When you think of Greek families, what images or associations pop up in your mind? Smiling faces gathered around an overloaded dining room table? tight-knit bonds between members embracing across generational lines? circles of relatives holding up handkerchiefs and folk dancing the “Kalamatiano” at baptisms, weddings and weekend get togethers?
It is true that the majority of Hellenic homes thrust up the standard of FAMILY, but as with all good families, there is an underlying layer of conflict, deceit, and envy. Family is sacred but not without its share of sacrificial blood. In this issue we explore the underside of the Greek family–dark stories of sexual impropriety, envy, violence and sibling rivalry that is the stuff that ancient Greek tragedy is made of.
Take for instance the recent case of a family diner in New Jersey. It is quite common for Greek family, especially brothers, to team up and start a successful diner business. Walk into any Greek-owned diner and chances are it was founded by a winning partnersserhip of brotherhood. Such is the case of the famous Six Brothers Diner in Little Falls, New Jersey. As the name denotes, since 1964, this diner is a practical fraternal operation with all six of the Stylianou on deck in the business. However, that is not the case with the Tick Tock brothers in Clifton, New Jersey.
According to a recent article published in The New York Times, Alex Sgourdos explained how he and his brothers-in-law were so close, not only did they work together serving hamburgers and homemade pie to customers, but they even vacationed together and raised their children within blocks of one another. But greed and outrage at what was perceived as one family member hoarding money from the rest prompted nephew Georgios Spyropoulos to hire a hit man to wipe out Sgourdos “with instructions to torture him first until he surrendered the combination to the diner’s safe.”
The details of the story seem to come straight out of an episode of “The Sopranos.” “In the parking lot of a Home Depot not far from the diner, prosecutors said, Mr. Spyropoulos handed $3,000 and a revolver to the trooper he believed was a hit man. They said he gave another man, who was to pose as an exterminator to get into the Tick Tock and help open the safe, a disguise and some roach spray — which officials said he had packed in the kind of pastry box the diner uses for cakes and cookies it bakes on site.
In late February, according to the affidavit, he reached out to someone he knew from the diner — who was working as a confidential informer for the State Police — and asked for his help in finding a man to kill Mr. Sgourdos. According to the affidavit, he wanted the body disposed of to make it look like a missing-persons case, which he believed would attract less police attention. Officials said he promised to split whatever was found in the safe with the confidential informer.
In late March, the informer introduced him to the hit man, who asked how big Mr. Sgourdos was.
“Five-foot-five, 160 pounds,” Mr. Spyropoulos replied. Mr. Sgourdos lived in a 6,000-square-foot house with his wife, Mr. Spyropoulos said. He told the hit man that he did not mind if she was killed if she “gets in the way.”
Mr. Spyropoulos insisted that Mr. Sgourdos be tortured to get the combination to the safe. The man reassured him: “You can get anything out of anybody with a pair of linesman’s pliers.”
Mr. Spyropoulos said the killing should happen on a Sunday, when the take from the diner would be $20,000, and “everything is dead” overnight, allowing the “exterminator” to enter without much notice.
He told the hired murderer how Mr. Sgourdos parked his car and how to disable the security system in his house. And he described his routine: “like clockwork,” he left at 5:30 every morning, when the neighbors were still asleep. “He’s boring,” he said.
Ironically, the three partners, their wives, children and in-laws worked in the business; Mr. Sgourdos told Northern New Jersey Business in 1995 that someone from the family was always on duty.
It seems that Spyropoulos, although married to the niece of Sgourdos, was not really a blood relative and had entered the diner purely on business. The problem was when business and family blood mixed: Sgourdos had the reputation for being a “tsigounis” or “cheap skate”; Spyropoulos felt as if he was taking the food out of the other eight families and hording profits in the safe. While it takes a Greek family to make you, it also takes a Greek family to break you.
The topic of abuse in the Greek family has already been reviewed in a previous article (“Abuse in the Greek American community“), but the abominable issue of incest, even though taboo, is real and not just a thread in some ancient Greek drama. While it was permissible for a brother and sister to be married if they were from different mothers in ancient Greece, this is not the case in the present. Incest is closely tied to sexual abuse in the stories I have read about. Rarely is it the mutually desired kind like the brother and sister Desdemona and Lefty in Jeffrey Eugenedes’ novel Middlesex, who while escaping the burning of Smyrna on an American vessel, marry each other on board as their identities were hidden to many of the other passengers.
Take the case of Peggy. Her story appears in a clinical handbook for psychologists and counselors dealing with adult incest survivors. Coming from a well-to-do Greek family, Peggy and her mother were beaten frequently by her father while drunk. Eventually her mother withdrew from the world and had to be hospitalized in an attempted suicide when Peggy was 11. Peggy was the eldest daughter of four and she was responsible for taking care of the younger children, preparing dinner and so forth. Eventually, she took her mother’s place in the bedroom. Her father would come into her bedroom and began to give her back rubs. Then the back rubs turned into full body massages; then he began to fondle her, and eventually had full intercourse with her. When Peggy was a teenager, he would leave money for her on her counter. The incest lasted just around the time she turned 11 up until she left for college. Luckily, Peggy’s father died when she was 21.(Sam Kirschner, Working With Adult Incest Survivors: The Healing Journey, pp 163-165).
In her memory-retrieval therapy sessions, Peggy remembers going to her mother and confessing to her that she had been molested by her father. According to Peggy, her mother began to scream at her and call her a “whore.” The feelings of shame, depression, and violation still haunt her even if she is a successful adult married with her own family. To heal from the shame of incest, Peggy had to write a very candid letter to her father. She read it out loud to him over his grave. She spit on his grave and walked away. Her mother and other three siblings in order to keep the sanctity and the sanity of the family intact lived in denial for decades defending and protecting the honor of the father. This tends to be the typical pattern in Greek families–denial, delusion, blaming the victim, and protecting the perpetrator if it means the family’s honor might be jeopardized. Peggy’s brother, Nick, eventually broke the denial and admitted to the incest. He convinced the remaining members of the family to join Peggy in group family sessions. This helped Peggy heal and not feel like the “crazy and bad outcast.”
This is not an isolated case. No Greek family is without its dark side. But because no one talks about the sordid stories of abuse, incest, greed and violence, the myth of the cheerful, “lets all sit down and have lamb with lemon potatoes together” Greek family is perpetuated. The truth is dysfunction is universal to all families. But somehow, it was the Greeks who first wrote it down and dramatized it. To this day, we are acting out our tragic roles, reading the script of some ancient Greek drama.
Do you have a dysfunctional Greek family story to share? Post it here or else email firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to tell but not publicize it.