On the Run: A Mafia Childhood, by Gregg and Gina Hill

On the Run. A Mafia Childhood

On the Run: A Mafia Childhood is the authors’ account of their childhood as the son and daughter of Henry Hill, the infamous mobster and informant whose story was the basis of Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi and the movie Goodfellas by Martin Scorsese.

It helps, but is not necessary, to have read Wiseguy (I haven’t) or seen Goodfellas (I have, multiple times). It’ll give you some background, and it’ll also give you an interesting opportunity to compare the impressions you get from the book or the movie with this book. Certainly I found myself constantly comparing the portraits here with Liotta, De Niro, Pesci, Bracco, Sorvino, etc.

And as far as that goes, the thing that stands out most in this book is what a complete waste of a human being Henry Hill is. Forget the suave, handsome, sharp Ray Liotta; the real Hill—judging from what his kids say about him anyway—was a loser before, during, and after he turned rat.

He wasn’t even interesting in the scary way that psychopathic killers Jimmy Burke (De Niro) and Tommy DeSimone (Pesci) were. Circumstances put him at least in proximity to big time crime, but he was strictly small time as a human being. He didn’t have the brains or the strength of will to be any kind of master criminal, let alone a success in any more worthy endeavor.

Hill was perpetually drunk or stoned out of his mind. He had no ability to hold his liquor, and he was a nasty, mean drunk.

He was, to put it mildly, a terrible husband and father. In addition to being emotionally abusive toward his wife Karen and his kids on pretty much a daily basis, he was not infrequently physically abusive toward his wife, and occasionally physically abusive with his kids, mostly his son.

Gregg and Gina retain their individual voices in On the Run. Instead of collaborating on the text, they write alternating sections of typically about two pages each. Each author has their own font. It makes it easy to keep in mind who’s talking to you at any given time as you read.

Whereas the movie ends with Hill and his family entering the Witness Protection Program, that point occurs about 30% of the way through this book, which then continues through roughly the end of Gregg and Gina’s childhood. So there’s a lot of material on the family’s life in the Witness Protection Program.

In general Gregg, who is several years older, reacted more negatively to their father than did Gina. Neither had more than a vague idea of the extent of their father’s criminal activity before he became a rat, but Gina especially was inclined to believe it couldn’t be anything very bad. Certainly they didn’t think of him as a member of an organized crime syndicate; at most he maybe “knew” some bad people like that. He was incarcerated for about half of those early years of his children’s lives, but Gina figured it was for minor things that really didn’t hurt anybody, and that the police were out of line picking on him the way they did.

Gregg had the reputation in the family as the worrywart, the one who always saw the negative side of things. Gina was somewhat more inclined to accept their mother’s assurances that everything was going to be fine, that whatever was going on with their father (in prison, addicted to drugs, a target the Mafia was trying to kill, whatever) was a temporary thing and soon they’d be a normal, happy family again with a nice home and plenty of money. Gregg was sometimes frustrated that his mother and sister didn’t find their situation as intolerable as he did, and didn’t write off Hill the way he did fairly early.

Whatever minimal warmth Hill might have felt toward his children inevitably manifested itself in giving them material things. Of the two, he was almost certainly closer to Gina. At least superficially she was the spoiled one, the daddy’s girl, as befit his nickname for her of “princess.” I think he had more of a tense relationship with Gregg from early on. It may be that he just wasn’t as good with a boy because his nature was to be competitive with males, to distrust them, to keep them at an emotional distance, to seek to dominate them.

I can see some of myself in Gregg. Of Karen and the kids, I think he was the most rational in assessing their situation, and the least inclined to simply accept it and adapt to it. He was also the first of the three to escape that household. He got into more terrible fights with Hill than Gina ever did. He fantasized about killing his father, and came close to acting on his fantasy, including one time when he confronted him with a homemade mace (the spiked club used by knights and cavalrymen and such) when he was beating Karen, broke his father’s rib with it, and barely was able to restrain himself from swinging it again to finish the job and kill him.

