The Boston Phoenix
October 14 - 21, 1999


No place like home

Michael Patrick MacDonald talks about his new book, All Souls, and changing times in South Boston

by Sarah McNaught

When people talk about a new Southie, they cite the South Boston Waterfront, they talk about a housing revival, they tick off the names of the cool coffee shops and boutiques cropping up in town. The real sign that Southie is changing, however, isn't that you can order a decaf vanilla latte. It's that you can buy a copy of Michael Patrick MacDonald's All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, published last month by Beacon Press.

All Souls is MacDonald's painful memoir of growing up in the Old Colony Housing Development in the 1970s. Three of his eight siblings died violently: one was killed during a botched attempt to rob a Brinks truck, one hanged himself while in custody after being arrested for robbing a jewelry store, and a third was a schizophrenic who committed suicide. A fourth sibling died of pneumonia the day after being turned away for treatment in an emergency room. A fifth, his only sister, sustained permanent brain damage after being thrown off a roof during an argument over drugs.

In All Souls, MacDonald describes a South Boston we're not used to hearing about: a neighborhood devastated by drugs, organized crime, and extreme poverty. A neighborhood unrecognizable if you're used to thinking about Southie as a tight-knit working-class enclave ruled by strong family values. Not surprisingly, the book has generated quite a controversy. Beacon Press postponed several of MacDonald's readings after he was threatened. At one reading, an angry Southie booster stormed the stage and screamed at MacDonald. Through Beacon, a threat was made to one of his brothers, who lives in Colorado.

The Phoenix sat down to talk with MacDonald about the local bestseller, the reaction it's generating, and, of course, South Boston.

Q: You've had some good responses and some bad responses to the book. Tell me about some of the good ones.

A: People send me letters and they want to have coffee and talk about, you know, their alcoholic husband or their son who's addicted to heroin. Which is a good sign, because it means that people are dealing with the truth in their lives and looking at it, and they don't feel alone because someone else is telling the truth about that stuff.

Q: How about the bad?

A: I've had people telling me "there's going to be trouble around here" type of stuff. Indirect threats, kind of warning me that this rumor's going around and that rumor's going around and "you wrote about this one and that one." Also, one person showed up at a reading, took the stage, and started screaming. That felt threatening, but there was no direct threat involved.

A guy who came to a reading told me that he goes to the L Street Gym to work out and he loved the book, but he had to take the book jacket off because he didn't want anyone to see he was reading it because he was attacked at L Street by a cop. [Laughs]

Q: Really?

A: A cop screamed at him, "You're reading that fucking book! Get that fucking book out of here! Don't you read that book in this town again." It was a local Boston police officer. So I imagine that some police are [unhappy with the book], but I'm friends with a lot of police officers who really appreciated it.

Q: You changed the names of some of the people you wrote about, but in some cases you pulled no punches. Like with Whitey Bulger.

A: I changed the names of people who were involved in anything criminal. I have no interest in this book leading to the prosecution of my neighbors, who are poor and were often led into situations of illegal activities. As far as the big gangsters go -- Whitey Bulger, I'm not going to change his name, that's public record. And a lot of it isn't really, you know, anything that I personally witnessed. It's just part of the neighborhood story. It's part of the stories from my family and their relationships with some of those people, so it's all kind of secondary. It's not stuff that I could be pulled in to testify about.

Q: Still, it's Whitey Bulger. Did you ever draw back for a moment and think, it may not be good, it may not be in my best interests to tell this story?

A: I wasn't scared of neighbors, I wasn't scared of organized crime -- I was scared of my mother.

Q: How so?

A: Some of the stories in this book did upset my mother at first, but she's come to terms with the value of truth-telling. For example, telling the story about my mother when my brother Frankie died, that she took cocaine at his funeral, at the wake that happened afterward. I mean, I don't know if that's a cultural thing or what, but some people might think that's weird. [Laughs] She was in so much pain that she partook in what was going on, which was that the whole neighborhood was up there doing coke. And part of the reason I wrote about that is because there's an obvious connection between pain and drugs, pain and painkillers. It's important to tell the truth about that. Not that it's good to go that route, but that's why people go that route. People are in pain.

Q: You moved out of Southie for a while, for about five years, but you came back. What's that been like?

A: I'd "gotten out," as we like to say -- though we don't say it too loud because it insults the people that are there and offends a lot of people. But when I went back, I saw a lot of the people that had been affected by crime and violence in the '80s, who had lost family members, and who were still living in silence. As for other changes, the choice of drug is heroin, which has a totally different effect than coke or crack -- it's a lot less violent. I saw people, you know, the young people, living with the legacy of the world that was created in the '70s and '80s. The world that was created by organized crime and Whitey Bulger -- the culture of death, the culture of drugs, death, and denial. I think the whole suicide epidemic that we saw has everything to do with the whole history of the neighborhood and being a neighborhood where people feel oppression, suppression, repression, depression. I think those are the things that lead to suicide more than anything else.

Q: You've done a lot of activism around this issue -- getting people to talk about what's happened in their lives.

A: A lot of the work I've done as an activist was in the black community and the Latino community. The conversations I was having in black and Latino neighborhoods around these issues, I didn't think I could ever have in a white Irish Catholic community like South Boston.

