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Michael Patrick MacDonald on His Book 'All Souls: A Family Story from Southie'

September 17, 2010

Irish American activist Michael Patrick MacDonald talks about his memoir, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie. In this breakaway bestseller, MacDonald writes about growing up in South Boston and how he overcame his traumatic childhood.

6 Minutes 57 Seconds

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This is Vince Bracy, a student at Lehman College. In this podcast, from The City and Humanities Spring 2010 Event Series, Irish American activist Michael Patrick MacDonald talks about his memoir, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie. In this breakaway bestseller, MacDonald writes about growing up in South Boston and how he overcame his traumatic childhood.



On All Souls Day, November 2nd, is the day that we, myself, and a number of community residents organize a vigil to remember all those who died too young in the neighborhood. Now we did these vigils repeatedly, but the first time, the first year we did a vigil, we thought maybe ourselves, a few friends would show up. And, you know, that the neighborhood really wasn't ready to come out and start to tell the truth about all these deaths that we'd experienced in the neighborhood.

But when we did the vigil, we held it in a church. The church was completely packed, and the line went out the back door, with people holding candles to say their loved ones names, and to light the candle in their honor, and to remember all these young people who died too young in the neighborhood.

Now, when we first organized the vigil, we framed it so that we were just simply remembering all those who died too young in the neighborhood, so we weren't talking about murder, we weren't talking about all the suicides of the neighborhood, all of the drug overdoses. All of these things that we weren't really allowed to talk about yet in the neighborhood. We're just going to simply remember all those who died too young.


But, of course, all of us knew what we were talking about. And everyone who showed up that night knew that they were getting to say their loved ones names and to remember them and honor them in this neighborhood that suppressed the truth about their death as well as their lives. So, I was so overwhelmed by that vigil, by the kind of outpouring, the neighborhood coming out and telling the truth that I was kind of stunned speechless.

Because All Souls then is about going back in time, and trying to work with memory to bring us back again to that altar, where I'm able to find the voice to say my brothers' names, a lot of my work, whether my work as a community organization in the neighborhoods or my work as a writer, really is about this whole idea of finding your voice.

Now, before I had gotten to that point where I was organizing a vigil in Southie, I'd spent many years doing community-organizing work in other parts of the City of Boston. So, as you know from either of the books, South Boston was an extremely insular community. It still is pretty insular, but it's more recently become more gentrified, and it's not as insular as it was.


But it was an extremely insular neighborhood, and many people from the neighborhood never crossed the bridge into the bigger world downtown. People from the outside world didn't come into South Boston at all. It was very closed off, especially in the aftermath of busing, and the busing riots that took place. Some of the race riots of the '70s. There was that kind of reinforced the borders with the outside world.

And some of that border was racial, and some of it was just people in general from the outside world of any racial background would be afraid to come through Southie because they would be outsiders and not safe. And there was a real hostility to outsiders, and there was a lot of racism in the busing period, too. So, a lot of the fear of the neighborhood was justified.

But there was also this attitude in the neighborhood that, you know, you didn't need to go out to the bigger world, because we have it all, we have everything we need here. And that was kind of reinforced by not only the gangsters that ran the neighborhood but their friends who are politicians who were the highest up people in the Massachusetts Senate, even.


And so, there was this idea reinforced among the young people that we don't need to go out into the bigger world, and I think that's one of things that caused a lot of these deaths eventually. I mean, some of the earlier deaths that I experienced growing up were to do with gangsters and people involved in bank robberies, and people getting shot. And then, other deaths later were around the code of silence around that stuff. So, if people experience all this death and murder and people being involved in crime, and not being able to talk about it, that increased a lot of the drug usage I think in the neighborhood.

And I think that led people to kill their pain using heroin, oxycontin, there was a big crack epidemic in the '80s, late '80s and early '90s as it was hitting the rest of the country too. So, in my neighborhood, it was extremely insular, and we had all these social problems. We had extreme poverty, and we had all the things that come with that, but nobody was allowed to talk about it.

So, in order to work on the things that impacted my life, I found my way across the bridge, into the neighborhoods where I heard people saying these words that we weren't allowed to say. And those were in the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, pretty much the Black and Latino neighborhoods of Boston, where people were telling the truth about all the things that impacted my own life. Police corruption, about violence, about gangs, about guns. About too many young people dying.


I said, "I need to go over there, because that's where people are telling the truth." So, I made my way over there, and that's where I learned how to be a community organizer. And it took me many years to eventually bring that back home to Southie. And again, this is about this process of being able to find my voice. I found my voice long before I ever became a writer. I wasn't really a writer until I wrote All Souls ten years ago.

But I found my voice way before that. Probably ten years before that, I found my voice in community organizing, which was the first real work that I fell in love with in this world, and kind of gave me a reason to go on, and it gave me a purpose and a real thrill to be on this earth working for change.

I'm going to finish with the last words of All Souls again, at that altar, where I'm able to find voice, simply to say my brothers' names in this neighborhood, where all of this horrendous stuff took place.


"That's how I found myself staring out at a sea of faces, looking for my brothers among the living and the dead. I was looking for the truth about their lives, and about their deaths. Like me, everyone at that night's vigil will forever be looking for the truth in Southie, where nothing's what it's seems. Standing at the altar, I at last felt I might be able to reconcile myself with all my memories of confusion, bloodshed and betrayal. And that I could do it with love. I love my family, and I love Southie. These candles burn for my brothers. I stopped and took a deep breath, and then I spoke up. Davy, Frankie, Kevin, and Patrick, and for all souls."



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