Last night I attended a talk in Rochester by author John Schwartz on his book Oddly Normal, a memoir about a gay son’s journey to self-acceptance. As I pointed out in this post last year, Schwartz’s story serves as a hopeful answer to the family’s story I tell in God’s Nobodies. Where the family and church in my story condemn Tim Ginocchetti while claiming to love him, and their story ends in death, imprisonment, and bitterness, Schwartz’s own family story ends, as he put in his talk, “with laughter.” Before the laughter there were years of anxiety, strife, and a failed suicide attempt by his son Joe. But Joe came out of it successfully, because he was supported by parents who wrestled with the realities of their life rather than trying to shoehorn their son’s life into a preconceived notion of perfection.
Schwartz made it clear that he disdains the word “tolerance” when speaking of a parent’s reaction to a child’s homosexuality. “We tolerate mosquitos,” he said. People — especially our offspring — deserve more. “You made a contract when you made that baby: to love him,” Schwartz said. That thought, as prosaic as it may sound, tests parents’ strength and convictions when life doesn’t turn out as they planned.
Sitting in the audience, I reflected on these two young men: Joe Schwartz, finishing his senior year of high school and preparing for college, proud of serving as a positive example for other teens and families going through similar struggles; and Tim Ginocchetti, sitting in prison, full of shame and regret for killing his mother. What a difference a family makes.
When I first read about a local murder case, in which Rochester Institute of Technology professor Tim Wells killed his wife, I found striking parallels to the murder defendant Tim Ginocchetti, whose story I told in God’s Nobodies. Now that I have read Jerid Fisher’s book on the Wells case, Upside Down: Madness, Murder, and the Perfect Marriage, the similarities — and the criminal-justice issues they illuminate — are all the more remarkable.
Consider: meek, submissive men named Tim kill loved ones (Ginocchetti killed his mother, Pamela Ginocchetti; Wells killed his wife, Christine Sevilla). Both had lived law-abiding lives free of violence — so much so that they had bottled up their anger, only to see it uncork in a bizarre and tragic way. And both were dominated by strong women whose judgmental approaches bordered on, or crossed over to, emotional abuse at times. Suddenly, without any real warning or forethought, they exploded. Both intended to kill themselves after killing their loved one, but in that, as in so much about their lives, they failed. Both still profess love for their victims. In both cases, New York law came into play, offering a manslaughter charge as a reduction from second-degree murder on the basis of “extreme emotional disturbance” — a violent outburst whose explanation argues against the more cold-blooded motives in a murder. They’re serving their sentences (15 years for Ginocchetti, 16 for Wells) at the same maximum-security prison in far-northern New York, the old Clinton prison at Dannemora.
Though the cases diverge in important ways — Ginocchetti’s anxiety stemmed from his secret homosexuality and oppressive church’s role; Wells’ from his failures as a professor and inability to come clean with his wife about that; and Wells ultimately opted to plead guilty to murder — there’s an even more critical difference between these stories. As a journalist, I come to such a story as a reporter, independent of defense and prosecution, but in ways dependent on learning what they knew. Fisher, however, was the expert psychological witness for Wells’ defense. His gained access to Wells, other key characters, and the full prosecution and defense evidence files because of his official role. With Wells’ permission, he now has told the story from that perspective.
If Fisher’s book came off as an apologia for Wells, and if its writing felt amateurish, then the distinction would make a difference. But that is not the case. Fisher’s well-written narrative struck me as honest and complete. He points out Wells’ unattractive traits and history, and dwells on the meaning of the major differences between Wells’ account of the killing and the physical evidence. In the end, I find Fisher’s motive to be pure: to understand, but not excuse, the killing. As I have written often about Ginocchetti, that is a fine line to walk, but one that’s critical to understanding crime and criminals.
Fisher’s book owes a debt to journalists in that he relies heavily on interviews published by the local newspaper, the Democrat & Chronicle, for accounts of Wells’ and Sevilla’s social life. But in all other ways, he proves himself a true writer in his debut book.
I received a letter today from Tim Ginocchetti, the prison inmate whose story I tell in God’s Nobodies, my true-crime Kindle Single. Starting more than five months ago, I tried to send Tim printouts of blog posts I wrote that expand on material in the story. He is barred from using the Internet, and prison rules tightly restrict the type of mail an inmate can receive, including the number of pages. I tried to follow the rules exactly, but my first shipment of printouts never reached him. It took us several weeks to realize they weren’t still making their way through prison security and censors. I guessed at what had gone wrong and tried again, in July. Today’s letter told me Tim finally got that shipment, after an unexplained three-week delay. So I sent him the second and final batch.
