‘The self is suppressed’: psychologists explore the minds of the mafiosi

Italian researchers say that joining the mafia is like entering a cult in which members must leave behind their own identity

Leonardo Vitale made his way into the Sicilian mafia at age 19 by killing a boss from a rival clan. He continued his violent career as a mafioso for the next 12 years until his arrest in 1972 and transfer to a maximum-security prison when, after a week of isolation, he began to self-harm and show signs of depression.

Overwhelmed by remorse for the criminal acts he had committed, Vitale suffered a nervous breakdown. The former boss felt “guilty” and “impure” to the point that, upon his release from prison a year later, he voluntarily went to the police station in Palermo to confess to two murders. He also provided the names of dozens of other bosses involved in criminal activities. Diagnosed with diminished capacity and schizophrenia by doctors, he was placed in a psychiatric hospital. When he was released, the mafia had already condemned him to death. Vitale was killed with two gunshots to the head on 2 December 1984.

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