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Nino Part 2: A “healthy moral education”?

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Nino: It wasn’t a good life when I was little, and maybe that’s why I changed my life… I don’t know. Sometimes I try to take my mind back to the past… my roots more than anything, the roots of all my troubles. But I haven’t been able to manage, up to now, to untangle the ball of yarn. I sum up all these things, and then I start leaving things out… I leave out one thing after another because I don’t know how to reach a conclusion….At least for the first year I behaved really badly because, you know, the man of the family was not in the house. I was also the oldest, I was very attached to my father; I had always been very attached to my father and it was traumatic for me, in the sense that I closed myself up and perhaps it was then that… It was like being in a skidding car without any brakes, and the family fell apart.

Nino was one of the prominent personalities in a clan of the Catania region of Italy. He carried out numerous killings, hold-ups and extortions. He has collaborated with the law since 1984, and is serving a sentence of 30 years for a double murder committed the first time he was out on parole. Between late 1996 and spring 1997, over forty hours, he and Amedeo Cottino met in the prison where he was held. What follows is the fruit of those interviews and for the first time in English. Nino affirms that today he is another person. We seek to understand what he was and how he was different, if at all.

Nino: I remember my father - I was very small - he sold fish. You know, I saw him in the morning; at that time he had a Vespa, he put baskets on (we called them passers, they are made of large plaited canes) and he got them ready; he’d tie one to one side and another to the other side, he’d prepare all the fish… and sometimes I went too!

Then I recall when he came back, he brought fish, counted the money, and gave me twenty lire, the old ones of copper, and with what he earned he bought other fish. I remember all these things… that he washed the baskets, that he didn’t throw them away, so he could use them again.

At least for the first year I behaved really badly because, you know, the man of the family was not in the house. I was also the oldest, I was very attached to my father; I had always been very attached to my father and it was traumatic for me, in the sense that I closed myself up and perhaps it was then that… 

I didn’t feel connected to anyone; I don’t recall my childhood as nice. I never got any tenderness from anyone…I never played in my whole life. I didn’t know what a toy was, but not because my family couldn’t afford to buy me one. I didn’t like toys… You know how, when you’re a child, you always want something? Well, I didn’t.

As a child I hung around… doing odd jobs, or stealing small things… I lived for the moment, stealing, bag snatching. What I earned was mine. I didn’t even know how to spend the money! It wasn’t much, but for a child of 13 or 14 50,000 lire [several hundred Euros today Ed.] a day seemed like a lot.

I tried to go to work, but I didn’t think: it’s time to settle down. I didn’t think. I looked for work, stole money, and went on my way. That was my life; I don’t know. I had no prospects, no goal, there wasn’t anything in particular that I wanted or that I didn’t want…

I got to the fourth grade and I don’t remember the teachers, or even my pals… The only memory I have is of someone who later became a judge…I really don’t remember anything!…Sometimes, when lying down, I try to remember some particular moment from my childhood and my school, but I can’t remember anything… it’s like having a wall in front of me that I can’t break through to get to the other side… I only remember my mother, telling me: ‘Look, you wanted to go to school. Even when you were ill or it rained, and I didn’t want to send you to school, you’d start to cry because you wanted to go. And you liked school!’.

That must mean that I liked school because I wanted to learn. And so if I wanted to learn, I should remember something. But, no, no way! It’s as if I’m empty inside…With my mother, my sisters, I felt shut in; I was the eldest. It might have been then that I rebelled, I don’t know… who knows, in any case I was always out.

I gave up my studies and stopped going to school because, I don’t know, all at once I didn’t like school. I don’t know what came over me, I really don’t. I’d been pushed around a bit… my father was in prison… I went to live with my grandmother… a lot of things happened to me at once, so that now I can’t remember anything about school.

I ran away from home. I wanted to go and live with my grandmother, perhaps because I felt freer, I don’t know: perhaps because of my grandfather who had horses. I had a passion for horses; maybe this was the reason. My grandfather worked; he carried marble from the station to other places by horse. Other people had trucks, but those were the rich, people who lived well.

