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Review | In ‘The Godmother’ mafia women are just as terrifying as the men

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The term ‘mafia’ conjures up specific images: men in fancy suits and hats with guns. These associations mainly stem from popular culture, including ‘The Godfather’, ‘The Sopranos’ and, for the real fans, the Italian series ‘Gomorrah’. However, women are never the focus of these images and, as journalist Barbie Latza Nadeau explains in her new book, “the godmother”, they are rarely discussed by those who study the mafia. And yet, as Nadeau points out, these women exist and act within the various crime syndicates that the Italian government considers mafia, including the “one true mafia… the Cosa Nostra in Sicily.” The other major crime groups are the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria and the Neapolitan Camorra in Campania.

The character intended to bind Nadeau’s book together is Assunta “Pupetta” Maresca, who was 18 years old and six months pregnant in the summer of 1955, when she shot and killed the man who had ordered her husband’s murder. This act of revenge, of the type usually carried out by men, earned her “an icon status among the Neapolitan criminal elite,” Nadeau writes, “giving her the nickname Lady Camorra and her incomparable status as an original madrina – a godmother.” . Before Maresca’s death in 2021, Nadeau interviewed her, and she certainly makes for an interesting lead character. Maresca is well into her eighties and still feels completely at ease with the murder she committed, while also downplaying her agency within the Camorra.

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Another woman, named Nadeau Sophia, grew up in Castellammare di Stabia, which has a long history with the Camorra and was deemed so morally dilapidated by the church that in 2015 a local priest sprinkled holy water from a helicopter above the city to drive out the evil within. (It didn’t work.) Much of the city’s activities, according to Nadeau, involve money laundering and the sale of drugs and other contraband. To support herself, Sophia started taking drugs for a friend’s father and was eventually caught and sentenced to prison. Both Sophia and Maresca describe the hierarchical power that exists in prisons: the former had to work for other incarcerated women, while the latter was so respected that she and her infant son, who was born in prison, were allowed to live with her until he had a child. special treatment by guards and other imprisoned women.

Nadeau describes well the culture of normalized misogyny in Italy, as well as how “the Mafia and the malavita, ‘unfair lifestyle’ that it spawns, are just another facet of the culture.” The problem is, the tone of the book goes in all directions, from a kind of amazement by Mafia women girls to a celebration of anti-Mafia prosecutors for imprisoning them – sometimes on the same page. In her acceptance speech, Nadeau writes that she believes Italian organized crime has been romanticized by pop culture, “which has normalized a phenomenon that is ruining lives and local economies every day.” Her book, she continues, “is not intended to glorify such crime, even as it explores the stories of women who had no choice but to remain in crime families.”

But “the gauge” reads like an overcorrection, and Nadeau – who clearly loves her subjects – still seems invested in the dichotomy between the capital “B” Bad Mafia and capital “G”. Good anti-mafia police and prosecutors. This is especially strange because Nadeau admits several times that the various syndicates continue to operate successfully precisely because they are involved in the highest echelons of legitimate state power. The Italian state — which, Nadeau admits, does not support its struggling citizens — and the parallel state that includes the mafia don’t seem so separate. This makes it all the more disturbing that Nadeau relies far more on the opinions and speculations of those most interested in punishing Mafia women than on the testimonies of the women, which she often concludes to be full of lies and omissions anyway. .

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Confusingly, Nadeau stoops to the disdain for women she criticizes, often describing a woman’s physical appearance as if it were remarkable. For example, Antonietta Bagarella is described as “a once slender, dark-eyed beauty” who “surely should have known what she was getting into” when she married a high-ranking Cosa Nostra boss because she was raised by a mid-tier one. A few pages later, Bagarella has “faded into a dowdy Sicilian nonna.” Bagarella, who spent years in hiding with her fugitive husband, was brought in a few times by the police, but always managed to break out of prison, in part by playing the part of a weak woman. That she escaped seems to annoy Nadeau, who concludes that Bagarella may have been more involved than the police thought. Not that there is any clear evidence, just conjecture. Elsewhere, Nadeau states that Italy’s prisons are essentially “crime schools,” leaving this reader to wonder why, in that case, she is so invested in the mafiosa sent there. Likewise, she implies that women have no choice if they remain within the social circles of the mafia they were born into, but she also suggests that they are at fault for staying while they can turn to the state for help – then describes children are tortured to punish mothers who betray their families.

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The nuance is there to be collected in “The Godmother” if you go looking for it. But because Nadeau’s struggle with the complexity of her material is read more accidentally than intentionally, it can confuse readers with her sweeping conclusions and assumptions.

Ilana Masad is a critic and the author of “All My Mother’s Lovers.”

Murder, revenge and the bloody struggle of mafia women

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