I have always wondered what happened to the family of former Lucchese family assoaciate Henry Hill (1943-2012) following their entry into the Witness Protection Program. Hill had been expelled from the program due to multiple arrests, including one in 1987 for narcotics trafficking. In the years that followed, he became somewhat of a celebrity, appearing on shows and giving interviews about his life in the mafia. His ex-wife Karen, has remained out of the public light, living her days peacefully under the cloak of anonymity. Their children Gregg and Gina have families of their own but do their best to also remain out the public light. Their father’s life was portrayed on screen by Martin Scorcese, whose film Goodfellas, is considered by some to the best film about the Italian-American Mafia ever made. Ray Liotta gave a great performance as Hill and what I found while watching the movie, is that for all his faults, Hill still comes in the film as a likable person. I had heard that the real Henry Hill was not as nice as portrayed on screen and the real story was far worse than what we see on film. Neither the film or Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, shed light on the relationship between Hill and his children so we are not given any hints as to what things were like at home. There is one scene in Goodfellas where Henry and Karen have a blowup fight and as Henry storms out, the camera zooms in on one of their daughters to capture her reaction. However, there is much that was not said. That is where this book by Gregg and Gina Hill comes into play. Written with Sean Flynn, the siblings tell their story of life with a mobster father and the realities of being in witness protection.
Hill’s arrest in 1980 by Nassau County narcotics officers officially marked the end of his life in the Lucchese family. As the reality of the charges settled in and the threat of murder by his former associates became strikingly clear, Hill made the decision to cooperate with federal prosecutors, forever changing the lives of his wife and children. We would expect to hear that the family was close knit and fully prepared for their new life together. But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I feel compelled to warn readers that this book does not have a typical happy ending. And what we learn about the Hill household both before and after Hill’s arrest in 1980 through the words of his children, is both eye-opening and mind-boggling. Karen Hill did not participate in the writing of this book but of course, she is in the story. And whether she will one day write her own memoir remains to be seen but if she has not done so by now, I doubt that she ever will.
Those of us familiar with other books by former mobsters and their family members know that the life is nowhere near as glamorous as movies portray. It is a dysfunctional and dangerous life that shatters lives. The Hill children ae frank about the off the wall experiences they had as the children of a man who was “always looking to score”. Hill’s addiction to drugs is portrayed accruately in the film but what his children describe here in the book puts things in a whole new light. And at some points I shuddered as I read Gina’s words about the parties held at their home. This part of the book was actually the most difficult to read and I felt an inner rage as what was a severe case of negligence. Their parents were caught up in the life and not even the words of their grandmother whom Gina calls “Gram”, were enough to get Hill to change. And Gregg’s description of their last day in New York before disappearing is truly hearbreaking. His his father had become increasingly bizarre and embarrassing and Hill’s inablity to live a normal life combined with his demons, created sharp divisions between parent and siblings. Gregg sums up his frustrations with his father in this simple yet pointed statement:
“What I really wanted was a father. Or maybe I wanted my mother to leave him, to stop visiting him in prison so we could move on with our lives. It was his mistake, his fuckup, that created all these problems, that made her work so hard, that made us rely on food stamps to eat, that got the electricity shut off because there wasn’t enough money to pay the bill. I didn’t know how to say that then, but I knew having a normal father would have been better than any present.” – Gregg Hill
The book picks up speed and intensity as they enter the Witness Protection Program under the care of the United States Government. They soon find themselves in a cycle of settling into a new place and then being uprooted unexpectedly. Omaha, Nebraska is the first stop, before moving on to Kentucky and eventually Redmond, Washington. But no matter where they went, Henry could not let go of his gangster past. Gregg and Gina have an endless supply of anecdotes about their father’s actions which put the family in danger on more than one occasion. In fact, Hill became so out of the control, that the the U.S. Government was forced to make a decision that Gregg only learned about years later while reading the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (“FBI”) file on his father. The family’s life in Washington State simply spirals out of control as Henry embarks on a path of destruction that finally resulted Gregg and Gina making life changing decisions. Alcohol, drugs, gambling and infidelity surrounded enry and he was unwilling and maybe unable to face them once and for all. Throughout all Karen remained loyal and supportive but even she too reached her breaking point, divorcing Hill in the late 1980s. Following a very scary physical altercation with her father, Gina reflects on all that happens and remarks:
“I don’t know why I didn’t leave after that. I guess it was because I didn’t want to abandon my mom. I didn’t understand then the role she’d played in everything, how if it hadn’t been for her tolerating my father, always taking him back and believing his apologies, none of it ever would have happened. Maybe we never would have had to run from New York. Maybe we would have had a chance, a good chance, at the life I’d always wanted.” – Gina Hill
If you liked the film Goodfellas and want to know more about the family of Henry Hill, you cannot go wrong here. And although Uncle Jimmy (James Burke), Uncle Paulie, Tommy (Tommy DeSimone) and Stacks (Pernell “Stacks” Edwards) are mentioned in the book, it is only in a memory by one of the Hill children, Gregg more often than Gina. I am sure the book was painful to write and dredged up dark memories of life with an alcoholic and abusive father who could not leg go of “the life’. It is a sobering account of the real effects that a life of crime has on those we love.