Fugitives from JP

November 2, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH



Book reveals secrets of family on the run

Mike O’Connor was too young to know that he was already living in hiding.

In 1947, he was an infant; his mother, a nanny; their home, an apartment over a garage behind the fine Pondside house of the family she served. But they weren’t in Jamaica Plain simply because of her work.

His mother was hiding—both from family secrets that had his father living elsewhere, and from her name appearing on what, to her death, she would only call “bad lists.”

Only a half-century later would Mike—now a well-regarded investigative journalist and war correspondent—learn the stunning truth behind those secrets. Only then did he know that in that far-off year, in that little apartment off Burroughs Street, a dramatic confrontation set his family on the run.

Decades of the family’s wild adventures and remarkable con games—and the equally amazing reasons behind them—are laid out suspensefully in Mike’s new book, “Crisis, Pursued by Disaster, Followed Closely by Catastrophe: A Memoir of Life on the Run.”

It is Mike’s book, but his family’s story. That includes his younger sister, Fiona O’Connor—by coincidence, now a JP resident living in Egleston Square.

In fact, it was Fiona who prodded Mike to investigate the secrets, he explained in a Gazette interview, speaking by phone from his home in Rome. Her “very logical” idea was that the skills he used as a reporter for the New York Times, CBS News and National Public Radio would work on his own family’s story.

“I said ‘yes,’ but it was a lie. I said ‘yes’ so she would stop asking me about it,” Mike said. The frustrating secrets of his family’s inexplicable, sudden flights to Mexico and embarrassing cons were things he had learned to avoid with a vengeance.

“I spent my first years trying to understand what was going on, and then as a teenager, trying to forget,” Mike said. “If you escaped something dangerous, why would you turn around and go looking for it?”

Fiona, on the other hand, already knew some of the secrets. Their parents had broken some of the code of silence with her. And unlike Mike, she hadn’t repressed some information they already knew.

“I think, as a daughter, I heard more and listened more,” Fiona said in a Gazette interview.

But she knew there was more to the story. And when Mike really did investigate the checkered past, there were big surprises for her as well.

It wouldn’t be fair to spoil the surprises that wait at the end of the book, which mirrors Mike’s process of discovery. But it’s important to reveal that some of those secrets, Fiona and Mike agreed, have frightening significance to everyone, not just their family. In the era of the Patriot Act and vitriolic immigration debates, there are still names on “bad lists” and quite possibly other families on the run.

“I think of those families all the time,” Fiona said. A lesson of her family’s story, she said, is that “it doesn’t take much” to be turned into a fugitive.

“There’s an element [of the family story] in a government that wants to listen to everybody’s phone calls,” Mike said.

“It will probably have more impact in Jamaica Plain than it did in Iowa,” Mike joked about the book’s social and political aspects.

The politics may be familiar, but the book gives an unusual case study about their life-altering impact on a specific family. In the intensely personal investigation, Mike came to better know his parents and himself, and the way they all somehow stuck together as a family despite the chaos reflected in the book’s title—a phrase his father once used in a family letter.

Despite repeatedly fleeing on a moment’s notice, and struggling through poverty and paranoia, the parents worked to maintain an illusion of normalcy.

“The way we did it was being able to portray the perfect middle-class white family at the snap of a finger,” Fiona said of the years on the run.

Key to the lifestyle was their late father, a door-to-door salesman and talented con man. One of Fiona’s favorite family stories recounted in the book is the time their father talked a used car salesman into giving him a car for free.

“He could be a con artist when he needed to be,” Fiona said, adding that her father’s talents in that regard were driven by desperation. “I bet you he was ashamed of getting the guy to give him the car.”

When told his parents come across as strong personalities, Mike said, “They had to be. Both of them busted out of the restraints of working-class sameness. They were self-made.”

“They were very much in love with each other,” Fiona said. “I don’t know I’ve ever seen a couple like that.”

Running must have been a bonding experience. Fiona said she suspects they also became “addicted to the adventure.”

Life on the lam involved many nerve-wracking trips across the border for long stays in Mexico. The kids grew up not only living the double life of fugitives, but a bicultural one as well.

