In Absentia - Transcript
This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “In Absentia.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.
Listen to the episode here.
I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” And today’s episode is a bit of a mystery.
Today’s guest is a child of the ‘90s – much like me, much like many listeners of this podcast. But if you were of any age in the ‘90s, you might remember a little TV show called “Unsolved Mysteries.”
[Unsolved Mystery Theme Music]
Now, I have no idea how I was allowed to watch this. I was not allowed to watch it, I guarantee you. I was not allowed to watch most things. This was definitely not a TV show meant for kids. But nearly every millennial I know remembers watching this show and being scarred for life — staying up in bed just shivering, shaking. Because the mysteries were always, obviously – it’s right in the title – unsolved. And episodes ended with zero resolution and sometimes of those, “If you have any information as to the whereabouts of So And So, call this number,” which felt frightening. Where was So And So? Is he under my bed?
The only thing scarier than watching “Unsolved Mysteries” would have been living in one.
Growing up, Olivia — again a child of the ‘90s — she didn’t know her world would eventually turn into a real life unsolved mystery. Olivia was just a kid enjoying any time she could spend with her dad, Albert. Olivia’s parents divorced when she was 2, so Olivia only saw her dad on holidays and every other weekend.
Olivia Giovetti: He lived in his mother's basement, which, I just thought it was so cool. He had this whole basement to himself. He had a waterbed. He had one of those VCR rewinders that rewinds the tape. I think it was shaped like a Corvette. We would watch “The Three Stooges” together. And he did the impressions. He did a really great Yogi Bear. After learning about Robin Williams when that happened a few years ago, it sort of contextualizes that idea of the exuberant, joyful personality who also has a lot of stuff going on under the surface. But as a kid, I mostly just got all of that really fun dad stuff.
And weekends with dad are just very different from regular life with Mom.
Olivia Giovetti: So my mom moved into a full house. She had a baby grand piano in there. Her parents loved opera, and I grew up loving opera through that and through my mom. When I would occasionally go to the hospital where she was doing her residency, we would listen to “The Barber of Seville” on the drive up. And, you know, we would go to New York to see performances of the Met and the New York City Opera. And my dad had the “Cruising Classics” cassette tapes that Shell gas station sold. And Dr. Demento. Like, my strongest memory is like being in his Chevy pickup truck with him, listening to the “Doctor Demento Radio Hour” cassette tapes. So it really was this kind of odd balance of … I hate to say highbrow/lowbrow, but that's kind of what it was. And I remember he was my first computer experience. He bought a Packard Bell computer, and we played the MSDOS “Carmen San Diego” together. Or, like, he would open up Paint and show me how to do the, you know, the squiggly thing with the pencil. And then you fill in all of like, the, the full-sized objects with the paint bucket. Different colors.
Nora McInerny: Yes. Ohhhh. A simpler time, yes. So satisfying.
Olivia Giovetti: So good.
The summer before Olivia turns 7, her dad tells her that he’s been offered a job out of state. Waaaay out of state. The job is in Atlanta … and Olivia and her mom live in the New England area.
Olivia Giovetti: He asked me if he should take the job, and my immediate response was no. And I don't think I actually had an idea of what he did as a job. That seemed like such an abstract thing to me, Dad having a job. And I was like, "Why would you go to Atlanta?" And on the heels of my no, he said, "Well, we can go to Disney World." And I immediately said yes.
Most of us would have seriously considered selling our fathers at the mere suggestion of a trip to Disney World at that age. I would have signed on any dotted line.
So Oliva says yeah! Go! And Dad leaves town. And a few weeks later, little Olivia is starting second grade, and she can’t wait to tell her dad about it.
Olivia Giovetti: The bus driver had given each of us a little like a couple of small hard candies for the first day of school. And I saved those. And I wrote a letter to my dad that afternoon after school to tell him about my first day. And I put the candies in there, too. My mom had an address for him in Atlanta. I think he may have just been planning on staying either at a hotel or with friends for the first while there. And maybe a month later, the letter came back to me with “address unknown.” And that was the last time I thought about my dad for a very long time.
