The Death and Burial of Peter Russo's Father – Part 1 (Norman Costa)
Death Is Near
Ellie Russo called me at 4 AM. Peter, her husband, just got a call from his brother, Rob. His father's condition took a sudden change for the worse. Tony Russo was near death, and was not expected to live more than half the day. Ellie asked if I would drive Peter to be with his father at the hospice center.
Peter and Ellie had returned from his father's bedside, only 90 minutes earlier, and barely got one hour of sleep. It's a two and a half hour drive to Glastonbury, CT, and there was no possibility either of them could drive and be safe. In 35 minutes I was at their house. Peter answered the door, hugged me, and said, “Thank you.” He went straight to my car and got in.
Ellie grabbed my arm as I was turning to follow her husband. “Listen,” she said. “Drive safely. No speeding. Peter's father is the one who is supposed to die. Not you and not Peter.” I patted her hand that held my arm and told her I would deliver both of us, safely, to his father's bedside. I gave her a hug, and left.
I thought Peter would sleep in the car. Not a chance. He was wide awake. I stopped at a diner, and picked up coffee and sandwiches. Ellie's admonition stayed with me the entire trip. I was never so conscious of posted speed limits, and staying alert. I was trying hard to ignore how much time had elapsed since Peter got the call from his brother. He didn't want to call ahead to check on his father. Life and death were out of his control. He would find out what happened when he got there.
We talked, not about Peter's father, but about my father. He died more than a year earlier. Peter kept me company, a few times, on the drive from Poughkeepsie to my Dad's nursing home in Catskill, NY. Peter and my father got to know each other in the last two years of his life. They enjoyed the company of each other, and their conversations.
Peter talked a lot about my Dad's wake, the Catholic funeral Mass, the eulogy I gave him, and the grave-side ceremony. Peter was raised a Catholic, but, for the past 15 years, he has been a Wiccan and active with his small circle. His father, though, would have a proper Catholic service. Tony, a Korean War veteran, would be buried in a military cemetery in Saratoga, NY, not with Peter's deceased mother and deceased older sister in a family plot in Fall River, MA.
I first met Peter in 2007, three years after I began my own research into child sex abuse. After my mother died, I learned that both my parents were abused as children. I found a group of social workers, and school counselors who dealt with victims and survivors on a daily basis. Peter was among several adults, whom I met, who were recovering long repressed memories of great horror. I am not a therapist. My job was to do research and write their stories.
At the time I met Peter, he had already been in intensive individual and group therapy for several years. I cannot imagine forgiving a monster like Pauline Russo. Six months after I met Peter, he was able to forgive her. It took him almost four years of therapy, the support of fellow survivors in his group, and accepting that his mother was a very, very sick woman. This kind of forgiveness is something the rest of us cannot understand. Forgiveness is not a declaration of, “Don't worry. It's OK. It's alright. I forgive you.” It is never alright. Rather, forgiving is letting go of the anger, the rage, and the parent who perpetrated great evil upon them.
In my own research, I was surprised to find that forgiving should never be a goal in therapy for victims of child sex abuse. By making forgiveness a goal of therapy, an undue burden is placed upon the victims that they may not be able to fulfill. And if they are not able to forgive, then a new guilt is placed upon their shoulders. Abusers are expert at making victims feel guilty for the abuse that is perpetrated against them. Adding to the guilt is the last thing that victims need.
As victims become survivors and make progress in healing, recovery, and integration, some may find that they are able to forgive and want to do so. Many never get to that point, but it is not their fault, and not their responsibility. Too, I was surprised to find that it is harder, by far, for a victim to forgive an enabler. No one has been able to give me a satisfactory answer as to why that is the case. It just is.
In 2005, Peter went to visit Tony after not seeing him in over two years. He went to confront his father for not protecting him, and not protecting his brothers and sisters. Peter didn't tell his father that he taped the conversation so he could play it for his therapist. Peter let me listen to the recording. It was an astounding and shocking revelation.
Tony was highly dissociative. He would disconnect from the reality of the conversation with his son. In his mind, he would transport himself to a different world. Peter, a school guidance counselor, was a very good interviewer, and kept bringing Tony back to reality. After one of the early dissociative episodes, Peter asked, “Dad, what do you think we were just talking about?” Tony answered, “You were talking about Pop.” Pop was Tony's father, Peter's grandfather. Peter used to say that his father's middle name was, “Denial.” This is not hyperbole. Peter recounted the less horrific versions of what his mother did to him, and what he knew of the abuse perpetrated upon his brothers and sisters. His father would respond with a forced surprise of, “Really?”
I knew the details of the horrible things that happened to Peter. However, when he finds it necessary to tell another person what his mother did to him, he says, "If you can imagine it, it happened. And if you imagine something that you cannot possibly believe that a mother would do to her child, it happened. And worse than that happened."
