An evening after dinner, Maria, four years old, is enthusiastically playing with her dad’s little torch, while the little sister Anna, barely one year old, is sitting on the high chair next to the dinner table. Maria points the torch up and down, all around: in her mouth, in her father’s nose, to the camera… at some point she goes to Anna and starts inspecting with the torch all her facial holes.
Maria: Anna’s little nose… is dirty! Anna’s little ear… is dirty too! And now, let’s have a look at the cheeks: And now, let’s check the neck …Ahh! Here there’s the Golietta!
Paolo: What is there?
Maria: The Go-li-et-ta!
Paolo: What Golietta?!
(The parents seem confused, they have never heard of such word)
Maria: There is the Golietta!
Paola: What is the Golietta Maria? Can you explain to us what it is?
(Maria runs around the dinner table and giggles, excited about her discovery)
Maria: The Golietta is something that is in your neck. The Golietta is something that is in your neck! It is a ball that is in your neck!
Paola: Ooh do you mean Adam’s apple?
Maria: No, only chubby people have the Golietta! People like my sister!
Paolo: But that is because she is a baby!
Maria: Anna has the GOLIETTA!
What my sister meant to say that evening while pointing at my chubby neck was doppio mento (double chin), but her creative mind of a four-years-old kid preferred calling it with a brand new special word that nobody had ever thought of before. After that night, the word became part of our unwritten-family-dictionary, among many other neologisms and catchphrases, and it can still come up today in our conversations and references. Similar trivial terms, together with dozens of different jokes, epithets, invented idioms and ways of saying, are deeply rooted in our household communication. I have never really questioned their role in our daily conversations, but recently realized how their existence is undeniably unique and pretty much unknown to the rest of the world. With time, the presence of these specific words started to appear in my eye as a bizarre yet at the same time natural presence. Stories and term have been the discreet background lullaby to my growing up.
The Italian author Natalia Ginzburg, in her novel ‘Family Lexicon’ (1963), brilliantly portrays her family through the description of anecdotes and specific terminology. The book, which follows the members of a Jewish family throughout their lives under the fascist regime in Italy, does not merely frame Ginzburg’s personal family unit. In fact, the narration goes further: it is able to grasp and depict some of those frequent and relatable dynamics common in families. The stories she reports, no matter how significantly different they might be from our own personal ones, describe some typical tendencies among relatives. For example, the book refers to some of those archetypal characters families have: an authoritarian putative father, a very protective or apprehensive mother, children that are mama’s boys and others that are daredevils, the ones that are ungrateful and the ones that are present and emphatic. When reviewing Ginzburg’s novel in 1963, the well-known Italian writer Italo Calvino comments it by writing “Natalia Ginzburg, who set out by remembering her own family lexicon, the ways of saying of her parents and brothers, soon realized that what she was after was that mysterious thread that defines and binds this entity that we call family, the meaning and the rhythm that accompanies us through our lives even when we have grown away from the roof and from the table of our childhood”1. The book reinforces the realization that personal stories fall in a scheme of wider narratives. The way family stories unravel through the events of human life, such as birth and death, show us that there is a sense of “universal resonance”2 in them. Quoting Fredric Jameson, an american literary critic and political theorist, “the telling of the individual story and the individual experience cannot but ultimately include the whole laborious process of the collectivity itself”3.
It is a feeling of sympathy, of seeing ourselves in other people’s stories or recognizing known patterns and
experiences that makes us empathize with and relate to narratives that are not our own. Through her personal
story Ginzburg is able to highlight the subtle yet undeniable strength of apparently banal words, traditions
and family traits, in keeping the family unit closer and making it unique. Each of the apparently
un-important anecdotes that the writer reports with detailed care, function as symbols for human experiences. They
represent and embody a cultural baggage of collective memories.
My research starts off inspired and triggered by the words of Natalia Ginzburg. The intrinsic power that
family lexicons carry is beautifully described in the following excerpt of her book:
“My parents had five children. We now live in different cities, some of us in foreign countries, and we don’t write to each other often. When we do meet up we can be indifferent or distracted. But for us it take just one word. It takes one word, one sentence, one of the old ones from our childhood, heard and repeated countless times. All it takes is for one of us to say ‘We haven’t come to Bergamo on a military campaign’, or ‘Sulphuric acid stinks of fart’, and we immediately fall back into our old relationships, our childhood, our youth, all inextricably linked to those words and phrases. If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognize each other. Those phrases are our Latin, the dictionary of our past, they’re like Egyptian or Assyro-Babylonian hieroglyphics, evidence of a vital core that has ceased to exist but that lives on in its texts, saved from the fury of the waters, the corrosion of time. Those phrases are the basis of our family unity and will persist as long as we are in the world, re-created and revived in disparate places on the earth whenever one of us says, ‘Most eminent Signor Lipmann!’ and we immediately hear my father’s impatient voice ringing in our ears: ‘Enough of that story! I’ve heard it far too many times already!’”4
Family lexicons and anecdotes are tools to connect, to stay closer, to remember, to treasure. A phenomenon to grow up and to teach with, also. They represent a place of comfort, a shelter to go back to or, on the contrary, a system to rebel against and run away from. They help a community in developing a sense of intimacy and feeling of belonging, which might either be embraced or rejected by the composing members. Family phraseology and stories can represent stability, rules, traditions, culture, certainties, limits. They are a fundamental component in our upbringing and figure as standpoints in our personal growth. Metaphorically speaking, it seems like they operate as some sort of what I would call semiotic-binding-glue: a glue that holds and connects, whether they want it or not, pieces of memories and members of a family together. Because of the iconic status that lexicon, stories, gestures and habits gain with time and use, they end up materializing into physical presence. I like to look at them as if they were linguistic votive statuettes, as solid monoliths that survive, how Natalia Ginzburg writes, “the corrosion of time” and family’s fragmentations. Similarly to how worshippers project their beliefs onto religious statuettes and use them as a way to materialize spiritual presence, words and stories acquire physical relevance and function as presences around which the family unit revolves and in which it recognizes itself. In this sense I vulgarly define them linguistic votive statuettes. Maybe exactly due to me living abroad, far from where I grew up and where most of my family lives, I have found myself more and more attached to these ‘statuettes’, and I like to keep them with me, cherish them, show and compare them to other people’s ones, or use them as a way to feel closer to a place and to people I always feel geographically separated from.
