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Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him by T.J. English

“Was the Bulger story about one very crafty psychopath who had corrupted the system? Or was it about a preexisting corrupt system into which one very wily gangster insinuated himself and then played it for all it was worth?”

Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him, a non-fiction book from T. J. English explores the trial of Boston’s notorious criminal and asks some tough questions about how Bulger continued his criminal operations for so many years. English, a journalist and screenwriter is the perfect author for this book. With The Westies: Inside New York’s Irish Mob and Paddywhacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster to his credit, T.J English is well-versed in the American organized crime scene. It should come as no surprise that English’s reputation preceded him, and doors that would have remained closed to others, opened for this author.

With the recent release of the film  Black Mass which stars Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger, many film watchers will turn with curiosity to a book on the subject. Where the Bodies Were Buried is not for the Bulger novice, for English examines Bulger’s trial and crimes, so anyone coming to this book had better already have an idea of what Whitey Bulger was all about and also have knowledge of the major players in this story of just how organized crime flourished in Boston for decades.

where the bodies were buriedT.J. English worked hard for this book, attending the trial, driving through Boston neighbourhoods and interviewing Bulger’s former associates and families of Bulger’s victims and alleged victims. The title refers not just to Bulger’s many victims, a number of whom ended up buried in the basement of a house in Boston but also refers to the many skeletons in the cupboards of this astounding story of how Bulger ran his criminal world. Bulger squashed and murdered rivals with the support of his handler, former, now incarcerated, FBI agent John Connelly and allegedly, according to the defense, with the nod from other figures in the U.S Attorney’s office and the Department of Justice.

The book covers the trial of Whitey Bulger who was finally captured in 2011 after going on the run in 1995 following a tip from Connelly about an impending indictment, but unofficially on trial here is the entire Top Echelon Informant programme, run by the FBI with the Justice Department responsible for oversight.

While ostensibly it makes sense to recruit informers from within (since civilians aren’t going to know anything about the mafia or organized crime), the realities of the programme stir some very muddy waters regarding the collusion of criminals and law enforcement. English scatters FBI memos and interviews with Bulger associates against coverage of the trial.  Bulger was indicted on thirty-two counts of racketeering and nineteen murders. He was “the last of a certain type of old-school gangster, with a criminal lineage that stretched back at least to the 1950s.”

English argues that the historic precedent for Whitey Bulger can be found in the case of Joseph “Animal” Barboza, a “renowned mob hit man” who testified in the murder trial of Edward “Teddy” Deegan. Deegan’s killer was Vincent, “Jimmy the Bear” Flemmi, an FBI informant, and thanks to Barboza’s fabricated testimony, other men were framed for the crime with the “acquiescence of many people in the criminal justice system, including field agents, prosecutors and supervisors–all the way up to J. Edgar Hoover.” And here I’m going to quote a 1965 memo regarding Jimmy Flemmi from an FBI field agent to Hoover:

“[Flemmi] is going to continue to commit murder, but informant’s potential outweighs the risk involved.”

One of the men framed for Deegan’s murder was Joe Salvati, who suffered “one of the most outrageous miscarriages of justice in the history of the United States” and served 30 years for a murder he did not commit. Interestingly, “the same FBI agents who originally recruited Bulger and Flemmi had played a role in framing Joe Salvati and his codefendants back in 1967.” Stephen Flemmi (brother of “Jimmy the Bear,“) was “Whitey’s criminal partner for twenty years.” and part of Flemmi’s defense at his trial was :

he could not be prosecuted for crimes that he had committed, because he and Bulger had been given immunity from prosecution in exchange for their serving as informants in the DOJ’s war against the mafia. 

The account of the trial is fascinating–not only for what’s said but also for what’s left buried. Law enforcement witnesses expressed frustration at attempts to investigate Whitey which were “sabotaged by the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office,” while Bulger’s defense argued that he was never “an informant for John Connolly.” Yet before the trial, Bulger argued that he’d been given immunity from prosecution for his crimes by a now-deceased federal prosecutor. Were Bulger and Connolly friends, “a corrupt team,” with Connolly “creating a fictional informant file to justify his relationship with Whitey,” or was being a Top Echelon Informant a great gig for Bulger and the Winter Hill gang? The biggest and toughest question this book tackles is just how far the Justice Department was involved in giving Whitey Bulger carte blanche when it came to his criminal activities. Was John Connelly, now in prison, some sort of rogue FBI agent who accepted “thousands of dollars in bribes,” or was the Boston office uniquely corruptible? Or is the Whitey Bulger case just part of a bigger picture of how the Top Echelon Informant programme, in a culture of collusion, really works in an ends-justifies-the-means approach:

There would no longer be good guys and bad guys, just one big criminal underworld in which cops and the criminals were all merely co-conspirators in an ongoing effort to manipulate the universe to suit their needs and the needs of their overseers.