Olivia doesn’t remember feeling disappointed, or angry. She doesn’t remember feeling much of anything. Dad just … vanished. He didn’t call. He didn’t write. This was way before emails were a thing, so she didn’t get any of those, either. And her mom’s family didn’t seem surprised or upset by her dad’s disappearance.
Olivia Giovetti: I think maybe I was confused or maybe a little frustrated with the mail system, which honestly was just setting me up for a lifetime of heartbreak. But my mother was remarrying at the time. I was having my 7th birthday at Chuck E. Cheese at the end of the month. I think to me, his leaving was just completely normalized. And you know, when I was a kid, when I was, like, learning to talk, my mom's brothers, who were both physicists, would teach me to say things like, "What does Grandma do? Teacher. What does Mommy do? Doctor? What does Daddy do? Deadbeat." And you know, my dad did have a sort of checkered career history of job hopping and quitting jobs, and he worked in bars for a lot of the time that I think he was married to my mom. And so it’s also just like, those are easy jobs to pick up and discard. But I think it's that sort of, "Dad went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back." And that was never explicitly put to me that way. But I think it was just the kind of combination of events: My mom remarrying to not a great guy, but like it just kind of, I think, replaced, quote unquote, Dad in my world for that time. And having that sort of normalization in that era of, "Dads don't stick around.” It kind of felt very unremarkable to me after a while. As a teenager, one of the songs that spoke really deeply to me was “Father of Mine” by I think Everclear.
[SONG: “Father of Mine” by Everclear: Father of mine. Tell me where have you been? You know I just closed my eyes. My whole world disappeared.]
Olivia is in middle school when her mom gets the internet at their house. Oliva gets access to AOL and the ‘90s search engines that we all knew and loved. Got a problem? Need help with anything? Ask Jeeves.
Olivia Giovetti: I kind of realized you could search people's names as well as HamsterDance.com. And I looked up my dad's name not really knowing what would come up. And I just knew my dad is Al. And I look that up. And I found a ton of pages with his name on it. And I found the email on one of the pages. It was, like, a lot of computer game walkthrough and recaps. And I reached out to the email and I kind of said, “Hey, I don't know who reads this email, but I am pretty sure that Al Giovetti is my dad, and I'd like him to know that he has a daughter that he forgot about and that I'm still here.”
The Al on the other end of that email is not her dad, but it is her dad’s cousin, who is conveniently — and confusingly — also named Al. As in Alfred, not Albert.
Just before Olivia starts high school, she receives some unexpected mail…
Olivia Giovetti: One afternoon in August I went out to get the mail. I was barefoot, like just walking on the grass. And my mom was just coming home from grocery shopping or mowing the lawn. And I open the mail, and I see this manila envelope addressed to me. And it was from my dad's mom, who I had seen, you know, a couple of times in between that space of time. And I opened the envelope, and all that was in it was a photocopy of my dad's suicide note and a copy of his will and his baby ring.
There was no preamble, no warning that this envelope was going to be arriving in the mail. Olivia will later learn that her dad left the original suicide note on a yellow pad of legal paper in a Days Inn outside of Boston, close to Revere Beach. His truck was later found at a nearby public transit station.
And all of this happened ages ago, just after Olivia’s dad left for that new job in Atlanta.
So Olivia doesn’t just learn her father is dead. She learns that he’s been dead. For seven years.
Olivia Giovetti: I was standing there, and I had that moment almost of that sort of, you know, that that camera doing the zoom in while also panning out, so it creates this almost like vertigo effect, where it just feels like everything is going to whoosh onto, like, me standing there on the grass in suburban Rhode Island. And I said to my mom, "Hey," you know, "Come look at this. My dad killed himself?" And she said, "No, that's absurd." And ... it sucks that this is the moment that I got to be unquestionably right with my mother [laughs], but I shoved the packet into her hands and I was just like, look, and she read the note, and she kind of glanced at everything else, and she just said, "Huh. OK, well, I guess now we know where he's been all this time." And she either went back to mowing the lawn or unloading the groceries like, “Oh, OK. So this isn't the big, you know, movie climax moment, where everything becomes different. It’s just like, “OK, so I guess I'll just go back into the house now…”
Olivia’s mom doesn’t seem upset when she hears this news from her daughter, and she doesn’t act surprised, either. Because this news … isn’t really news at all. Her mom has known about her ex-husband’s suicide since right after it happened seven years ago.
