The Boy Magdalen

It always tickled me that Oscar Wilde and Maria Goretti share a birthday. (It’s October 16, which makes them both Libras — horribly fitting when you consider how both of them, in their various ways, ended up in court.) The two make such a study in contrasts as to beggar the imagination: one sprawling, sensual and and voluble; the other tiny, fastidious and reserved. I like to try to picture them celebrating jointly at Toots Shor’s: Heaven (Oscar slugging down absinthe, Maria sipping demurely on an orange Fanta) while trying to hold a conversation.

Oscar (after a long and awkward silence): You know, Maria, all men kill the thing they love.

Maria: Who you callin’ a thing, fat boy?

When I was growing up, my mother told me the story of Maria Goretti — the Lazio tween who was ice-picked to death while thwarting a rape attempt — as an example of how weird the Catholic Church can get. Ever since, it’s stuck with me like a splinter. Can’t quite assimilate it, can’t dig it out. Part of its staying power, I think, comes from its resonance with Wilde’s epic poem, “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which captivated me as an adult. Both undertake the near-impossible task of inviting sympathy for a murderer, specifically, for a man who has murdered a female. Thanks in part to the liberal use of floral imagery and references to a merciful Christ, both succeed to a surprising point. You wouldn’t want to have a beer with Alessandro Serenelli, Maria’s killer, nor with Charles Woolridge, the man hanged at Reading for taking a razor to his wife’s throat. But it is at least possible to hope, maybe a little queasily, that both ended up in a good place.

For me, at least, Serenelli has always been the most compelling character in the Goretti story. No very good biographical material exists in English; in the two films on the subject, the whole story is romanticized out of all recognition. But from the mosaic of factoids, obtainable through Goretti’s gushier hagiographies, a portrait begins to emerge. It’s not a pretty portrait, nor, unfortunately, a particularly unfamiliar one. Withdrawn, uncommunicative and obsessive, Serenelli — 20 when he committed his crime — comes across as an evil nerd, Raskolnikov minus intellectual pretensions, Mark David Chapman minus musical taste, Dylan Klebold minus the trench coat.

In later life, judging by translations I’ve read of his remarks, Serenelli, perhaps coached by churchmen following his celebrated repentance, tended to express himself in high-flown and pious cliches. For that reason, so much about him and his headspace remains unclear, and probably always will. I have never heard it adequately explained why he targeted Maria, of all people. Was he an ephebophile, or did he simply settle on the person nearest at hand? Did the fact that he was waiting for his draft notice — and, possibly, deployment to the Horn of Africa — make him fatalistic? We just can’t know.

But there does seem to have been a genuine (though of course deeply unhealthy) attachment on Serenelli’s end. After retiring to a Capuchin monastery, he kept a sentimentalized portrait of the girl by his bed, and referred to her as “my Marietta.” This is a diminuitive form of her name, corresponding roughly to the English “Molly.” Anyone who’s read Death in Venice knows that idealizing and eroticizing can be awfully close neighbors. It’s worth wondering whether all of Serenelli’s dreams about his victim were quite so wholesome as the one in which she offered him flowers, by way of offering forgiveness.

But it’s this attachment, twisted and tenacious though it was, that makes Serenelli a singular figure in Church lore. It also earns him Wilde’s epitaph, “all men kill the thing they love.” I’ve never been able to explain that line to myself in a way that completely satisfied me — it’s not literally true, and in any case, Wilde said “thing,” not “person.” But the reading that haunts me is also the least subtle: that it is possible to cling to another person so tightly that you end up squeezing out a big share of her life-force. If you’ve ever heard anyone say, “You’re smothering me,” you stand accused of manslaughter by analogy. Some of us don’t need an ice pick to do our dirt.

Am I speaking about myself? Of course I’m speaking about myself. (Don’t I always?) And just so’s that speech doesn’t veer into libel, let me state for the record: my own attachments aren’t warped to anything like a Serenellian degree. Nor are the objects of those attachments so wildly inappropriate. But the unavoidable fact is, I love hard, and for that reason, ineffectively. To put it nicely, a little of Lindenman goes a very long way, and I tend as a matter of course to miss the moment when good sense demands the valve be closed.

Though a dab hand at clean breaks in the formal sense — if you bounce me, I’ll waste no time giving back your stuff before disappearing — I can torment myself with memories for months or longer. That Rhonda the Beach Boys sang about must have been something else, but at times, I fear, I’m beyond even her help.

