Who Was Your Mary?

In Italy in 2003, a song was released which touched a generation of teenagers and young adults. It was a rap ballad (as odd as that musical category might sound, you’ll see what I mean if you play the video), but it talked about something that we just didn’t talk about until then. This was no melodramatic song of undying love, or of heartbreak. It was called Mary, and it was a song about a reality that many young people in Italy lived through, though many of them thought they were alone.

Mary is about a girl who runs away from home. In the chorus, it talks about people seeing her running, crying, and then she disappears. In the first verse you understand why, Mary runs away because her father is beating her and abusing her. Her mother knows, sees the bruises and the signs, but says nothing. It is the shameful secret of the family. Mary has enough, and she runs.

But the song is not without triumph. In the second verse, Mary comes back. She is a grown woman, and the people in the town remark how she seems to be at peace. She has a man in her life and a beautiful daughter, and she was able, despite her childhood, to grow up and be happy. She returned to the town because she has discovered that her father had died, but she has no tears to shed over his grave.

This song, in a style of music meant to appeal to teenagers and young adults, sparked a national conversation. There was a time in which it was playing in every house all over the country. Teenagers started talking to each other about it, opening up about it, and it finally dawned on everyone that they all knew a Mary. While the country was very cognisant of the possibility of child abuse, and telephone hotlines were available and advertised on TV constantly, there was a gap when it came to the abuse of teenagers. They were considered almost adults, willful, and any seemingly excessive discipline on the part of a parent was between them, surely the teenager is extremely difficult and the parent is desperate, that’s not abuse, we all know how teenagers can be, amirite? This cultural mentality seeped into the younger generation, and anything short of sexual abuse was not considered something outside of a parent’s right to raise their child.

My Mary’s name was Maddalena.

I was 12 and she was almost 16, as were the other girls I hung out with when I was in the country on weekends. I felt so lucky to be included in a group of older girls, proper teenagers, but Maddalena was my favorite. She wasn’t conservative and staid like the other girls, she was bold, she smoked cigarettes and crept out of her bedroom to come and find me and we’d wander around at night, sneaking desserts from the kitchens of a local restaurant, smoking, listening to rock music and chatting about life and the universe and the amazing expanse of the great wide world around us, and how we were going to fit into it. I adored her, and she knew it.

Maddalena loved her Mom, but she wasn’t around. She had been institutionalized, though for what mental disorder it was hard for me to understand, I doubt Maddalena really knew herself. Her mousy little father had remarried, a big stocky and horrible woman who constantly tried to bend Maddalena to her will and get her to accept her as the authority in the house. One day I was in Maddalena’s bedroom and her step mother, who had been perfectly nice to me when I had come over, burst into the room in a temper. She drank, and she must have remembered a cheeky response Maddalena had flung at her earlier. She towered over Maddalena and started wailing on her with a ferocity I had never witnessed before. I knew she hit Maddalena. I had even been shown the mark on the wall made by the ring on her fist when Maddalena had ducked in just the right moment. But this was different. This was brutality.

I stood there, frozen and shocked. After a few moments that seemed like an eternity, her stepmother realized that I was still in the room. She turned towards me, and by her sheer bulk forced me out of the door, saying that in this family we do not allow people to disrespect us, and slammed the door in my face. Moments later I heard Maddalena start screaming and crying in earnest. I ran.

I ran, tears streaming down my face, and found the other teenage girls we used to hang out with. I started shouting at them to do something! Do something! Call someone, anyone, their dads, the cops, someone we have to go back there and help her! She is screaming can’t you hear her? We have to do something!

They just stared at me and sighed. They told me I was a naive little girl. It was nobody’s business. nobody’s. Their parents wouldn’t help, the cops wont care. Surely Maddalena brought this down on herself. We all know she’s rebellious, she sneaks out, she smokes, and she is rude to her stepmother. Sometimes people scream to get attention, but surely she’s being disciplined no more harshly than is normal. I tried to argue, to say no, that’s not it, but their united assurance that I was being silly and childish, that I’d know better when I was 16, made me falter in my resolve. Was I being stupid, and naive? Was this normal? I didn’t know.

