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? [Read more…]