Book Reviewed: “On the Run: A Mafia Childhood”

Authors: Gregg and Gina Hill

Published: Warner Books: New York, New York. 2004.

Pages: 245.

Genre: Memoir.

Recommendation: Honest, Compelling, and Well Written. The tragic truth behind the Hollywood Mafia hype revealed through the eyes of two children growing up in a world of chaos. It’s remarkable how Gregg and Gina Hill find the strength to build better lives for themselves…the witness protection program, the denial of their mother, the tough and sassy-tongued love of a grandmother couldn’t do what they have accomplished, all on their own.

  

On the Run is the true story of Greg and Gina Hill, siblings, whose father, Henry Hill is an infamous mobster turned federal informant. Henry Hill has spent most of his life in and out of jail for committing hundreds of crimes, and many more that he can’t recall. Other times, Henry would simply vanish—abandoning his family for self-indulgent desires: drugs, alcohol, gambling, affairs with women. Early memories Gregg and Gina have of their father include Henry snorting lines of coke off the Miss Piggy mirror in Gina’s room, wild parties in the home and visits with Henry in prison where Mrs. Hill (Karen) snuck contraband to her husband. Karen was a loyal wife who returned to her husband’s side despite years of abuse, infidelity, and utter chaos. What strikes me is that throughout their childhood, no one is looking out for Gregg and Gina. No one is there to fight to keep them safe, or make an attempt to give them a better life, or even say a kind word (the vocabulary at the Hill house is peppered with obscenities, and often Henry is verbally abusive. On several occasions Henry has threatened to kill his family). Gregg comments that (p. 221).” There we so many secrets in our family. We didn’t keep them intentionally, I don’t think, but there were just so many things we didn’t know about my father…we disintegrated individually.” Despite these harsh conditions, Gregg and Gina took what they could to establish some kind of stability—for both of them the friendships and activities they participated in outside the home were instrumental to offering escape, and perhaps hope. For much of her childhood, Gina blindly loves her father—forgives his wrongs—believes in Henry’s promises for a happy future, that the bad times are only temporary. Time and time again, Henry brings Gina’s dreams crashing down on her head in ruins. There is a different relationship between Henry and Gregg—at first a fascination bordering on respect that quickly erodes to tension, and mistrust. By the time he is a teenager, Gregg will be openly at war with his father.

Life for the Hill family is abruptly torn asunder when Henry is arrested for drug charges in 1979. While Henry was in jail, FBI agents went to visit him, to coerce Henry to cooperate on a case. With the appearance of the FBI, word soon got out that Henry would snitch. In turn, an associate known to Gregg and Gina as “Uncle Jimmy” made threats against Henry’s life. When it is learned that there are threats on his life, federal agents offer Henry an opportunity—work as an informant and in exchange the family will be placed in the witness protection program. Henry takes the deal. When the Hills enter the witness protection program their lives are changed in just a few hours– the family is allowed to take only a few belongings and in secrecy, whisked into a strange life.

Even in witness protection, some things remain the same—namely Henry’s explosive temper, his life of crime, his drug and alcohol abuse and the chaos that is common in the Hill home. Other times, Henry is known to be charming, funny and attentive towards his family. While Gregg and Gina are living in witness protection, as small children holding this enormous secret inside, their father is doing everything in his power to undermine their safety, and anonymity. When the identity of the Hill family is compromised, or they are threatened, they are forced to move—often with only a moment’s notice and no time to say “good-bye” to the life they had known so briefly. Gregg and Gina alternately relate this story, in vivid detail—their courage is both heartbreaking and deeply moving.  I was touched by Gina’s candor in describing her feelings towards Henry. Gina seems conflicted between the different sides of her father, at times she mirrors her mother and makes excuses for her father, desperately holding onto the dream that she would one day belong to a “normal” family. The breaking point comes for Gina after her father viciously attacks her on her 17th birthday (p. 219-220),” I believed in him. All those years, I believed in him. I’d always forced myself to hold two different images of him in my mind, the good man I knew he was and the bad man the drugs and alcohol made him. I kept the good image alive, too, when no one else did, when the bad one was suffocating it. He tried to kill me. He tried to run me down. We had the nice house. We had the horses. He had the book coming. Why now? Was he high? Strung out? Did I give a sh**?”  On the Run is a suspenseful tale, it begins with the innocence of Gregg and Gina whose lives are turned upside down, as chaos envelops their home and the sanity of their parents, you can’t help but to wonder if they will break under the pressure.