I crept back to Maddalena’s house, hours later. I could hear her whimpering and crying through her bedroom window. I was too ashamed to tap on it and talk to her, too afraid that her step mother would hear me and fly into another temper. The next day, her mother had someone come over and fit bars over her bedroom window, so no more late night wanderings around the town with Maddalena. I came over again, to see if I could devise a way to loosen the bars so that she could get out, but then be able to slide them back in so that her step mother would be none the wiser. She shooed me away. I left, so ashamed. I had seen it, and I had not helped her. I knew that her “discipline” was abuse, I knew what she was going through, but I had left her there. A part of me never forgave myself for that.

Two years later, Maddalena ran away for good. Her stepmother had no idea where she was, nor did she much care, for years after that. I heard that she is happy now. I ran into her at the beach, hundreds of miles away from where we used to see each other. We recognized each other, and ran to each other in the sea like a slow motion movie scene. She has a daughter. She works in a bar in Rome. She is happy.

Years later, Maddalena came up in conversation. I was with one of those teenage girls who told me I was being foolish, and her mother. In hindsight, they all acknowledged that Maddalena was being abused. Her stepmother had shown her true colors to the town after Maddalena had run away and she had no one to vent her frustration on. The girl did not remember the day I begged them to help and they told me I was being stupid. She blanched at the thought, and painfully tried to remember a time when she didn’t consider what Maddalena was going through abuse. The song Mary came up in that conversation, but the song hadn’t come out yet when I ran to them that day. Rarely has a pop song contributed so much to a shift in cultural mentality as this one has.

For those of you who do not speak Italian and are curious, lyrics and translation are below the fold. In the meantime, look back in your memory. Did you know a Mary growing up?


Mary…è andata via                                          Mary is gone
l’hanno vista piangere                                    They saw her crying
correva nel buio di una ferrovia                   She was running in the darkness of a train track
notti di sirene in quella periferia                 A nighttime of sirens was that suburb
si dice che di tutti noi ha un po’ nostalgia It is said that she misses all of us sometimes
ma lei se ne è andata Mary….                      But Mary has left

Si sente sola Mary                                          Mary feels alone
ora ha paura Mary                                         Now Mary is scared
l’ho vista piangere poi chiedereuna risposta al cielo Mary I saw Mary crying and asking heaven for an answer
e ora il suo sguardo non mente                  Now the look in her eye doesn’t lie
ha gli occhi di chi nasconde alla gente     She has the eyes of someone who hides a secret
gli abusi osceni del padre ma non vuol parlarne Mary The obscene abuse of her father, but she doesn’t want to talk about it
e cela i suoi dolori in un foglio del diario che ora ha tra le mani  She keeps her pain, and in the pages of a diary that she now holds in her hands
e guardando vecchie foto chiede aiuto ad una preghiera She looks at old photographs and asks for help in a prayer
sui polsi i segni di quegli anni chiusi in una galera  On her wrists the signs of someone closed in a jail
la madre che sa tutto e resta zitta  The mother knows all and stays silent
ora il suo volto porta i segni di una nuova sconfitta e  Now her face bears the signs of another defeat
l’ho vista girar per la città senza una meta And I saw her wandering around the city without a destination
dentro lo zaino i ricordi che le han sporcato la vita In her backpack the memories that have dirtied her life
tradita da chi l’ha messa al Mondo    Betrayed by who brought her into the world
e in secondo il suo corpo                     And in a second, on her body
i segni di un padre che per Mary adesso è morto è  The marks of a father that for Mary now is dead
stanca Mary non ha più lacrime ed ora chiede al destino un sorriso chiuso in un sogno la sera ma….   Mary is tired, she has no more tears to shed, and now she asks destiny for a smile enclosed in a dream at night