Olivia Giovetti: His mother was first called, because she was the person he was living with, and her information was attached to his. But my mother learned shortly after that as well. So she was the one that did the legwork to have him declared dead in absentia, so that I could start to get the Social Security benefits for him.
Under Massachusetts law, a person can be presumed dead if nobody’s heard from them for five straight years, provided there’s been a quote “diligent search and inquiry.” Social Security won’t declare a missing person dead until seven years have passed.
It’s called death in absentia. It’s a declaration for people like Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, and Tom Hanks’ character in “Castaway.” There’s no hard proof a person is not living anymore, but the chances are good that they’re dead, and the law says it’s okay to give their beneficiaries their Social Security.
Olivia is 14 years old when she learns that her dad — the fun guy she assumed just hadn’t reached out for seven years (despite that unfulfilled promise to go to Disney World) — is dead. He’s been dead this whole time.
And Olivia isn’t really sure what she’s supposed to do next.
Olivia Giovetti: I called his mother, I remember, which was long distance at the time, so I remember having to ask permission to call her, and my mom was like, "OK, I guess. Just don't stay on the phone too long." And like, she left no cover letter with it, because she was the one that sent it to me. Her address was on the return address thing, and she just hadn't really put anything else in there. And I called her, and she said, you know, “I wanted you to have his baby ring.” In the note, it said that he was tired of people telling him what to do, tired of trying to do things and failing and disappointing people, and that he just wanted the pain to stop. And for the longest time, I equated that with me. You know, in the absence of any other narrative from anyone else, I thought, “OK, Atlanta was a code.” Like that was sort of him not wanting to deal with people telling him what to do. I somehow just conflated that with the idea of him not wanting to have the responsibility of being a parent, and being a parent to me.
There’s never a good time to learn that your dad died by suicide, but Olivia is just a few weeks away from starting high school. And for her, learning that her dad is gone makes this big life transition even worse.
Olivia Giovetti: It was the first day of high school, and I got to my, like, little building for the freshmen. There was a circle of girls that I had been friendly with in middle school — not like best friends, but, you know, movie friends. I was kind of having a hard time getting into the group, and I realized, “Oh, I'm not part of this group anymore.” And one girl turned to me and said, smiling, “I just decided I'm not going to speak to you this year.” And I was like, OK, well, cool. And I just kind of tried to keep in the circle, because it's high school and it's just, you know, that survival instinct, I think. But there was a point of break in the conversation, and I just kind of blurted it out, where I was like, “I found out this summer that my dad killed himself seven years ago.” And the same girl looks at me and she goes, “Oh, we already knew that.” I was like, wait, what? At the time, I thought she was just saying it because she was being mean, and now I think it's the same thing of just, you know, the things that we say to each other as teenage girls are just completely senseless and cruel. But there was kind of that middle point of like, “Wait, I'm putting on the tinfoil hat, and is this all a conspiracy theory? Did everybody know about this?” It felt like those WB shows where that news drops and then it's like, OK, cut to commercial, and like, everyone is on their seat just waiting for the follow up. And just basically after that was like, “OK, we're just going to do commercials now. We're never going to get back to this, like, second act of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’”
We’ll be right back.
Olivia finds herself subconsciously turning to theater and movies and TV to help her process her dad’s death. She drawn to stories about suicide, and it doesn’t matter if they’re fiction or biography or true crime.
