On May 19, 1992, Mary Jo Buttafuoco, a Long Island, N.Y., housewife, casually answered her door and unwittingly stepped into one of the most sensational crimes of the decade. Standing on her front porch, Mary Jo was shot in the face by Amy Fisher, her husband Joey's 17-year-old mistress. Fisher, quickly dubbed the "Long Island Lolita" by the New York tabloids, ended up serving nearly seven years in prison for reckless assault. Joey, a 36-year-old auto-bodyshop owner, went to jail for four months for statutory rape.
Mary Jo, against all odds and in constant pain, survived the shooting with a bullet lodged in her head and much to the world's surprise, she stayed married to Joey. They divorced in 2003, after 22 years of marriage, and now Mary Jo, 54, has broken her silence with a book, Getting It Through My Thick Skull: Why I Stayed, What I Learned, and What Millions of People Involved with Sociopaths Need to Know. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached Mary Jo at her home in Ventura County, Calif.
TIME: Why have you written a book now, after so many years?
Mary Jo Buttafuoco: Two years ago, I was complaining about the latest stunt that [Joey] had pulled, which was being out with Amy Fisher on a date and walking all over Central Park. I just was shaking my head for the umpteenth time, going, "Why does he do this stuff?" And Paul, our son, very matter-of-factly said to me, "He'll never get it, Mom. He's a sociopath." And that word I didn't like it. I thought it just sounded like a crazy, murderous person. That night I went on the computer and I looked up sociopathic behavior, and a lightbulb went off in my head. I said, "Oh, my God, this is what I have been living with all my life." So I thought if I wrote it down and relived some of my own personal experiences and tried to educate people, maybe they won't have to go through what I went through.
What was it like to go instantaneously from being anonymous to being internationally known?
That was surreal and even now, 17 years later, [my family still] can't believe it happened. I think the only good thing was, we were very well established in our community and had our family and friends, and so when this happened, everybody embraced [the children] and took care of them.
You still remember that day, which is surprising, isn't it?
I don't know. I just do. I remember everything that happened. I remember the smell of the air, the temperature, I remember the conversation that Amy and I had on the porch. There was absolutely no indication in my mind, nor has there ever been in all these years, that she was there to try to kill me. I never got that vibe at all.
What did you think she was there to do?
I thought she was there to tell me that her little sister was having an affair with Joe. That's what she [told] me. She looked so nervous and she was so young-looking. She was 17, and I was 37. She just looked like a little kid. I was incredulous. I wasn't mad or upset. It was broad daylight and [noon] on a Tuesday, and lawnmowers are going and cars are driving by, and she's telling me her little sister is having an affair. There was never an indication that she was going to harm me. When I turned to go into the house, the last thing I said to her was, "I'm going to go in the house and call Joe. Thanks for coming by." I turned, I got my hand on the knob of the door. I only know that because the police said there was blood on the inside of the doorjamb. Within that second, she pulled a gun out, aimed it at my head and pulled the trigger. The next thing I knew, it was three days later.
Are you more afraid in public because of this experience?
To this day, I never, ever, ever answer the door if I don't know who's out there. Halloween frightens me to death.
People were very surprised that you stayed with Joey after it happened. Are you surprised, looking back?
No. Reliving my life and realizing now that I was married to a very, very good sociopath, I can see why I stayed. We had been married for 15 years up to that point. And I believed him. It's as simple as that. I believed him when he said he had nothing to do with her.
In the book, you write about the fact that he had a cocaine habit.
Cocaine was his mistress for the first 10 years of our marriage. To his credit, he went into rehab and got sober in 1988 and hasn't touched cocaine since.
You got hooked on painkillers after the shooting, right?
Yes. I was in excruciating pain for years. Some days are not good, and on other days I'm just grateful to be alive.
And yet you write about the fact that you forgave Amy after a while.
That was something that took many, many years. I have to credit the Betty Ford Center, because I went there because of my dependency on painkillers and they were the ones who helped me peel off these layers of anger and gave me the tools to live with it and accept it and move on with my life.
What do you think about what's happened to Amy? She has become a stripper and she's been in the porn industry.
That's really disturbing to me. When I forgave her, there were no strings attached. I did it for me. But I'm really, really disappointed in the path she has chosen to take with her life, especially because she has children.
Why did you finally decide to leave Joey after everything that had happened?
I was older, the children had grown up, I knew that nothing was going to change. My marriage just died a slow death. It was not good for the last couple of years. I got sober, I got stronger, I got well, and I knew it was time for me to move on.