The Truth Behind Sleepers

By Rachel Brook

Immediately after the publishing of Lorenzo Carcaterra’s book Sleepers
in 1995, controversy arose as to the truthful nature of the story.
The controversy intensified in 1996, after the book was made into a
movie directed by Barry Levinson.  Sleepers tells the tale of four
juveniles who accidentally kill a man during what was meant to be a
harmless prank.  The boys are sent to a detention center for boys
where they are severely abused, both sexually and physically.
Sleepers  portrays this abuse and the ultimate revenge that the boys
seek and obtain as adults when they encounter one of the detention
center’s guards in a restaurant.  Carcaterra published the book
Sleepers as a work of nonfiction.  The movie Sleepers also begins with
the line:  “This is a true story about friendship that runs deeper
than blood.”  However, many parties mentioned in Sleepers were
outraged by the assertion that this story is a reflection of
historical reality.

After the publishing of Sleepers and the later release of the film,
various people and entities expressed outrage at the assertion that
the story was nonfictional.  Priests at the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Church and School questioned the veracity of the book and movie.  The
Manhattan District Attorney’s Office was particularly upset by the way
in which it was portrayed in the story.  In Sleepers, one of the four
boys becomes an Assistant District Attorney (A.D.A.) for the Manhattan
District Attorney’s Office, and he manipulates the trial process (with
the help of another of the boys) to publicize the abuse that he
endured while in the juvenile detention center.  The Manhattan
District Attorney’s Office denied that an A.D.A. ever worked on a case
in such a manner.  If true, such a practice by one of its attorneys
would clearly undermine the legal system’s goal of justice.

In October of this year, Carcaterra attended a viewing of the movie
Sleepers at the Fordham Film Festival and he was able to discuss the
veracity of the story in a discussion after the film.  Carcaterra
admitted himself that he changed the names and places relating to his
childhood encounter with the law.  However, he said that the remainder
of Sleepers  is accurate.  Interestingly, Carcaterra arrived at the
Festival with only fifteen minutes left of the movie, and he said
quite frankly that he would rather not view the parts of the movie
that he missed.  Also, when asked a question about how he copes with
his unfortunate past experiences, Carcaterra avoided detailed
discussion of his abuse.  His reaction to such a question and his
reluctance to watch the movie speak to the trauma inflicted on him by
the juvenile legal system when he was a boy.  He prefers not to relive
those awful memories, and he carries emotional baggage from that time
of his life, even as a 55-year-old successful author.  What is most
disturbing about Sleepers (and most important) seems to be true:  four
young boys were scarred by the brutality of the juvenile legal system,
and if they are still alive, they deal with that trauma every day.

49 Responses to “The Truth Behind Sleepers”

  1. Hello there my name is jennifer…

    The first time i watched this movie made me cry i can feel there pain!!! i would love to meet the author im doing a school parer on this book about young teenagers who have been thorough… would love to know how to go about things like this….

    Thank you yours turely
    jennifer w

  2. Sugar Lanskee

    Naturally, the RCC and Law Enforcement weigh in on the side of the bad guys.

  3. If its not true, he is the best liar in the world by far, no matter how it happened, to be able to tell so many people the same details and feel so strongly is never an easy thing to do for the best of liars and that combined with the fact the story is believeable swayes me to believe him. I have no reason to not. Of course the church and the courts wouldnt want anyone knowing, its a huge and dangerous position to be in, no way would they admit it! Luckily times have changed somewhat since then but I just bought the book and film. Its an amazing, true story.

  4. angelica

    i have just watched the movie and can’t believe the torture those boys went through and I haven’t even read the book I plan to though here soon because what they went through is unspeakable torture and even though most say this doesn’t happen much any more it’s really very commen which is even worse so I can really feel their pain for it’s a heart renching story anyone would be upset over.I am lucky and will never go through that at least I hope I don’t at the age of 14 now so I
    feel for them though having no experience myself in such dangerous a situation.

    • Marg Wood

      Abusers always deny it happened or try to justify it. I believe it happened!

  5. If someone tells your they have been abused, that this happened to them, I don’t care how unbelievable you think it is, what age they are or how long ago it was, you believe them. It’s disgusting that people entertain the idea that someone would lie that this had happened to them, especially so publicly.

