You can now read 10 articles in a month for free on BostonGlobe.com. Read as much as you want anywhere and anytime for just 99¢.

The Boston Globe

Magazine

Perspective

The power of denial

What if Whitey Bulger’s family had seen him for who he truly was?

David Senior

The recent death at 96 of Rochus Misch, Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard and last surviving witness to Hitler’s denouement in the bunker, provoked considerable debate on the notion of denial and complicity. Despite the overwhelming evidence that Hitler was a racist and a genocidal maniac, Misch refused to believe it. He was captivated by Hitler’s charisma. He somehow managed to overlook what everybody else saw while remaining loyal to, and in complete denial about, Hitler to his dying day.

The power of denial is not the purview of only Nazis. It can lord over even otherwise decent people. And it can metastasize anywhere, as it did in South Boston during the decades in which the recently convicted Whitey Bulger held sway. Some people in Southie, especially Bulger’s family, didn’t see Whitey as a vicious criminal who menaced and murdered. They saw him as a friend or a brother or an uncle. They saw him as funny and smart and generous. And they were deluding themselves about the depth of his depravity.

Continue reading below

Having spent much of my professional life following Bulger’s criminal career, a year writing a book about him with my colleague Shelley Murphy, and two months in federal court watching his trial unfold, it strikes me that Whitey Bulger was able to survive all those years not just because of corrupt FBI agents who protected him but also because of a family that never rejected him.

From what I know about Whitey, he could not have survived, would not have wanted to survive, without the succor of his family. And he apparently never wanted for it.

After Whitey was sent to prison in 1956 for 20 years for a string of bank robberies, his brother Bill emerged as his champion when just a Boston College Law School student. Bill believed fervently that if given a second chance, his big brother would become a worthwhile member of society. Letters Whitey wrote home gave Bill and the rest of the family every reason to believe he was determined to reform.

Bill cobbled together an extraordinary group of supporters, including the Rev. Robert Drinan, then dean at BC Law, and John McCormack, the South Boston congressman who had risen to speaker of the US House of Representatives. McCormack took a personal interest in Whitey’s trek through the federal prison system, while Drinan put his reputation on the line as Whitey’s parole adviser.

Bill Bulger set up jobs for his brother, a condition of Whitey’s parole, but the evidence Shelley Murphy and I uncovered showed that Whitey quickly tired of legitimate labor and dove back into the gangster life within a year of his release.

Continue reading below

Clearly, Whitey’s family knew he did not have a legitimate job. But we found no evidence that he was ever pushed away or that eschewing the criminal life was a condition of his good standing with his family. On the contrary, Whitey was always welcome at his brothers’ and sisters’ homes, even as he was murdering people and selling drugs throughout Southie.

It wasn’t just Whitey Bulger’s family that was in denial about how bad he was. His friends raved about his intelligence and charisma. The late Globe sportswriter Will McDonough, his friend and Bill Bulger’s first campaign manager, routinely told me I had Whitey all wrong. Willie said I was blind, enthralled by my State Police and DEA sources, who had to blame Whitey for their incompetence in not being able to arrest him.

“He would never touch drugs,” Willie told me. Bill Bulger insisted the same.

Whitey’s trial disabused us of that canard. Not only did his lawyers admit that Whitey made millions off the drug trade, they practically bragged about it. Whitey’s lawyer was reduced to pathetically boasting that Whitey’s scruples saw him chasing heroin and angel dust dealers out of Southie. This while Whitey made millions off cocaine.

Whitey repaid his family by murdering and burying people in a house 200 feet from Bill’s front door. He got his brother Jack, then clerk magistrate of the Boston Juvenile Court, mixed up in a harebrained scheme to get Whitey phony IDs with Jack’s photo. It cost Jack a felony conviction and his pension.

And yet that family has remained loyal to Whitey. His nieces and nephews visited him in jail, even as Whitey made light of one of the murders he was convicted of. Jack Bulger showed up nearly every day for his brother’s trial, sitting in the front row. Bill never showed, but friends say he would never disown his brother, no matter what came out in court.

Some politicians believed that Bill used the menace attached to Whitey for political advantage, but to this day I don’t know how much Bill knew, or should have known, about Whitey’s crimes.

I came away from our book project and the trial viewing Whitey’s family, especially Bill, as enabling him to some extent by remaining so supportive of him. And I will always have one burning question: What if Bill Bulger told Whitey, back in the late 1960s, when Whitey again drifted into the underworld, that as long as he was in that life, he couldn’t be in theirs. Would Whitey’s life, and those of his victims, have turned out differently, and for the better?

We’ll never know.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist and coauthor of Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice, now available in paperback. E-mail him at kevin.cullen@globe.com.

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week