The Fifth Хорошо: Interview with Rodica Mihailis

Memoirist, blogger, and soon-to-be clinical psychologist Rodica Mihailis has undergone many personal evolutions since her defection from communist Romania in 1981. Her recent memoir, The Gypsy Saw Two Lives (Strategic Book Publishing), itself evolved from her popular blog, chronicles the adaptations that have characterized her life on both sides of the Atlantic with humor and perspective—and a surprising amount of empathy even for the least sympathetic characters. In this fifth edition of “The New Xорошо,” Mihailis expounds upon faith, free will, and the funny side of being ousted from an ambulance in February; under separate cover, Colman O Criodain reviews The Gypsy Saw Two Lives.~T.M. De Vos

Was your parents’ atheism an effect of communism or something they had arrived at intellectually? How much of it was your mother’s statement that “if there was a God, [her] life would have been different”?

While I never discussed with my parents the intricate path of their spiritual lives, I think their atheism was influenced by living in a communist country. In Romania, at the time, my parents couldn’t have kept their professional careers without becoming Communist Party members. I specifically remember conversations between the two of them about how wrong that was,and still the decision was made to join the party rather than lose their jobs.

What were those conversations like? It’s difficult for me to picture them talking in this way since there seems to be so little unity between them in much of the book.

The few conversations I remember between my parents were about every day economic survival, what it would take to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. They were not philosophical conversations about communism versus capitalism. This particular conversation was about my mother being asked to become a Communist Party member. If she refused, she would have been deprived of some of her professional responsibilities, such as performing surgeries. It would have been a professional demotion resulting in a loss of income. So the question was, could we survive if I say no? And the answer was we couldn’t.

Life was so difficult someone had to be responsible and God was right there and it was okay to blame all ills on Him, anyway. In conclusion, my parents’ atheism was a combination of personal “conclusions” and living in an atheist country.

Despite your mother’s atheism, she seems to have some superstition, in the story of the boy with holes for eyes. How much of faith and superstition do you see as being rooted in fear–fear about “staying on the good side of God,” for example, or your fear that your mother would go to hell?

The superstitious side of my mother, I believe, had roots deeper than atheism, communism, and dissatisfaction with her life. Superstition for many of us is at gut level. I believe if someone asked my mother, “Are you superstitious?” she would have denied it, yet superstition was part of her: rooted so deeply it was undeniable. I would venture to guess her superstitious side was rooted in her childhood, long before she went to medical school and communism took over her life. Superstition is rooted in fear, at least in my life, and again, I believe it is so deeply rooted, its origins are firmly embedded in my soul, whether I accept it or not.

How much was the element of the forbidden a factor in your attraction to spirituality? 

It was only after I left Romania that I started a true journey  with spirituality. When I was in Romania, I simply had to read the Bible because I was “forbidden,” according to my professor, to read a book necessary to be an “intellectual.”

It’s interesting to me that the Bible was considered an “intellectual” book. If, as Karl Marx asserted, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” one might think that totalitarian governments might embrace religion as a way to gain people’s trust. Outlawing it, I think, initiates an immediate conflict with the people: religion, like superstition is very much a “gut” reaction that is bound up in memory, ritual, culture, and often one’s formative experiences of family and community. Maybe I’m speculating here, but I think that outlawing something that is so intricately bound up in culture and history set communism up to fail from the beginning by giving people the choice of quietly subverting the state or losing, without too much exaggeration, their souls. For instance, I know that many people in communist-controlled countries continued to pray or hold small religious celebrations in secret.

True, this is what Karl Marx said but let’s not forget the entire foundation of communism was, “We are not like the capitalists who manipulated you, the working class.” Religion was a tool of capitalist manipulation, therefore rejected by the new regime.

The result of that was the rejection of all religion. As you know, the utopic idea was that the system was supposed to work in favor of all people. We were building our own happiness, as the many slogans stated. The reality millions lived, including myself, was that, once in power, human greed took over and the beautiful, utopic ideas went out the window.

My true journey with questioning our purpose in the world, God, and the whys of so many things which go wrong, started when I was in Germany, suspended between two countries, not knowing if America was going to accept me and yet unable to go back to Romania. It was at that time that a family of German Christians literally took me off a train and gave me food and shelter. They didn’t know me, I didn’t know them, but that was the first time when I experienced selfless human kindness. It went against my previous experiences of mistrust and doing something with hidden motivations.

This connection between faith and the discovery that there are good people in the world seems to be a very powerful one. I too have had the experience of being stunned by how much strangers—or at most mere acquaintances—were willing to offer in terms of time and care simply because I needed it. What is it, do you suppose, about this discovery of human connection that leads one to the divine?  

The story of the German family which helped me while I was defecting happened many years ago and it was done in the name of God. Therefore, I made my immediate logical connection between God and goodness and, frankly, as I was desperate and spiritually seeking, my logical connection to faith. Karl Marx was right.