  6. I have just read this book and was absolutely horrified by it. I couldnt read the worst parts of brutality and rape. It took me awhile to get my head round the worst parts. I had to stop reading and gather myself. IF this story is not true, then I dont have any respect for the author to say that it is and it is not just for publicity. For those young boys who ARE and have been raped in boys schools prisons insitutions, young offenders and the like to say this story is true is not fair to them and is abusive in itself to demean such a situation of horror to real boys in real situations. If the story is true, then I cannot imagine such a situation and the boys surviving such a brutal and harsh place. Carcaterra says he was put in solitary confinement for 2 weeks without food medical help sanitation etc after being beaten up and rats eating into his wounds. As I was reading it I felt it unb elievable that some young boy without food nourishment could survive such extreme brutality. He also says that a prison officer inserted a baton up his anal. I cannot believe that the size of a young boy and a very large baton he would die from the horrific torture and the injuries he would have sustained in the prison without medical attention would have given him infection and not survived such a brutal act. The guards, he writes, in the prison had sexual rape with a majority of the inmates but this would have brought infection , possibly aids and all sorts of other STD infections. I dont think its right to say this is a true story as it demeans those who are truly raped in such circumstances and the writer should tell the truth, because if it is true, like he says, I cannot for one, settle in my mind, that such awful brutality happened. I cant sleep at night, the book has affected me that much. I would really like to think he hasnt made it up, but I suspect that he put fiction and non-fiction together, and made it more of story than it really was. He is a writer after all, and may have embellished the truth. Whatever, the truth, only Carcaterra knows and God Have Mercy on all humans who are brutalised in this way, all over the world.

    • This was the 1960′s – AIDS only spread in the 1980′s. If the men were only having sex with their wives and a bunch of virgins, then it would be a closed circuit and not much disease involved. Honestly, if you look into the history of child abuse in particularly relgious institutions, this isn’t even rare.

      • The AIDS virus has been circulating among people for about 100 years, decades longer than scientists had thought, a new study suggests. Please go to the CDC web site and read about how long the AiDS virus has been around, you will be surprised. It was not until 1981 when the earlier cases were reported in the United States, AIDS has been around for a century or longer, scientist just did not know what it was or the cause of it. AIDS mutates very quickly, this is what baffles scientists. As far as the story of Sleepers being true or not, children are abused more often than we care to admit in the United States, that is the reality. While the author may have embellished a bit, does not take away from the reality of child abuse. If anything it pushes your awareness of this reality.

    • Richard Lamb

      Excellent, incisive review of and comments one this disturbing book. Many thanks.

  7. wyrdwoman

    I cannot attest to the veracity of the book but I can tell you that it is possible to survive 2 weeks no food but only days without water. There are many instances of filth and wounds being survived check your history books. Check into immune responses in the young. I think that disease would have been a component but not every person exposed to the HI virus contract it even with repeated exposure. Unte Reader had an article about couples openly having unprotected sex with an HIV infected partner and something like 30% developed the infection. There is a stronger likelihood of hepatitis, chlamydia, herpes, etc. being the most rampant of the diseases and all but HEP C have good rates of recovery. HI virus has remarkable rates of longevity before becoming the deadly AIDS. We cannot speculate on the health issues without the full facts. Do we know the numbers of people treated in these situations that might reflect veracity in itself. As far as the idea that a baton cannot penetrate without death I suspect it is a horror we might wish to believe could not happen but we know even infants are penetrated without death another horror we may wish to never believe. We, who would never behave this way may not be able or willing to walk the trail of life in their moccasins. I know my own horrors I know my own history and I can attest to the viability though not to these particular events. In my mind I can relate to the desire to deny as well as the fact these have happened and are well documented scientifically worldwide. We are cruel and we are indomitable depending on the individuals and the environment. I am still standing. I suspect that even if this is a lie that tells the truth it has value. What can I learn? How can I help? Can I make a difference by sheer awareness alone? So many opportunities just via discussion and sharing.

    • For crying out loud, all of you- this took place in the late 60ies so there WAS no AIDS! They may have gotten other infections (or not) and maybe some of them continued living with their infections, maybe some of them got medicine for whatever they may have caught. But just don´t be so dumb- AIDS didn´t exists back then!

      • Just because AIDS was not documented back in the 1960′s does not mean it did not exist, just saying.

  8. You don’t know what you’re talking about Rachael. It’s so unbelievable to you that a young boy could be raped and beaten and tortured in front of a crowd and not have anyone step in? Weak ppl follow stronger ppl and this is a clear case of it.