Olivia Giovetti: I was always a theater kid, and I in my freshman year of high school, I went to see one of those matinees they did for students, but a professional theater company doing “Othello” by Shakespeare. And, you know, it ends with Othello killing Desdemona. After he kills Desdemona, he kills himself. And I remember watching that scene and just feeling on fire. Every hair on the back of my neck was standing up, and I realized I really wanted to live in that moment of Othello's suicide. And a few weeks later, we watched the Zeffirelli "Romeo and Juliet" in English class after reading the play. And the same thing happened. That same moment of just this full-on chill and at the same time just feeling like I was going to spontaneously combust. I was on a RENT message board or an e-group for RENT heads in like 1999. And there's probably still fanfic somewhere out there that I wrote and it was all like, you know, this character dying and that character killing themselves. The summer after learning my dad died, I watched like, "Dead Poets Society" for the first time. And ooh boy, I just kept rewinding that last 20 minutes over and over and over. Like, that scene in “Dead Poets Society” where Robin Williams is sitting at Neil's desk and he takes out the book that he had given him and he just breaks down? Like that is just, I could probably draw that scene from memory just for having watched it so many times. But it was making me feel something, and I wasn't able to articulate what that was at the time, but I was still getting something out of it.
After graduation, Olivia says goodbye to the small town she grew up in and moves to New York, where she studies playwriting at Fordham University. Thanks to the social security she collected after her dad was declared dead in absentia, she’s able to pay for … less than a full year of tuition! And for Olivia, college is not the four best years of her life. It’s a real challenge.
Olivia Giovetti: I was thinking, “Oh, I can easily move to New York.” I had lived in New York the summer before at a pre-college program. I was like, “I can do this. This will be so easy. I'm going to win the Pulitzer Prize before I'm 30.” And I was the only one taken in that year for the playwriting program. I had an OK first year. But I think also I did start to just struggle with that sort of burnout of not only being very good at my academics for the most part, but also just not having an off switch, which I think the more I know about my dad now is something I got from him. It wasn’t really until 2003, 2004, and I was just kind of flailing with trying to make it all work, with trying to go to class to get good grades, to also hold down a job. I moved out of the dorms after freshman year into an apartment because I just wanted to be on my own. I massively crashed and burned. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to do playwriting.” I took a semester off from school entirely and just kind of worked temp jobs in New York. You know, the same sort of pattern that my dad lived out. And I could not deal with myself feeling like that, thinking as I was doing that, “Oh, God, I'm going to be a deadbeat just like my dad. This is the end of everything.”
Olivia knows the loss of her dad when she was a kid is affecting her now as an adult. But she isn’t fully ready to deal with that reality. Not yet.
Olivia Giovetti: It's like that last box when you move, of, “I don't know what I threw in this box. I don't know if I need it. I don't feel like opening it. I don't feel like dealing with it. So I'm just going to put it in the closet until I realize in six months that I need some sort of cable that's in there.” I was still really struggling a lot with that, but it was all very subsurface. And I started getting panic attacks. I had a panic attack that sent me home from work one evening. And my mother, who's a physician, I called her and she said, “Look, I'm going to put you on a prescription, but you need to go start seeing a therapist.” And I just kind of picked at random from one of those- I think it was like the Psychology Today directory of like whoever was the cheapest that was like, in my zip code. That therapist, I think I only saw her twice or maybe three times. And the first time I met her and talked with her, she said, “Well, it sounds like you had a very traumatic childhood.” And I got so pissed at her. I was like, “No! My childhood was normal. What are you talking about? Like, don't you see me? I'm normal. I work for an opera company.” It took me, I think, another five years or so before I found the therapist that I have now been seeing for over a decade.
During therapy, Olivia finally starts talking about her dad. Soon, she’s identifying a trait she and her father share … a pretty acute fear of failure.
Olivia Giovetti: I had a couple of small professional crises. I got fired from a job I liked for the first time. I had some other disagreement thing happen at another job. And I was feeling so panicked and anxious about it, because, again, if I get fired, if I have to quit a job because something got irreparably damaged, that means I am the fuckup. I am the deadbeat. And I first of all just felt a ton more empathy for my dad because I was mad at him for a long time. And I know it's cliche to be mad at someone who dies by suicide, but that's just what I was feeling, because it's like, “Dude, nut up and be a dad.”
It takes time, and it takes therapy, but Olivia decides she wants to open that last moving box and learn more about her dad. She’s not looking for an answer as to why he took his life — she understands mental illness and knows there’s never just one reason. She just wants to know more about the man who used to make her life so fun.