“As a kid, you only have your own life. You don’t have a sense of how weird it is compared to everybody else,” Fiona said. Now, she can see they grew up between the world of outlaw and mainstream, Mexican and American.

“We were all interpreters,” Fiona said of the children, including the middle child, Mary.

It’s a role Fiona sees as playing out in their adult lives. Mike became a reporter, known for his coverage of Central American wars. Mary is an anthropologist. Fiona formerly worked at Urban Edge, the Jackson Square community development corporation, and now in communications with the national non-profit NeighborWorks America.

“I think all three of us were observers,” Mike said. But, while it might be obvious that living under a veil of secrecy might inspire someone toward journalism, it wasn’t always obvious to him.

“Looking back on it, I think that’s a big reason,” he said. “I did find myself naturally connected with somebody on the wrong side of something—the rules, the law. I got along very well with crooks and motorcycle clubs—and cops…I would look for society’s outcasts, or those who chose not to join.”

Telling his own story was more difficult, Mike said.

“I didn’t like it, because—well, ‘I’ or ‘me’ is in every paragraph,” he said. “Journalists don’t do ‘me.’ Journalists do ‘them.’”

Autobiographies seem too self-indulgent, Mike said. And yet, it turned out to be a way to forge ahead through the painful investigation—a way of remaining a journalist, not merely a once-frightened son.

The story led back to Boston and JP. Fiona had already made her way here in the 1970s and met much of the Boston Irish O’Connor clan. She notes that the O’Connors were long established in JP and Roxbury, though she jokes, “We wouldn’t have been part of the Pondsiders.”

Indeed, their father once lived on Centre Street, roughly above the storefront that is now Gadgets, she said.

Even as a child, Fiona said, their British-born mother talked about Boston and JP. “She would tell me stories about going for walks around the pond and taking her charge [as a nanny] and Mike,” she said.

And their mother was living in JP when infamous Mayor James Michael Curley was arrested on the Franklin Park golf course on one of his many corruption charges. “Those were all stories I heard growing up,” Fiona said.

But Fiona came to JP by coincidence, simply because back then it was an affordable place for she and her husband to live. “I didn’t gentrify Jamaica Plain—Jamaica Plain gentrified me,” she joked with a laugh.

Still, the family history was always present—especially that apartment at 3 Agassiz Park behind the mansion that is today the Taylor House Bed and Breakfast.

It appears that 3 Agassiz Park, now a house in its own right, may have been the garage, with the Taylor House as the main house.

Around 1980, Fiona drove her mother past the spot. But all the changes had blurred the details, and they couldn’t be sure of the exact house.

Years later, during the investigation, Mike made his own pilgrimage there. Asked what it was like to come full circle at that spot, Mike at first brushed it off: “I had my reporter hat on there.”

But then, he acknowledged, “I was a bit sad, actually, for my mother. Living in back of a large house over the garage as a maid or nanny…She couldn’t have been very happy.”

Mike just looked, not attempting to knock on the door or explore. Dave Elliott, co-owner of the Taylor House and owner of 3 Agassiz Park, was surprised to hear of the apartment’s footnote in history when informed by the Gazette.

Now the family secrets are out for not only the children, but the world, to see. But other legacies remain.

The children all remain comfortable with Mexico and Latin American culture. Fiona visits Mexico annually with friends and family. Mike is about to resume life there, as his wife, Los Angeles Times reporter Tracy Wilkinson, takes over as the paper’s Mexico City bureau chief.

“On balance, I feel really fortunate to have had that life,” Fiona said. “It’s a very powerful thing to be challenged at a young age.” Unlike many parents, she said, her immediate instinct when her son was born was to travel with him.

And, now that all has been laid on the table, and printed on the page, there’s something of a happy ending, she said: “The family has really come back together.”

For Mike, it has meant some settling down from a life as another kind of fugitive—from his own secrecy-smothered memories.

“I guess it’s fair to say I was angry with my parents for trying to deceive me,” he said. “Now that I understand why there was a con, I’m not so angry with them.

“I don’t feel that need to run anymore.”

“Crisis, Pursued by Disaster, Followed Closely by Catastrophe” (Random House) is available in JP through Jamaicaway Books & Gifts, Rhythm & Muse Books & Music.

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