“I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.“ — Father Brown in the The Queer Feet by G. K. Chesterton.
When I watched The IRISHMAN the first time I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would be another fictional Mafia saga like The Godfather. But when I realized it was a factual account of real people and events I was hooked. I have always been an amateur history buff and I was fascinated by how the movie revealed new angles to approach many historical events that had occurred in my lifetime. Jimmy Hoffa’s rise and fall as president of the Teamsters, collaboration of the CIA and the Mob in the Bay of Pigs invasion, Bobby Kennedy vs. the Mob, Mob involvement in the JFK assassination, Hoffa’s release from prison and pardon by Nixon. The IRISHMAN saga weaves it all together in a fascinating and provocative manner alongside the recollections of Frank Sheeran, the main character in the story.
So I watched the movie twice and then I read the book it was based on, I Heard You Paint Houses, by Charles Brandt. I was most interested in how the war experience of Frank Sheeran might have affected him and also in the fact that Frank and many of the largely Italian mob figures in the story were baptized Catholics.
The WWII combat participation of Frank Sheeran was intense, violent and traumatic. It is dealt with superficially in the movie but in the book there is much more detail and the author makes it clear that Frank learned to kill in the Army and he learned to take orders without question. These “skills” served him well during his many years spent as a mob thug and hitman. Today we might say that his apparent lack of a conscience was a result of PTSD, but I won’t go there. He does seems throughout most of the book like something less than a man. There’s something missing.
Of great interest for Catholics, Charles Brandt presents evidence in the book that Frank may have repented of his many sins near the end of his life. In prison one day, Frank sees his former “commander-in-chief,” Russell Bufalino, the infamous and powerful mob boss, being pushed in a wheelchair to the prison chapel. Frank laughs and Russell tells him:
“Don’t laugh, my friend. When you get to be my age you’ll realize there’s something more than this.”
Frank acknowledges to the author that “Those words stayed with me all these years.”
Frank’s daughters were obviously concerned for his soul and that (according to Frank) “if I died I couldn’t be buried in a Catholic cemetery.” They arranged to get him to see a priest. I wanted to believe that this very dark and terrifying life story somehow could end as a story of redemption. I had a question so I emailed Charles Brandt to clarify one particular fact and he very graciously responded and gave me permission to post the email exchange. Here it is:
“Hello Mr. Brandt,
….I am most interested in how the war experience of Frank might have affected him and also in the Catholic angle which is very evident in the book but less so in the movie. You present evidence in the book that Frank may have repented of his many sins near the end of his life. ….
But I have a question. You wrote that Frank committed suicide because he stopped eating until he died. Do you think that it was actually a deliberate, conscious act on his part or were there mitigating circumstances such as mental confusion, physical suffering, ignorance of Church teaching, etc.”
Thank you for your interest and questions.
I don’t know but I doubt that Frank knew the Church’s position on suicide. We never discussed it. He did repent but he had a humorous way of expressing it. IF I DID ALL THE THINGS THEY ALLEGE THAT I DID AND I HAD TO DO THEM OVER I WOULDN’T DO THEM. THERE IS NO DOUBT IN MY MIND THAT THE WAR PREPARED HIM for crime. It was the hardest thing to get him to speak about. He sought Absolution from three priests and got it. The last thing he and I did on tape was a Hail Mary and Lord’s Prayer. At his suggestion. But he struggled with the words.
A few years ago the Pope publicly asked Mafia figures to repent. I wished I could have told him at the time of Frank’s having already done so.
“Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let thy perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.”