When it was clear to Tony that his son was not going to let him off the hook, he started making excuses. Actually, there was only one excuse that he repeated over and over. He worked two jobs, six days a week. He only had one full day with his family on Sunday. Tony said he didn't know what was going on because he was rarely at home. Peter told his father that he didn't believe him. The reason was that his father didn't want to come home. He didn't want to know what was going on, and he didn't want to have deal with it.
At the end, Tony, in frustration over his inability to end the conversation, said, “So why are you telling me now, after all these years? What can you do? This was all a long time ago? Why are you bringing this up? Why are you bothering me with this stuff, now?”
Peter asked his father if he wanted to know the truth about what happened to his own children. Tony was mute. He asked him if he felt badly about what happened to him and his brothers and sisters. Tony hesitated, then gave an uncertain affirmative response to the question. Peter ended the conversation.
The Path to Forgiveness
About three months before my own father died, Peter asked me if I would go with him to see his father. In the years since the confrontation, he saw his father twice. On each occasion Tony was in the hospital for a colon operation. Peter told me that he had come to a point in his own healing and recovery where he wanted to be able to forgive his father. He was not going there to pronounce forgiveness. Rather, he wanted to begin the journey that would enable him to forgive. He asked me to be there for moral support, and not to participate or give advice. Of course, I would do it.
Peter drove. He was so anxious over seeing his father that he talked incessantly, and got us lost a couple of times. We arrived, Peter went inside, and I waited in the car. A half hour later, Peter came out, and called me into the house. He introduced me to his father. I could see that Tony was happy that Peter came.
I told Tony that Peter said he had served during the Korean War. I thanked him for his service, and told him a little about my father's experience as a paratrooper in World War 2. In no time at all, Tony had his pant leg rolled up to show me a collection of scars on his left leg that went from his calf, behind his knee, and up the back of his thigh. He couldn't get his pant leg up high enough to show me where the scars ended. He was with the 1st Marine Division in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, in North Korea, November and December, 1950. He took shrapnel from mutliple mortar rounds, along with a couple of bullets. I knew Peter's father was in the Korean war, but Peter never told me of his father's experiences in battle. He had heard plenty from me about my father in the Invasion of Normandy. Once we ascertained which of the scars were from shrapnel and those from bullets, Peter added what he knew of his father's war record. Like my father, Tony Russo was a real war hero, with the scars, battles, medals, and partial disability status to prove it.
On the drive home, Peter was quiet and reflective. He said there was no discussion of the past, only a nice visit. He agreed with my observation that his father was very happy to see him. Peter thanked me profusely for coming, told me what it meant to him, and how it helped his relationship with his father. I told him I wouldn't have missed it for the world. His journey began with the first step. The end of the journey was almost a year away.
Peter came to see my Dad one more time. He told my father about Tony's service in the Marines in the Korean War. Dad only knew from paratroopers, and Marines were simply part of the one other class of soldiers, 'not paratroopers.' All the same, I enjoyed hearing Peter tell, with great pride, the accounts of his father's bravery and wounding in battle. Tony was a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) ammunition carrier. On more than one occasion he manned the BAR, himself, when the primary rifleman was dead or wounded.
Peter saw his father a number of times after that. He continued in his therapy to recover and confront horrible repressed memories. The newer recovered memories brought him back to where he and one brother were sexually abused for the production of child pornography. The perpetrators were in a paedophile ring headed by a Catholic Monsignor. The ring's members included other Catholic clergy (ordained and seminarians,) doctors, policemen, members of the the Gambino crime family, and others.
The Monsignor was on the executive board of one of the divisions of Catholic Charities. His division was responsible for the placement of orphans and foster children. He was the provider of children to the ring, and it is likely that he sourced the children through his Catholic Charities contacts. Large sums of money passed hands. The Gambino Mafia, in the U.S., financed and provided 95 percent of the child pornography for Europe during that era. The Monsignor was sponsored for elevation to Bishop by Francis Cardinal Spellman. By personal request from Spellman, the Sicilian born Monsignor was consecrated a Bishop by Pope Pious XII in Rome.
Peter was conflicted over talking to his father about the child pornography ring. He wanted to validate a few facts and thought his father could provide some information. On the other hand, his father's health was failing. Tony's mental state might prove to be unreliable. The longer he waited, the less likely his father could help him. Peter decided he would see his father the coming January of 2011.
When January came, a remarkable thing happened. Peter no longer felt the need for validation, nor pressing his father for details. He became confident in, and accepting of, his own memories without the need for validation from his father. At that moment, Peter realized that he had forgiven his father. He had let go the anger, the rage, the craving for justice, and the desire to punish the child that inhabited the body of a tough Marine veteran.
Tony Russo's Bedside
...continued in Part 2.