The mass suicide and murder of more than 900 people that occurred on November 18, 1978, in Jonestown, Guyana is still the largest in history. Their deaths and the murder of Congressmen Leo Ryan are regrettable moments in what could have been a movement that changed the way people view society. Jim Jones had high hopes for his People’s Temple and their mission to reform social conditions and give way to freedom, equality and happiness. Jones himself died of a gunshot wound to the head and did not drink the poisonous concoction. Prior to Jones’ final meltdown, several members of the People’s Temple had expressed desire to leave the organization disillusioned with promises of grandeur. The reality that Jonestown was a nearly impossible task began to set in causing many to question their decision to leave the United States. As a result of the final action by the maniacal Jones, families were permanently separated and several generations died at the same time. Those who were lucky enough to escape that day or beforehand were spared the agonizing final moments of the People’s Temple.
Deborah Layton, her brother Larry and mother had joined the People’s Temple attracted to Jones’ rhetoric and vision for the church. She becomes a personal secretary of Jones and in the process becomes one of many victims of Jones’ inappropriate conduct. Following Jones to Guyana, they quickly become absorbed into the alternate reality that became the backbone of the commune’s existence. As time progresses, she becomes dissatisfied with what is clearly a dictatorship run by Jones. Leaving her brother and mother behind, she makes her escape from the People’s Temple and this is her story of why and how she made the decision to leave behind the people that she loved the most to save herself from a fate destined to nearly 1,000 people, many of whom she knew on a first name basis.
Larry had served as one of the gunmen who fired upon Congressman Ryan’s plane, killing him and several news reporters in the process. He was the only person convicted for the massacre and was subsequently convicted and incarcerated. He served 18 years in prison before he was paroled in 2002. He lives a quiet life Northern California and to my knowledge, has not made any public statements regarding the tragedy at Jonestown. Among those wounded was a young reporter named Tim Reiterman who later wrote the definitive account of Jones’ reign of terror. The book was published under the title Raven: The Untold Story of Jim Jones and His People.
More than thirty years have passed since the Jonestown tragedy. Layton has her own Twitter page devoted to her career as an author and a survivor of Jonestown. She carries with her the memories of her time with Jones compounded with the conviction of her brother and the loss of her mother. Her story is tragic and bittersweet but key to understanding why Jones and his words were seductive poison.
On March 7, 2011- Albert “Prodigy” Johnson is released from Mid State Correctional Facility after serving time for a gun possession charge. The Queens, New York native and one half of the rap duo Mobb Deep, is a legend in the music business. A few years ago, I was standing online at the Penn Plaza Deli, now Cafe Bravo, to pay for my lunch when out the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a face I knew I had seen before. Upon closer inspection I realized that it was none other than Prodigy himself. We exchanged greetings and chatted briefly before parting ways. When I saw this autobiography on Amazon, I picked up and learn about the life of the person I crossed paths with that day at the deli.
Born into a show business family, his exposure to stardom begins a child and the show has never stopped. Queens is the borough he called home and a lot of his later escapades take place at the notorious Queensbridge Houses. Barely fifteen and not even old enough to drive unsupervised or buy a pack of cigarettes, he sets his sights on a career in the music industry and becomes a rapper. His partnership with Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita resulting in the formation of Mobb Deep stands as one of the genre’s most celebrated groups. This autobiography reveals Johnson’s incredible life, one filled with music, fame, money, fatherhood, relationships and reflection. The hip hop genre is quite unique in that it is the only genre in which many of the stars have live the life that they often speak about. Reading as if it’s a New York Times true crime bestseller, the biography is filled with old memories of the gritty reality of the street life. Violent altercations, gun battles and deadly car accidents take center stage revealing a life filled with constant turmoil and stress. His battle with sickle-cell anemia serves as a backdrop and emerges throughout the book as a reminder about the mortality we all face. Today, he and Havoc are older and wiser and their craziest days are behind them. But their place in music history is unquestionable and their lives, as infamous as they may have been, are examples of the dark side of the streets of New York City and the high-speed nature of the music industry.