  9. senzo hadebe

    I would not bear it if my boy were to go to prison especially after reading this article and watching the movie

  10. I have read this book and watched the movie and I can tell you this right now; this story brought me to tears. It’s absolutely horrible about what happened to these boys in that home and I honestly don’t understand why Carcaterra would lie about it. Of course the media wants to say it isn’t true because they don’t want people finding out what really goes on in these types of juvenile homes. I believe him, I believe this story checks out, and even if it didn’t, this stuff DOES happen all the time and people need to realize that.

  11. donna brown

    I watched this movie and enough though it was hard to watch I do think it is important that you told your story. This should be a scare for all teens to not screw up cause as bad as it is this stuff happens and anyone who don t believe that is being an ostrich life is not always pleasant . God I wish it was. but I know people that have been abused and survive some how we get the strength to keep going I hope getting this out helps u close your eyes and find alittle peace God bless.

  12. I’m not sure anyone is actually questioning the veracity of the abuse claims. We know this happened/happens all the time. What seems really far-fetched is the trial and the witness manipulation, and how the whole revenge fantasy played out so perfectly. Fact-checking the trial (who presided, who the jurors were, etc.) would be easy to do, if the case existed at all. Are there records of a similar trial occurring at that time on which this could have been based?

  13. ART imitates LIFE! Or does LIFE imitate ART? So, which one came first now, the CHICKEN or the EGG? What the hell does it matter? They both exist today! What is told in that book/movie does exist TODAY! That IS what matters! He is a writer! A damn good one at that! The story was provoking and purposeful, whether that particular one was true or not!

  14. rose gamm

    i just wanted to say i seen the movie i feel for the four boys no cild should be harmed in any way like that i and against abuse on children most of all sex abuse as well that isn’t the way these boys learn about this way.i hope they can find peace and i hope they are all well and hope they can sleep at night and god bless them all.

    • kim andress

      How can you say that when these types of things happen in prison all the time.

  15. Allot of people asked how the boys didn’t become HIV positive. The story was in the 60s. For those that think the the writer was lying please bear in mind that we hear stories like this all the time about prisons. Think about this movie next time you hear a don’t pick up the soap joke than ask if its real. We do like people who make mistakes in this country. People question rape and abuse happening in the criminal justice system?

  16. Joseph

    The most common thing for a writer to lie about is his history of being abused. The story is fiction plain and simple.

    • I will never question anyone’s story nor should anyone else. It was heartbreaking and painful to watch, these things do happen I feel for anyone that has faced any type of abuse in their life especially children because they are so helpless. I wish all those who have suffered, nothing but peace of mind and hope they find some form of happiness. I prayed after watching this movie the world is a horrible place. May god protect and bless us all

  17. Well, we want it to be true and so it is. It was an entertaining movie. True? Not likely. About as true as, Frey’s book, A Million Little Pieces.

  18. The author chose to portray the abuse of children as institutionalised, and yet this was contradicted by:
    a) one good warder who ended the eating from the floor scene
    b) the boys being taken to hospital after their post-match beating
    This destroys credibility, as you can’t have it both ways – either the abuse was ignored by all, or the scandal would have been ended. The worst error which proved the story a lie was the idea that the warders could have beaten a boy (Rizzo) to death with impunity. This death was later reported as due to pneumonia, but obviously there would have been an autopsy.
    This was the point in the film where I realised the ‘true story’ line was a con. I don’t like cons. I think an author should be prepared to say, ‘Here’s a story I made up – enjoy.’ The reason Carcaterra didn’t is that he generated more interest this way – all about the green. I feel he traded on the genuine anguish of kids who really have been abused.

    • Sue – about it being incredible that the black kid, Rizzo, was beaten to death – and the guards/prison got away with it – and your talk of “autopsies” – that might be true *now*, though authorities could probably *still* find ways to cover it up – but *this story concerns a black kid in the 1960s*, prior even to the acceptance of equal civil rights!

      Have you ever read “In the Belly of the Beast” (I bet not); a (notorious) prison memoir by a mixed-race (and Communist – and sadly it turned out very ill-fated) guy called. Jack Henry Abbott?