  

Reading One the Run gave me a lot to think about, in wanting to help Gregg and Gina, I began to assess my actions. Some of my thoughts reflected on how I had internalized dysfunction as a child. I went beyond the past, to think about what I have to give to others, now, in the present. I have learned that when a child is living in a dysfunctional home or with an abusive parent, often that child takes on the roles and responsibilities of an adult in order to survive. Even in cases of intervention, the child may take on an adult level of behavior because of a pattern forced on the child at a young age. In the case of Gina Hill, she mimicked the behavior of her mother, and as a young child would make up elaborate excuses for Henry’s abuse, addictions, and cruelty. Gina learned to justify her father’s behavior because it was expected of her but when she was older, several things happened that caused Gina to seek her own freedom. I also think Gina was pushed to action by Gregg, who ran away from home. Gregg also took on an adult role when he became a defender. When Gregg saw his father going into a rage, or beating his mother, Gregg would shout at Henry or physically attack him.  Gregg had a propensity to violence in being exposed to it from a young age—his father let Gregg fire a submachine gun in the basement as a child, there were Mafia men and gangsters constantly in company of his father, and then living with the fear of being killed on a daily basis. In many ways, Gregg was bred to be violent, and struggled against becoming like Henry on a very personal level. One of the most vivid scenes I recall is a confrontation Gregg had with Henry Hill (p.223),”I remembered a page from a book I got for my thirteenth birthday, Deal the First Deadly Blow. It was a military manual about hand-to-hand combat, overpowering bigger opponents quickly and lethally…I swung my arms out to either side, then brought my hands together fast, clapping my palms over his ears. The pressure change was supposed to be excruciating. Apparently it was. My father let out an ungodly howl like he’d been disemboweled. I felt a spark of satisfied surprise. Holy sh**! It worked!”  I think the hardest thing for a child living in a dysfunctional home to do is to separate their identity from that of the abuse, of the chaos. The child has to learn to deal with their own issues and to create healthy boundaries. While at the same time deal with the pressure, guilt, and disappointment so ingrained that a child feels he/she ought to take on the issues of others. Or a child may feel responsible for the abuse/bad circumstances that have happened to them as a child. I don’t know how Gregg and Gina Hill worked through their issues, it wasn’t elaborated on…but I would like to say to anyone reading this, be patient and loving to the children in your life. The attitudes and actions you have toward a child will shape the rest of their lives. Also be aware of children in need—taking the time to be supportive, to offer help or to intervene in an abusive situation could save a life. You can help in other ways, too by volunteering, donating items to charity, and showing your children a good example in yourself.

  

The question that kept me up at night after reading On the Run is why didn’t anyone do anything to rescue Gregg and Gina as children? As Henry continued a life of crime, continued to terrorize his family, continued to compromise the witness protection program—didn’t it dawn on anybody that those who were most at risk were the children? The former Mob associates who wanted to kill Henry posed little threat compared to the new friends Henry had made—derelicts, drug dealers, gangsters, addicts. Gregg and Gina were exposed to danger every day and worse, when they grew older they almost lost themselves to anger, hurt, and pain caused by living in such dysfunction. The part of the story left untold, that I wanted to hear, was how did Gregg and Gina find success, and find a way out of the Mafia life. Who helped them? What inspired them? How did they manage to escape despite the incredible odds against them? The “happy ending” of this story is bittersweet (I won’t ruin the book and tell you here)—despite all his crimes, and obvious problems Henry  is given a second chance time and time again. Gregg and Gina are left to pick up the pieces, without the support of parents, and build a life for themselves. Their efforts are truly inspiring, and I hope Gregg and Gina continue to do well. I highly recommend On the Run.

Review by EJ    ⓒ 2007

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