Olivia Giovetti: I just wanted to know: What music did he listen to? I know what we listened to together, but I imagine he must have listened to other things. Or, what did he do on the day of the first snow? Like, what was his favorite beer to drink? You know, all of these things that I just wanted to know, those like, little details, because I had so few of them. I knew that he had a tattoo of the road runner and a tattoo of Woody Woodpecker, and he liked to joke that he had two birds and a pecker. And I knew that he had, like, aviator sunglasses and that he smoked Marlboro Reds. And all of his flannel shirts smelled like that. But I didn't know a lot more than that. And I was so craving that detail of information, I kind of stopped caring about what happened to him. I just wanted to know who he was. His cousin Al, called me, and we just kind of talked for about three hours, and was just telling me a whole bunch of stuff, including, this was the first time that I had heard, “He was married before your mom,” which I think we're now up to four possible marriages that my dad has had, and there might be more. Oh, and also, by the way, “I don't think he's really dead. Not everyone thinks he's dead.”
Olivia has just had yet another bombshell dropped on her. Her dead dad … might not be dead after all? Might have a secret family or three?
Olivia Giovetti: They still have not found a body for my dad. There's a case in Massachusetts, because that's where it happened. But then there is also a case in Nashua, where he was residing. And that is still considered a cold case. Up until maybe 2009 or 2010, they were still, like, checking in regularly with my dad's younger sister. And they had found, I think in maybe 2008 or something, a body somewhere around Maryland. And they were doing, like, dental record checks for him. His mother died believing that he had still managed to fake his own death. When he disappeared, his truck was near the Wonderland T station, and everything was in there except for about $3,000 in cash. They said it's possible he went to Logan Airport, because that is right near this T stop or a couple of stops away. And it's possible that he could have flown to Canada or the Bahamas. But we can't be certain.
And just like the day Olivia received that manilla envelope in the mail, the first thing Olivia wants to know is … did her mom know about any of this?
Olivia Giovetti: I called my mother, livid, and she was like, “Well, of course, he was married before. That's why your grandparents are Catholi and you grew up Episcopalian, because I had to switch to the Episcopalian Church so I could marry him.” I'm like, “None of this was explained to me!” She knew that he had been married at least once before. But like, I was talking with his sister last year, and she mentioned his ex-wife. And I said, “Oh, so and so.” And she was like, “No, this name.” And I was like, “Wait, what?” And then I was doing some, you know, Internet sleuthing, and I found another marriage license that has his Social Security number on it. So I was like, “Well, we found another one.”
By now, Olivia is a working journalist and a champ at online investigations … so she keeps digging.
Olivia Giovetti: There are a few bits of him on the Internet where, like, you know, you can find an article of him and his high school graduating class. And that's when I just started looking up other people. And, you know, more people were on Facebook in 2016, and started looking them up and saying, “I think you went to school with my father. He died when I was 7. I'd like to know more about him, if you remember anything. Can we talk?” And a bunch of people got back to me and said, “Al Giovetti would never have abandoned his daughter. He was so in love with being your dad. I don't think he died.” I remember asking my mom about it, I think, a few years before, if it's possible that he could have faked his own death. And she said, “He wasn't that smart.”
Nora McInerny: Way to get that dig in. Get it in. [laughs]
Olivia Giovetti: Tell me your divorce was acrimonious without telling me your divorce was acrimonious.
Remember, the only reason Olivia’s dad was declared dead is because Olivia’s mom filed for that “death in absentia” designation, so that Olivia could receive Social Security benefits.
At one point, Olivia’s aunt — her dad’s sister — tells Olivia that her dad was “really into the Internet” in the early ‘90s. He was an early adopter, going digital way before the rest of us started unknowingly logging into creepy chat rooms. Al was even online dating in the early ‘90s. Did not know that was possible! So Olivia starts to think … maybe her dad DID have the tech savvy to make himself disappear.
And then, on Father’s Day in 2016, Olivia has a breakthrough.
