A Rich Life

Waterbury native's memoir: growing up Italian-American

by Tracey O'Shaughnessy

Joanna Clapps Herman has violated the code. She has talked about the family. Che brutta figura (How embarrassing).

Herman has not only talked, but written, a story of her trying, but devoted Italian-American family, a constellation of pig farmers, blacksmiths and interpreters of dreams who unraveled life's problems over percolators and anisette cookies, prosciutto and sausage. "The Anarchist Bastard: Growing up Italian in America," is Herman's recently released memoir. It's a book that, in many ways, it has taken her entire life to write.

"At first I couldn't see straight because I was too close in," says Herman, in a phone interview from her New York home. "Then, when I started to realize what the text would be, I thought, ''Oh my God, they're going to be so mad at me. You don't tell these things outside the family."

But she has. "The Anarchist Bastard" is not just the story of the Clapps and Becce family, but the story of a particular Italian-American way of life in which Herman rejoiced and chafed. "It's claustrophobic, it's provincial, it's also too intense, too close," says Herman, who grew up on Farmwood Road in Waterbury in the 1950s and now teaches writing at Manhattanville College. "What it never was, was boring or bland, not an iota of ennui in site."

The tension between Herman's love of her family's intimacy and her own struggle to become an individual apart from that culture ripples through the stories in "The Anarchist Bastard." But it was not until both her parents died that she felt ready to publish the book.

"In my heart, I was not separate from my family emotionally until about three years ago," says Herman, who is 67. "My community always had to come before me. It was dishonorable to put your own individual desires before anybody else's. It took me 45 years to become my own person."

"THE ANARCHIST BASTARD" CELEBRATES A FAMILY LIFE in which cousins were not cousins, but sisters; aunts were second mothers; girls grabbed the mappin' (rag) after some scustomad (badly educated person) had left the kitchen sciangiat', strisciliat, strabl' or sporc' (broken down, tangled up, a mess, confused, dirty). Lots of scrubbing, lots of eating, lots of screaming, lots of singing and lots of laughing take place in "The Anarchist Bastard," which is why, for all its claustrophobia, Herman says, she still longs for it.

"Aside from the anger, it was as rich a life as you can have," she says. "If I could live that way now, I would, and I spent many years mourning the fact that I don't have that. I love to go to my family's tables and talk and talk and talk. That part was never oppressive. It was that the rules were so rigid that they were oppressive. There were too many shoulds."

And Herman knew them all. The code into which she had been born was, she says, ancient and unyielding but everybody knew its tenets. "We are an honor-shame culture," she says in a phone interview. "You either meet the honor code or you shame your family. The biggest criticism a parent could say to another is shame on you. You know that rubbing one index finger down another? When somebody did that to you, it was a humiliation."

As she writes in the opening lines of the book, "I was born in 1944, but raised in the 15th century."

Herman, who illustrates her book with vintage photographs of her family clustered in kitchens and around an outdoor brick oven, writes that her family's values were closer to Homer's Greece than to Anglo-American New England.

"MUCH OF WHAT FORMED THE PARADIGMS OF OUR FAMILY LIFE had to do with pre-Christian, prehistorical ideas of pride and honor, shame and hospitality, of singing and storytelling, the palpable reality of dreams, and a strict code of what it meant to be a man and a woman," she writes, "What was emphasized was shame not anxiety, honor not accomplishment, hospitality rather than individual ambition, song and storytelling, not writing."

And yet Herman did write, moving from Waterbury in 1960 to attend college and — to her family's shock — never returning. She was one of two daughters and her mother made the distinction between the two girls clear: "I was the wild child. I was the bad sister," Herman says. "That's what she would say. She would say, 'Your sister's a saint.' And she would look at me and shake her head. That was what my mother needed. She needed a saint and a sinner."

But the longing for that culture, for orgiastic Sunday dinners followed by indolent naps interrupted by the early evening pop of the percolator, never left her. "My whole tribe was my primary family," she said. "You cannot be safer than that in the world. You are never unsafe."

HERMAN WRITES WITH WONDER AT HER FEMALE RELATIVES' SKILL with a needle and thread, their physical stamina and the grinding poverty they faced in southern Italy, where they were born.

"Our mothers had been raised in America but with 15th century customs; on the pig farm where they lived as children, they had drawn their own water from the well and baked their weekly bread in the brick oven my grandfather built down by the road. They had risen at dawn to milk the cows and collect the eggs.

After school they weeded the garden, cleaned the chicken coops, helped with the endless chores of farm life. One summer they spent hours in intense heat picking bones out of the pig manure, because my grandfather had heard he could earn money for bags of bones....They grew up with screaming and violence as to even minor deviations from these 15th century mores."

It is that impulsive fury — at once funny and frightening — that delights and disturbed Herman. Her grandfather, the "Anarchist Bastard" of the title, got so mad at a mule for not moving that he bit the animal in rage. He also, for no reason outside of malice, thoroughly shredded a canoe his son had made by hand, an example of his cruelty that unsettles Herman to this day.

"Peasant culture in general has a lot of anger running through it," she says. "My culture has a lot of passion in it. We don't have restraint. We don't know what it is."

"There's a lot of vocalization," Herman says, laughing. "It's loud and intense and it is operatic. That is the normal tone of voice. Although there is a lot of anger, there is a lot of laughing. A lot of singing, a lot of storytelling, a lot of carrying on."

This summer, Herman plans to rent a house in Umbria, Italy, where she hopes her cousins and their children can recreate a little of what they had as children.

"The Anarchist Bastard: Growing Up Italian in America," (State University of New York Press, $24.95) is available online at at local bookstores.

Joanna Clapps Herman will speak about her book May 16 at 6:30 p.m. at the Silas Bronson Library, 267 Grand St., Waterbury. For information, call (203) 574-8200.