“Come on you rat…give me the death rattle.”
These are the last words Joan Carroll is believed to have heard as her killer throttled her to death inside the Sunset View Motel in Attleboro, Massachusetts, one night in October 1984. Her body wouldn’t be discovered for five months, but it would take her then-four-year-old daughter, Leah Carroll, three decades to wrestle with the complexities of growing up without a mom, let alone a mom who was murdered by drug dealers connected to the Rhode Island Mafia.
Carroll recounts those words in the prologue to her book, Down City: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Memory, and Murder, which explores the life and death of both her mother and her father through the lens of Rhode Island’s history and her own coming-of-age story. An alcoholic, Kevin Carroll died at the age of 48 — when the author was just 18 — just a few years after he was laid off from his longtime job at the Providence Journal. Carroll writes of the inextricable link between her parents’ ties to this and other hallmarks of Rhode Island’s history and their untimely deaths. While taking a journalistic approach to investigating her parents’ histories, Carroll weaves everything together with her own reflections on life with and without them, resulting in a thoroughly reported, deeply personal memoir.
“I very actively resisted the idea that I was writing a memoir for many years,” says Carroll. “I think it’s part of what took so long to write the book. I really thought initially I was going to be writing a more reported, almost sociological study of Rhode Island, looking at the lives of my parents. [But] it was a structural issue. My mom died in 1984 and my dad died in 1998, and when I was thinking about how to bridge these two stories, I realized that the bridge was going to have to be me. In telling my story, that was going to be how I told theirs.”
That her mother’s story could have been told by one of the men who killed her gives Down City an especially empowering significance. In her research, Carroll discovered that Peter Gilbert — who, along with Gerald Mastracchio Sr., killed Joan Carroll because they suspected she was a police informant — traded jail time for protective custody after he agreed to give up information about organized crime boss Raymond Patriarca. Gilbert was in the midst of writing his own memoir, which no doubt would have included his role in the murder of Joan Carroll, when he died of a heart attack on his way to go skydiving.
“Peter Gilbert doesn’t get to tell this story,” Carroll writes in Down City. “I do.”
Taking charge of that tragic narrative gave Carroll peace and clarity.
“When someone is the victim of a violent crime, their name becomes forever connected to the person who killed them,” Carroll explains. “It becomes ‘The Peter Gilbert Story.’ It used to make me angry…but then I realized that their lives were going to be intertwined. Her story involves him and certain vices, these things that we don’t necessarily always want to own about our parents, but that I thought were really important in owning her as a complete person.”
Joan Carroll’s humanity was not as tangible to the Rhode Island police tasked with investigating her death; she was an addict, an imperfect victim who sometimes traded sex for drugs, a woman whose murder could be overlooked in exchange for intel that might bring down the state’s most powerful crime boss. This disposability is underscored by the revelation that Gilbert and Mastracchio might not have killed Joan Carroll at all had it not been for the sloppiness of Rhode Island police. After arresting one of the men’s associates in a raid, an officer had left the search warrant affidavit out on his desk where the arrestee could read it. The man then used his one phone call to tell Mastracchio that cops had a confidential informant. Paranoid and clearly lacking in any moral scruples, Mastracchio jumped to the conclusion that “Joanie the Jew” was a rat and vowed to “kill her with my bare fucking hands.”
“In so many ways, the police, in their absolute mishandling of everything, became as culpable in her death as the men who killed her,” Carroll said. “I became really obsessed with the idea of proving whether she had been an informant because I felt that if she had been, it was probably because she had been arrested and would have had no other choice — that they would have put her in some sort of criminally negligent position. That was a real nonstarter though, because one document I was never able to get was her BCI [Bureau of Criminal Investigation Report].”
Researching her father’s background didn’t require multiple FOIA requests or prison interviews — not only were there fewer legal hurdles, but her father had made an impression on people that “opened doors” even after his passing. Carroll even had a fairly easy time obtaining access to his personnel files from the Providence Journal. Instead, the heftier task for Carroll was parsing her rich, complex personal history with him — and it results in some of the book’s most poignant moments. This is no disrespect to Down City‘s very capable, well written, and moving exploration of Joan Carroll’s life and murder, to be clear — but its Carroll’s writing about her father that delivers a recurring gut punch. The relationship between father and daughter is already ripe territory, but the unique nuances to their particular bond leap off the page. The honesty with which Carroll writes about her dad’s downward spiral, not to mention her own teenage state of mind, is raw and crushing — though for no one more than Carroll’s younger sister, Taylor, the product of her dad’s second marriage.
“Taylor was the same age when she lost our dad as I was when I lost my mom,” Carroll explained. “My dad had become this very mythologized figure for Taylor. One of the most eye-opening things was the realization I had almost perpetuated that myself. I didn’t think I would ever do that because it was so hard for me with my mom, but it just kind of happened. So going through this book and reading some things about our dad and the end of his life was incredibly difficult for her. Even in life, my dad was a very larger-than-life figure. He was just smart and funny and really incredible. But he was also bipolar, so he would swing to these extremes. To see Taylor make him a real person was really interesting.”
It was not unlike how Carroll felt when she began researching the details of her mother’s murder, and had to face the circumstances and choices that led up to that moment.
“Along with all of the great things about her were also these flaws,” Carroll said. “In the end, that was what made her really real to me and that I hoped would make her real to the reader.”
By Leah Carroll