It’s a pretty rotten state of affairs when having an infamous ice pick killer to identify with makes you feel validated. Believe me, I’d love to trade Serenelli in for a saner, less antisocial model, but in Catholic circles, they just don’t exist. Maybe because the Church is so preoccupied with sins of the flesh, it has little to say about possessiveness as a malady of the soul. It keeps plenty of struggling sinners (Augustine, King David) in stock, and has more aescetics (Francis, Rose) than anyone knows what to do with. In Peter Abelard, it even has a gravely punished transgressor. But rejection doesn’t seem to have been a problem with any of these people; not even on the worst day of their lives could any pass for a dork emo. Well, maybe Abelard did, a little, but it seems to have taken some pretty radical surgery to turn him into one.

There seems to be a move afoot to raise Serenelli’s profile. Under the sponsorship of a Focolare member named Vittorio Greco, his body has been exhumed from the Macerata monastery where it’s lain since his death in 1970. It has been re-interred in a basilica in Corinaldo, Maria’s birthplace, and now rests next to that of Assunta, Maria’s mother. For better or worse, the two are bunkmates until the Resurrection. There is an apostolate whose members call themselves the Serenellians, but their mission — to help sex addicts — might actually miss the man’s major malfunction.

Serenelli’s fandom is probably doomed to stay small. But I suppose there’s no more fitting tribute to an evil nerd than the dedication of a very small and furtive cult. It may be a sign the Church is moving toward a greater sense of gender equality that any effort at all is being made to promote him as a male Magdalen. Can I coin a cutesy neologism and call him a man-dalen? Yeah, might as well. Somehow, it sounds right for an Italian.

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  • suburbanbanshee

    She gets portrayed as very small and weak. Actually, by all accounts, St. Maria Goretti was a fairly healthy, chunky young lady, tall and strong for her age. Unfortunately, her age was eleven. She became physically mature very early, which is never much fun; such girls have to look out for predators pretty sharpish. She got stuck with a good share of the work and with the predator living on the other side of the house.

    [They finally found a photo of her. Granted, it's grainy, taken from a distance with a fair-sized group of people, but yeah, she looks much less malnourished than I always imagined. Waifs make good underdogs, though, and she'd have had to be very tall and very husky indeed not to be dwarfed by Wilde. Even Bosie Douglas, who stood about 5'11" and had a pretty solid build, looked like a kid next to him.]

  • Joanne K McPortland

    Oh, here’s The Book. :)

  • Philip S.

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  • ace

    Svengali & Trilby? Pearl Pureheart & Oil Can Harry? Tone deafness & hypnotism? Or, perhaps, the beauty of the twisted apples in Winesburg, Ohio?

    Nah, probably just a little Meniere’s…

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Abbey-Roads has what they think may be the pic of Maria Goretti

    [I've seen that one before, but don't know whether anyone's made positive ID. According to an archivist named Ugo de Angelis, this one's definitely the real deal. It was taken about five months before her murder. The photographer has her posed on top of an overturned bucket, as if foreshadowing how she'd end up on a pedestal:

  • Melody

    I can rememeber the Sister who taught me in 5th grade saying “…and they found a stack of dirty magazines under Alessandro’s bed…” Wonder what a circa-1900 dirty magazine was like; probably tamer than the ones at the checkstand at the supermarket now. Which isn’t to say that pornography couldn’t have fueled twisted desires in a young man with too much time on his hands.
    I always wish they would give Maria more credit for her life, not just her death. She was practically raising her younger siblings after her dad’s death, when her mom had to go out and work in the fields. She apparently was a very loving girl; encouraging her parents when they got discouraged; taking the other kids to Mass and teaching them their catechism.
    We rightly praise the martyrs; but sometimes we ignore the unsung saints among us, who keep on putting one foot in front of the other, not losing faith, and encouraging others in circumstances that seem impossible.

  • Io

    Very thought-provoking. In some ways, you have to wonder what makes her a martyr? She wasn’t resisting sin–she was resisting rape, which is not sinful. It’s sort of strange when you think about it.

  • Manny

    Now that is an interesting take on the story. I guess Serenelli is the more interesting character of the two, but I’ve always had a warm spot in my heart for Maria. Did he ever explain why he went from rejection to knifing? I’ve been rejected in my day, but I never quite made a leap like that. ;) It seems like it’s right out of a William Faulkner novel.

  • Corita

    @Io: I grew up despising the story of Maria Goretti with that interior, impatient shake of the head that I have for all (what I saw as) misogynistically-influenced strains of the cultural Church. I thought her sainthood was just an indication with the obsession with virginity. (I also knew no more about her story than “she died preserving her virginity.”)

    Now, however, I understand better the story of Maria Goretti and what would make her a saint.