      Published in the early 80s, it covered prison events in the 60s and 70s. The author was also “state-raised” and abused in a reformatory- though he doesn’t mention he was raped – probably not done to admit it then! He alludes to prison rape and the necessity of violence to defend yourself from it. He also mentions the murder of several black friends of his in jail, in particular one guy who he tried to get the authorities to look into his obvious in-cell lynching; all in vain.

      And: you say: “it doesn’t happen/didn’t happen” – go on about “autopsies” – in an intrinsically racist country? Sheesh….

      Somebody else on here mentions the Dozier School for Boys in Florida which is another definitely true life case which was recently brought to light. Similar conclusions to Sleepers: the white boys were abused – most say it was by being brutally flogged. Whereas many more of the black boys were simply killed. Google “White House Boys”.

    • You know, children’s rights are a fairly recent development… Especially outside of parental obligations. In that situation, people can witness physical and mental abuse, and even intervene, without actually reporting it. I ln a different era, physical punishment was not thought of as a problem, and even was the norm… Bottom line is, you might need to take a step back, realize you don’t know everything, and quit stating your opinions as if they were facts…

  19. Tracy Haverstick

    all one needs to experience is a brief encounter with law enforcement and the courts and you will quickly experience abuses and negligence of all kinds! As well as the ridiculous representations from attorneys from both the prosecution, the defense attorneys and worst of all the judges.

    • I’ve just found out about a new book which details this: also the US legal system’s ongoing war against the poor. Called “A Pound Of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment of the Poor” by Alexes Harris. Here is a review of it from a socialist website:

      (Ms Harris is however I believe politically more on a par with someone like Barbara Ehrenreich.)

      The entire subject disgusts me though. I didn’t know America was so unfair. As to persecute people like that. It smacks of banana republic corruption. I am a Brit.

  20. No one will ever know if the events that were in the movie and in the book are true except those who were involved. I love this movie for the facts that it shows how a detention center can allow guards to take advantage of the boys so bad that two would turn out to be killers because of what happen to them while they were in that facility. When I was in school I used the events of this book as a basis for a report I did on detention centers and how most are not like this and those that run them would never allow this type of things to actually happen.

  21. I’ve read the article and the comments and don’t understand what’s the discussion about. The fact that there’s widespread sexual abuse in all detention facilities (not just for criminals!!) is quite well known and no one doubts that. As a matter of fact, I was quite surprised that padre De Niro wasn’t expecting that. This isn’t just a problem in America but everywhere around the world.
    HOWEVER, it would be wrong to think that juvenile delinquents deserve some kind of special sympathy. There are boys younger than that who already murder and rape young girls and no one can do anything about it – because they are too young. What we need is some kind of better handling of juvenile crimes. Personally, I would take 10 lashes for a minor crime early on rather than get raped for a bigger crime later on.

  22. I saw this movie by accident in 1997. I went thru a similar experience in my younger years. I had this relief of pain knowing that someone actually understood the torment I carried for most of my younger years. When I went to see it for a second time, I noticed that men ( of all ages) were sniffling and trying to hold back tears at the end of the movie. What is truely unique about this movie is, there are lots of hidden meanings that only someone who has gone through something like this could understand PERFECTLY. There has to be some sort of truth attached to this story to have the impact it does. (At least for me)

  23. Nick D.

    I believe this movie to be very true. I only wish that law enforcement would investigate and prosecute those officers who these horrific crimes!!

  24. Vernice

    I really hate that these boys had to endure this kind of treatment from the Staff. Also, if you all think about it, this movie reminds me of The Dozer School for Boys in Mariana, FL., that’s being investigated now from The University of South Florida Archealogist, Tampa Florida. They also have been exhuming bodies, when finding their remains to find out, who they are. Some people have started coming forward as to telling the same stories as on the movie Sleepers.

  25. Snow Bunny

    This story came from somewhere. This story came from pain whether real or not, and I believe it’s real. Names and places do matter do people can be stopped and prosecuted, but the horrible memorable pain in it’s victims is timeless. It took courage to talk and I commend that.

  26. Marybells

    How can people say this isnt true? You werent one except those boys and those gards know what truly happeded…as for the hiv issue, someone has to be infected to pass it on and those victims were virgin teenage boys…i believe him…it took a lot of courage for lorenzo to try and share his ugly and horrific truth with us..most people will never be able to be so honest and open with traumatic events…the truth is up to the reader..some far fetched things happen in the bible but we still believe we still get the message…dont think to hard about whats “real” and miss what this story is all about..dont miss the message..