I haven’t talked about my mother because I didn’t have much of a direct relationship with her, a true relationship of mother and son… I had more trust in her than confidence, because, as a young boy, I went to live with my grandmother, with my father’s mother, and I always lived with them. It was only as an adult that I became closer to my mother, but by then I already had my own life. I was more attached to my father’s second wife… because she was close to me, she did what a mother should do, a real mother. When I was a small boy in prison, they came to visit me, while my mother, as I remember it, did not come.

But I always respected my parents, my father and my mother, in the sense that I was never disrespectful, never. Now I see people who call their parents bad names and, thank God, neither one of my children is like that, because they had an education like mine, a healthy education.

Really, I have never worked… Well, as a young boy, when I was small, I did odd jobs. I did all kinds of things: I spent a month here, fifteen days there… then I escaped. I did all sorts of things!…Perhaps being a butcher was what I did most: I worked a year like that… I sold fish; I was a baker, a bricklayer; I was a cleaner (you know, someone who cleans floors with a machine), a painter…

But the thing I did most was work as a butcher. I liked being a butcher. I did this for nearly a year, and I loved it. I loved learning how to strip a quarter of a carcass. In fact, my brother’s a butcher. I have a number of relatives who are butchers. I started working when very small in a butcher shop… but I changed trades a lot, at least as a child……..

I was fourteen years old; these were guys of 16 and 17… they had more experience, and they told me: You should behave like this… There, in the street, I had to grow up, I grew up in the street… and then I talked with the other guys [about honour, Ed.]… I listened to the conversations of the others, what they thought… all these things entered my head… and I grew up. This became my culture. Many times my father, my brother, or even my own wife, they told me. My father said: Continue to work with me. And my brother: Aren’t you ashamed?

But this was always within the family, and when they saw my reactions (because I wasn’t an authoritarian type with my family, but a rebel)… how could they dare -I don't mean my parents- but my brothers, my sisters say anything? Just by the way I glared at them, I shut them up!

My family tried to give me a healthy moral education… actually, I think they succeeded, but they couldn’t educate me about my pals.

Professor Cottino: His childhood is profoundly marked by a single event: the imprisonment of his father, a fishmonger. The theft of a refrigerator (I suspect he stole it to preserve the fish) ends up costing his father three and a half years in prison, even though he had a clean slate. It is a shock that proves to be a watershed for Nino between “before” and “after”.

What matters is not so much his family’s economic difficulties. As Nino explains it, his father worked in prison and kept the family as best he could. When money was short, he would commit petty crimes. By selling fish, stealing lemons and that sort of thing, he built his own small house where they all lived. His story is really the same as Nino’s! As long as his father was out, they needed for little. There is, however, an “after”, the time when his father is away, in prison. Nino was then deprived of an adult figure to identify with. He suggests that it was the contact with people who already had criminal experience that might have had led him astray.

 The story of Nino expresses something wider and greater, something that goes beyond the criminal. His is the testimony of a dramatic clash between the dominant values in society, an individual’s social isolation and a strong local culture. Nino has known our society in many ways, nearly all fairly costly to him. From us, the law-abiding, he learned the passion for money and success, the taste for risk. We have done our best to provide him, since childhood, with two territories in which to grow: prison and the street. Thanks to these fertile gardens, he grew to become a full member of his society, that of the underprivileged, and to learn certain values and rules, some of which later bore fruit in criminal activity. In this he was greatly assisted by the criminality of business and of the state itself: the police, judges, politicians, and entrepreneurs who often sold their services to him and his companions, getting rich from the profits.

Amedeo Cottino, Professor of Sociology, University of Turin; also in his time Dean of the Faculty of Political Science, Président of the Comité Scientific du GERN and Director of the Italian Institute of Culture, Stockholm. These interviews were first published as a book in Italian as Vita da Clan, 1998, EGA-Edizioni Gruppo Abele; then in Swedish in 2004 as Familjeliv: en maffialedare berättar, Ordfront Förlag. There was also a French version in 2003.

 Click on the title to go to Part 1 of Nino: Journey into the heart of darkness 

Part 3 of this series     Part 4 of this series


Part 5 of this series     Part 6


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