Crime and the American Family

The family is an enduring American symbol, both personal and political. In most definitions of family, we deny the illegal or subversive, a belief that is central to many of our culture’s stories. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, seen here last year, argues that one moral failing can consume a whole household. “Idealized cultural images of the family emphasize consensus, harmony, and stability, and have no place for the ugly, painful, and conflict-ridden realities of crime and criminal justice,” write sociologists Greer Litton Fox and Michael L. Benson. “Wellfunctioning families — the building blocks of a democracy — do not harbor criminals.”

By contrast, playwright Bob Glaudini brings tough-minded, surprising focus to the lives of one close-knit family of criminals, and finds in their struggles a remarkably strong familial bond. The Horvaths possess an unspoken, but starkly traditional, code of honor: family, and family business, comes first. Even the patriarch, Mathew Horvath, casts himself as a self-made entrepreneur, a deeply traditional icon.

Researchers who study the real-life business dealings of criminal clans have been similarly struck by their normality. “An illegal business enterprise is essentially like a legitimate one,” crime theorist Thorsten Sellin writes. “Financial profit is their goal, and they subscribe to the tenets of American entrepreneurship. The basic difference lies in the fact that the illegal nature of the business creates problems that must be solved by means legal firms do not have to employ. Both, however, hope for continuity and survival.”

Photo of actors from "Vengeance"

Larry Pine (Mathew Horvath) and Roberta Wallach (Margaret Horvath) from Vengeance is the Lord’s; photo: Bryce Vickmark

The American family positions the hope of continuing prosperity at its core as well, and a crime family becomes a telling exaggeration of this instinct. “The criminal family passes on tradition just as the farming family passes on farming tradition,” writes sociologist Robert T. Anderson. Research tells us the presence of one criminal in a family is a clear indicator that another family member will follow in their footsteps, and like the Horvaths, when that criminal is the patriarch and breadwinner for the family, that link is many times stronger.

Literature about crime always brings the era in which it is written into high relief. “The basic explanation of the long-lasting tradition of literary crime lies in the way crime serves as an ambiguous mirror of social values,” theorist John Cawelti writes of their enduring fascination. Glaudini points us to a possible contradiction between dark truths of class or economic reality and our unexamined beliefs about the place of family in society. If your family sees the system as broken and corrupt, and lives outside that system, where do you look for justice when wronged? What happens when you wrong others?

Behind any crime story, Cawelti continues, one can see a “disturbing vision ... the dark message that America is a society of criminals, or the still more disturbing irony that a family of criminals might be more humanly interesting and morally satisfactory than a society of empty routines, irresponsibly powerful organizations, widespread corruption, and meaningless violence.” If we look closely enough at the morality of Glaudini’s fictional family, and the playwright’s unflinching depiction makes it hard to look away, we may see our own.

– Charles Haugland

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