The Good Mothers, by Alex Perry, is the book I most frequently put on to-read lists and then do not pick up. Even if I hadn’t enjoyed the book, I would have been happy that I finally got to it. As it is, I found it fascinating and incredibly compelling – maybe the first book I’ve read in a long time that I struggled to put down. True crime is not generally my kind of thing, but I was completely absorbed by this and will be recommending it liberally to people I know in real life. Before I explain why, I should mention that if there is content you prefer to avoid, this book probably has it: the pages are crammed full of domestic violence, rape, murder, drug use, and child abuse. It is ultimately a hopeful book, but the road there is an extremely difficult one.

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The Good Mothers is about three mafia wives who turned state’s evidence, at huge personal risk, in order to bring members of the ‘Ndrangheta to justice and obtain protection for their children. The ‘Ndrangheta is a mafia based in Calabria (Italy’s toe), though as becomes quickly apparent, at the height of their power following the 2008 recession, their web of influence stretched to most countries in the world. The main business, at least during the time under discussion in The Good Mothers, is an enormous cocaine empire, with associated smuggling of heroin and cannabis. Other crimes are innumerable, but include money laundering, political corruption, and extorting protection. Tangled up in the midst of it are probably millions of lives, including prime ministers and presidents who took a cut of the profits. According to Perry, at one point the entire government of Guinea Bissau had been bought off. The ‘Ndrangheta’s success comes from its reliance on family ties, but also on what seems like a paradox: that you will kill your own brother, sister, or child before you betray the organisation. The Good Mothers is the story of three women who, when asked to choose between their families and The Family, ultimately chose the former.

Anti-mafiosi prosecutor Alessandra Cerreti is in many ways the protagonist of the book. Cerreti grew up in Sicily at the time when the first Godfather film was newly released. At the time, the Sicilian mafia Cosa Nostra had the whole of Messina in a strangehold – the period was known locally as la mattanza, “the slaughter”, and resulted in the deaths of 1700 local people. Local businesses were extorted, teenagers were being killed, and the population was essentially terrorised. Throughout this time, tourists would show up and ask for directions to The Godfather’s village. Cerreti cites her intense frustration with this glamorisation of the mafia as her original motivation for wanting to become a prosecutor. When she was older and beginning to pursue this goal, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were working flat out to try and take down the Cosa Nostra. Following decades of work between the two of them, both were assassinated in the early nineties – which was a huge misstep by the Cosa Nostra, as it turned these judges into heroes and made the fight against the mafia infinitely more effective. By the time Cerreti had become a prosecutor, the Cosa Nostra were being tried and convicted in huge numbers. She now had not just motivation, but proof that it could be done. She would spend years working with ‘Ndrangheta women trying to develop pentiti – collaborators – in order to undo them from the inside.

Where the book shines is in its honest, nuanced depiction of the three women of the title: the Good Mothers, the mafiosi who went to the police in an attempt to break the cycle and win better lives for their children. The book opens with the first of these women, Lea Garofalo, who walked into a police station holding her daughter’s hand and asked to testify against her husband and his colleagues, in return for police protection. She didn’t have to be wooed or cultivated as a witness – she volunteered out of the blue. Although the state put her in a version of witness protection, it was not the freedom that Garofalo wanted – six years in a safehouse, on and off, unable to make friends or have a job – and ultimately she left witness protection and was “disappeared”. Perry doesn’t paint Garofalo as either a hero or a villain – she was a complicated woman who had grown up in an environment that had left her damaged, difficult to work with, and profoundly unreliable – but she was also astonishingly, breathtakingly brave. She gave her life – and knew she was probably giving her life – for even the possibility of her daughter knowing freedom one day. It is Garofalo’s testimony, and her subsequent murder, that first alerts Ceretti to the fact that the ‘Ndrangheta’s women could be the key to their fall.