A similar phenomenon as the vulgarly called family lexicon finds its scientific definition under the name of ‘Idioglossia’. From the Greek ιδιογλωσσία idioglōssia, idio- ‘personal’ and glōssa ‘tongue’, the word refers to a personal language created and spoken by one or very few people, a form of pathology mostly occurring between twins or children who are in close contact with each other. Idioglossia or ‘Autonomous Language’, also commonly referred as ‘Twin Language’, ‘Secret Language’ and ‘Cryptophasia’, is “a language that young children may come to speak that is different from language(s) used in their environment and incomprehensible to others,except for the one or two children acquiring language at the same time”5 The terminology mostly consists in onomatopoeic expressions, phonologically distorted known words and articulation mistakes that might often end up sound completely intelligible.
My sister’s neologism Golietta is just an example of a case of Idioglossia, just as many other children’s idiosyncratic terms that belong to that very private and incomprehensible dictionary that is often left to collect dust when growing up. But what I want to write about is not only characteristic family terminology: in fact, words never come alone, they always come with a story. It is in that story, that carries traditions, heritage, culture or traumas with it that I am interested in too. And to what happens to that story as well, once it is shared and re-told, and re-told, and re-told. And to what effect does that story have on the listeners, and how does it affect them, how does it educate them. In all this and more I am fascinated by, and of some of it I try to talk about here, in the following piece of writing.
Danish folklorist Bengt Holbek, in a chapter of ‘Storytelling in Contemporary Society’ (1990), addresses a similar subject to ‘Family Lexicon’, but focuses exactly on those stories I have just mentioned: he calls them “Family Anecdotes”. In his explanation, he defines them as accounts of events that each family circle shares and remembers. The episodes usually aren’t fully-developed narratives with a defined structure but rather fragmented specific memories of situations in which something characteristic, entertaining or silly happened. He writes: “Everybody knows family anecdotes from personal experience: what Auntie Olga said when I was born; what my father said the first time I came home drunk; how my sister and I set fire to the shed when we were playing at cooking; and so on.”6 If you have been confused by me talking about family lexicons and felt like it did not ring a bell, I am pretty sure you must understand of what anecdotes I am talking about right now. According to Holbek, these episodes “consist primarily of stories about socialization processes, about conflicts between grandfathers, father and sons, between siblings and between the sexes; they discuss authority and emancipation, norms and deviation from them. Although they seem to report very individual experiences, these narratives follow the structural principles, typological tendencies, and other epic laws found in traditional folk narratives.”7 In my view, the writer makes an interesting point in declaring family anecdotes an established storytelling genre, yet as something that has not been investigated closely enough. The research I have been carrying is an attempt to understand these occurrences through both personal interpretations and external references. My interest on the subject arises from a curiosity on the founding elements of our individual identity. In fact, I see the domestic environment and the relationship within it as the playground for the development of personal qualities that constitute our consciousness and personality. I am not the only one to believe that “remembering and telling stories are necessary tools for the development of a sense of self and identity (…) As they grow up, children interact with their parents as well as the social environment to develop their narrative skills and cognitive capacities (…), and eventually co-construct identity in relation to the social world.”8 The household-setting, with its characteristic traditions, rules and values, plays a crucial role in the education and development of a personal sense of self, as it represents the space where a child spends most of his time and bases a large majority of its references.
During one of the lazy weekend mornings at home, Anna calls her parents after they had lunch. She is once again wondering how that bizarre way of saying the family uses came to be a crucial phrase during their dinings.
Anna: Could you tell me the story of Meeeetti, Meeetti, Tullio! (‘Add mooooore add moooooore, Tullio!’) again?
