book while also given great insight into the psychology behind wanting to be loved and the psychology that goes into ignorance and racism (from ethnicity to religion).

When I saw this book on NetGalley, I was excited. Even more so when I was approved for it. Since high school I have been somewhat “obsessed” – for lack of a better word – with the psychology of the Manson family and Charles Manson himself. Susan Atkins was the only of the women who I really knew about so the chance to learn more about the other women involved intrigued me. However, this book was not at all what I was expecting.

I’m going to take a moment here and make a statement: I am not condoning nor will I ever condone the actions of the Manson family, especially in regards to the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969.

With that said, I was not expecting this novel to make me cry over Leslie and Pat. I was not expecting to feel their pain and grow physically sick at the though that these women are still in prison for a crime committed after months of manipulation when they were 19 and 23 respectively. The year is 2018 at the point and both of them are still behind bars.

Want to know who isn’t behind bars? OJ Simpson. Karla Homolka. The entirety of the Children of God cult (who openly bragged about years of child abuse, molestation, and full-out rape). Want to know who is allowed to go up for parole but isn’t even in the general population for fear he’ll be murdered? Canadian serial killer Paul Bernardo.

Through Nikki’s retellings of conversations she has had with these two very intelligent women over the course of over 20 years, she shows just how well the confused and brainwashed girls have grown into responsible adults (Leslie even has her Masters Degree and certifications in counselling). Leslie and Pat are in the general population of the prison and are fully functional in their everyday lives. There is no reason for either of them to still be condemned to rot behind bars for following orders they were brainwashed into believing were gospel.

To me their lives were no different then than any “normal” women to “in love” to see that she is being abused by a manipulative partner. It is truly heartbreaking.

Aside from that, I found the anecdotes of Nikki’s personal life to be humanizing in the way they connected to the lives of the women she has befriended. I found her pulls from other horrific crimes – from Abu Ghraib to the Moonie cult – to also be fascinating in determining how people react to different levels of crime. I have known who Charles Manson was for the majority of my life (as of this writing I am 23) but barely knew about Abu Ghraib or Jonestown in a real world context (everyone has seen parodies of the tortured prisoner photos or the phrase “Well so-and-so has drunk the Kool-Aid”). People are still furious about what happened to the Tate and LaBianca families, yet very few people even talk about the other aforementioned atrocities.

To cut myself off I will wrap up this review saying that this book is a very insightful and tastefully written profile on two women involved in one of the most famous crimes of the 20th century. Nikki Meredith is incredibly detailed in her research and her prose without being exploitative in any way or excusing the crimes of Leslie, Pat, Susan, Linda Tex, and Charlie. It is a modern day look at the crimes as written by someone with a clearly level head and as little bias as anyone who grew up in those days can have.

Nikki Meredith’s first complete book gets 5 / 5 stars for me.

Author: Nikki Meredith
Published:  March 27th 2018
Pages: 368
Publisher: Citadel Press
ISBN: 9780806538587

Synopsis: In the summer of 1969, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel carried out horrific acts of butchery on the orders of the charismatic cult leader Charles Manson. At their murder trial the following year, lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi described the two so-called Manson Women as “human monsters.” But to anyone who knew them growing up, they were bright, promising girls, seemingly incapable of such an unfathomable crime.

Award-winning journalist Nikki Meredith began visiting Van Houten and Krenwinkel in prison to discover how they had changed during their incarceration. The more Meredith got to know them, the more she was lured into a deeper dilemma: What compels “normal” people to do unspeakable things?

The author’s relationship with her subjects provides a chilling lens through which we gain insight into a particular kind of woman capable of a particular kind of brutality. Through their stories, Nikki Meredith takes readers on a dark journey into the very heart of evil.