If you’re not a cynical person, then Where The Bodies Were Buried will shock you. If you’re already cynical, then like me, you’ll know that Whitey Bulger’s trial isn’t the end of this ongoing story. Recruiting informants from within criminal organizations is problematic. It doesn’t take brilliance to understand that an FBI informer will commit further crimes as an informant. How can they inform unless they are privy to or a participant in crimes? As one of the interviewees, Pat Nee tells English:

“You do things you don’t want to sometimes because it’s all part of the life you’ve chosen. It’s not always possible to just say no and walk away. People get killed when they try to walk away from a situation like that.”

Where should the Justice Department draw a line? What sort of moral imperative gives a nod to wiping out one criminal crew by allowing another to continue operations? How far should the FBI/Justice Department go when handling informants? What is acceptable ‘collateral damage’?

On a final note, I’m fairly sure (being sarcastic here) that FBI agents who are handlers of Top Echelon Informants aren’t supposed to be accepting thousands of dollars from their criminal informants, so that aspect of the complex Bulger case muddies the waters even further….

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The Sleep Room by F.R. Tallis

“I did not recognize the sound at first. It arrived as nothing more than a subtle incursion: something seeping between the accumulated layers of silence.”

One of the benefits of experience is that we grow to know what we like, so while after reading some plot outlines, I tend to steer away from certain books, I am attracted to others. The Sleep Room had an unappealing cover, but the storyline checked a lot of boxes for me:

  • written by a psychologist
  • set in a mental hospital/asylum
  • treatment/therapy for mental problems
  • anything to do with sleep and dreams

British author F.R. Tallis was new to me, and in spite of the fact that the book had its attractions, I approached it still with some doubts because, after all, you never know just how well written a book will be until you take that chance and open it.

The sleep roomThe Sleep Room is outstanding. Suspenseful, compelling, and atmospheric, this has to be the creepiest book I’ve read in a long time, but far more than that, this is also a very intelligent story which questions the validity of medicating mental problems, which is, as it turns out, a preferred method in this tale, over the snidely dismissed ‘talking cure’ of Freudian therapists.

It’s 1955, and the novel opens with James Richardson, a young psychiatrist working in London, interviewing for a job with Dr. Hugh Maitland. To Richardson, Maitland is a hero of sorts–an eminent psychiatrist regularly published and the head of “psychological medicine at Saint Thomas’s.” Richardson is particularly interested in sleep studies, so he leaps at Maitland’s offer of a job at Wyldehope, a remote hospital located in Suffolk for ‘special’ cases. This sounds like a dream job: 24 beds “two wards and a narcosis room,” supported by nine nurses, a caretaker and his wife. In addition, Maitland in vigorously opposed to Freudian methods:

Freudian techniques are hopelessly ineffective. All that talk. All those wasted hours. Three hundred milligrams of Chlormazine is worth months of analysis! Don’t you agree? Dreams, the  unconscious, primitive urges! Psychiatry is a branch of medicine, not philosophy. Mental illness  arises in the brain, a physical organ, and must be treated accordingly.

Maitland’s anti-Freudian stance matches Richardson’s beliefs, so he takes the job, agreeing with everything Maitland says, thinking that this will be the first step in a brilliant career. Apart from occasional relief from local doctors, Richardson will be the only doctor on staff–a situation Richardson initially questions, but then he’s reassured by Maitland, who’s a rather domineering character, and after all a senior doctor, that all of the treatments are handled expertly by the nurses, and that the work load will not be unmanageable. While the patients are divided into male and female wards, Maitland is obsessed with the patients in The Sleep Room:

I will always remember entering the sleep room for the very first time: descending the stairs that led to the basement, Maitland at my side, immaculately dressed, talking energetically, cutting the air with his hands, the door opening and stepping across the threshold that seemed not merely physical, but psychological. The nurse, seated at her station–a solitary desk lamp creating a well-defined pool of light in the darkness–the sound of the quivering EEG pens and, of course, the six occupied beds. All women–in white gowns–fast asleep: one of them with wires erupting from her scalp like a tribal headdress.