All the posts I sent him are archived here. Those he’s seen so far include one explaining research into why young men kill their mothers, an account of Tim’s days at Syracuse University, and this one on the purpose of examining a crime’s causes. That last post, which includes details about the reactions to Tim’s prison sentence from anonymous commenters, prompted this response from Tim:
Some parts like the nasty comments posted by readers on the Post-Standard website following my sentencing were hard to read and a reality check of the kinds of attitudes I’ll face from some people (not just my estranged family & the church) when I go home. I do think that your book not only helped to explain what happened and why, but it showed people the real me — that I’m not just my crime. Killing my Mother was horrendous and a terrible thing, but it shouldn’t define who I am.
Surely some will disagree with that last clause. I only hope that when people judge a criminal like Tim, they take the time to know the facts and the full story. When we confront the details — real people living and losing real lives, for complicated, human reasons — inevitably it should be more difficult to make snap judgments about what constitutes justice.
I’m glad that the subject of my reporting and writing can finally read more of it, as fitful as the delivery of those writings has been. I’ll follow up (after another three or more weeks?) once Tim has seen and responded to the remainder of the blog posts.
My Kindle Single God’s Nobodies is now available as an audio book, available here. Audible.com, the publisher and producer of the audio, charges $6.95 for a one-off purchase of it, which is of course much more than the text e-single price. But that’s really just to make purchasers consider an Audible subscription, which provides one audio book per month.
I had hoped Audible would figure out a way to incorporate audio clips of my interviews with Tim Ginocchetti, but it didn’t work out. Still, for those who prefer to hear rather than read, it’s a well-produced version of the story.
ThinReads, an ambitious site tracking the e-singles market (with a witty name), asked me to explain in a guest post how I used this blog to add material to my e-single God’s Nobodies. While writing about that, I tagged what I consider “bonus chapters” to make them easier to find in this large archive of posts on God’s Nobodies generally.
This is inside baseball to most readers, but it’s the stuff writers must do these days to attract an audience. After all, what is the point of writing if no one knows about it?
Good news for users of the Barnes & Noble Nook tablet: Now you’ll be able to download the free Kindle reading app to read Amazon-exclusive e-books like God’s Nobodies. Until now, Amazon provided its app for every platform, from PCs to phones and iPads — everything except the Nook. That was frustrating to authors like me, when asked about the Nook (similar to the frustration of learning that people, upon hearing the name “Kindle Singles,” assumed you can only read them if you own a Kindle device). So tell your Nook-using friends the Kindle Singles store will now be open for their business.
Is it possible to sit next to a mother of a murder victim and talk about the need to understand criminals better? Should she fight back when she hears someone say we need smarter policies that don’t just bring the punishment hammer down, but instead deal intelligently with the facts that make each case different? I faced that uncomfortable moment today in a panel discussion. Luckily, the person whom I might have upset or insulted with my comments was instead a model of grace and wisdom as we both wrestled with the event’s central question: what communities need to restore justice after crimes of violence.
I was invited to join the panel to talk about my book God’s Nobodies. The event, hosted by the Rochester-area restorative-justice group, Partners in Restorative Initiatives, also featured another journalist, former Democrat & Chronicle columnist Mark Hare, and Lynette Alvarez, a crime victims advocate and mother of a murder victim. The discussion was moderated by Ed Minardo, director of the county jail in neighboring Genesee County, and former director of one of the pioneering restorative-justice programs in the country, Genesee Justice.
Alvarez tells the heart-wrenching story of feeling ignored and disrespected by police and prosecutors when her son was killed 11 years ago. The family, she says, learned too little from authorities about why her son was shot to death. When the offender got out of prison surprisingly early, after an appeals court voided the more serious charges he faced, Alvarez felt even more betrayed and forgotten. She is an eloquent spokesperson for the added pain endured by survivors of murder victims at the hands of a system that doesn’t provide them with all the forms of justice that they need to heal.
And there I sat, talking about the flip side: the need to understand why a crime was committed before we can fairly judge the criminal and the sentence he deserves. Based on the story I tell in God’s Nobodies, my argument boiled down to this: The harshest possible treatment, and ignoring the backstory, is not smart justice. It’s just retribution. Justice requires airing all the facts, in works of journalism if the courts don’t oblige. Only then will the public understand any leniency a court might have shown.