I and my father never came anywhere near that close to actually killing each other, but otherwise the dynamics in that family and between Hill and Gregg reminded me of my family growing up, and my having to deal with a father who similarly exuded a kind of grim, negative energy that permeated our lives. I too had a mother and a sibling who were far more willing to put up with the situation or make excuses for him than I was, and I too was the first to break the spell by leaving the household.

Actually I can see a little of their father in Gregg, at least more than in Gina. Gregg admits to having a terrible temper—with a very long fuse when he was young, but a fuse that grew shorter the more years he had to deal with his father’s abuse—and he developed an obsession with guns and other weapons. It sounds like he also drank pretty much, at least early in adulthood, though he says he was much more the happy, goofy kind of drunk than the kind of mean drunk his father was.

Both Gregg and Gina come across as basically good people. I respect Gregg, and feel a certain affinity with him, but Gina seems like a real sweetheart. Gregg has a lot more anger in him from his childhood it seems, and one wonders how much that holds him back or damages him as an adult. Gina eventually came to have a similar opinion of their father as Gregg did, but it came late enough that she didn’t spend a decade or whatever of her childhood feeling that way where such feelings could fester, and it just doesn’t seem in her nature for any anger she may have felt to linger at a deep level. She comes across as a positive person who doesn’t dwell on bad things, including bad things about her father, even when she acknowledges they’re true. She probably takes after her mother in that respect more than Gregg does.

Returning to the matter of how the people in the book compare to Goodfellas, it sounds like Gregg and Gina had minimal interaction with Tommy as children, but that he was very much the conscienceless maniac of the Pesci portrayal. Jimmy was a bigger part of their childhood, and they remember him mostly favorably as “Uncle Jimmy.” Not that he was around all the time or someone they had a real close relationship with or anything, but he was a friend of their father that they saw now and then who was consistently friendly with them. They were quite surprised when they found out the kinds of crimes he had committed and that he was the primary one who was determined to kill their father and possibly them.

Paul Vario and the other criminals are barely mentioned in the book. Apparently the kids saw little of them.

Whereas Hill himself comes across as a significantly worse person than in the movie (not that he’s a particularly nice guy in the movie), I would say Karen comes across a bit better than in the movie. She’s presented as a complex person with her share of flaws, but probably with more good points than you’d expect if you saw Goodfellas.

To her discredit, she shared some of Hill’s bad points, but to a lesser degree.

They both liked to party, and made little effort to shield the kids from their lifestyle; Gregg and Gina remember it was routine that various people would be lounging around their house openly doing drugs at any given time, not to mention openly engaging in sex. However, Karen didn’t abuse drugs and alcohol nearly to the degree that Hill, who eventually got hooked on heroin, did.

They both were irresponsible with money, but again there was a difference. Hill was horrible with money regardless of the circumstances. (He burned through all the money he made as a criminal, and the substantial payments he received for Wiseguy and Goodfellas in about as much time as it takes to read this paragraph, and after splitting up with Karen late in the book he was reduced to panhandling on the streets as just another strung out junkie trying to survive.) Karen was almost as apt to spend like a drunken sailor during the good times, but at least during the lean times she could be a lot more thrifty. Not to mention, when her husband wasn’t bringing in any money—during his long bouts of incarceration, for instance—she was more than willing to work a conventional job, obtain vocational training, etc., which Hill was not willing to do.

By the way, that’s something misleading about the movie, the way it portrays the pre-Witness Protection Program days as the time when Hill was on top of the world and his family was living high on the hog. In fact, while there were those brief periods where the family had a lot of money after a big score, and so they bought everything in sight including generous gifts for the kids, that was the exception more than the rule. Since they had no ability to save money, and since the Mob chipped in zero or close to it to help the family when Hill was in prison—contrary to the myth of their taking care of their own—the family was on the edge more often than not, living off Karen’s wages and government assistance.