  27. I’ve read the book Sleepers once and watched the movie dozens of times since its release, including just last night again. It’s storytelling at its finest! The cinematography, the casting, the John Williams score, the raw authenticity of the tale, all combine in a reflective mélange of artistic perfection! Naysayers are just jealous THEY cannot write as well as Mr. Carcaterra! It is such a well told story, I say to myself after each watching of the movie, “I believe this really happened!” The artistic license taken (if any) certainly draws the viewer in closer and heightens the believability of the narrative for me. For such dark places as seen by those boys in the story, the movie is an escape into another world most of us are thankful we’ve never seen firsthand. For those who themselves suffered childhood abuse, perhaps cathexis becomes catharsis along with some degree of schadenfreude imagining “street justice” done to their own abusers as portrayed in the story? To Mr. Carcaterra’s credit, Sleepers is not a pastiche! (Google: pastiche definition)

    Great ensemble cast, great movie making, great soundtrack, great setting in Hell’s Kitchen, this movie is a great work of the ages and will ALWAYS find a receptive audience forever!

    The human spirit doesn’t always triumph. Sometimes a person can feel as though we were impaled on the Triumph of the Human Spirit Memorial (Google image) rather than uplifted by its intended meaning by the artist.

    Thank you Mr. Carcaterra for sharing your story with the world!

  28. Lieselot

    I saw this movie for the first time in 98, I think, I was about 7 at the time, and it really touched me. And I believe the ‘story’ (for, it is not a ‘story’ in the classical sense) to be true. I think the events happened in the movie are true events (unfortunately, have never read the book, yet). Like, come on, the movie came out in 96, so off course all instances involved would be ‘outraged’ over it and say none of it ever happened and would never happen anywhere. Look at what we know nowadays about kids being molested by priests, then go back to 96, yeah, no one believed that that was happening then either. As for the fact that names and dates were changed, that doesn’t surprise me one bit, because we all know when true events are recounted, names, places and dates are often changed to protect the privacy and identity of those that don’t want to get involved in coming forward like this.

    Then I read this comment where someone said the entire thing was obviously made up because there was one guard who stopped the whole eating off the floor incident, that this event contradicted everything, because if one guard is good, then all of them are, or he should have stopped all of it. Well, did anyone ever think that this guard had no idea about the sexual abuse going on while he wasn’t there??? And even if he did hear rumors, this was, after all, the late 60′s, not much to do about a rumor.

    Now, at the end of the movie there’s this denying statement that no abuse ever happened in a juvenile detention center or anything of the like anywhere. Seriously? They expect us to believe such a statement??? This is 2016, I should hope by now people have the understanding that these things actually do happen in such places. I believed it when I was little, I wasn’t as naive as to think such things couldn’t happen, I was raised smarter than that.

    Now, to those that say that this isn’t true and the author made this all up? HOW DARE YOU?! You NEVER question a victim of abuse as to whether or not it is real or not. And hey, why not take a look at his action over the years concerning this movie, then say he’s still making it up? It’s obvious he is still suffering from the trauma he went through, if you look at his behavior, there is no doubt in my mind that it is the behavior of someone who suffered through extreme and horrific abuse at one point in his life.

    So in concluding, I just would like to say that I commend Mr. Carcaterra for sharing his life with the world, even though he likely knew he would no be believed by, unfortunately, many people. So, thank you, and I wish him some peace and happiness, he deserves it.

  29. jim messina

    a most innate feeling of revenge we all carry, the film shows a form that some of could act out

  30. yacov messina

    the movie shows what revenge can do to peaple when sometime we think it’s called for like in war

  31. Having read the book and watched the film, I can believe it’s true. I’ve read similar books to this of horrific abuse towards young children in detention centres and care homes. It happens. Just because it hasn’t happened to you or you don’t hear of this abuse, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t go on. So I think it’s unfair for people to claim it’s just fantasy.
    Those that are asking why they didn’t get infected with AIDS; someone actually needs to be HIV positive to infect another. No one knows of other people’s sexual history.
    Then there’s “it couldn’t have happened because they went to a hospital ward and one good guard stepped in, once”. That doesn’t mean the abuse would be stopped and there’d be one big investigation. This was the 1960′s, not present day. People turned a blind eye. you only have to look at all the cases of sexual abuse that are now being looked at to know this.
    Either way, amazing book. I couldn’t put it down. The film, loved it.


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