Martin Scorsese’s classic film “Goodfellas”, the story of the life of Henry Hill (1943-2012) during his time as an associate of the Lucchese crime family, is considered to be one of the greatest films ever made about the American mafia. Scorsese himself has been quoted as saying it was the film he always wanted to make. Featuring an all-star cast, his masterpiece took us into the violent and dysfunctional world of organized crime. As a protegé of Jimmy “The Gent” Burke, Hill moved up the ladder of organized crime reaching his pinnacle when he took part in the planning of the infamous Lufthansa heist at JFK airport. The heist took place in December, 1978 and cost Lufthansa five million dollars in cash and almost a million dollars in jewels. A massive investigation was launched by the FBI, Port Authority police and New York City Police Department. Only one person was convicted for the crime and the money has never been recovered. In January, 2014, mobster Vincent Asaro was arrested and charged with being part of the heist. He was acquitted in November, 2015. This book is a collaboration between the late Hill and author Daniel Simone about the robbery and the personal lives of Burke and his crew.
The secrets regarding the location of the stolen cash went to grave with with the deaths of Burke, Paul Vario, Hill and the other associates who took part in the planning or execution of the robbery. Asaro’s acquittal served as another dead end in the government’s quest to prosecute those responsible for the heist. The investigation into the robbery received its first break with the discovery of the fingerprints of Pernell “Stacks” Edwards but was immediately compromised by hidden battles between the three leading investigative agencies. It was not a team effort and the infighting resulted in investigators from each agency running into walls of silence and misinformation. The crime pulled in all three agencies because 1) it involved currency stolen from an international air carrier, 2) the crime occurred on Port Authority property and 3) the crime occurred in Queens County even though it was on airport property.
At the top of the list of investigators was the Federal Bureau of Investigation in liaison with former United States Attorney and Boston College alumni Ed McDonald. McDonald has admitted that Hill never made the best witness and his years of drug abuse had taken its toll on the memory he had left. Others have called Hill a rat, junkie, punk and far worse. In fact, I have yet to hear anyone who did know him on the streets, speak kindly of him. But the reality is that he was there and he was a witness to the events that formed the basis of Scorcese’s classic. And his testimony proved to be beneficial for the U.S. government. Burke and Vario both died in prison as they served out their sentences from convictions based on Hill’s appearances. Still though, this is Henry Hill and some parts of his story are questionable. He alleges that an attempt on his life was made on Tillary Street near the Brooklyn Bridge. There is no credible evidence to back up this claim. So it is up to the reader to take what he does say at face value and cross-reference the facts.
The book reads like a crime novel and Simone’s writing style is engaging. In the film, there is a sequence in which the bodies of those connected to Burke began to surface following the robbery. Their deaths are explained further in the book helping the reader and movie buff to understand why they were eliminated and the reasons behind Burke’s actions. He unleashed a deadly wave of homicides in the wake of the heist and proved to be just a cunning as any mobster we have ever seen. Burke has long been deceased and can offer no response in defense. But even if he were alive, I highly doubt that he would have written any type of book regarding his time in the life. Both he and Vario were considered old-school mafioso who lived by the rules of the game. And had it not been for the movie, millions of people would have never heard their story. Hill died on June 12, 2012 at the age of 69 after years of battling heart disease. The remaining secrets have gone with to his final resting place. But before he died he left behind testimony interviews and this collaboration with Simone. He may not be the most reliable, but he was the final link to a time in New York City that we will never see again.
August 12, 1982-The body of Dominic “Sonny Black” Napolitano is found at the corner of South Street and Bridge Avenue in the Arlington section of Staten Island, New York. Napolitano had been summoned to a meeting on August 17, 1981 at the Flatlands home of Ron Filocomo to discuss recent developments surrounding the revelation that former associate Donnie Brasco was an undercover agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In the bureau is known as Joseph D. Pistone. Pistone had infiltrated the Bonnano crime family by posing as a fencer of stolen jewelry. He worked undercover for five years. The operation was suspended when it was learned that Pistone had been asked to take part in a murder which would have resulted in him becoming a made member of the crime family.
