Regina Calcaterra, who has held high-level state and local government posts, recounts an upbringing marked by abuse by an alcoholic mother and stints in local foster homes and homeless shelters in a book published Tuesday.
Her memoir, "Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island," details her experiences with her three sisters and a brother as they moved frequently and she won emancipation from her now-deceased mother at the age of 14.
Calcaterra said she hopes her rise from those challenges to become an attorney and, now, executive director of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's commission investigating public corruption, resonates with struggling, neglected teens.
"It's up to you to carve out what your path in life is going to be," Calcaterra, 46, of the Southold hamlet of New Suffolk, said in an interview. "Those who don't have resources or don't have a safety net, it's going to take a lot longer and be a lot more difficult, but you can't give up."
In July 2011, a Harper Collins executive heard Calcaterra tell her story, and offered to work with her. Calcaterra said she wrote chapters of "Etched in Sand" on weekends last year during the early months of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's administration, in which she served as his chief deputy from January 2012 to January of this year.
She had previously been a corporate fraud lawyer, after graduating from Centereach High, SUNY New Paltz and then Seton Hall University Law School.
In 2010, Calcaterra attempted to run against State Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), but was disqualified because she did not meet residency requirements. She left Bellone after superstorm Sandy to lead Cuomo's Moreland Commission on utilities' storm response.
"She's an incredibly focused person, and knowing her story, she had to do so much to keep her siblings and herself together," Bellone said Tuesday. "I can see how those experiences shaped her incredible ability to focus."
The 300-page book begins with Calcaterra describing how her mother, whom she called "Cookie," would waste the public assistance money meant to care for Calcaterra and her siblings, whom she had had with 5 different men. Her mother had worked as a bartender and in other jobs, but had been unable to hold them, Calcaterra writes.
"Rather than bathing, Cookie tries to mask her cigarette and alcohol stink with a cheap, toxic mixture of Jontue and Jean Nate," Calcaterra writes. "As her figure casts a shadow over the room, I quickly work out the cost implications of her ensemble: One pair of Jordache jeans equals one week of oil for hot water; Dr. Scholl's equals eight loaves of bread, four boxes of spaghetti, three bags of wheat puffs, and two weeks' worth of powdered milk. Jontue perfume and Jean Nate almost equal bail after a night in jail, since Cookie had Camille and me steal them from the five-and-dime."
Calcaterra petitioned Suffolk Family Court for emancipation at 14 so she could stay in one school, and lived with a foster family through graduation. After college, she worked as an Albany lobbyist and later become managing partner of a law firm that sued corporations for inflating earnings.
She recalled her tough childhood as she worked for Bellone on Sandy recovery.
"I was chief deputy of this county hit by Sandy, where thousands of people were homeless as a result, and I was at one point homeless," Calcaterra said.
"I was one of many leaders whose responsibility it was to find these people homes. It was beautiful irony."