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I’m a Bubbe and a mob biographer

Phyllis Karas in her office.

FEBRUARY 22, 2018 – How on earth did I – a journalist, a college professor, a doctor’s wife, a nice Jewish Bubbe from the North Shore – become a biographer to the mob?

To understand my befuddlement, imagine this scene: I’m teaching a class at BU School of Journalism when I hear a knock on my classroom door. There stands a solidly built, square-jawed, curly-haired, handsome mobster, newly released from prison after serving six years of a life sentence for five murders (he cooperated with the government; it’s a long story). “Here,” he barks, handing me a printout of what I’d e-mailed him a few days earlier. “I gotta go.”

I glance back at my class. Twenty seniors stare at the visitor with an interest my lectures never generate. “The class ends in 25 minutes,” I whisper to my hulking guest. He looks at me with the same look I imagine he afforded the victim we’d discussed the night before – just before the victim took a “dirt nap.” “We have a deadline. We’ve got that chapter finished today.”

He shakes his head at me, as if a pesky bug were crawling in his mop of curls, and walks away. That’s when I, a 64-year-old grandmother, yell after a bona fide member of the Mafia: “Get back here! I’m not fooling around, Kevin.”

He stops and glares at me, then swaggers into the classroom across the hall, while I ask myself for the 1,000th time: “Are you trying to die? Why on earth are you writing this mobster’s story?”

Part of the answer could be found five years earlier, after I’d finished a book about Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, and my agent found me a criminal who wanted his story written. Eddie MacKenzie was a low-level drug dealer working for an infamous Boston mobster, James “Whitey” Bulger, who was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, wanted for 19 murders. Over the next two years, I learned a lot – about drug dealers, the Medellin cartel, leg breakers and swear words I’d never known existed. MacKenzie was a pretty likable, albeit not always truthful, character, and he liked me a lot after the book, “Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob,” got reviewed in The New York Times.

So when a bankruptcy lawyer called me, it wasn’t out of nowhere. He’d come up with a way for another member of the Bulger mob to avoid wrongful-death suits: Since this guy’s major asset was his life story, he could write a book and give 50% of his profits to the victims’ families.

When he told me this gangster was Kevin Weeks, I was impressed. Weeks had been Bulger’s top lieutenant. With this book, I would be climbing way up the ladder of bad guys.

The lawyer did not tell me that Kevin, still in jail, despised MacKenzie and everything “Street Soldier” said about him. He’d spent his adult life committing criminal acts under the cloak of darkness. Revealing his life of crime to a woman who’d written a book he deemed a bunch of lies, was, he repeatedly stated, worse than remaining in jail for the rest of his life.

But his lawyer prevailed, and I pursued him with an astonishing intensity, ignoring his crankiness, murderous ferocity and all-around disdain. I was determined, I have no idea why, to have my name on his bookjacket? I knew this book would not be anything like “But He Was Good to his Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters,” but it wasn’t my fault. Weeks wasn’t Jewish.

Two years later, Kevin was out of jail, “Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life Inside Whitey Bulger’s Irish Mob” spent time on The NYT Best Seller List and I got a birthday present from its subject. People call us The Odd Couple, since I’m slender and a bit of a fashion plate and smile a lot, trying to make people like us. Kevin is pretty bulky and doesn’t smile a lot. He mumbles when he talks and could care less if anyone likes him.

And I am a changed woman.

While the Kevin Weeks who walked out of prison had no problem turning his back on his former life of crime, things happened making it impossible for me to return to my former life away from the mob. Like the day I was trudging around with Kevin, getting photos of murder sites where he’d buried a few bodies. This “thing” involved four police cars and policemen with drawn guns, a terrified B.U. student taking the photos, a furious Kevin and a grandmother looking down the barrel of a gun, wondering yet again what she was doing hanging around with gangsters with short fuses and lengthy police records.

Undoubtedly, I now know even more about crime – about loan sharking, extortion, drug dealing, stabbings, leg breakers, the RICO Act, money laundering, bookmaking, shipments of arms, hides built into walls, C-4 explosives, witness protection, superseding indictments and accessories to murder – than Carmela Soprano. I have passed Crime 101 with flying colors. Hell, I could probably teach it now.

The truth is meals shared with Kevin in restaurants, at my home and in his home are more interesting than dinners with “ordinary” friends. My husband, was even drawn into my world. Sitting in Kevin’s South Boston living room, drinking a beer, watching a Red Sox game and hearing about his host’s barroom brawl in which he emerged less bloodied than his opponent, seems a bit more riveting than sharing a glass of wine with another doctor discussing antibiotics.

These words, I now know, are scrawled on the walls of penitentiaries: WANT YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED? CALL PHYLLIS 781-631-8314. Some of the calls and letters I received from prisoners, one even on Death Row, some in for life with no chance of parole and one released after 35 years for a crime he never committed offer infinite possibilities for books. Somehow, I have found a place in homes of dark people with equally dark stories to tell. And the women in these houses, I have learned, have far more fascinating tales to tell than their men. My newest book, due out this summer, “THE WOMEN OF SOUTHIE: Finding Resilience During Whitey Bulger’s Infamous Reign,” is proof that beside every true criminal stands a good woman, to fill and to tell his story.

Phyllis Karas writes from Marblehead.

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