This New York Times bestseller is Pistone’s memoir of the five dangerous years he spent with the members of the Bonnano crime family. Playing a cat and mouse game, he moves back and forth between the mafia and government circles carefully taking measures to hide his real identity and assigned task. The family is filled with hardened gangsters and murderers making each move a carefully calculated risk. Falling under the tutelage of Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero, Brasco quickly becomes ingrained into the mafia way of life. And through his eyes and ears, we witness the dysfunctional relationships that define the mafia and their families. Pistone’s developing relationship with Ruggiero, whom he wanted to save from what he believed to be a certain death, is one of the book’s saddest moments. Ruggiero survived the fallout and served time in jail before dying of cancer in 1994. Pistone has appeared in specials and on television to re-tell his story about his time in the Bonnano crime family.
Hollywood took an interest in Pistone’s story and in 1997, the film “Donnie Brasco” was relased. Johnny Depp stars as Piston with Al Pacino assuming the role of Lefty and Michael Madsen as Sonny Black. Pacino was awarded for best actor by the Boston Society of Film Critics Awards for his portrayal of Ruggiero. The film is very close to the book and Depp and Pacino turn in great performances. It is a New York City film classic about life in the the five families. If you enjoy this film then the book is a must read.
On April 23, 2013, Antwone Fisher gave testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee about the trauma suffered by children placed in the foster care system. His story was adapted for the silver screen and told in the 2002 film ‘Antwone Fisher’ starring Denzel Washington and Derek Luke. Washington also directed the biopic. The film is based on of Fisher’s autobiography which became a New York Times bestseller upon its release. This is history and frankly one of the best autobiographies I have ever read.
His story about a young child entering the foster care system and placed in a family composed of biological and foster children is critical to understanding the fears and concerns that consume young boys and girls as they struggle to fit in with a family the have never before met. The household he enters is beyond dysfunctional and created an environment that would prevent most children from having what would be considered a normal life. As he grows up, he find ways to survive his existence at home while learning more lessons about life on the streets. His experiences on the street are frightening but the harsh reality of the chances a person will take in an effort to escape a detrimental domestic environment. At time during the book it does seem as if all hope is lost for Fisher and that all the odds are completely against him. Along with his foster brother Dwight, the two of them learn to navigate the system of anarchy encouraged by the Picketts, their foster family and their biological children.
Towards the end of the book as he approaches adulthood, his life takes on new meaning with his admission into the United States Navy where he finds himself and begins his journey to manhood. A chance experience in Japan and a commander who becomes the father he never had change his life. And as the book closes, we are uplifted as he completes his journey and embraces having a family of his own and putting the past behind him. He never forgets his beginning and his actions towards his former foster family are understandable and respectable. The book pulls the reader in from the start and refuses to let go and by the end of it, you too will be rooting for Fish to succeed. His experiences as a child in foster care highlight the existence that thousands of children today must go through here in the United States. And at times when they feel as if all hope is lost they can turn to Fisher’s story for inspiration and hope. This is his life and the incredible journey he undertook as he was finding fish.
In the aftermath of World War II, the United and Soviet Union became engaged in a protracted standoff, a Cold War that became hot on several occasions. In the eyes of Washington, Soviet expansion of its communist and Marxist-Leninist beliefs, were a threat to democracy and had to be stopped whenever possible. Every conflict involving a communist government was seen as a pawn of the Soviet Union and a direct affront to American dominance. In 1953, an armistice was signed ending the Korean War, giving the world cause for relief as a major world war was averted. Twelve years later, American troops were once again dispatched to an Asian nation, this time 13,000 miles away from home to the jungles of Vietnam, a country that many of them had never before seen. The war in Vietnam claimed the lives of fifty-eight thousand Americans and over one million Vietnamese. The withdrawal of American soldiers from Saigon in the 1975 resulted in a power vacuum in which the North Vietnamese government seized the opportunity and reclaimed its position in the southern part o the country, eventually unify the Republic of Vietnam. Saigon was later renamed Ho Chih Minh City in honor of the late leader of the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam. On September 2, 1969, Ho Chih Minh died at the age of seventy-nine as the war raged on. In death he would be vindicated as unification was eventually achieved and Washington was forced to acknowledge the communist government. The war had ended but for many veterans and civilians, the pain and dark memories continued to many many years. My uncle served in Vietnam and to this day he does not speak about the things he witnessed as a combat infantry soldier. For him and thousands of veterans, Vietnam is part of their lives that they can never forget. For America, it is perhaps our darkest moment in the execution of foreign policy.
