In the long, sad history of conflicts between gay youth and their parents, the case of Timothy Ginocchetti ranks as particularly tragic. Bullied by his own mother for years about his evident but unspoken sexuality, he finally erupted, killing her. When I looked beneath the surface of their life together, I found religiously motivated intolerance – but with an unexpected, poignant twist.
Tim was a shy 16-year-old math nerd living a cloistered life in an evangelical-Christian community when a series of traumas began with the death of his father, a firefighter killed in the line of duty. For the next four-plus years, Tim, an only child, lived at his church’s lakeside compound with his mother, Pamela, locked together in a grief that took two distinct paths. While the son mourned the loss of his protective father and sought to honor his memory, the mother purged her life of all reminders of her husband – a cold coping mechanism recommended by her minister.
In public, the Ginocchettis projected a stoic and prayerful air. Tim finished high school and his first three years of civil engineering studies in superb academic form. All the while, though, the mother-son relationship grew increasingly toxic in private.
They never spoke explicitly about the reason, but it was barely concealed. For as long as Tim could remember, he knew he was gay. He never acted on it, but the thoughts alone made him fear the wrath of his family, which strictly followed the teachings of the powerful minister who has led their church in a suburb of Syracuse, New York, USA, for more than 60 years.
He knew that the minister’s disapproval would extend to pray-away-the-gay counseling and insistence that Tim renounce his ‘lifestyle choice’. The penalty for disobedience could include expulsion from the church – which, in the church’s tradition, meant severing most or all contact with family members who remain faithful.
As Tim entered puberty, he shaved unwanted hair on his arms. His thoughts drifted to suicide as an escape from the sexual maturity he feared. His most noticeable feature besides his delicate, meek nature – a faint, high-pitched voice – became the greatest point of friction with his mother. ‘Speak up,’ she would bark at him. ‘Fix your voice.’
He was under orders to read aloud in church, in front of the people Pam most cared about impressing. When Tim refused, or spoke haltingly enough to get corrected by the minister himself, Pam was mortified. As she stepped up her pressure on her son through voice-strengthening therapy, a testosterone test, and constant correction, he cowered rather than lashed out. The inseparable pair desperately needed professional counseling. But Pam chose, for herself and her son, to rely on their minister as their only counselor.
Tim Ginocchetti killed his mother in a sudden explosion of rage. Her critiques had veered even closer to his secret, when she demanded to know if he liked girls and questioned why he wasn’t yet dating as he turned 21 years old.
After she threatened to report to the minister his failure to conform, Tim pummeled and stabbed his mother to death, then tried to commit suicide by cutting his neck and wrists. He lost his nerve and called the police on himself, immediately confessing his crime. The first time he admitted aloud his sexuality was to two detectives in an interrogation room hours after the bloody crime.
Tim was charged with murder, which could carry a penalty up to life in prison. But his lawyers successfully defended him by invoking a provision of New York law downgrading murder to a lesser charge of manslaughter in cases of ‘extreme emotional disturbance’.
Unlike an insanity defense, which claims the accused was mentally incapable of self-restraint or knowing right from wrong, this psychological defense recognizes the violence deserves punishment. But that punishment gets reduced because the crime stems from provocation. Once the prosecutors and judge agreed this was appropriate in Tim’s case, he received a 15-year term.
During my years of reporting this sad and strange event, I obtained a remarkable written record: Tim’s private journals. In teensy handwriting designed to thwart his mother’s prying eyes, Tim’s true self comes to life. Not his erotic thoughts – he never hints at such – but instead his inner child. His favorite pastimes were building castles in the snow and solitary walks on church grounds to note the seasons’ changes. He marked each holiday with a rotating display of decorations in his bedroom. Tim’s fantasy play in his late teens and early 20s was that of a young boy: pretend school and dinner parties; reenactments of Titanic movie scenes. It was his way of trying to freeze time and avoid the pain of growing up.
As I realized what I was witnessing in his journals’ pages, the depth of his misery and torture came into focus. The very people who should have loved him unconditionally and protected him had, consciously or not, bullied him into a dream state. But in that state, he wasn’t consumed with anger and outward rebellion. Instead, he reverted to a little boy’s innocent reverence for beauty and happiness.
That image haunts me as I think about this meek, slight young man, the one I visited in prison and saw in stark contrast to the tough criminals all around him. He has, at minimum, six and a half years remaining to serve in prison for his one moment of rebellion.
Mark Obbie is the author of God’s Nobodies: Misguided Faith and Murder in the Life of One American Family, available as a Kindle Single at Amazon US and Amazon UK. For photos, audio recordings of Tim Ginocchetti’s voice, and bonus chapters, visit markobbie.com or the God’s Nobodies Facebook page.
Below: Tim Ginocchetti, aged 15 or 16, shortly before he lost his father (photo provided by the family) and in court charged with murder a few years later (photo by Dick Blume: Copyright 2012 The Post-Standard. All rights reserved. Used with permission of The Post-Standard).