Paolo: So, this way of saying comes from a story that our friend Gian Dreossi would tell me when he was at University and was studying Forestry in Padua. He was living in an apartment with several people: one of them was Attilio Vuga, who then also became our town’s major and was studying agricultural studies. Then there was Lizzone, who is Carmen Moricchi’s brother-in-law and the first-born in the Lizzi family. He dropped from University after a while. And then there was also this famous Tullio, whom I have never actually seen, I don’t really know who he is… anyways, according to Gian’s stories—which made us laugh a lot — they were often cooking big quantities of food for dinner. Lots of potatoes purée, lots of pasta… lots of god-knows-what… probably potatoes purée. And then once they were al sitting around the table and the plates had to be filled in, Tullio—who probably had cooked potatoes purée, or at least that’s what I think—would arrive with the pan and then the others would say Meeeeeetti Meeeeetti Tullio! to get a massive portion of food in their plate. That’s the story. But I have never seen Tullio and I don’t know who he is.
Anna: So that is something you heard back then?
Paolo: Yes, that was still when Gian was at University. He was coming back home on Fridays and Saturdays, and we were spending a lot of time together hearing that sentence a lot. And after that we also started using it and now it became some sort of catchphrase that comes up every time there’s a lot of food to be eaten. We always say Meeeetti, Meeetti, Tullio! So here it is… but I don’t know if this is something you can actually use for a graduation thesis!
Paola: Now I would really like to meet this famous Tullio. Gian remembers this story as well, so it means that is something that happened for real and that we are not making it up.
When paying attention to my mother telling family anecdotes to others, I often notice how she never sticks exactly to how the story took place or developed. That would be just impossible for anyone to do, right? In fact, it almost seems, thanks to her personal way of reporting it, as if the story became independent from the actual episode that inspired it, and is now standing as a new narrative on its own. I am taking my mother as an example now, but I believe that everybody, in more or less a similar way, goes through an analogue process when narrating real life events. In a comparable way, my father’s story about Tullio and the potatoes purée, is testifying to the same phenomenon: I do not know how the actual anecdote took place, I was not there, yet I familiarize and relate to the legendary version that my father, also not being a direct witness of the event, always narrated to me. What is even more comical, is what I recently found out: my father’s friend Gian, that we always believed and told was the one living and eating with the mythical Tullio, never assisted to the actual scene as well! He had also been told the episode from somebody else. It is funny to find out that for decades my father passed on and told a version of the anecdote in the way he remembered and believed it happened. “The listener’s naive relationship to the storyteller is controlled by his interest in retaining what he is told”9 Walter Benjamin tells us in his essay ‘The Storyteller’. The episode, following a stream of echoes, morphs and distorts according to the different narrators’ sensitivity and taste. This process reminds me the Chinese whispers game: a phrase that the more it is passed on and whispered in people’s ears, the more it becomes significantly different, yet maintaining the initial structure and syntax. “Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn.”10 writes again Benjamin. As Bengt Holbek writes in ‘Storytelling in Contemporary Societies’,“these little anecdotes often seem to contain the germs of what could easily develop into fullblown tales”11. It could be said that in these cases oral tradition allows a process of fictionalization of reality to happen: through storytelling, certain details exaggerate, some passages are cut out, some elements are adjusted to the narrator’s point of view and ideologies. And what might happen is that the listeners of the story will then hand down their version of the story they just heard, and so on. The anecdotes become ductile material used to fabricate family tales and emblems. These collections of memories are patterns that develop into legends that can be passed on and remembered even after the associations with the details of the stories will be forgotten. The resulting story is definitely similar to the actual episode that it narrates, but also substantially different. It can be less intense, more dramatic, less detailed, more condensed or simplified to highlight a specific moral. The composing characters might turn into types rather than individuals, the story might lead to a triumphal climax or be characterized by a tremendous suspense. The memory acquires new qualities and meanings, and becomes potentially iconic, to the point that the origins of the story will almost be irrelevant to the new narrative. Filtered by individual memory, family history turns into a patchwork-narrative, a large blanket made out of both factual and fictional elements sewn together by linguistic thread. The phenomenon is nothing more than “the typically human capacity or necessity to turn experience into narrative, to create stories out of the ordinary and extraordinary matter of life12. The oral quality of these occurrences appears to play a crucial role. The driving force of oral stories and words lays exactly in their performative and phonetic quality. Rhythm, musicality, repetitiveness, the emphasis on a specific syllable, are all fundamental elements to family lexicon and stories. The utterance and execution of these words and anecdotes tie them to temporality: this is why it might seem an ironic contradiction to discuss such a fleeting occurrence in the form of a text. American comparative oral tradition scholar James Miles Foley writes on this point and states:
“What’s lost when an Oral tradition performance event is reduced to the cenotaph of a text. (…) We lose vocal features such as intonation, loudness and softness, and silence. We lose visual signals such as gesture and facial expression, not to mention meanings attached to costume, setting, and props. We lose the musical and rhythmical dimensions of performance. Critically, we lose the background of variability (…) we lose the contribution of an audience, real or implied, and any interaction that influences how the performer proceeds”.13
For example, in the case of the Meeeetti, Meeetti, Tullio! story, there is a specific emphasis that us family members would put on the e, stretching it in length and tone, accompanied with a defined movement of the hand. Both elements of tone and gesture want to suggest and highlight the desire of having a bigger portion of food. It is precisely those extremely characteristic ways of pronouncing and expressing certain lines and that people easily memorize, repeat and turn into something iconic; often with a smile. Oral anecdotes are destined to change shapes, exaggerate, become almost fictional stories that stand on their own. This is the destiny of what is not left on paper, the destiny of things that are handed down to generations orally: they are inescapably bound to their ephemerality and variability. On the other hand, that is exactly what makes them valuable and precious: knowing that they are fragile and vulnerable, so open to manipulation, so little known and treasured by very few people. It is again John Miles Foley that writes on how “oral traditions are powerful precisely because they can’t be fixed, precisely because they morph while recurring. Because it isn’t predetermined and remains open to innovation that is idiomatically driven and forever under construction”14. I still regret not paying enough attention to my grandmother narrating family stories to kill time during long car trips. Together with her death, an endless amount of anecdotes and episodes got lost too. Loss, for how painful it might be, makes us reconsider the inestimable value of shared memories and the importance of the rite of passage. When becoming caretakers of a fragile heritage, we find ourselves considering ways of preserving, remembering and passing onwards the knowledge we became witnesses of. I was talking about grandparents aging with a friend of mine once and she was telling me how, in the frantic attempt of preserving the secrets of her grandmother’s recipes, she had repetitively filmed her cooking. She was trying to capture that unexplainable heritage-of-the-daily-things on video, hoping that a recording would help keeping it alive. On the other hand, whether we want it or not, we should serenely accept that things will always be slowly forgotten on the way, no matter how carefully we make sure to preserve them, and that there is beauty and value in this too.