If Alvarez saw a contradiction, she didn’t let on. I’d like to think it’s because she recognizes that we can pursue multiple goals, all driving toward something called justice. Or maybe she’s just too kind and thoughtful to take offense. Either way, I knew I was in the presence of a good person who has suffered too much and yet finds it in her heart to give back to the community, sharing her experience and advice.
It was pure coincidence that it was last night, on the eve of an historic two-day oral argument at the Supreme Court on same-sex marriage rights, that I returned to Syracuse University to talk about Tim Ginocchetti’s life with a group of students. Tim, whose story I tell in God’s Nobodies, never would have stepped foot in the campus’ LGBT Resource Center when he was a student here. He never would have dared identify himself as gay, or simply an ally of gay students, by attending the regular discussion group that invited me to give a talk about the book. And neither he nor anyone else might have imagined how much our culture would have changed — an “astonishing” shift in attitudes, in the words of John Harwood in today’s Times — since Tim’s catastrophic coming-out as gay less than seven years ago. As rapid as this social change has been, though, I was reminded in my talk that we’re not quite there yet.
My ostensible purpose in meeting with this group of students was to tell them of Tim’s struggles and to wonder, with them, how he might have been able to break free of family and faith without such needless, irreversible violence. But, as we talked, the real value became clear: to give these students a safe place to talk about their own struggles. Most seemed content and secure. Some shared stories about their own unsympathetic families as they try to express their true nature. A couple begged for solutions to soften their relatives’ hearts. Tears flowed freely.
I praised them for making the effort to share their experiences and to help each other. The professional help available to them — the staff at the Resource Center, other campus counselors, and resources such as these that I’ve collected to help teens, young adults, and families — existed, but to a lesser extent, when Tim was a student. Not that he felt safe in seeking such help, until it was too late. Perhaps if he’d only had a friend he felt he could to talk to, who knows how things might have changed. As I wrote in the book and explained more in posts such as this one, Tim was alone in his struggle. He didn’t have to be.
While we talked, I noticed one young woman slouched on a couch, crying quietly. She didn’t speak during the meeting. I worried that the discussion was upsetting her, and I made a point of apologizing for telling such a sad, disturbing story. Afterward, she came up to me, smiling and soft-spoken, to say that the discussion touched her deeply. She thanked me and asked for a hug. In that moment I knew, no matter what has happened before or whatever may come, she will be OK.
One anecdote that didn’t fit in the shortened Kindle Single version of God’s Nobodies occurred one week after John Ginocchetti’s death in March 2002. I write in the book of the massive outpouring of love and concern for the families of the Manlius firefighters who died in the line of duty in that terrible incident. Tensions emerged between the firefighters and the Ginocchettis’ church over the minister’s strict limits on the crowds and firefighter-brotherhood pageantry he would tolerate at John’s funeral. New York’s governor at the time, George Pataki, attended the much larger funeral for T.J. Lynch and missed Ginocchetti’s more private service. So, on March 14, the family and friends of 16-year-old Tim Ginocchetti arranged for him to meet the governor at the State Fairgrounds, where Pataki was making an appearance.
Tim said little of the encounter in his journal at the time, noting only that one of his uncles and his father’s firefighter friend, Bill Nickal, brought him to the meet-up. “What an honor!” Tim summed up succinctly. Nickal and his wife Lisa described the scene to me in more vivid terms.
The 6-foot-5 rail-thin governor loomed over 5-foot-6 Tim, “this meek little scrawny kid,” Nickal recalled. But the politician knew just how to connect with a young man who lost his dad so recently — in a way that a true math nerd could appreciate. “We were over to the side,” Lisa Nickal recalled, “and they had a long conversation about different things.” The governor asked him what he wanted to do with his life. Tim likely mentioned architecture, engineering, and math. Then, Lisa said, “somebody brought up that it was Pi Day.” The conversation grew more animated. The Nickals had never seen Tim so talkative. He and Pataki matched wits on how far they could carry out pi. “They were rattling it off” while everyone else stood back and watched Tim enjoy a rare moment of distraction and pleasure in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy that would end up dragging down him and his mother in the years to come.
The Nickals were touched by Pataki’s humanity. “He took time out of his day to meet with that young man,” Bill marveled. In a prison interview, Tim was more forthcoming than he’d been in his journal. He said he’d always wanted to meet the governor and was disappointed he couldn’t at the funeral. When he discovered he and Pataki shared a love for the mysteries of pi, Tim lost himself in the moment. Years later, sitting in a prison meeting room, Tim remembered everything about his time with Pataki. “He actually knows the number pi to 50 places.”