Over the years I discovered that human goodness is not necessarily connected to someone belonging to a church or being faithful. I have witnessed kindness equally coming from Wiccans, atheists, Protestants, or Catholics. As of today (and as human beings we have the right to change our opinions based on new experiences, as we perceive them) I believe that the goodness of the human spirit is above a particular religious movement, and atheism is not connected to evil, but rather a very personal philosophical decision.

In your interview with Chatting in Manhattan, you mention a purpose to life. Is this something you find to be universal, or is it specific to each individual?

I concluded a long time ago that a personal goal in life is essential for happiness, or at least personal peace of mind. We make the world, each of us, with a purpose in life (or without one), but the “universal purpose” is directly determined by what each of us does, individually. Therefore, in my opinion, we cannot have a universal purpose without making individual commitments to purpose in life. We are the universal. The unfortunate result of political or religious fights is that people have opposing “purposes in life,” and this would be an entirely different interview.

Without going too far down that path and losing the thread, I’m curious what you make of these opposing “purposes” and beliefs—for a long time, I believed that one had the right to do what one wanted so long as he or she didn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights. It seemed very simple and easy to follow. But then, some people believe that, by living or believing a certain way, others really are infringing on their rights. How can we reconcile beliefs like this, from opposing sides who are equally convinced of their rightness and their faith?

To underline “a personal opinion,” I am 100% in agreement with you and I could only speculate on why some people, unfortunately too many have such unbending beliefs. I could speculate that there are economic interests at stake for some people, but let’s take the right-to-life movement, which kills sometimes in the name of the right to life, or the people who blow themselves up to make a religious point and kill many innocent people in the process.  A very personal opinion is that it takes a certain personality, an unquestioning type, to mold into such blind obedience in the name of any cause. Perhaps because I question it all and questioning is the essence of me, I am not the best person to give a good answer, but then I question what would be a good answer. 

You mentioned you tried to keep humor in the book. What is your connection to humor, particularly dark humor? 

Indeed, I tried to keep humor in my book, and it was not difficult as humor was always one of my favorite defense mechanisms. I observed that if a trauma happens, our first reaction is to deny it, then we go to anger; sometimes we accept. I refer to Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ famous stages of grief when people find out they have cancer. It is only when we have the ability to step out of our own picture and ask ourselves, “What happened here?” that as writers, we create best.  For instance, it was horrible that my dying mother was thrown out of an ambulance in the cold, but, in retrospect, I have to smile recalling the conversation between the two workers who carried her inside the hospital. Again, this is a personal experience, but I could never create from a place of anger. A place of pain, desperation, yes, but not anger. Anger clouds the mind, and the real message gets lost.

 There is something about absurdity that speaks more truly and poignantly about the human condition–Yuriy Tarnawsky spoke in April about using distance to laugh at ourselves. Writing with anger, perhaps, shows that we are too mired in our own circumstances to be interesting to others; writing with absurdity shows some perspective, some maturity—as you say, the ability to “step out of our own picture.” What do you think helped you to do so as a writer and as a person?  

For me, the capacity to laugh at myself and step outside a personal painful situation and see the humor in it is a gift I was born with. To some it comes naturally, as an invaluable defense mechanism. Perhaps it comes to those who need it most because their lives have so many obstacles. It is a survival mechanism. Someone who wasn’t born with this capacity could learn this as a skill. I believe learning to self-hypnotize or meditate could be helpful. Both techniques calm the mind to a point where we can access our subconscious and use the incredible gifts of our infinite minds.

Do you believe in free will, determinism, or some compatibilist intermediate between the two? The title seems to introduce a note of determinism, but your narrative voice throughout the chapters suggests that you feel we do not choose our circumstances, but we have some small choices within the parameters that are laid out. 

Free will and determinism…oh, how many nights and days did I spend thinking about this and, truth be told, I cannot give a clear answer, or an all-knowing answer, but I could give an answer. The Gypsy Saw Two Lives was initially a blog on WordPress, and it was entitled Memoirs from My Two Lives. As I started writing the posts, I was angry because I broke my leg in a place where I had just moved and where I knew no one. Seriously, what kind of fairness was that?

The first posts of the blog were exclusively dedicated to research on fate, but as I was writing, my “anger” about “Why me?” calmed down, and I realized I needed to write about a much more meaningful topic: how we—the human race—are connected. What makes us humans regardless of who we are—how rich or poor, old or young? The posts took a turn and, little by little, through life’s experiences described in the book, it became clear that it is our emotions (fear, anger, love) that makes us the human race. Alcoholism, or domestic violence, but also blind teen love, are universal. That’s what makes us all human.

So, the blog, which currently has almost 3,000 views, although I stopped blogging months ago, switched from discussing fate to true stories about what could happen to us as humans, stories everyone could relate to because they could happen to anyone. Perhaps they already did!