Exactly because of their impermanent quality, with the passing of time it becomes more and more difficult to trace back the roots of these stories. The episodes will start having a life on their own, and turn into family tales, catchphrases that keep coming back at every good occasion. So when somebody will suddenly question the reason why that term came about, or why that specific story, place, person or word became so mythical, and will raise the question: “What was that story again? Why do we say this?”, the answer given might sound a little vague. This is also something Natalia Ginzburg addresses in her novel, when she writes how “No one has ever been able to explain to me why Amedeo was given his nickname, his origin no doubt lost in the mists of time”15.
The anecdotes are not questioned anymore: they become integral part of our living, essential characterizing elements of our daily life. A similar process happens to family traditions and habits. For example, I had never considered weird my habit of keeping tissues I used to blow my nose with in my sleeve. My mother told me to do so when I was little and had a runny nose all the time, and since that moment I had seen it as the most practical and rational thing to do. Growing up with this habit, I unconsciously started considering it as one of those trivial yet extremely defined absolute truths. Finding out only very recently how bizarre the whole idea of keeping used tissue seemed to my friends, I came to the realization of how many more banal habits and traditions are connected to my family background and I have never questioned them. The same thought occurred to me while I was washing the dishes and my roommate Ariane cried out: “Never clean pans with the coarse side of the sponge! My mother told me so”. She did not even doubt the veracity of such fact. If her mother had always told her so, it must be the truth. By writing this I do not mean to say that we do not believe anything different from what our parents told us. Nevertheless, it is mostly irrelevant traits, remedies and habits we tend to pick up so easily from them and hardly grow out of them once we become independent. As a natural consequence, it is mostly likely exactly our reaction on these irrational details, routines and habits that we will, more or less involuntarily, hand down to our children or our closest ones. I have not stopped thinking about what my roommate said about cleaning pans and, voluntarily or not, I started washing them with the soft side of the sponge as well. It seems funny to me how I am witnessing one of these absolute truths phenomenons being handed down in real time, in this case, to me. I wonder if I will end up saying this to my closest ones too, and, who knows, maybe eventually to my kids as well.
“Why do I still remember this, fifty years later?”16 Holbek asks himself when reminiscing an ordinary childhood memory. It is exactly the same question—leaving out the fifty years detail—that I have repetitively asked myself as well. These imperceptible small things, memories and remedies keep coming back in my daily conversations and frame of references. Do they come back again and again because I am very attached to my roots and traditions? There must be something deeper in these things, some of that “universal resonance” I have mentioned at the beginning and that makes them so precious, and so representative of me. Could it be that it is precisely these small imperceptible details that define and influence us so precisely and specifically one from another? And if that is possible, there could also be, to some extent and taking consideration of their peculiarities, a sense of “universal resonance” in these small things that make us all somewhat similar and human. It sounds like a contradictory reasoning in itself: something that makes us so specifically unique also carries a side that inscribes itself in a much wider picture.
A friend of mine once wrote me “I don’t like special things. Objects and moments of value usually come from scarcity”. I could not agree more with this. There is beauty and profoundness in the simplicity and modesty of certain moments, a sense of universality in ordinary situations and actions, in those kind of circumstances to which a majority of people are able to relate to. They seem to be addressing a multitude. American writer Nicholson Baker often likes to bring our attention on the poeticalness of these trivial situations in his writings. For example, while washing his son’s hair, he reflects on the fact that “Generations of people grow to a point where they touch both ends of the tub”17. He writes about having a hole in his sock and desperately trying “to retract the toes and use them to catch some of the edge of the sock’s fabric, (…) but that didn’t work, it seldom does”18. We empathize with the annoyance of having a hole in our sock, just as well as we might remember stretching our legs to touch both ends of the tub. We probably never thought that any of these moments deserved much attention; yet when expressed, these thoughts give us a gratifying feeling of belonging to a collectivity. In a similar way family lexicons and stories work: typical and banal words or episodes that once shared make us feel part of a group, trigger complicity or solidarity among individuals, and recall nostalgic memories to which we feel close to or affected by.
