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Sleepers is a novel about four boys who are sexually abused at a school for boys, and later exact revenge on their tormentors. It was made into a film starring Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt, and Robert De Niro, among others. However there is a lot of skepticism about whether the story is actually true.

In the book, Mr. Carcaterra writes about himself (played in the film by Jason Patric) and three young friends living in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan in the 1960's. After they stage a street prank that unintentionally leaves a man seriously injured, the book says, the four are sent to an upstate juvenile detention center, where they are brutalized and sexually assaulted.

Years after their release, two of the boys, now professional killers, accidentally encounter a former guard who took part in the assaults. The two promptly kill the guard in a restaurant, but to save them from prison, a third member of the old foursome, an assistant district attorney (played by Brad Pitt), privately manipulates the evidence in their behalf. He needs the help of a popular Roman Catholic priest (Robert De Niro), who is asked to perjure himself on behalf of the killers, whom he has known since childhood.

Strong challenges to the book's story were raised by the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church and School on the West Side of Manhattan (which Mr. Carcaterra attended), where priests expressed outrage about the author's assertions, and by the Manhattan District Attorney's office. The office said there were no records of a case like the one described in the book.

"'Sleepers' Debate Renewed: How True Is a 'True Story'?", New York Times, Oct. 22, 1996

The author, Lorenzo Carcaterra, claims it is a true story, and shrugs off the skepticism.

Q: Is SLEEPERS a true story or not?

A: There will be many who question this. First of all, names, dates and places were changed. Second, institutions raised questions which I have refused to answer. The bottom line is -- it is a true story and it is my story. Those who chose to believe it have my heart. Those who chose not to believe it -- that's for them to decide.

—Lorenzo Carcaterra, in a former FAQ on his website, via the Internet Archive

My Questions:

  • Was the author sentenced to a school for troubled youth?
  • Was the author sexually abused at that school?
  • Did boys at the school murder a guard who had abused them?
  • Were those boys later acquitted of the murder?
  • Was the acquittal aided by a prosecutor in on the job?
  • Was the acquittal aided by false testimony from an authority figure?
  • I don't have anything useful to contribute, but I suspect the first bullet point would be both the easiest to track down and the key to finding the rest of the information. After all, we know that he should have graduated high school in 1973, based on his age. Once we find his "school for troubled youth", the rest should follow. – Bobson Apr 30 '14 at 19:19
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According to the author, at least some details were changed.

A key point being disputed in the book is when Michael, the member of the quartet who has been working in the Manhattan district attorney's office for only six months, gets the case assigned to him. The D.A.'s office has said in interviews that a neophyte prosecutor would never handle a homicide.

Carcaterra responded to Time that the real-life Michael was not necessarily a six-month assistant district attorney the way he was described and maybe was not even working in Manhattan. "The what, where and when these things happened were not as important to me as the fact that they did happen," he said.

The author nevertheless insists that the events of the book "did happen". Catholic groups disputed that claim, pointing to the denials from New York authorities and the lack of proof from the author.

Carcaterra and the others were never sent to a reform school, and no priest ever perjured himself. School records show that Carcaterra missed no more than 20 days of school in all his years at Sacred Heart, making preposterous the claim that he spent time in reform school. It is also interesting that in Carcaterra’s earlier book about his life, A Safe Place, he never mentions this alleged “true story.”

Moreover, the Manhattan DA’s office insists that no such incident ever took place and the New York Division for Youth denies that such a brutal reformatory ever existed. And no one from the neighborhood who still lives there ever recalls such a story.

Did Carcaterra make up his story from whole cloth? No, it appears that the book and movie are a composite drawn from many sources, among which is the [1990] book The Westies, a story about a notorious Irish gang from Hell’s Kitchen. By cutting and splicing, Carcaterra mended his tale together, selling it as though it were the real thing.

On October 16, 1995, Catholic League president William Donohue wrote to Peter Gethers, the editor of Sleepers at Ballantine Books (a division of Random House), stating that “this matter can be resolved rather quickly, providing you give a sworn affidavit stating that your account is true, and providing you are willing to make public the names of the priest and the Assistant District Attorney.” No reply was forthcoming and Gethers never responded to Donohue’s later request for a meeting to discuss the authenticity of the book.

The view of the Catholic groups, that the book and movie are entirely fictitious, was echoed by some media.

The Washington Post charged that Carcaterra is “trying to have it both ways—the urgency of reality plus the freedom of fiction.” Cox News Service headlined its review, “Sleepers‘ So Phony It Ought To Be A Crime.” Newsday offered the following: “This is the stuff of countless entertaining Hollywood movies and paperback novels. Unfortunately, Carcaterra convinced himself he could get away with the ruse.”

As a result of these widespread doubts, many news media began asking Carcaterra probing questions about the film. According to the Washington Post article above, he generally shied away from asking questions, and eventually stopped responding to media requests (apparently for several decades). However, since all the names were changed, there was no case for suing for slander, so the matter died without resolution.

I should add that the idea that a bunch of kids could get acquitted of murdering a school official without any news coverage whatsoever seems fairly extraordinary.

  • Yes, one would think it's easy to find evidence of this murder story. – fredsbend Jun 6 '17 at 0:02
  • Wouldn't the Catholic Church be able to sue for slander as the plot, if true, casts aspersions upon their institution? Likewise, if the part about the boys being acquitted of the murder was not true, wouldn't his claim that the story was true then be an implicit admission of murder? I'm not saying that the story is true (it almost certainly isn't), but unless I am misunderstanding the specifics of the case, these seem like issues that should be addressed. – cpcodes Jul 3 '18 at 16:27
  • @cpcodes There was probably no murder in the first place. The Church was certainly slandered by this fiction (imho), but it's such a public-facing institution that it would be hard to make the legal case that the slander amounted to a tort. – Avery Jul 3 '18 at 16:32
  • @cpcodes the Catholic church had enough problems with accusations of sexual misconduct by priests that they probably thought it wisest to not make ripples here, given that in the US legal system a jury can be extremely unpredictable – jwenting Jul 9 '18 at 7:25

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