dicono che Mary se n’è andata via  They say that Mary has left
l’hanno vista piangere correva nel buio di una ferrovia They saw her crying, and running in the darkness of a train track
sanno che scappava notti di sirene in quella periferia They knew she was running away. A night full of sirens in that suburb
non bastava correre si dice che di noi tutti abbia un po’ nostalgia Running wasn’t enough. They say that she misses us all a little
ma lei se n’è andata                                         But she left
Mary che cammina su sentieri più scuri     Mary, who walks through the darkest alleys
stai cercando sorrisi sinceri oltre i muri di questa città  She is looking for honest smiles beyond the walls of this city
oh Mary camminando su sentieri più scuri sul diario segreto scrivevi Mary, walking through the darkest alleys, on your secret diary you would write
“quella bestia non è mio papà” That beast is not my father
ora ripenso a quando mi parlavi in lacrime  Now I think back to when you spoke to me in tears
dicevi questa vita non la cambio ma ci sto provando sto pregando ma You used to say that I can never change this life. That I am trying, I am praying,
sembra inutile e abbracciandomi dicesti tornerò…. but it all seems useless, and you hugged me, and told me you would come back one day
hey guarda c’è Mary          Look! There is Mary
è tornata in stazione         She is back in the station
sai stringe la mano a due persone    She hold two people’s hands
il suo bel viso ha cambiato espressione And her beautiful face has a different expression
senza più gocce di dolore                        Without drops of pain
ora la bacia il sole bacia il suo uomo e la bimba nata dal suo vero amore Now the sun kisses her as she kisses her man and the child born from her true love
con quel suo sorriso che da senso a tutto il resto protetto da un mondo sporco che ha scoperto troppo prestoWith a smile that gives all else meaning, protected from a dirty world that she discovered too soon
ha un’anima ferita un’innocenza rubata She has an injured soul, a stolen innocence
sa che è la vita non una fiaba ma ora She knows this is life, and not a fairy tale,

Mary è tornata una fata But now Mary has returned as a fairy

cammina lenta e sembra che sia contenta, attenta, She walks slowly and she seems happy, careful

una sfida eterna aspetta ma non la spaventa An eternal challenge awaits her but that doesn’t scare her

era altrove e suo padre ora ha smesso di vivere Mary She was elsewhere and now her father has stopped living
fissa la sua lapide versare lacrime è impossibile Mary stares at his grave, to shed tears would be impossible

Si chiedono ma è Mery quella in fondo alla via??è riuscita a crescere They ask themselves, is that Mary at the end of the street? She has managed to grow up!
tornata con il giorno in quella ferrovia fresca di rugiada parla di sè She came back to that same train station, fresh as dew
Mary senza nostalgia stanca ormai di piangere She speaks of herself without regrets, she is tired of crying
lei sa quanto dura questa vita sia She knows how hard this life is
ma lei l’ha cambiata                       But she has changed it
Mary camminando su sentieri più scuri Mary, walking through the darkest alleys
hai trovato sorrisi sinceri oltre i muri di questa città You have found honest smiles beyond the walls of this city
oh Mary camminavi su sentieri più scuri Mary, you walked through the darkest alleys
sul diario segreto scrivevi “quella besta non è mio papà…” And in your secret diary you wrote, that beast is not my father


  1. says

    I didn’t know any Marys. But that’s likely because I didn’t know people had such problems, not because they didn’t exist.

    Where I grew up and lived, conspiracies of silence were the norm (e.g. the local archbishop only facing rape charges 20+ years after his crimes).

  2. lanir says

    I grew up in the states near a small town in the midwest. I’m middle aged now. I think we had something very similar to what you’re describing though. Abuse was always this horrible thing that you knew was out there and could happen to people but you were never being abused nor was anyone you knew. Partly because it was so awful it carried a sort of stigma for everyone involved. And partly because there was always some excuse for why what you saw or went through just didn’t fit the bill, wasn’t extreme enough, or the reasons it was happening ruled out abuse (to be clear, those are all blatant lies – and really nasty ones at that).

    I think the only out where I lived was suicide unless you happened to know someone who could take you in. Winter would kill you otherwise. We had songs that skirted around the issue of abuse but nothing so generally appropriate that I recall. Janie’s Got a Gun, while depressingly American in retrospect, just isn’t the same.

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