The first time Helene Stapinski heard the story about her great-great-grandmother, Vita Gallitelli, was not a memorable one.
In fact, she can’t remember it at all.
“Oh God, no, I have no idea, because it was told so much, so many times,” Stapinski said. “It was a part of the fabric of the family. There were so many times it would come up. You just already knew the stories, but my mother would always repeat them. So it was drummed into your head, like, ‘Oh, not this one again.’ There are so many family stories. This was one of many.”
She laughed to herself at home in Brooklyn — surroundings that don’t match her distinctly New Jersey accent and the Italian family roots she exposed in her 2001 memoir, “Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History.”
It was met with acclaim from reviewers, and criticism from relatives — a colorful assortment of characters, from swindlers to burglars to embezzlers — who welcomed a shift in the spotlight from them and to the generations-old tale in Stapinski’s newest book, “Murder In Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy,” which she will discuss on Saturday at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton.
“My family’s been desensitized, because ‘Five-Finger Discount’ was the big one, as far as freaking people out,” she said. “That has everything in it about my family, and more current stuff. That was really the big salvo, I think. This is a walk in the park compared to that. This is an old story. I’m not libeling anybody, and it happened so long ago. People here don’t really care. People there, however, did care. In Italy, they were not happy about this book.”
The story is a true one, but not as close to home as “Five-Finger Discount,” Stapinski explained. Separated by four generations, a language barrier and the Atlantic Ocean, the legend of Vita Gallitelli is set in 19th-century southern Italy, where poverty and violence forced her to flee to the United States — but only after she and her husband allegedly murdered someone.
From there, the oral history gets hazy, riddled with burning questions that Stapinski — a journalist by both profession and nature — found herself determined to answer.
“There were all these little fragments; there really wasn’t that much to go on,” she said. “It was just these little pieces. I figured when I went there, I would just get off the plane, get there, and they would just tell me what happened.”
That was not the case. The alleged murder was a shameful scandal, and not only did the locals not want to talk about it, they actively stopped Stapinski from getting the information she needed, bordering on harassment. One night, a woman screamed at her, “Go back to America and leave the dead in peace,” she recalled.
“It was really, really frustrating, you know?” Stapinski said. “I’m a reporter by day and I go out and I get a story. I get it. To go someplace and not be able to get it is extremely frustrating — especially if it’s your story, your family story. That’s how I became obsessed, because I was so mad about not finding it and not being able to get it, and I just wouldn’t give up.”
Her anger was fuel, and her quest quickly became a decade-long vendetta that took her to Italy time and time again as she slowly inched toward the truth.
“I kept thinking of that nasty woman and her face, and her yelling at me, and that kept me going in a way,” she said. “The way to get me to do something is to tell me I can’t do it. That’s all I need, and I’m gonna hunt it down until I get it. And that’s what I did.”
Finally, with the help of researchers, they found the murder file — a 600-page tome buried in the Mater archives.
“I was really overjoyed but also sort of freaked out because it was true now. There was no possibility that there really wasn’t a murder,” she said. “It was just a big mix of things — relief, but sorrow at the same time. It was a pretty intense moment, I have to say. My hands were shaking. It was crazy.”
But the murder itself marks just the halfway point of the memoir — its pages dotted with flashbacks accentuated by a 10-year reconnaissance, of sorts, and the unexpected twists and turns that unfold along the way, including how she views her great-great-grandmother today.
“I saw her as this villain, but it turns out she’s this hero for me now,” Stapinski said. “One of the big reveals was finding out what life was like there and not knowing how terrible it was. It was a feudal farm system and women were systematically raped by the landowners and that was a big trip for me. It was a heavy trip. It was earth shattering.
“The murder was the reason I was there, but I learned all this other stuff that I didn’t know anything about,” she continued. “The surprises just kept coming — and that was the big surprise for me.”
Helene Stapinski will read from and discuss her newest memoir, “Murder In Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy” on Saturday, May 12, at 2 p.m. at the Hampton Library, located at 2478 Main Street in Bridgehampton. Admission is free. For more information, please call (631) 537-0015 or visit hamptonlibrary.org.