Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

My Mafia Roots

Transcending a legacy of fear

I was born in a Mafioso part of Brooklyn, and my grandparents were born in a Mafioso part of Sicily. We moved to the suburbs before I could talk, and the Mafia was never discussed in my home. Nothing was ever discussed, in fact. My mother screamed a lot, and my father was as frozen as a deer in headlights. I stayed in my room with books, and when I grew up I looked to books to figure out what was missing. I started reading about Sicily for insight into my cultural heritage, and that's how I realized, in the safety of a suburban library, that the Mafia is my cultural heritage.

What I mean is, my family was so traumatized by a legacy of violence that they treated all social interaction as potentially lethal.

I used to think the Mafia was the fantasy of novelists and over-zealous law enforcers. I was shocked to discover it was real. Mafiosi squeeze their own people dry and meet resistance with lethal force. Sicilians lived in Medieval poverty, with outhouses and intestinal worms, until the 1960s. While Mafiosi are often portrayed as loving family men, they easily kill one family member while loving others. That's the pernicious nature of in-group violence.

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People who live in such a predatory environment tend to rationalize it just to survive. Denying the existence of organized crime is one strategy, but it only helps in interactions with the outside world - insiders all know the predators exist. Another strategy is to heroize the Mafia as protection from "the real bad guys," which includes everyone outside the culture. And finally, predators are often idealized as "cool," since they have money, status, and power. Such rationales help Sicilians subdue the resistance that would likely get them killed.

I kept reading about human cruelty in attempt to understand a culture in which violence is so widely accepted. I was amazed to learn that chimpanzee society and baboon society is quite like Mafia society. Our animal ancestors lived in groups with social dominance hierarchies backed up by violence. High-ranking monkeys and apes often protect their group mates from external threats and resolve in-group conflict, but they do it at a high price. Baboons and chimps are often missing fingers or earlobes because they failed to submit to a more dominant group mate. Mafioso are called "men of respect" in Italian (uomini di rispetto), and likewise command "respect" with violence or the threat of it. They dominate resources and mating opportunities in the time-honored way of high-ranking primates.

The more I learned about in-group violence, the madder I got about the prevailing norm of blaming violence on inter-group conflict. The cruelty inflicted within a social group seems buried by a conspiracy of silence. In-group brutes are usually depicted as "cool" guys protecting others from "the real bad guys." In my world, people are quick to reject evidence of brutality in animals, and quick to indict corporate lobbyists as the real source of brutality - though they have no actual experience with brutality.

I'm used to being alone with my books, and that freed me to question these platitudes. But what about the children still living in places where in-group violence is pervasive? Those children were once my parents. I saw the effects, though I never understood the cause until it was too late.

I've visited Sicily a few times, and eagerly trekked to the new Anti-Mafia Museum in Corleone. The triumph of this institution was diminished for me by the fact that it was empty except for my husband and myself. I invited my relatives but they feared to tread, for reasons I foolishly overlooked - they were not protected by the rule of law as I was.

I am forever grateful to the law enforcement efforts that have made it possible for me to escape this legacy. I am angry every time I see criminals glorified and law enforcement vilified The fashionable thinkers who minimize in-group crime by theorizing about "real" bad guys do not have to live with the consequences. Organized crime grows back as soon as prosecution slackens, and in-group members suffer.

Realistic images of my cultural heritage can be seen in movies like: The Sicilian Girl, Padre Padrino, Gamorra, and Excellent Cadavers. The best movie in this class is the 2005 "Alla Luce del Sole" but it is not widely distributed (YouTube has it in chunks). You won't see fine food and sexy women in these movies; you'll see people rationalizing the violence of their neighbors, or getting killed. I hope you will watch them so I won't be alone with this truth.

The story of how I learned to feel safe in a world full of mammalian social rivalry is told in my book  I, Mammal and the sequel Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity. These books explain the evolutionary origins of the brain's urge to dominate, which is why we see the same patterns across cultures and time periods. No one likes to imagine this in themselves, though it's easy to see in others. When you know how your neurochemical ups and downs are controlled by your mammal brain, you have more power over them. 

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute.

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