People’s heritage and upbringing often lay in the ordinariness of daily life, in picking up those small habits
from our parents I have been talking about before, or in avoiding doing exactly that annoying thing that our
relatives do. It is by doing so that we might end up resembling our parents, or, in the completely opposite
direction, decide of totally diverging from them. James wood reflects on this concept by writing:
“Sometimes I catch myself and think, self-consciously, You are now listening to a Beethoven string quartet, just as your father did. And, at that moment, I feel a mixture of satisfaction and rebellion. Rebellion, for all the obvious reasons. Satisfaction, because it is natural to resemble one’s parents, and there is a resigned pleasure to be had from the realization. I like that my voice is exactly the same pitch as my father’s, and can be mistaken for it. But then I hear myself speaking to my children just as he spoke to me, in exactly the same tone and with the same fatherly melody, and I am dismayed by the plagiarism of inheritance.”19
“How unoriginal can one be?” asks Wood, as if our personality was the result of a piling up of our relatives’ traits we have been meticulously observing for years. They might be the most imperceptible details, or the most obvious resemblances… How many times by now have I heard that “You’re just like your mom”, and how miffed I felt after that. Not considering our evident physical resemblances, I could not believe that exactly that way of talking and welcoming guests that my mother has — and that has always slightly unsettled me—was directly handed down to me, in my total unawareness. How ironic! It is just not possible to be totally independent and uninfluenced from the people who raised us, and so we have to deal with that “plagiarism of inheritance” that partly annoys but pleases and comfort us at the same time. It is probably partly because of that shared inheritance that both me and my sister have been interested and wrote about family narratives in our bachelor thesis. I remember the unreasonable feeling of copying her by having a fascination for this subject as well. She had previously written an English Literature thesis entitled ‘Gothic Magic and Magical Realism in Family Narratives: A Comparative Approach to Gabriel García Márquez and Emily Brontë’. It feels now obvious to me how this interest of ours might have also been influenced by our education, by those moments, for example, in which our mother would read us books in the evening, or explains us (for the millionth time) how Lignano20 turned from being a lagoon with sand dunes into a beach city with tall residences.
One evening, in the attempt of falling asleep, Anna gets struck by the sudden memory: her sister Maria, reminiscing that funny childhood need she would ask to her family from time to time. Anna’s memory of it is vague, and she is almost questioning if she just made this episode up in her mind or if actually ever happened. For this reason, the day after she immediately calls her sister and asks for explanations about it.
Maria: “When I was little I used to often play with colored play-doh. This fact, together with my tendency of personifying objects, made me associate the image of different pieces of colored play-doh coming together and merging in an embrace with the image of a family-hug. For this reason, when there were moments of affection in the family I would sometimes tell my parents and Anna: ‘Facciamo il pongo!’ (Let’s do play-dough!) And so we would hug each other tightly as if we were different pieces of clay coming together as one”.
When my sister would tell the family facciamo il pongo (do play-dough), she was asking us to enact an image of unity, our bodies being a malleable matter that could come close and morph into one element. The action represented a symbol of affection and stability achieved through movement. The blurry memory-of-a-memory of the four of us hugging, for how unrelated it might be from it, reminds me the dynamic intention of embodying family relations in actions that the therapeutic method ‘Family Constellations’ works with. Theorized by German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger in the 1990’s, the method, called ‘Family Constellations’ or ‘Systemic Constellations’, is a therapy that investigates the invisible dynamics between family members. The theories, that were inspired by the observation of indigenous spiritual mysticism, have been followed, appropriated and applied worldwide as a way to analyze family relationships. The practice aims to study the entangled relations, for this reason named constellations, and power structures among relatives, couples and different generations. In fact, according to Hellinger’s theories, all members of a family are steered by a common conscious that is, to their perception, completely unrecognized. The unit shares what he calls a “collective unconscious memory” of which the individuals being part of it are not aware. The Family constellations exercise, by analyzing a group’s behaviors, feelings and attitudes, intends to bring the invisible dynamics between extended family members to light. Only once the power structures are clear and assumed it is possible to tackle the problematics within it. Through participants’ movements and spatial exercises in a defined place, it is possible to reveal tensions and traumas and eventually heal those unacknowledged feelings, that Hellinger defines “systemic entanglements”, by letting the members accept, reconcile and release the stress caused by their unsolved issues. An evening, while I am casually mentioning to my sister my findings on the Family constellations therapy, she tells me that one of our cousins, Valentina, not only knew the method, but had been guided through an experience of it as well. I obviously interpret the discovery as a surprising coincidence, and I cannot resist to ask her some questions about it. A late morning of an ordinary Saturday I call Valentina. By talking to her, it turns out she does not consider herself an expert, but speaks about it from the perspective of somebody that had the chance to participate to only one session years ago. She explains to me how she got to know the therapy from a friend of hers that already had an interest in fields of study such as tarot reading and astrology. That is how she became curious about the method and decided to try it herself, since she thought of solving some questions regarding the death of someone very close to her. But there are also cases in which people come to analyze and solve some traumas or events that happened in previous generations, so situations they did not even witness themselves in first person. Valentina explains to me how, for example, it could be an event that took place one or two generations before, and that because it has always been told or transmitted through certain attitudes still has influence in present