Olivia Giovetti: I found kind of through Facebook and Googling that there was a restaurant in Helsinki, of all places, that was using the name Albert Giovetti. Kind of like the, “Oh, Albert Giovetti, he moved to Helsinki in 19 whatever, and he just fell in love with the place. And he created this wonderful tavern to give you a taste of old Sicily Appledonza, very like Godfather (humming stereotypical Italian melody).”
That’s right. Helsinki, the capital of Finland.
Olivia Giovetti: The picture that they used for, like, “Papa Albert” looked like my father's dad, like uncannily. And Giovetti is not a common last name in Italian. My dad worked in restaurants. It's believed by at least some people that he could have gotten out of town. And if he, like, over 20 years, went from Boston to Canada, who's to say he didn't get a new ID, a new passport and resettle in Helsinki? And who's to say? Because my mother said he's not smart enough to fake his own death, that he wouldn't be dumb enough to use his own actual name in setting up this restaurant as his new life in Helsinki. And having that sort of like, Greek chorus of his high school friends telling me, “I don't think he would have done that. I think he's out there somewhere.” Who's to say that's not going to pan out?
Not Olivia. When there are so many people suggesting her dad could still be alive … and not when a Finnish restaurant bears his name as well as a picture that looks an awful lot like Olivia’s grandpa.
Olivia Giovetti: For me as a writer and for me as someone who has done a lot of reported journalism, it feels like, “Oh, this story is coming together.” You could set some track hurdles in front of me, and I probably would have broken a record or two at that point just with that amount of energy. I write to the restaurant, and I just said, “Hey, you're a Giovetti. I’m a Giovetti. What's going on here?” And nothing. That only made me more like, “A ha! Your silence speaks volumes!” I used to work at TimeOut New York, and I still had friends who worked there. And I got one of them to send an email from their TimeOut account saying, “Hey, we're just updating the Helsinki Guidebook. Can you confirm a couple of questions for us? Like, can we just set up a time to talk on the phone?”
Maybe the management isn’t responding because they’re, you know, a restaurant busy doing restaurant things. But Olivia can’t shake the feeling that there’s something more to this. The possibility that her father might be alive and well and running a restaurant across the Atlantic ocean becomes the thing that keeps her up at night. She can feel that there are answers out there … and she wants them.
Olivia Giovetti: My mind just kind of went to all of these places until I finally just bought a ticket to go to Helsinki.
When we get back, we’re going to Finland.
Olivia is on her way to Helsinki, Finland, where there’s a Sicilian restaurant owned by a man who might be her dad — a man she first thought had abandoned her, then learned he had died by suicide, and then learned that he might NOT be dead and had actually faked his own death!
It’s a lot for Olivia to process. So she boards the plane. And then…
Olivia Giovetti: I boarded the plane, and it was where I realized it was World Mental Health Day, because an article I had written about understanding my father's suicide had been published that day. I was getting texts on my phone from friends saying, “Oh my God, this is such a great piece.” And I was like, what? And I checked it and I said, “Oh, oh, it's that day. Great.” [laughs] The synchronicity is just … it's just everywhere, and it kind of in that very silly way made me feel like maybe this is worth something and maybe this is going to lead to something.
Olivia arrives in the evening and plans to visit the restaurant first thing the next day.
Olivia Giovetti: I used to work in restaurants, so I know you do not go in during the lunch rush, and you do not go in during the dinner rush. So I was like, “If I'm doing this, I'm doing it right.” And I walk in, I go up to the bar. I brought some of my old TimeOut New York business cards with me just to, you know, again, kind of just trying to go in without spooking anyone. You know, it's like when you're walking in the woods and you try to, like, not disturb the deer. And I went up to the bar. I ordered a Coke and I said, “Is there a manager I can speak to? I work with TimeOut. See, here's my card. We're updating the Helsinki Guide. And I just wanted to ask a few questions about, you know, the history of the restaurant and all that.” I've done those types of articles about restaurants, and it's one thing when you go into, like, a historic restaurant that's been open for 200 years or you go into, you know, a place that everyone is talking about. But this was a very sad cruise ship, Italian buffet restaurant. It all just felt so clammy. The bartender is like, “Oh yeah, there's not a manager here right now. But if you want to ask some questions about the restaurant, there's a shift manager who comes on at 5:00.” And this is like eleven o'clock in the morning.