As we look back on Vietnam, we are forced to confront many demons surrounding the involvement of the United States military in Southeast Asia. A war with no clear objective and doomed from the start, transformed an entire nation, deeply divided over Washington’s continuous blunders. To some it seems completely illogical that America began a crusade to begin with. For the war hawks, it was an opportunity to flex American muscle. In hindsight, we can now see that American troops were never there to win and the White House kept hidden from the public, an endless number of important revelations that signaled failure from the very beginning. The blame for Vietnam does not lay with one person alone but rather an entire cast of characters including four presidents. Robert McNamara (1916-2009), served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) and has been referred to as the architect of the war. In fact, the conflict is sometimes referred to as McNamara’s War. The belief that one man was responsible for the war is misguided and ignores the abundance of information revealed in The Pentagon Papers, and other sources of critical information. In 2003, McNamara sat down with filmmaker Errol Morris in the critically acclaimed documentary “The Fog of War”, in which he tells his life story and answers very direct questions about his role in Washington. While he does speak on Vietnam, he refuses to give into the claim that he was the person responsible for the escalation of U.S. ground troops. Some viewers will undoubtedly be disappointed with the lack of a detailed response to some questions but overall, the film is highly enjoyable and even in his later years, McNamara’s memory was still quite sharp. Times, locations, faces and conversations are easily recalled with near pinpoint accuracy, second only to this book which he appropriately titled “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam “.
The story is part autobiography and historical record of his career, in particular his service in Washington during two administrations. He carefully recounts the decisions that were made behind the scenes as the White House under President Kennedy grappled with looming advance of North Vietnamese troops against its southern neighbor ruled by a highly unpopular government that was unable to win support for its cause. Today, we know that at no time did South Vietnam have a stable government to resist the North. The assassinations of the Diem brothers two weeks before Kennedy’s murder, set the stage for the next battleground where America would unleash its fighting machine. And yet the question remains, why? McNamara asks himself that same question and here he attempts to finally put to the rest rumors and misstatements so that we can understand Vietnam’s tragedies and lessons. He comes across very frank in the book but there will always remain the question of how much did he refrain from saying, possibly due to the sensitive nature of the subject and possibly to avoid legal action by the U.S. Government. Putting that aside, he does go into great detail about several topics, showing the deadly mistakes that he and his superiors made as Vietnam became the crisis that would not go away.
Some readers will undoubtedly feel that McNamara should accept more blame than he does. To many, he is seen as the brain behind the operation and the whiz kid with all of the facts. Kennedy had prided himself of bringing together what David Halberstam called The Best and the Brightest. Indeed, the President’s cabinet was filled with some of the greatest minds to ever work in Washington but tragically and regrettably, mistakes and error in judgment allowed even these great minds to further escalate tensions in Vietnam and plunge American into its most unpopular war. The book can be seen as a sort of apology by McNamara for his role at the time but I did feel that there was more he could said to show his full regret. I do give him credit for being able to point the finger at himself and accept his share of the blame for the death and destruction that became the ten year war in Vietnam. Notwithstanding, the book is a good read and helps the reader understand where America went wrong in Vietnam.
May 1, 1945- The Allied forces are nearly at the entrance of Hitler’s underground bunker in Berlin. Hitler and Eva Braun have been dead since the day before. Others have fled Berlin in fear of their lives. The remaining members are forced with choosing between capture by the Allies or death. Third Reich propaganda minster Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda both commit suicide after having their six children poisoned. Their children escape the fate of falling into Allied hands and do not witness the final collapse of the Third Reich and the division of post-war Berlin. The fear of retribution by the Red Army and the revelations of the atrocities committed against Europe’s Jewish population have caused many Germans to prefer death rather than face justice at the hands of an Allied soldiers. Goebbels’ children although deprived of their lives, escaped a fate that would effect the children of other Nazi party officials. They would be faced to confront the truth of their parents’ actions during the rise of the N.S.D.A.P. and Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany. This book contains the stories of some of those children.
