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 Withdrawn, uncommunicative and obsessive, Serenelli — 20 when he committed his crime — comes across as an evil nerd, Raskolnikov minus intellectual pretensions, Mark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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