Monday, December 10, 2007

Mafia Princess Finds God

I was a mafia princess. I know—it sounds like something straight out of The Sopranos, dangerous and exciting. The truth is much less glamorous, and I don't look back on any of it with relish. In fact, I'd prefer to keep those now-unpleasant memories safely locked away, out of sight and mind. But God's voice whispers, Good can still come from the past, Barbara, if you'll just release it. So I trust and obey.

What's wrong with me?
I grew up with a father who was a chronic alcoholic and all the chaos that accompanies that addiction. Even more painful, I was sexually abused from the age of 7 until I was 12 years old. Because abuse and dysfunction became a part of my life at such an early age, I equated them with normalcy and love. As a young adult, I sought this kind of love wherever I could find it.

In 1980 I was 20 years old and working as a cocktail waitress in a seedy nightclub in Texas. I was attractive, intelligent, and capable of doing much more with my life. But with only a high school education and a lifetime of diminished self-worth, I figured it was the best I could hope for.
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I liked not having to think through each day. If I didn't think, I didn't need to wrestle with the morality of my behavior—which, I reasoned, was a natural consequence of my messed-up childhood. The things I indulged in—promiscuity, alcohol, drugs—dependably silenced questions that had nagged me for years: Why can't somebody really love me? What's wrong with me that I can't seem to ever do the right thing? My destructive behaviors were like a cooing mother, soothing my troubles away: "There, there, everything's going to be just fine." That peace, unfortunately, was counterfeit and my need for it grew insatiable.

Meeting "Papa"
Not long after I started my job, a strikingly charismatic man came into the nightclub. He had a boxer's physique, a nose that looked to have been broken multiple times, olive skin, silver hair and beard, and piercing, slate-blue eyes.

"That's Papa," one of the girls whispered. "He's the owner."

"Papa" turned out to be Antonio Palermo (not his real name), a street-smart Italian from New York City. Papa didn't try to look tough; he was tough. He was the quintessential Mafia ideal—he dressed smartly, drove a late-model Cadillac, wore expensive jewelry, threw money around, and most of all, commanded respect.

Mafia members have subliminal ways of exuding their clout. Like a predator, they use a potent blend of machismo, ego, and a palpable lack of fear. They trace invisible lines around themselves that no one had better cross, unless invited. I was. Tony pursued me and wooed me, and I naively believed that it was love.

Tony made me feel, for the first time in my life, there was somebody strong enough to keep the monsters that had consistently haunted me at bay. "No man will ever hurt you again," he'd assure me. Desperate to believe, I eventually married him.

Pampered and privileged
Tony owned adult bookstores and arcades. Daily a white van, driven by a quietly menacing guy named Dave, would pull up to our condo with the day's take. Bags of money were counted—spoils from needy consumers dependent upon the many forms of sexual depravity the bookstores provided. I didn't let myself think about how those stores could be hurting other people—husbands, fathers, sons. What mattered was that for the first time in my life, I had all the money I wanted. I was certain I'd found the answer to all my problems.

All that money allowed Tony and I to live an extravagant—and sometimes self-destructive—lifestyle. One day he introduced me to a friend whose influence I spent agonizing years trying to escape—cocaine. I call the drug Tony's friend, but really, it was his Lord. He cowered to it in a way he never submitted to anyone else. Discovering cocaine sealed my former commitment to substance abuse, and now I had all the funds I needed to feed my habit.

Tony and I took exotic vacations and rarely ate at home. In fact, as in any good mobster story, there was a typical Italian restaurant where we dined several times a week. The owners were Italian immigrants filled with their homeland's deference for La Cosa Nostra (the Mafia). It didn't matter what time of day or night we came in, they were always eager to serve, with a table available. We were privileged and pampered to a disgusting degree.

No Marlon Brando
Deep down I knew Tony was capable of doing unspeakable things, yet somehow I separated the doting husband from the cold deviant. I deluded myself into believing that all the stories of Mob brutality and killings were just myth, telling myself that Tony was like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, a loveable patriarch whose cruel acts were ultimately just. That brand of justice, however, can only be reconciled by ignoring God's command to leave vengeance in His hands. By refusing to face this truth, I drifted further and further away from the God I had learned about as a child.

Faithfulness and honesty are not Mafia ethics, so it shouldn't have surprised me that Tony had affairs. To his peers, monogamy would have been viewed not as a virtue, but a weakness. According to the Italian Old-World influence, wives are highly regarded and usually isolated. But girlfriends, it's understood, are an important mark of gangster virility. Still, I was hurt every time I knew he'd been with another woman.

"B.J.," he'd say with his most charming smile, "you know I can't be with just you, but I do love only you."

I tried to convince myself that frequent champagne lunches with the girls, frenetic shopping sprees, exorbitant gifts from my husband, and other consolation prizes, were enough. They weren't. I wanted and needed love, not accoutrements. I'd thought I'd found that with Tony; realizing I'd been mistaken was a bitter pill to swallow.

The last straw
The more I pressured Tony to become the faithful husband, the more he pulled away. Finally I gave him an ultimatum—me, or those other girls. I was certain if forced to make a choice, he would pick me. But I was deluded.

"Please Tony," I begged, "Can't we try to make it work?"

There are two things that neither Tony nor his type could ever stomach—vulnerability and humility. My pleading proved to be the last straw in our troubled relationship.

I'll never forget that day and the look in Tony's eyes when he told me it would never, could never work. It was the first time I'd seen that steely coldness, always directed toward others, trained on me. It seemed as if he'd turned off a switch inside, then walked away without a shred of remorse.

For Tony, divorce was a far lesser evil than monogamy. He couldn't have a "broad" telling him what to do, especially one that wasn't even Italian.

We kept in touch for a few years after separating. In retrospect, I think it was just so he could keep an eye on me. He most likely suspected that the FBI might come calling—and they did. Though I didn't know anything to tell them, Tony adhered to the old adage: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

After the divorce I continued to stumble through life, growing wearier and wearier, making a concerted effort to kill the person I hated inside of me with whatever chemicals I could get my hands on. Although I had, in my childhood, known Jesus, I felt we'd turned our backs on each other long ago.

Embraced by the Father
Five years after my divorce, I met someone very special—my present husband, Joe Cueto. Despite the countless mistakes I'd made, I knew instantly he was the man God always had intended for me to marry. But while he satisfied the deep need for genuine love I'd always sought from a man, a void still remained deep inside me.

Then, in January 1991, my mother invited me to go on a church retreat. That entire weekend I felt as though God was welcoming me with the tender embrace of an adoring Father. Every meal served was my favorite dish. Even Mother teasingly remarked, "Well, it seems like God is trying to make this extra special for you." One night there was a healing service, and Christ mended a throbbing toe I'd injured. Even more amazing, however, He healed my wounded spirit. When I joyfully accepted His offer to come into my life, I knew I was finally home!

Step by step, through painful rehabilitation, Jesus delivered me from all my addictions. Slowly I came to understand that the deep psychological wounds of my childhood had caused me to become numb. The methods I used to shield myself from the pain—drugs, alcohol, and even my life with Tony—had only increased it. But God loved and didn't forget that hurt little girl; He saved me from myself. Though I deserve to be His slave forever, He made me His Princess.

When God first compelled me to share my story, some well-meaning loved ones—knowing the Mob's reputation for guarding its privacy—asked if I feared for my life. The answer is a resounding no. I was dead before, but God graciously, miraculously, brought me back to life. Now I know I need never fear death again.

Thanks to Barbara Cueto

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