Hitler never had any children of his own stating clearly that he had too much responsibility towards the people of Germany to think about his own family line. Perhaps it is one of the saving graces of the war for I shudder to think about the amount of cruelty a child of Hitler would have faced had they survived the war. The belief of the “master race” resulted in German men and women being encouraged to have as many children as possible. And in fact, many of the top members of Hitler’s cabinet were fathers. Their children did survive the war and are still alive today . Stephen Lebert resumed the work of his father Norman in exploring the effects of the revelations upon the lives of the Nazi descendants. And what father and son have found is remarkable and also tragic. They conducted interviews with the children of Martin Bormann, Hans Frank, Rudolf Hess, Herman Goering and Heinrich Himmler. The interviews are revealing and the damage inflicted upon them is evident in many way. Denial is a common theme in the interviews and some of them refuse to believe what has been proven to be correct. The others have accepted it and have lived shattered lives unable to come to terms with what their father had done. And incredibly, one in particular remains committed to her father’s standing as a Nazi and truly believes him to be innocent.
The most interesting part of the book is that there is no way to know beforehand which way the subject will go. Their responses, thoughts and feelings vary highlighting the haphazard effect the war had upon them. I had often wondered what happened to the children of the Reich. This book answers that question and more. A truly tragic reality is that they were not allowed to have a normal childhood by any means. The tyrannical rule of Adolf Hitler and the Reich’s illogical policies plunged Germany into a war and allowed its members to live out their own sadistic ideals as they pillaged, raped and murdered innocent people. And the true irony is that these very same people who sent the children of Jews to their deaths, had families of their own. But I do not believe they ever thought of their children for if they did, they would have never placed them in such a position.
Today they continue to live their lives but the memories of the war and their parents are still fresh in their minds. To their very last day, they will scary the mental and emotional scars inflicted upon them by the fallout from the second world war. And as they think back on the family life they lost, they will have to ask the question if they are truly their fathers’ keepers.
March 2, 1917- President Woodrow Wilson signs the Jones-Shahfroth Act granting U.S. citizenship to the residents of Puerto Rico. And while it prevents residents of Puerto Rico from voting in U.S. presidential elections, it opens the door for the migration of thousands of Puerto Ricans to states throughout the nation. New York City was and still is the number one destination for Puerto Rican immigrants. Many settled throughout the five boroughs with strongholds erected in small neighborhoods such as Spanish Harlem, parts of the Bronx, Bushwick, Williamsburg and East New York, Brooklyn. The relationship between the United States and its neighbor in the Caribbean is unique and conflicted. The island is officially designated a commonwealth that uses American currency and whose laws are sometimes subject to U.S. approval. Its designation as a commonwealth has placed in a precarious position; it is neither a state or a country on its own and its fate is inextricably tied to America. The iron of Puerto Rico is that its citizens have contributed to the well-being of the United States in ways which many are unaware of. During the Vietnam war, more than 48,000 Puerto Rican men served in the military. I personally know one of these men who proudly served this country in Southeast Asia. Today he is a grandfather living out his days comfortably at a retirement home as he deals with the rigors of aging. His story is one of millions that tell the story of the Puerto Rican experience in the land of the free and home of the brave. Among the many stories is this one by Esmeralda Santiago, who recalls her childhood and journey to New York as her mother searches for a better life for her growing family.
Born in the San Juan district of Santurce, her early life is typical of most families at a time when U.S. involvement in the island’s affairs caused both apprehension and resentment at the meddling of Uncle Sam in Puerto Rican culture. Today it may be hard to imagine, but less than one hundred years ago, the majority of governors of the island were American and helped corporations and the government rule the island with an iron grip. For several years, English was the mandatory language to be spoken in schools making Spanish unwelcome and the act of speaking it, an offense. During this climate of colonialism and culture suppression lived a young girl whose life was about to change in a most dramatic way.