The six patients are undergoing Narcosis (deep sleep) treatment with the goal of keeping the patients asleep for about 21 hours a day. Each patient is woken up–but perhaps it’s more accurate to say each patient is ‘disturbed’ every 6 hours and taken to the toilet, washed, fed, and given more drugs. Enemas are administered in case of “falling bowel activity.” One of the arguments for Narcosis is that patients could be given more ECT (Electroshock) therapy when they are asleep, and Maitland’s patients receive weekly ECTs with the controls set “at their uppermost limits.” Maitland sees little difference between the patients, is disinterested in the details of how they became damaged people, and describes them collectively as schizophrenic.

“Of course,” Maitland continued, “the great advantage of administering ECT while patients are asleep, is that they experience no anxiety–which means one can prescribe longer and more intensive courses.”

Maitland returns to London leaving Richardson in charge. For the most part, the patient care–especially for those in the sleep room–is on auto pilot with Richardson monitoring the sleeping patients and their bodily functions.  The patients who are not undergoing narcosis are also bombarded with medication, and any failure to “respond” leads to a doubling of medication, so even those not asleep are like zombies. Richardson is naturally curious about the patients and the circumstances that brought them to Wyldehope, but this is not a subject up for discussion, and “case histories were entirely irrelevant.” It’s not so much that it’s a secret as much as it simply doesn’t matter, but then neither does a “cure” seem to be part of the agenda. In fact, as time goes on, Richardson, who is plagued by headaches and disturbing dreams, begins to suspect that Maitland’s goal is to see how long people can be kept in this vegetative state.

Richardson isn’t exactly comfortable with his duties, but his doubts and questions are answered or dismissed so smoothly by Maitland, that he bows to his authority and reputation. However, once Maitland is gone from Wyldehope, Richardson is left in charge, and some bizarre things begin to occur. He feels a presence in his isolated room, items disappear, a patient complains that his bed moves back and forth making sleep impossible, and a nurse is terrified to stay in the Sleep Room alone at night. Since the patient population is delusional, perhaps some of this can be explained away. Richardson’s discomfort grows even as he attempts to quell his growing alarm, and he is forced to acknowledge “the idea of the dead returning to annoy the living.” Yet as a doctor, he knows all too well that if he begins to acknowledge any supernatural presence he places his professional standing in jeopardy.

A psychiatrist cannot admit to seeing things that cannot be explained. As soon as he does so, he crosses the line that separates himself from his patients.

As events spiral out of control, Richardson wonders what happened to his predecessor. The atmosphere at Wyldehope, a rambling mansion, glows darkly with the sense of impending doom–especially so when Richardson, continually observing those in the Sleep Room, discovers that the sleepers are dreaming in synchronicity.  

The Sleep Room is an entertaining, suspenseful page turner which questions the poisonous structure of professional hierarchy, the prevalent attitudes towards female sexuality, and the power of dreams.  This well-crafted book, told through Richardson’s eyes, moves smoothly from skepticism and the solidity of scientific facts to sheer terror of the unknown and the unexplainable. There are some real names here, and the treatments, as outlandish and barbaric as they seem to the modern reader, were the MO of the day, and the character of Maitland appears to share some basic commonalities with Dr. William Sargent. We may finish the book and reassure ourselves that mental patients in the western world fare better these days, but an uneasy feeling remains that pills have become a replacement for therapy. Author F. R. Tallis, a psychologist, certainly seems to know how to push those reader buttons, and the narrative moves along very cleverly by feeding with hints such as “it is ironic–given what happened next” which left this reader eager to continue and very annoyed by any interruptions.  Some of the issues raised by the plot are left unanswered, but it’s easy to connect the dots and come to one’s own conclusions. The final chapter overworked the book’s premise, but in spite of that minor flaw, this is a helluva creepy read.

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Castle by J. Robert Lennon

“Perhaps on some level, every human interaction was a psychological experiment.”

I’d wanted to read Castle by American author J. Robert Lennon for some time after coming across the title on Asylum. I’ve read opposing reviews of it, and was somewhat concerned about a mention of animal cruelty–a subject I take issue with in books and film. I once saw a scene of a horse slaughter in the film Maitresse (Gerard Depardieu wanted a horse steak), and the scene was so disgusting, it wouldn’t leave my mind, and it raises the issue of the need to give the viewer or reader fair warning of the content ahead of time.

