Sunday, June 26, 2011


If you lived in Boston, as I did from approximately 1978-1988, you knew of Whitey Bulger, the South Boston Irish mobster and as it turned out FBI snitch, who has been on the lam for sixteen years, was arrested last week in an apartment in Santa Monica along with his long-time girlfriend Catherine Greig, and has been extradited to Boston to face a laundry list of charges that include extortion, racketeering, and nineteen plus or minus murders.  

You knew of him no matter what, just from reading the paper, hanging around the bars, walking the streets.

But I also happened to have had Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother, as a guest professor for a class at Suffolk Law

Later, I would read Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance, by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, and learn that Bulger and his cronies hung out at a garage they owned on Lancaster Street in the old West End:  

“Peering out from the shabby curtains of a second-story window in a flophouse directly across the street from the Lancaster Street garage was a group of troopers from the Massachusetts State Police. Six days a week, the troopers were hunkered down at the window in the roach-infested bedroom, chronicling the mob action across the street”… “Directly across from the garage was a run-down brick building, 119 Merrimac Street. The first floor was a gay bar. Upstairs rooms could be rented. It was a dump; a place where winos crashed.”…

Hey now! I lived in that building. [The gay bar, known as 119, was the next door down]. Yup, that is the building memorialized in Parched, in which I had a fifth-floor “loft” for $250 a month, utilities included, from approx. 1980 through 1988 when I finally got sober and moved out of Boston for good.  

But my fascination with the capture of Bulger--who is now 81--goes way beyond that I lived in Boston, and had a loft in the "flophouse" where the cops spied on him, and that the bartenders in the dives where I drank came from Southie and Dorchester, and that I became a (now ex-) lawyer in Boston and now he is back to be tried, in what promises to be a major media circus, in Boston.

It may be that I've lived so much of my own life in emotional and spiritual bondage that I'm strangely drawn by stories of people who've "walked among" but lived apart: convicts, mental patients, monks, nuns, kidnap victims. 

It may be the born-in-the-projects, code-of-honor, good brother/bad brother Irish Catholic slant I find so compelling: in a piece called “The Last Act in an Irish Tragedy,” James Carroll, long-time Boston Globe columnist, observes: “Bulger’s crimes are uniquely his, but his habit of defining himself by enmity perfectly embodied what William Butler Yeats called the ‘antithetical self.’’ We know who we are by whom we hate.”

But really what's at work here is the "glamour of evil." Do you reject sin, so as to live in the freedom of God's children? Do you reject the glamour of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin? Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?... the priest asks during the Renewal of Baptismal Promises we make during Lent.

A character like Bulger invites us to take a closer look at the devil in our own characters. Not to in any way minimize his vicious life of crime, but let's not forget that, given half a chance, and with even the remotest kind of success, any of us might go completely over to the glamour of evil, too. I myself was so pathetically inept that my life of crime was nipped in the bud the day my mother made me go to the store from which, as a teenager, I’d shoplifted four sweaters; look the couple who owned the place in the eye, fork over the money I owed, and apologize--at which point I hung my head in shame, as I should have, and burst into tears.

But let’s not forget that ineptitude, under the circumstances, is a grace. I’ve never been able to bend so much as a straw to my will. But what if I had been able to? (And in fact I committed plenty more of the kind of "crimes" you don't happen to get arrested for.) What if any of us were?

To snap your fingers and have people do your bidding; to have people afraid of you, catering to you, covering up for you; to entice others to become corrupted, too, seems glamorous, whether we want to admit it or not, and what seems even more glamorous is getting away with the whole thing.

But can thinking you're different than everyone—better than everyone, above everyone—ever lead to "getting away" with anything? Bulger was forced to cut all ties with his family, his friends, his neighborhood, his culture, his state He defined his life by who he hated and in the end came home to discover that everyone hated him.

Tommy Donahue is the son of one of Bulger’s scores of victims, Michael Donahue. 

In an article for The Boston Channel, M.R.F. Buckley writes that Tommy was eight when his father, an innocent man who’d simply offered a ride to someone who’d run afoul of Bulger, was shot.      

"I was 8 years old when my father was snatched from me and my whole life I've been living with this. No rest, no closure. Constant down emotion," Tom said from Boston.

"It has been an emotional roller coaster, more down than ever up. It's been beyond frustrating. It's been an emotional, horrible roller coaster. But this is the one thing that we've been waiting for. Not only myself, but the other families that have been completely destroyed by this guy, you know? This mass murderer," said Donahue. "He's a scumbag. He's a mass murderer and a destroyer of families."

"Nobody's ever said I'm sorry, so this was ... it's kind of a closure, in a way," said Donahue's widow, Patricia.

So they got Whitey Bulger, and maybe these poor families can start to lay their grief and loved ones to rest at last.  But “they” got Whitey Bulger a long time ago. He turned himself in.

Be sober, be vigilant;
because your adversary the devil,
as a roaring lion, walketh about,
seeking whom he may devour.
--1 Peter 5:8


  1. My wife is from Boston and has been following this story. The glamor of evil and the banality of evil: two sides of the same coin.

  2. It's funny but I never thought of the glamor of evil this way until now. I quit a high powered executive job because I didn't like who I saw in the mirror each morning. I saw someone who was starting to forget who she was in order to maintain a facade of who she thought she should be; the office overlooking Central Park and the private secretary were becoming more important than friendships, honor, and integrity. So I quit. I just realized that this was rejecting the glamor of evil, but not in the way I thought of it. I always thought that phrase was like the devil showing Christ all the kingdoms he could have if he just bowed down and worship. It's amazing how sneaky and simple it can actually be to fall into temptation.

  3. Well, that's just it, the simultaneous glamor and banality: when we are torn between, say, the high-powered job and our souls, it IS like the devil showing Christ all the kingdoms he could have if he just bowed down...

    "Judas is neither a master of evil nor the figure of a demoniacal power of darkness but rather a sycophant who bows down before the anonymous power of changing moods and current fashion. But it is precisely this anonymous power that crucified Jesus, for it was anonymous voices that cried, ‘Away with him! Crucify him!’"
    --Pope Benedict XVI

    Which is why we all have to be constantly on watch lest we "turn ourselves in"...and still I, for one, do so many times a day!...

  4. Great post! Boston, as quaint as it is, is positively gothic as far as its underside is concerned. The Irish mob is more frightening than anything, even the Mafia and the Russian mob ... pre-accord IRAesque violence sans cause combined with ambition and ruthlessness equals the Bulger crime family. His capture is God's mercy, for all concerned.


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