This is … unhelpful, and the tin-foil hat part of Olivia worries she’s getting the runaround. She kills some time by visiting local shops, sampling different makeup palettes and tools to give herself a little makeover. When she comes face to face with her dad, she wants to look like the strong woman she’s become in his absence.
She returns to the restaurant at 5PM sharp. And this time, the manager is there. The man who could be … her dad.
Olivia Giovetti: He was this very tall, young Finnish guy with super blond hair, super blue eyes, just arms of tattoos and maybe about my age. And he was like, “Oh, I'm the shift manager.” And I was like, awesome. You are not my dad. I said to the guy, “I'm curious about the origin story of this place.” You know, “You mentioned that there is a man named Albert.” And he looked at me, and he said … “I have to tell you, that whole thing is made up.” And I was like, “What, what? Huh?” And he said, “We’re a hotel restaurant. We've been here for decades, but under different names. And when they rebranded this place as an Italian tavern type of deal, a marketing company came up with like, this whole backstory for us to make it seem like a family establishment.”
Nora McInerny: Wow. Wowwwww.
Olivia Giovetti: And I was like, “OK, well, now, wait a second. Where did you come up with this name?” And we were on a street called Albertanotcu, which was named I think for a famous Finn whose name was Albert. And I was like, “OK, but what about Giovetti? Because that is not a common last name.” And he's looking at me, and he's like, “Is your last name Giovetti?” And I was like, “Yes, yes, it is.” And he was like, “Oh, so you're staying at the hotel?” And I was like, “No.” And he was like, “I don't know why they chose that name. I think they just kind of chose one randomly online.” He genuinely seemed not like he was not part of this, like, 25-year-old sinister cabal. I think he just was like, telling me the truth or what he understood to be the truth. I finally kind of dropped the facade with him because I, like, had a picture of my dad on my phone. I was like, “Look, this guy is probably 25 years older now. So you have to imagine wrinkles, gray hairs, all that stuff. Does anyone work here who looks like this man?” And he's looking at me now like, “Wait, what just happened? Because I thought you were a travel writer.” And I kind of just told him the whole thing, but I was also trying to be really together. So I'm like, “Oh, well, you know, it's just your average story. My dad disappeared 25 years ago. He may have died. He may not have. And then I just found someone using his name here. So I figured I would just fly over and see what's going on, you know, totally normal, though. Totally normal. This is not weird at all. But can you just tell me, like, does this guy work here, because if so, I need to talk to him.” And he was so, you know, it's that face that people make when you say, you know, “My dad's dead,” or, you know, “I've always believed my dad to be dead, but he may have faked his death.” It's that, “Eeeeeh, yeah, I am uncomfortable about this, and I'm not even you.”
The manager feels bad for Olivia and so he offers her a free dinner on the house.
Olivia Giovetti: Like, “No, no, I don't. I don't, I don't want a consolation pizza.”
Olivia came all the way to Finland to find answers. And she got them. They just weren’t the answers she wanted. Right?
Olivia Giovetti: I was relieved honestly about that because ... I was very afraid of my dad actually being there, I think. Because, again, what do you say and like, what happens if I actually figured this out. In the buildup to going on that trip, I had read a lot of books about faking one's own death. There was one that came out around that time by someone who went through the whole process of getting herself declared legally dead just to see what it took to get there. And, you know, we don't have accurate statistics about how many people faked their own deaths because the ones who get away with it get away with it. If I actually am breaking this story for myself. What then? Does he have to start a new life all over again?
Olivia leaves the restaurant and decides to visit a sauna. It’s at the very tip of Helsinki.