times. What starts to emerge from her talk, is a glimpse of that mysterious and dusky side that family narratives bring along. Habits, anecdotes and stories are not only elements that carry educational traits and funny anecdotes, but also symbols of traumas, untold events, taboos and loss. One of the things I considered most interesting about her story, is finding out how emotionally intense is to represent, as an external participant, a character in somebody else’s story. In fact, Valentina explains to me how even if you do not directly relate to the specific family situation you are interpreting in the session, it still moves you and makes you think and question your own situation, background and certain dynamics within it. In my view, it is fascinating to hear about the capacity to relate to stories that are not ours, as if it could be still somehow possible to trace and find in other people’s stories something somewhat similar to our own. It is once again that collectiveness in individual situation that appears, again some of that “universal resonance” I have been writing about before. Valentina goes on describing to me the quiet yoga gym where around 10 people gathered, all pretty much strangers to each other, together with the guide. She later on tells me how the session developed:
“On a volunteer basis, one person raised their hand and shared their story. In this case the personal anecdote was that the person’s grandfather was violent and used to beat up his children, so as a consequence when one of the kids became this person’s mother, she acted very distant and cold. To understand why and how this happened, the guide of the experience assigned us (the other participants of the session) different characters to interpret. We were all going to re-enact, like actors, the scene and the dynamics of the person’s anecdote. The person telling the story got assigned the protagonist and key-element in the narration, in this case the grandfather. The others got for example the role of the grandfather’s wife, or the children, and so on. The experience became some sort of psychodrama, a form of theatre basically, and the guide being the director of it. The guide started directing the scene without knowing of course how it took place in reality and without instructing exactly on what the members were supposed to do. It can be said that in some ways, the person, by revealing its emotion to the others, is able to make them understand how to react to it and move according to that feeling, even if they haven’t experienced it personally.”
Valentina understands how the description of the situation might sound quite strange when explained only verbally on the phone, but excuses herself by saying how this is one of those things that needs to be experienced in first person in order to get a better understanding of it. Then she keeps on describing:
“My role was to re-enact the violent grandfather’s wife and mother of the children. I remember that the attitude I developed while acting my role was being instinctively very protective towards the children—well… children… they were actually adults acting the kids’ role. For example, while moving in space, I would often find myself with my body playing as a sort of shield to protect them. As the scene developed, I realized I was also very cold, distant and rabid towards them; I never had tender moves.”
Valentina explains to me what—if you believe in this method—eventually emerged: because the grandfather was violent, the mother, scared by her husband’s violence, tried protecting their children but also acted cold because of her worries. While being focused in protecting them, she would forget how to play that more affectionate and welcoming role that a mother has to be for her kids. As a consequence, when the children grew up, the little girl developed cold and ineffective attitudes towards her own kid (as well as the person sharing the story). It also came up, thanks to the presence of another character, that the reason why the grandfather was violent was that he had been previously abused in his life too. The Family Constellations method allows to draw some unthought connections of events and attitudes, it helps somehow connecting the dots. Thanks to the actions and reactions of people in a space, determined connections and understandings come to light and it is possible to see where a certain disturb, trauma or internal conflict came from. Once the connections are being made, the experience helps healing the scar that somebody carried for all that time. By understanding how and why things went in a certain direction it is easier to accept and make peace with the past. Valentina defines it as a method mostly based on the idea that everything is a consequence of something else. She says how after the experience ended and the guide conducted a breathing exercise, the protagonist of the story cried but felt relieved, just like when you cry a lot and afterwards feel sad and distressed at the same time. Towards the end of our phone call, I ask her if she would recommend people to do a Family Constellations session. She answers me how she would not recommend it to everyone, just like she would not recommend psychotherapy to everyone, or a tarot reading for example. She thinks it always depends on what kind of person you are and how you think. She would not recommend it to somebody very stiff and worried for example, because she wouldn’t want to take responsibility in making this person feel worse or uncomfortable. The person has to be willing of feeling very intense emotions and deal with them for very long time, and not everyone is able to handle that. Before hanging up, Valentina states with conviction: “what happens in past generations of your genealogy tree is for sure being handed down from generation to generation. There are times in which a specific dynamic in it breaks and that opens a new variety of options, otherwise a trauma or event can have influence for a very long time.” It is after talking to Valentina that the shadowy side which family stories bring along, that up until that moment I had not mentioned enough, started to become more and more present and relevant to my research. It is still that shadowy side that definitely comes to light in ‘The Work’, a NPO documentary shot in Folsom State Prison during a 4 days long group therapy with both prisoners with a life sentence and a few free civilians. The documentary shows how guided group exercises based on breathing, physical movements and verbalization of emotions, allowed people with very traumatic experiences and background to let go part of their resentment and pain they had been living with. What is being re-enforced by the movie as well is how a gathering of people together can help and push singular individuals to share difficult backgrounds: the enclosed group represent a safe space in which individuals can show themselves, release their barriers by sharing, to