    According to the biographies, her response to being threatened by S.– not the first time, by the way, was to urge her attacker to stop, and not to sin. And, seen in that light, the stabbing appears influenced, at least in part, by her holy witness, and indeed an incidence of trying to shut her up. In “My Peace I Give You”, Dawn Eden also compellingly points out that Maria Goretti did not *have to* resist in order to be good (avoid sin) but she was willing to die in order to speak and act the Truth for herself AND for Alessandro S. Eden writes,
    “…had Maria not put her entire strength into resisting Alessandro, she would not have sinned…Instead she was heroic, because she chose with her blood to bear witness against the dehumanizing evil of lust. That is why the Church honors her as a “martyr of chastity. We are not all called to blood martyrdom. But we are all called to holiness, and Maria shows us the way to it with her entire life– not only her death.” Eden then goes on to describe Goretti’s deathbed forgiveness of her attacker, one that did not deny justice (she also gave testimony to the police) but was a fruition of her life’s previous holiness.

  • Corita

    @Manny– your humorous question and equation of your own experience with that of Alessandro Serenelli has an– unintended, I am sure– tonal effect that bothers me.
    As if there could be a reasonable explanation for why he would “make quite a leap”, and one that “ordinary guys like you” would understand and think, oh, ok, no wonder he stabbed her!!

    Understanding the humanity of an evildoer, and even seeing the reality that very little separates any of us from serious spiritual depravity, is well and good. However, the way you write, seemingly thoughtlessly, making a little joke, strikes me as disrespectful and minimizing of the true evil of the act.

  • Corita

    Also, Max, sorry for leaving THREE comments, but I just wanted to say that your little exchange between Goretti and Wilde is truly inspired. It’s even better when I picture her in the now-updated image as the full-bodied, lovely and earthy Italian peasant the photo shows.
    Thanks for that!

    [Getting the better of Wilde in a verbal exchange is like turning a double play on Derek Jeter. Figured it was the least I could do.]

  • Manny


    “As if there could be a reasonable explanation for why he would “make quite a leap”

    Pulease. I’m pointing out a gap in the story. People don’t out of nowhere start stabbing people when they’re turned away. I’m definitely NOT implying that Maria brought it on herself in any way. I’m saying there’s a missing element to Serinelli’s psychology and past that we don’t have privy to.

    “and one that “ordinary guys like you” would understand and think, oh, ok, no wonder he stabbed her!!”

    I don’t support rape, date rape, supervisory pressure, or twisting a woman’s arm for sexual favors. You can be a little more charitable in the way you read between the lines.

    As to my tone, I made a comedic comparison between a normal reaction to rejection and Serinelli’s. If that tone offended you, I apologize, but it was in harmony with the overall tone of Max’s piece.

    [You and Corita will have to work this out for yourselves, but for what it's worth, I got it.]

  • Corita

    Manny, I agree there is a gap in the story in that we do not know what inner processes (eg., psycopathic, lust-filled, demonic, hatred-for-moralizers, rage-mongering, etc.) led to the stabbing. Of course it makes sense to point this out.

    The question is, how? I took great pains to express that I felt that the strains I heard were unintended on your part. I was attempting to be charitable in that way. When you respond “Puhlease”, I still assume that you mean it gently and not contemptuously. You could be rolling your eyes with a smile on your face, or a scowl! My point is that there is no way of knowing– part of the reason I think people ought to be careful making jokes that seem to casually include sexual violence into a category of “variation of the norm.” It’s a small point and I hope you believe that I am not trying to make a big deal out of what you wrote, and I won’t press it either because just trying to explain something often just makes the whole point more obscure.

    If you are interested in the whole larger issue (that may or may not be relevant to your original comment, I will not presume to say) of rape joking by average, non-threatening people (male OR female) and rape culture, you could read this,
    or this
    or other things which I wouldn’t care to press my luck with Max’s patience by posting links to. (ps I do not endorse all of what is said on any of those sites.)

    Really, I just wanted to offer you the perspective of someone else reading what you wrote, specifically how your sentence construction and word choices conveyed something that was undoubtedly unintended and might even, I am happy to admit, be just a thing for me, and 99.8% of other people reading wouldn’t even think it. So be it, and if you thought I was casting you in some villainous role or making insinuations about your character, I heartily apologize.

  • Corita

    And also to clarify: I am apologizing above for writing in such a way that might give you cause to think I had made a judgement about you, and NOT for my response to your comment or for letting you know what I thought.

  • Manny


    “I took great pains to express that I felt that the strains I heard were unintended on your part.”

    I didn’t quite see that, but ok, let’s agree it’s a misunderstanding and move on.

  • Corita

    “let’s agree it’s a misunderstanding and move on.”
    As you wish. Take care.