Certainly she didn’t lead the kind of life of crime he did, though she also seemingly didn’t raise any objections, moral or otherwise, to his doing so, and she was happy to spend the ill-gotten gains.

In the movie she comes across as the more irrational and unstable one, the one who needed to be placated to keep her from flying off the handle and doing who knows what crazy thing. But my impression is that in life she was far less erratic and irresponsible than he was.

Gregg comments more than once that he doubts his father ever regretted anything he put his kids through, because there was no indication he was capable of such emotions. He may have been as much a psychopath in his way as Jimmy or Tommy, just without the same degree of violence. (His violence was sporadic and impulsive, generally directed at the women and children in his family.) Karen seems to have had at least some emotional depth to her, some limited ability to care about others.

She was no mother of the year candidate by a long shot, but she was the one who did whatever was necessary to keep the family together and provide for her kids. She wasn’t nearly—I don’t think—as useless as her husband.

There are some surprises concerning their years in the Witness Protection Program, including how little of it was planned out in detail by the government.

I think the way most of us picture it (and maybe it really is more like this today; the Hills entered the program when it was just starting), the government gives you a whole new identity and paperwork, sets you up with a place to live and a job, gives you a detailed backstory and rehearses you on it, etc. But as Gregg and Gina describe it, the government set up virtually nothing for them. They transported them to a new city, provided a certain amount of protection, especially early, gave them a modest monthly stipend (minimum wage level modest), and that was it.

The Hills (well, Karen, Gregg, and Gina—as usual Hill himself contributed virtually nothing of value to the process) had to concoct new names and a backstory, find a place to live, secure an income to supplement the meager amount the government gave them, etc.

But the main thing that stands out to me about the Witness Protection Program is just how awful this family was at keeping a secret; a surprising related point is that it never cost them—apparently the Mob had insufficient interest or insufficient competence to track down Hill and kill him.

The kids made mistakes, though they weren’t nearly as bad as the parents. The kids eventually broke down and told their story to close friends they thought they could trust to keep it secret—they were wrong—but otherwise did an OK job, especially Gregg, who was always the most paranoid (justifiably) about their being found.

But Karen told her family and others where they were and made only minimal efforts to stay hidden, while Hill himself, predictably, did substantially worse. Each place they moved to he would get involved in petty crime, hang out at bars, bring local junkies he’d just met to the house to shoot up together, and brag to everyone what a big shot mobster and informant he was. One of the very few, and very short-lived, legal businesses he attempted involved going on TV to market it. He courted publicity by participating in Wiseguy and Goodfellas. He kept in touch with numerous acquaintances and old girlfriends and such back east, and routinely made traceable phone calls to them.

One could theorize that he had a death wish from his guilt over turning rat, that he was trying to hasten the day he would be whacked as punishment. But I’m inclined to say he was just stupid and irresponsible about staying hidden, in keeping with his being stupid and irresponsible in general.

In response to Hill getting arrested multiple times and manifesting no inclination to change his behavior, and the family taking bigger and bigger risks in not keeping their identity hidden, the government eventually booted them from the Witness Protection Program. They were on their own from that point on, though the kids at least didn’t know it until they read it later in their father’s FBI file.

In the end, On the Run mostly isn’t about the Mob and crime. That’s the background that creates the situations the family finds itself in, most notably being in the Witness Protection Program, but in the background is where that stuff mostly stays, since the book is told from the perspective of the kids, and they had only limited exposure to Hill’s criminal activity.

What it really is is a story of growing up with an atrocious father. And in a way it’s a positive story, in that, if the impression created by the book is to be believed, Gregg and Gina not only survived that childhood but turned out to be sane, caring people with good values. I give them a lot of respect for that. And let’s throw a little credit Karen’s way too, for being a mediocre parent and thereby mitigating the influence of a horrible parent.

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