finally feel understood and accepted. Another element that comes across in ‘The Work’ and which I believe deserves to be analyzed is how, in some cases, it is not necessary a colossal and painful tragedy what influences and is being carried by somebody throughout time. It can also be, like in the case of one the free civilians, an ordinary episode from childhood. It can simply be a imperceptible comment the dad told him when he was a kid and that made him feel unaccepted, useless or not good enough. In fact, small apparently insignificant events can also carry a deeper signifier within themselves and determine behaviors or habits of someone’s identity. In this specific case, the man remembered his dad’s comment: “Just go back inside, go back with your mom”. By re-enacting the scene and asking one of the patients to interpret the role of the man’s dad, he was finally able to let go that feeling of sadness and inferiority he had been feeling and developing throughout his whole life. There are many other interesting aspects that Family Constellations highlight, despite the understandable critics and question marks the method might arise as well. In addition to what I already pointed out beforehand, it tells us that from the moment we are born we are inscribed in the living story of our ancestors and relatives, and that our actions and attitudes will be influenced as well as have an impact on it. Another aspect that deserves to be mentioned is the the link between oral stories or utterances and the performative aspect of Family Constellations. In fact, both practices share the element of temporality and theatricality. Just like the exercise is based on movements and gestures in space, family anecdotes and lexicons are based on their repetitiveness, their suspense, their particular sounds and rhythms. Additionally and most importantly, the method makes us consider family members as a whole, as a complicated (dys)functional entity that moves and progresses together, as a fluid action-reaction chain-organism that feeds, influences and sustains itself. Some people like to see this family-organism as a tree, but I imagine it more as a broken uncoordinated puppet that moves a bit goofily, while being pulled by its different extremities and parts. These parts are inevitably correlated and dependent to each other, no matter how disconnected, close, problematic and diverse its singular elements are one from another. Furthermore, the theory questions the structure of a family, what it represents and to what extent it defines its members. I doubt it is possible to discuss family relations from a purely neutral perspective: it is possible to make determinate objective generic statements on it, but our ideas and perception of family will always be shaped and filtered, in one way or another, by our own personal background and experiences. It is for this reason that I accuse myself of analyzing the matter from what can seem a limited point of view: the point of view of a daughter of a mother and father, an Italian married couple, that also has an older sister, a dog and multiple cats. All of them have always lived under the same rooftop in a small town in the south of Europe, up until the moment the daughters were old enough to live independently. Among many other voices, it is once again the one of Natalia Ginzburg that helps me finding an answer on my questions on family by writing:
“What is family? A group of people who live together. They form relationships, which may be strong or weak, solid or slippery. It is the place whence the child looks out on the rest of the world. Families can be awful, repressive, obsessive, or cool and uncaring and distracted, or toxic, tainted and maggoty. Very often they are like that. But a child needs one all the same... maybe he grows up unhappy in this family, he’s ashamed of it, hates it, but it’s an unhappiness memory can feed on. In the future he will go back in his mind to that thick and woody forest.”21
Dirk, my thesis tutor, recently told me that the famous incipit of Anna Karenina’s book “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”22), is “the most quoted phrase of all times”. Now, this is once again one of those urban literary legends that people say and that obviously cannot be proved. However, the fact that this myth exists, shows how generally similarly people might perceive their own family constellations, trees, broken puppets, or whatever you prefer calling them. Another probably insignificant detail that tells me how each singular family relationship, it its own unique way of being and with its personal stories, belongs in someway to a larger scheme and narrative.
Unsatisfied of her own family findings, Anna starts asking some friends around if they also have specific anecdotes to share. She is sure of finding out similar phenomenons to her own personal episodes in other people’s stories, and she is eager to collect them.
Alma: “There is a thing that we’ve been saying in my family for a while now: every time that somebody wants to suggest something to do, the person says: ‘Ho pensato… !’ (I was thinking…), and then we all start laughing. This started happening because my grandmother starts almost all of her speeches in her personal way of pronouncing ‘Ho pensato… !’”
Louana: “The story goes like this: we were celebrating New Years in the mountains with some relatives of mine. I must have been around ten years old. Once past midnight, everybody started receiving messages on the phone with wishes from friends and close ones. At some point my grandfather’s phone got one message as well. That’s the moment he said: ‘Mais c'est qui cette pomme à l'eau?!’ (What is this apple with water?) with a very annoyed tone, meaning: ‘Who is this stupid person that sent me a message?’. Already the expression apple with water was funny because none of us had ever heard it before. But what was even more funny is that after opening the message he realized that the sender was actually his son, so my uncle. So then he felt a bit bad for saying it. It is since that time that now when somebody receives a message, or when we are a bit annoyed, it is a joke to say: ‘Who is this pomme à l’eau?!’. So, Voilà.”
Brechje: “I don’t even know if I can call this a story, anyhow, this happened probably around fifteen years ago. Me and my whole family were in the south of France… or were we in Italy? I can’t remember exactly. Anyways, one evening, a few hours after dinner, we were all just sitting on the table for very long, and I was still a child but I think all the adults were doing quite some heavy drinking. At some point my grandfather got quite drunk and started petting the dog that was under the table. He did that for a bunch of times, and then it turned out to be my uncle’s leg, which is known to be very hairy. So this is a funny joke we often refer back to: the time my grandfather got so drunk that he thought my uncle’s leg was a dog.”
