A Dark Place: The Sopranos and Vinny

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Mrs. Buckley, Contributer

When the groundbreaking HBO series The Sopranos came out twenty years ago, I was just starting my family. My kids were little and quite frankly I just did not have the time to invest in what everyone said was the best television series of all time. So over March vacation I decided to do some binge watching. If you have not seen all six seasons of The Sopranos, stop reading now, as this will be a spoiler alert. The premise of the show of course is that the main character, Tony Soprano, is the head of the mafia family that runs “North Jersey”.  He is trying to run his “waste management” business and keep his mafia family together as they are constantly worrying about the other New Jersey and New York families encroaching on their other “business opportunities” and territory. Tony also has to manage his actual family, his money loving wife, two spoiled kids, manipulative mother, crazy sister and crime boss uncle.  The stress of holding this all together takes its toll on Tony. He begins to suffer from debilitating panic attacks, and he starts therapy to figure out why he is so depressed.

I will not lie. I LOVED this show! Yes, it is incredibly violent and dark in many spots. Yes, the language is over the top and there are frequent gangland executions, but there is also something so appealing about Tony Soprano. In his sessions with his therapist, we see a softer side of Tony, a man who actually does love his family and is remorseful sometimes about his bad behavior and his monstrous actions. He is charismatic and at times genuinely seems like such a caring, nice guy that you really want to hang out with him. On many levels you sometimes cannot help but root for Tony after all he has had to endure (more spoilers) – a mother who put a hit out on him and an uncle who actually shot and nearly killed him. In the last season of the show, Dr. Melfi, his therapist, starts to read studies about how sociopaths (people who have varying degrees of personality disorders but know the difference between right and wrong) actually use therapy to hone and perfect their skills into conning people to believe that they have empathy for their victims in order to gain sympathy from those around them regarding their heinous behavior. After six seasons, the series ends with the viewer pondering Tony’s fate and questioning whether or not he really is a sociopath who was just using his therapist all along.

Going on six weeks now of isolation/quarantine/stay at home order whatever you want to call it and just being in my house with my family has really made me start to question my life and the world we live in right now. I feel like I am starting to go to some very dark places, and going there frequently I am. The Sopranos ran for six years, and about six years ago someone new entered our family. Let me backtrack. When I was a kid, my brother often brought home stray children and friends who really had no home life. Many came from broken homes or substance abuse families and they came over to our house to play basketball or baseball with my brother and the surrounding neighborhood kids. Attracted to our pretty normal family of five with regular meals, loving parents, and house where each kid had an actual bed to sleep in, many of these stray kids, Timmy, John and Chris, ended up staying with us periodically for extended bouts of time and became like extra older brothers to me. Tony Soprano’s family has made me think of my family, and I started to notice some parallels.

About six years ago I opened our home up to a lost soul. Vinny arrived like so many others my brother had brought home when I was a child, with a friend, Alan, whom we had also sheltered temporarily. It was clear from the moment we met him that Vinny has suffered from physical and emotional abuse in his own home. He was shy and reserved around us. He clearly had been the victim of a violent physical attack at some point in his life as he had scarring on his face and his left ear was permanently disfigured and half missing. He ate everything I served him with a ravenous appetite as if he had never eaten in his entire life.  Over the next few years, Vinny slowly became part of the family as he grew more trusting of us and a little more social. Although he never spoke of his past or where he came from, I felt in my heart that it had clearly been a tough situation and that he had grown up on the streets. And when he disappeared for a few days on end only to resurface with some sort of gift or thank you for us, I never questioned him or asked where the “goods” came from. I simply thanked him and welcomed him back with something to eat.

People in our neighborhood have come to know Vinny now over time.  Some of my neighbors refer to him as another name and some are quite honestly afraid of him.  There is a woman who walks her dogs by my house every day, and if Vinny is around, she tells him to stay away from her. Even her dogs don’t like him.  Vinny has never told me why she does not like him, and quite honestly, I have never asked. Sometimes I see my neighbors cross to the other side of the street to avoid Vinny if he happens to be walking along either alone or with Alan.

Some of my neighbors have told me not to trust him. They have noticed that things tend to go missing when he is around. That sometimes they see him in the woods behind their houses. Why would he be out there?  What is he up to?  Where does he really live?  Where is his “family”? I have always staunchly defended Vinny even when he shows up a little battered and bruised after clearly having been in a fight. He has been nothing but loyal and loving and appreciative for all we have done for him.  Oftentimes he will leave a “present” for us by the back door in the morning when we wake up.  There is never any card left with it, but I know it is from him and he is showing the appreciation that he is too shy to verbalize to our faces.

But now I am starting to wonder. Like Tony Soprano, is there a darker side to Vinny that I have been choosing to ignore all this time? I really don’t know that much about where Vinny came from. I don’t really know anything about his “family”. Where does he go when he is missing for days? Why are some of my neighbors fearful of him? Are some of the gifts he brings to us really the property of others? Is he, like Tony Soprano, a sociopath prone to violent and criminal acts but on the surface a charming and regular guy that you love and want to be around?  Is he, like Tony Soprano, a bit of a moral duality being both good and evil? In the first episode of The Sopranos, Tony is grieving the loss of the ducks that used to live in his swimming pool. Are these the same ducks that Vinny killed and left on my doorstep? Have I really gone there thinking that a member of my family whom I love and adore is really a sociopath/violent killer?  This quarantine needs to end. I’m in a really dark place.

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