Economic depravity, stressful relationships and social conditions force her mother to make the fateful decision to move the family to New York City, a place Santiago had never visited and only heard of. Her arrival in the city that never sleeps proves to be a rude awakening and culture shock in comparison to the home she was forced to leave. The dark and gritty side of city life becomes a reality and as she explains in the book, the people were unlike anything she could have prepared for. Class and racial discrimination combined with pedophiles,deviants and her lack of ability to speak English, transforms her world and forces her to mature ahead of schedule. The highlight of the book however lies in her discovery of her talent for the performing arts. Through determination and faith, she rises above her language restriction and excels in high school. And later in life, she earned degrees from both Sarah Lawrence College and Harvard University. Many years have passed since she was a young girl in a small section of Puerto Rico, but her words make us feel as if we went back in time following her every step of the way.
When George Orwell wrote this classic in 1949, I do not believe that he knew then that his book would become the standard for the concept of the totalitarian police state. The book became so popular that not only is it read by students across the nation but it was adapted for the silver screen in 1984 by Michael Radford. The film was released on March 22, 1985 and starred John Hurt and the late Richard Burton. Orwell’s masterpiece about the watchful eyes of the government has stood the test of time and is often cited during discussions about the invasion of privacy and control of society by the government.
Winston is our main character and it is around his life and experiences that the book is centered. A love interest appears in the appearance of Julia and the book’s antagonist is the terrifying O’Brien. The lives of Winston and Julia under the watchful eye of the government paints a portrait of the world that many fear will one day come into existence. O’ Brien is an agent of the state and a true believer in the ideology of the total control of a once “loose” society. His determination and fanatical loyalty to his beliefs highlight the extreme elements among us that we embrace with precaution today. The “ring of steel” in London and the increasing amount of surveillance cameras throughout major metropolitan cities are exactly the types of societal controls O’Brien would have loved to implement. The genius of the book is that we don’t know exactly who the master controller is for there is no one person that assumes the title. Rather, it is a cohesive system of observation and persecution that reminds the citizens of the loss of their rights, freedoms and privacy. As technology advances and the control of society is increased, we can look back to Orwell’s timeless literary work as a premonition of what was to come.
Following the death of Tupac Shakur on September 13, 1996, his mother Afeni was tasked with becoming administrator of his estate and dealing with a staggering amount of litigation resulting from lawsuits filed against the late rap star and lawsuits on his behalf against Death Row records. Using the proceeds she was awarded through litigation, she established Amaru entertainment in her son’s memory. Her efforts are characteristic of the former revolutionary Black Panther. Tupac often talked about his mother to whom he was much closer than his biological father, Billie Garland. Her battles with crack cocaine addiction are well-known and Tupac himself discussed it on several occasions. In later years after his death, she had been drug-free for a number of years but sadly joined the ranks of African American mothers who have lost their children to the violence of the streets.
Jasmine Guy was a friend of Tupac’s and after his death became friends with his mother. This book is a collection of their discussions that occurred during their blossoming friendship. Afeni talks about her own life and as to be expected, her son’s short life and violent death. Guy visited Shakur’s home in suburban Georgia giving the book the feeling of two old friends sitting on a porch in the summer reminiscing about the days of yesteryear. Afeni’s story is a deep one, rife with tragedy, drugs, revolution, motherhood and redemption. She does not avoid the difficult topics and has come to terms with her past actions and inactions. As this point in her life, she comes across wise beyond her years, freely able to admit when and where she went wrong in life. She opens up to Guy and the result is a hidden literary gem that fans of the late star will come to appreciate.
Since Tupac’s early death, Afeni has been the voice of his legacy, keeping it alive for future generations. Sadly, on May 2, 2016, she passed away at the age of 69 from a suspected heart attack. Her voice has been silenced forever, but for those seeking to understand Afeni and the life she lived, this is her story in her own words.