Olivia Giovetti: The whole thing with sauna is that you go from hot to cold. And I was sitting in the heat box, and … I just started talking to my dad in my head, kind of in the way of, what was I going to say to him? But, you know, the conversation that I was having with him was like, you know, him saying to me, “Well, what did you expect? You can't expect the finishing line.” Ha ha ha, dad pun. And, you know, I just kind of went from that into just sort of having this conversation with him that maybe it was the one I wanted to have, maybe it wasn't the one I wanted to actually have, but it was just kind of me being honest with him in that moment. I was, like, in there for a while because I was really starting to feel woozy, and I walked out to the Gulf of Finland and some places have like just pools to go into. But this being on the water, you just jump into a body of water. And it was dark at that point. It was foggy. I also didn't have my glasses on. They were in my locker, and I can't see a thing without them. And I just felt so lost in this weird wilderness of darkness and fog and this really murky water. I don't know if it was more the cold of the water that was disturbing to me or the idea that because I'm like diving into a natural body of water that's connected to the ocean there might be, you know, “The Princess Bride,” the shrieking eel scene, really messed me up around eels for a very long time. And I kind of realized I am probably never going to know for sure whether my father is alive or dead. There would either have to be a body found or somewhat he would have to come out of the woodwork and actually present himself at my doorstep. I've come to accept that closure is a bit of a fallacy, especially around death. We've sort of co-opted this, you know, the Kubler Ross stages of grief, which were originally not even written for grieving, but for people accepting their own death. But we've kind of thought, “Oh, well, it's like Candy Land. You go from anger to denial to bargaining to depression to acceptance, and that's it. And then you never think about it again.” And I have really come to understand that it is a much more cyclical, spiraling thing where it's like pinball, where you're just hitting one emotion after the other and it's not in order and there's never really any terminus for it. And nothing is really going to change that for me. And that's OK. You know? And that's when I jumped into the water.
There are aspects of Olivia’s dad that will always be a mystery to her. Questions that will never have answers. That uncertainty is not a great feeling to have, but it’s also okay. Because in that moment, in that ice cold water in Finland, Olivia feels … something. It’s not closure. It’s a letting go.
Olivia Giovetti: We never had a funeral for my dad. He specified in his will “burial at sea, no service,” I believe he is dead. I believe him to be dead. And so two days before he died, he changed his will to include that. And in his note, he had said, you know, “If my body is recovered, please just put it back in the water.” My husband is Jewish, and I converted to Judaism. You know, in Judaism, there's a yahrzeit. We never did a yahrzeit. In Judaism, you also sit shiva for a week. And I think that's one of my favorite things, is having that like, prolonged time. You know, I lost touch with most of my dad's family over time. No one ever really talked about him, so no one ever called me on his birthday or on his death anniversary. And so I just kind of had no tools for understanding what shape my grief should take, and it kind of becomes like leaving the Christmas tree up all year where, you know, someone comes over to your house in July and they're like, “Why do you still have a tree up?” And it's like, “Wait, I didn't know that you're supposed to take your tree out in these after Thanksgiving, put it up and then it like, you know, gets put back or it goes to get mulched, you know, the first week of January.” And so, like, my Christmas tree of grief just kind of, you know ... the pine needles didn't ever get brown, so it just kind of stayed up for a while.
Olivia Giovetti: I remember the day that I forgave my dad, which was around the time like, maybe six or seven months after I started investigating his life a bit more. I was training for a half marathon at the time, and so I had gone for a run that morning, and I was in the bathroom afterwards showering. I was listening to REM’s “The End of the World,” and it just hit me like, “Oh, oh. I'm OK. I forgive my dad for doing this, I'm OK with him having done this.” I hadn't been thinking about him that day. I hadn't been thinking about him while I was running. It just kind of came in out of nowhere. And maybe it was, you know, maybe it's the lyrics to that song, just kind of that sense of everything's falling apart. All good. I feel fine. And it wasn't acceptance, but it was just, it was forgiveness.
This has been Terrible, Thanks for Asking. I’m Nora McInerny. Our production team is Marcel Malekebu, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Jordan Turgeon. Our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar Wilson.
“Terrible, Thanks for Asking” is a production of APM Studios at American Public Media. Executive producer and editor Beth Pearlman. Executives in charge Lily Kim, Alex Shaffert, Joanne Griffith.