Alessandro Serenelli: Sinner for Our Time?

Yesterday, as Michelle Arnold and Simcha Fisher dutifully observed, was the Feast Day of St. Maria Goretti. Let’s give her the day off and turn our attention over to the sinner Alessandro Serenelli, who murdered her after she refused to have sex with him. He, too, may have something to say to this generation.

The details of the crime are even more horrible than the broad-brush version that appears in most saint-of-the-day summaries. For one thing, Serenelli didn’t use a knife; he used a bradawl, an instrument for inserting straw into brooms, which he took considerable care to sharpen in advance. On the good side, the jury-rigged weapon made the Italian Crown’s case that Serenelli had acted with malice aforethought. On the bad, its clumsiness, rather than any Blackbeard-like resilience on Maria’s part, ensured her survival for an excruciating 24 hours after the attack.

It’s generally known that Serenelli stabbed Maria 14 times. (Just as famously, he dreamed of receiving 14 white lilies from Maria, one for every wound.) But Serenelli didn’t deliver all those blows at once. Instead, after stabbing her 11 times in a blind frenzy – he later compared the action to crushing corn – he retreated to his room and locked the door. After he heard Maria whimpering, he realized she was still alive, and decided to fix that by stabbing her three more times.

Why? For Christ’s sake, why?

Serenelli was 20 when he murdered Maria, but the facts of Serenelli’s case confound many go-to explanations for juvenile delinquency — at least the traditional ones. Urban anomie? The Serenellis and Gorettis lived in a village, a seven-mile bullock-cart ride from the nearest small town. Feeble communal ties? The two families shared quarters and meals, and even prayed the rosary together. After Serenelli killed Maria, the carabinieri had to prevent neighbors from lynching him. One can’t find a surer sign of a tight-knit community than that.

In old age, when he believed himself to be dying, Serenelli wrote a testament in which he cited the influence of “print, mass-media, and bad examples which are followed by the majority of young people without even thinking.” But surely this is reductive. His advice sounds like the product of coaching by friar-caretakers eager to speak, through him, for the ages. (How could he, a locked-away penitent, know what the majority of young people were doing?) In any case, Serenelli never said exactly what these mass media and bad examples were.

Maria’s mother Assunta went on record saying that he covered his walls with “immodest” pictures. But Assunta, who, after all, was named for a dogma before it became a dogma, may have had extraordinary standards in that department. Serenelli has been described as an obsessive reader of sensational news items – the sort that he eventually became – and penny dreadful crime novels. Today, he would probably be a prodigy at first-person shooter video games. But this is a trait he would share with his entire high-school graduating class.

Serenelli certainly didn’t lack for a father figure, though the question of just what sort of figure Giovanni Serenelli cut leaves some room for interpretation. In secondhand accounts, he is often portrayed as an alcoholic. However, Assunta told Fr. Godfrey Poage, CP, that Giovanni rarely drank to the point of drunkenness, but did become “domineering.” Once more displaying a turn for euphemism, she stated that he made her an “infamous proposal” after the death of her husband Luigi. But a single pass does not a rake make. We do not know, in any case, whether Serenelli was aware his father had ever made such a proposal.

Hoping to avoid trial, Serenelli pleaded insanity but was found competent. There is nevertheless a strong suggestion that mental illness ran in his family. One of his older brothers committed suicide while studying at a seminary, and his mother is said to have tried to drown him in his infancy, as a result of which she was committed for life to a mental institution. Assuming the two had other symptoms, they are lost to history, making even a tentative diagnosis impossible.

The maladjusted twentysomething man who goes on a murderous rampage has become so familiar a figure in the news that he’s become the focus of sociological research. Into this research, today’s scholars have introduced new factors supposedly peculiar to post-industrial America. Some, paradoxically, would seem to stick to Serenelli, at least a little. In an intersectional study published in the journal Men and Masculinities, Eric Madfis tries to explain mass murders like those committed by James Holmes, Dylann Roof, and Adam Lanza as the “illegitimate opportunity” for downwardly mobile yet historically “entitled white men to regain lost status and forge a powerful, successful, masculine identity through infamy.”

Serenelli wasn’t, of course, a mass killer. After reassuring himself that Maria was dying, he locked himself back in his room, leaving the murder weapon on the floor outside. Still, there is a slender piece of evidence that Serenelli liked the idea of having a high public profile. In his cell in the prison at Noto, he was heard to sing:

Take courage, Serenelli,
Banish your fears,
You’ll be welcomed home with cheers.

A yearning for a hero’s welcome would add context to his recollections about the mass media and its bad examples – reading about famous criminals could have lent them prestige in his eyes. But this is a single line in a song composed by Serenelli after he had already made himself the most hated man in Italy and been locked in solitary confinement. It does nothing to establish his frame of mind at the time he committed his crime; he could simply have dreamed up an ideal homecoming to boost his spirits in adversity.

A note of triumph blares like “Boots and Saddle” through Madfis’ repetitive use of “entitled,” and “white.” One senses it pleases him to even the score by pathologizing white males – or at any rate, a certain subset of white males– the way black males have historically been pathologized. Color was no object in Serenelli’s world, where the darkest people around would have been migrant Sicilians. Downward mobility doesn’t seem to have been an issue. At earlier points, Serenelli had worked as a longshoreman and a deck hand on a fishing boat. From those jobs to sharecropper looks like a lateral move, at worst.

I have, however, read it mentioned in passing that some rural Italian men of Serenelli’s generation raped women in order to entrap them into marriage – the theft of the victims’ virginity drastically reducing their appeal to other men. None of the sources offered much detail on the prevalence of this practice, or village society’s attitude toward it. But if it was common and winked at, Serenelli could well have experienced Maria’s refusals as the loss of an entitlement. This would mesh well with reports that, in the weeks leading up to his final seduction attempt, Serenelli had taken to ordering Maria around more rudely than usual, as though at pains to remind her who was boss.

At the heart of every action is a mystery that no coincidence of factors, no narrative, can hope to crack fully. This is especially true of any action so mindlessly singleminded as Serenelli’s pursuit of Maria, an unlikely focus for anyone’s obsession, or so extravagantly cruel as his thought-out decision to murder her. Plenty of men enjoy girlie pictures and crime stories. Plenty have received less from women than they believed was their due. Very few sit down and take the time to sharpen bradawls.

All the same, if social scientists are right that men of Serenelli’s age – especially the white ones – are experiencing an unusually strong “crisis of masculinity,” why not hold Serenelli up as shining example of how not to resolve that crisis? He has already taken the stump, or been set upon it, against porn, and he must have time enough to moonlight.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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