The other two women, Guissipina Pesce and Maria Concetta Cacciola, are very different from Garofalo and from each other, with one having forced her way into a fairly well-respected position as a criminal herself, and the other attempting to perfectly subsume herself into the feminine, loyal, quiet kind of woman that the men around her wanted her to be. Like Garofalo, though, they were both married in their mid-teens to older, abusive criminals, with motherhood coming along shortly afterwards. They were friends, and each appears to have been inspired by the other to speak. Also like Garofalo, they were prompted by their great love for their children. This is contrasted with many of the other ‘Ndranghetisti women, who raise their children as mafiosi, disown them the minute they step out of line, and in some cases collaborate in their murders. As identified by Cerreti, the mafia’s systematic perversion of the idea of “the family” poisoned these relationships in countless ways, making the few women who stood up against it the more remarkable.

It is fascinating, and infuriating, to see how the Italian state treats these women initially. All three had grown up in a culture where they were property in a very real way – lose your value, through an affair, disobedience, or speaking out, and you will be killed without mercy. One particularly chilling example that Perry gives concerns a woman who began a new relationship a full decade after her husband died of natural causes. First her lover was killed by multiple shots to the groin, then she herself was murdered, then her mother, then her niece. In the eyes of the ‘Ndrangheta, she was still her late husband’s property, and a betrayal of him was a betrayal of them all. Domestic violence is an inherent and essential part of the ‘Ndrangheta keeping order in the ranks, and as a result, the women don’t really have any understanding of what a world without it might look like. All their interactions with the state are coloured by it. Police and prosecutors, for example, don’t understand the women’s reluctance to live in safehouses for years, and see it as evidence of their witnesses’ flakiness. In fact, the women behave with exactly the same kind of difficulties and apparent indecisiveness that people fleeing abusive spouses often demonstrate – only the spouse in question is an entire Family. To start with, the women are seen by everyone – including Cerreti – as deserving what they get. The entrenched violence and abuse meted out upon mafiosi women are useful to the state – it means that women are more likely to see the benefits of turning themselves in – but these conditions don’t evoke any kind of compassion or empathy from officials.

This is a story that resists simplistic analysis, and Perry doesn’t attempt it. The behaviour of the police, in particular, raises all kinds of ethical questions about what law-abiding law enforcement should look like. The lack of compassion towards their witnesses is one thing, but their techniques are quite another. Tactics used included: extensive, intrusive surveillance; serious threats to domestic violence victims; making simply being related to a mafiosi illegal, irrespective of any other criminal activity. It is difficult to believe that the activities of the ‘Ndrangheta would have been disrupted without these behaviours, but at the same time, are these really powers we want to grant our police officers? Equally, it is completely baffling that no health or education professional realised until 2010 that raising children in what amounts to a murder cult, ready to be married off or start criminal activity by 14, is actually child abuse and should perhaps be stopped. I am a little uncomfortable with the way the book portrays those who eventually wake up to it as heroes. Thankfully, Perry doesn’t dwell on this point too much. For the most part, we are left with the voices of the women who defied the ‘Ndrangheta, threaded through – in their own words where available – from the beginning to the end of the book.

The book is dedicated to the good daughters, which seems appropriate. I suspect it is what these women would want. We spend a lot of time with Garofalo’s daughter Denise in the book – I haven’t talked about her here because of space constraints, but in many ways she represents the best of this situation. I saw a couple of people saying that this book just made them sad, because it doesn’t really amount to the wholescale destriction of the mafia. I think the situation is a little more hopeful than that. Although the ‘Ndrangheta still exist and are hugely powerful – many more arrests were made at the end of last year – Garofalo, Pesce, and Cacciola have shown that they can be defied, that generations more of violence and destruction are not inevitable. These women’s resistance started a small but steady stream of collaborators, mostly women, with some teenage boys. Going forward, there is hope that Lea and the other good mothers have begun to break the cycle (as well as becoming object lessons about the importance of proper witness protection); that eventually Denise and thousands of women like her will know a degree of freedom that their mothers, whether as ‘Ndranghetisti or pentiti, never could.

Lea Garofalo, funerali in piazza a Milano
Lea Garofalo’s funeral in 2013. The flags say Vedo Sento Parlo: I see, I hear, I speak.