But back to Castle… So the wildly different reviews and the threat of the animal issue made me delay reading Castle for some time. I finally got to it, and regretted not getting to it sooner. This is a strange, uncomfortable and hypnotic story that gets under the skin for its focus on human manipulation and I enjoyed it so much, I just bought a copy of Mailman by the same author

The first person narrative is told by Eric Loesch–an odd man of unknown, middle age, a loner who shuns all forms of society. When the book begins, it’s 2006 and Eric has returned to his old home turf in upstate New York:

In the late winter of 2006, I returned to my home town and bought 612 acres of land on the far western edge of the county. The land was forested, undeveloped, and surrounded by hills and farms; no one had lived on it for years. According to my information, it had been bought by the state from a variety of owners during the 1970s, with the intention of turning it into a recreational wilderness. But the state ran out of money and the project never got off the ground. The land, and the farmhouse that stood on it were forgotten.

Eric is a strange, withdrawn man, and there are hints of something rather dark in his background–in both his recent and distant past. The nearest town, the town Eric grew up in, is Gerrysburg with a population of 2,310 people. While Eric seeks the familiar (his old home, for example), he shuns any friendly overtures from the locals, and insults anyone who tries to pierce through his somewhat economical, carefully measured speech and behaviour. People who are drawn back to their old homes are often motivated by sentiment, but there’s no sentimentality in Eric’s make up; his narrative and actions are both strictly practical, and after buying the dilapidated farmhouse, Eric gets to its methodical restoration.

Here’s a glimpse into Eric’s mind as he eats at a local restaurant:

The place was sparsely patronized by scattered collections of hippies and loners, who thoughtfully chewed their food without saying much to one another. There had been a time in my life when I had reacted to such people with deep disdain. In those days, I viewed pacifism and activism as expressions of cowardice, and had even gone as far as to pick fights with anyone who espoused such radical ideas. Indeed, I considered such people inherently, and wilfully, weak–and believed that their political views were merely a convenient way of justifying their weakness. Eventually I would learn that all human beings are inherently weak, and that our efforts to overcome that weakness are little more than pathetic sallies up the face of an impossibly high mountain. As a result, I came to a somewhat nuanced understanding of “alternative” lifestyles. But I was still uncomfortable in the presence of such people, finding them unreasonably indulgent of their frailties. Furthermore, I could feel their judgment of me: doubtless they found my trim profile, stern bearing, and unwavering gaze discomfiting. The people here tonight, however, appeared focused on their food and on one another, and I was left in peace.

It’s a chilling passage–not only for the way in which it reveals Eric’s alienation, but also for the way it reveals his thought process which is loaded with cognitive dissonance. He mentions that he used to “pick fights” with people like his fellow diners, but at the same time he notes that now he’s “left in peace” because everyone is concentrating on their food. The unspoken twisted logic here reveals that while in the past he agitated for violence, he believes that the trigger came from external sources rather than from within. It’s also clear that Eric sees himself as superior to other people. This sense of superiority shows in Eric’s few interactions with the locals. He lectures a shop clerk and freezes the real estate agent’s friendliness chalking it up to her desire to extend the relationship from the professional to the personal.

Eric seems to have few plans for his new home, but in the middle of his renovations, he inspects the title to his property and discovers that there’s a plot of forest and rock in the middle of his land that he does not own. To add to the mystery, the name of the owner is blacked out. This sets Eric off on a mission to hike to the rock and the forest and investigate for himself.

To say any more about the plot would be to spoil the book for any potential readers, but I will say that Castle is primarily an intense psychological novel. As the story develops, exactly why Eric is compelled to return to his roots remains a mystery which grows as information about Eric’s past is slowly revealed. Some reviews mention experiencing difficulty with exactly what Eric does or does not remember–in other words is Eric’s lack of memory believable or is it just a plot device to make the book more intriguing? I’d land on the former as Eric is the classic unreliable narrator, and his mental problems aren’t easy to peg (and I don’t want to reveal spoilers). On one hand he’s abrasive and antisocial to the point of pathology, but on another level, there’s decades-old damage there that has never been addressed and is largely buried, waiting to be re-discovered. The key thing to the book is that it’s unclear just where reality and fantasy separate, and that has to stay in the fore.

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Filed under Fiction, Lennon J. Robert