Q: Why not?

A: Because in our neighborhoods, we -- you know, we weren't having the conversation that we'd had in black and Latino neighborhoods. People were much more open [in those communities] to talking about the ways that their family members had died, from either violence or drugs or crime. And I was used to growing up in a place where, although these things happened to me, in my family, over and over again, and to so many other families like mine -- the next day after a funeral, it was like, okay, that never happened.

And the perception that was put out by politicians and the media has always been that we're kind of like a working-class to middle-class, strong-family-values, traditional tight-knit neighborhood. I'm sure a lot of South Boston is like that, but the lower end of South Boston has the highest concentration of poor whites in America.

Q: That myth of Southie, that it's this strong working-class neighborhood with strong American values -- what do you think of that?

A: I feel like the people in that neighborhood have been so victimized by the outside world's perceptions. Of course, it's a two-way street. Sometimes we've played into the roles that the outside world wanted to give us, you know, and that our own politicians promoted. But I really think that the people in South Boston have always been between a rock and a hard place, especially the poor people in the lower end -- the people in the projects who've never been on anyone's agenda, liberal or conservative. We've always been targeted by liberals as the bastion of white supremacy. Meanwhile, we're in the projects, we're eating welfare cheese, we're killing cockroaches, and we are the bastion of white supremacy in America. We're the target of any kind of social-justice action that's going to happen. So we're attacked by the left and the right. Well, we're manipulated by the right, which preys on people's worst racial fears and helps promote that "us against them" mentality, especially against people of color.

Q: Looking back on your childhood and looking back on the community as a whole, what once just seemed like your life, like --

A: Normal?

Q: Yeah. What seemed normal. You now see that it wasn't. What's that like?

A: Sometimes some of my family members felt that our life was normal, and they're mostly the ones who died. The rest of my family have all kind of gotten out, mentally or physically, from that mentality that the whole world is about this one [city] block. I have to say that that mentality still has its attraction to me to this day -- the whole village mentality, the ideal of community and being in a place where everyone knows each other and is looking out for each other.

Q: That ideal of people looking out for each other -- there are still a lot of people in South Boston who saw Whitey Bulger as some kind of community protector. They still revere him and honestly believe that he was some sort of local hero.

A: A lot of kids grew up with the myth that he was a great guy and he kept drugs out of the neighborhood and all that kind of stuff. A lot of people feel it's safe to say what they really feel about him now because it's come out that he's a snitch. He's the person that taught us that the worst thing in the world you can be is a snitch, and he was the biggest snitch of all.

Q: Long before you touched pen to paper, you'd been an activist. You co-founded the gun-buy-back program. You were very active in getting the word out about the rash of suicides in Southie and trying to support the kids. And as an activist, you work closely with politicians. Have you heard from local politicians about the book?

A: I did get a call from one local city councilor who was very supportive. I won't name names. [Laughs] But I don't get involved in politics, and I don't get involved in endorsing politicians at all. As an activist I've never been involved in projects that would rely on assistance, financial or otherwise, from elected officials. I think that's bad, bad business, as an activist, if you're working for social change, to take public money at all.

Q: You're a kid from Old Colony. And today you're in Time magazine, All Souls was reviewed by the New York Times, the Boston Globe excerpted the book. People are writing you and calling you and e-mailing you from all over. Ten years ago, would you even have been able to conceptualize that you would be here today?

A: No, 10 years ago I had very, very low self-esteem, very low self-expectations, and a very, very, very short life expectation. I was already outliving my brothers, which to me felt really strange. I was already older than they were when they died, and the more I outlived them, the scarier it became, because I didn't feel like I was supposed to live that long.

It's only been by getting involved in Citizens for Safety, organizing with young people, doing the gun-buy-back program, and working with survivors -- people who've been there and know exactly how I felt -- that I started to feel good about myself. And began to feel that I could take the most horrible experiences in the world and turn them into something -- you know, realize that this might be a gift for other people. And so I started to value that stuff and started to realize, well, maybe there's a reason I'm here. And maybe there's a reason -- well, it doesn't justify anything that ever happened -- but maybe there's a reason why I had those experiences.

It also kind of helped keep my brothers' spirit alive -- the good, you know, the goodness that I knew in them. They were just kids, you know. And to keep them alive in a way brings some dignity to them, and to my family and to my community. It's only through doing this kind of work that I realized that.

Q: How different is Southie today compared to when you were growing up?

A: It's becoming gentrified completely. Houses are being gutted out left and right, people are losing their apartments. South Boston was a majority renter community and was a community that for a long time had a lot of affordable rents. That's not the case anymore. Rents are being tripled, quadrupled, and people have to move. People are being made homeless, people are sleeping on other people's couches, and a lot of people don't feel like they're going to last that long in the neighborhood. So it's a shame that at a time when people are starting to come to terms with the history of the neighborhood, it's becoming time for them to leave the place that they love, that we all love.

Q: You still have an extreme reverence for Southie.

A: Oh, yeah. I love South Boston. There's no place like it in the world.

Sarah McNaught is a freelance writer.

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