Caterina: “We have a lot of terms that come from when my brother was little and invented them. For example, the town ‘Sella Nevea’ is Nanau, Gelato (Ice-cream) is Totau. He had this thing that everything was ending with au. And then, wait… there is something that I was saying, and my mother could not figure it out at the time. I wanted to ask her to peel a mandarin and I told her Mesmucia. Now every time a person wants to ask somebody in the family to peel a mandarin has to say Mesmucia.”
Ariane: “My cousins would always call my grandaunt Mamie Sopalin. In France ‘Sopalin’ is a brand of kitchen paper. The nickname comes from this sort of obsession of hers: everywhere she would go she would take Sopalin with her, so kitchen paper, and would start cleaning all the surfaces she could possibly find on her way. So that is why my cousins would call her granny kitchen paper.”
Throughout my research, it became undeniable to me how oral narratives are fundamental elements to humans from the moment—and even before!—we were conceived. Such stories carry in their nature an intrinsic duality: narrative and lexicon are not only symbols that make us feel safe and belonging to something, somebody or somewhere, they also function as reminders and portrayers of traumas, taboos and painful scars. Only when oral narratives are being shared and expressed within a group (whatever that group might be: your close ones, a Family Constellations group-session or a large community), it is possible to accept them, eventually embrace them or release them if necessary. It is in moments of confrontations with others that it is possible to find an understanding. It is in that collectiveness that individual experiences can find their place, and maybe even similarities with others. Recently, I have been talking to different people about my interest for family background and memories a lot, and often asked them about their own stories and particular terminology. While somebody understood immediately what I was talking about and did not hesitate to mention some of its iconic anecdotes, others seemed to relate less easily and could not think about examples or specific memories. Motivated by the people that shared with me situations far from my own personal experience, maybe even opposite, I started looking into different directions, for example by interviewing my cousin about Family Constellations or by watching the documentary ‘The Work’. The variety of situations I encountered on my way helped me broadening my perspectives on the myriad of facets family bonds have. I explored deeper the lighter and warmer sides, but also discovered the more mysterious and dusky ones. Nevertheless the type of personal stories and background we carry with ourselves, it is impossible to deny that we all come from stories, and that we bring them along with us, sometimes more sometimes less consciously. It is based on that experiences that we relate to and move in society. In fact, as the social constructionist theory teaches us, it is impossible to consider ourselves without taking into account a broader, larger social context around us. If we took a moment to zoom out from our interactions, we could almost see our systems of relationships as a subsequently bigger set of subsets: nuclear family circle, extended family circle, friends circle, class circle, school circle, work circle, and so on. We constantly relate to the outside and to the people living within it, and it is from our relations and interactions to it that we keep learning, shape and re-adapting our references, behaviors and personalities. It is within this process that spoken language plays a crucial role, by representing one of the main tools that helps us building up and reinforcing these bonds. Family unit is a very representing example of only one of the many other social contexts that makes use of codes and tools that deal with oral narratives and terminology. In fact, the way anecdotes and terms are being orally passed on is clearly not a phenomenon that restricts itself to family connections. We are social animals and naturally find ways, through the use of spoken language and storytelling, to communicate and tighten bonds with all kinds of communities, friends, tribes, social groups. Just think about memes, slangs or urban myths; they all inscribe themselves as subcategories within the large scheme of oral narratives. For example, I start thinking about the specific personal lexicon and stories I share with my friends: I think about the mythical way me and my friend Louana say: “But tomooooooroow!” when we are looking forward for something we know happening the day after. Or I think about Fischietto (little whistle), the unofficial but generally acknowledged nickname of one of Cividale23’s nutty inhabitants, which comes from the times he was a soccer referee. It only takes a bit of focus on these stories, to realize how much our daily conversations and frame of references is based on them. After conducting this research, it also appears more evident to my eye how oral narratives, childhood events, and stories related to personal identity and upbringing are integral part of my interests and consequently present in various forms within my artistic practice. My interest is to make use of these narratives with my work and create places of comfort and platforms for sharing. I strongly believe in their endless power to move, to heal, to excites, to help, to entertain. Shaped by all my family anecdotes and traditions, inspired by all those linguistic votive statuettes, influenced by all the people being part of my circles, my identity has grown, and will keep growing from there.
As a form of dedication to my family, that was my primal source of inspiration, here is a list of some terms part of my personal family dictionary. The explanations and translations might sound banal and pointless when read, again to re-confirm how these terms and stories loose that performative oral vibrance when translated into text.
I always think that the ‘thanks to’-part of things is the best one among the others. So I can’t resist to the temptation of writing one myself too. First of all, I want to thank my family, Paolo, Paola and Maria, for being the pieces of pongo I’ll always go back to. Grazie, grazie, grazie di esistere. I want to thank my aunt, Giovanna, for our summer conversation in her library, and my cousin Valentina, for dedicating your time and thoughts to me during a Skype call The Hague/Milano. Thanks to Ludovica, for converting that cassette from where it all started. To my thesis tutors, and to my patients readers, re-viewers and advisors: Maria (again, for all your notes), Brechje, Louana, Rafael, Bram, Ariane, Zahari. To Ned for saving my ass. And to all the people that maybe didn’t read it, like you, Bart (thanks for your honesty), but that inspired me without even knowing: Benjamin, Sophia, nonna Resi, Gian, Tullio, Caterina, Guglielmo, Alma, Bianca and Natalia (Ginzburg).