I’ve read that there are only seven original plots in the world and that writers are just re-hashing them. Yet we keep reading—it reminds me of the way Shakespeare and Chaucer and the old traveling bards would tell and retell the same stories. You know what happened between Troilus and Criseyde, but you want to see what Shakespeare’s done with it. Even today, we want to see different acting companies interpret the characters in these same plays, maybe to gain new insight into the character or play, or human nature in general. Similarly, we have some ideas about what happens between human beings, but we want to see different actors—characters, whether autobiographical or real—play them out for us. Not everyone is a writer, but everyone knows and recognizes these stories. 

True, everyone has a story and if I am asked, I’d say everyone, if they so desire, should write a book. However, the question is why is someone writing a book: for personal satisfaction only, for personal satisfaction and her or his immediate family’s and friends’ delight, or because the person thinks he or she has a message so important or meaningful it must be shared with the world.

Going back to your statement about basically repeating the same plots in different words, I’d say it is not what you say but how you say it. I am not familiar with the theory of the seven basic plots. I’d love to learn more about it because I already disagree! I am a believer in the uniqueness of every story, especially when is personal. I am not speaking about boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, and then they resolve their misunderstandings and live happily ever after.

Here is my belief about fate. Ancient wisdom teaches us there is fate, and denying this truth is not worth defending. The modern movement of humans having total control and responsibility over their lives is simply addressing a narrow middle-class segment who, thankfully for them, didn’t have the misfortune to experience a bad fate. When one comes from that place of comfort, it is very easy to declare that we are in total control and that positive thinking could change it all.

I ask, how about the millions who died in concentration camps? How about the many who have no fresh water or food in Africa? How about the homeless at the corner of our own cities’ streets? And if we are to touch on how right or wrong is it that  thousands die from cancer and the same positive-thinking theory  that they, alone, must have not eaten right, thought the right positive thoughts or, in general, they, the victims of disease, did something wrong, then, if we go there, I get really angry and my mind clouds and we don’t want that to happen. You certainly touch a sensitive subject.

That is the worst part of free will, I think—the idea that one bears sole responsibility for any tragedy one has experienced. 

It sounds as if you would have a compatibilist response to the problem of free will—certain parameters are determined by forces beyond our control, and then we use free will to choose how we respond. I think that we all use some form of compatibilism to deal with the world—we say about a violent criminal that it’s sad he had an abusive childhood, but that we expect him not to abuse others; in a more everyday sense, we can empathize with someone who’s been hurt in a past relationship, but we couldn’t condone him willfully seeking to hurt or deceive future partners. This may be the healthiest way to think; there have been studies finding that those with an internal locus of control were generally happier and more successful than those with an external locus of control who felt that things only befell them and were not shaped by them.

As we both know, there is a dispute between free will and determinism. Compatibilism, as I understand it, states that free will is compatible with determinism. One of the arguments being that free will is necessary for moral responsibility. If I understand this correctly, I actually believe that free will is equally necessary for doing good and evil.

I do not believe that people bear the whole responsibility for what happens to them. For instance, we are helpless as to how or where we were born. We are mostly helpless as children when adults are “guiding” our steps. However if, as adults, we repeat the same mistakes over and over again and we don’t learn, that is a different story and indeed we are responsible for, let’s say, going into another abusive relationship. If that happens, perhaps we need to take a good look at ourselves and ask why the pattern repeats, perhaps taking a look at the Ericksonian development chart and reevaluating certain events in our life.

So…just like the locus of control, and I am thinking of the locus of control in psychology rather than philosophy, there are “shade of grey” (not those shades of grey) and, as someone who has almost finished a Master’s in Counseling and Clinical Psychology, I must say that this is the reason I went back to school. The “shades” interest me, not the black-and-white situations.

Indeed, if we have a “black-and-white” approach, those with an external locus of control see themselves as victims. I agree, given the premise of black and white. By the way, statistics could be manipulated.

On the other hand, I believe in positive thinking and that we could control what we do and think. We could control not all of our circumstances but our actions towards what happens to us. It is like a game of cards. We are handed the cards, and then we have a choice as to whether to stay in the game, how long, or to leave all together. My knowledge of games of fortune is not great, but that’s the best I could come up with for an illustration.

As an incurably hard determinist—though I often function as a compatibilist, of practical necessity—I wonder whether you think determinism is more compatible with faith or with atheism?  

I’d give determinism a category of its own regardless one’s faith or atheistic views. In my personal experience, it’s compatible with both. I did see atheists going to fortunetellers and also people of great faith checking the competition, just to make sure.

As an only child, how much did loneliness affect your life choices? How much do you feel motivated by connection at the expense of creative work—as you did when putting your writing aside to develop your new marriage?

As a child, an only child, I remember being lonely, especially when I was shipped to my grandmother’s for the summers. However, it was “normal” to be an only child, and I had many friends, also single children. The sibiling rivalries as children were similar to those in real families, as if we were true sisters. Now, years later, my childhood friend from Romania, Mioara, is still my friend, and we laugh about our rivalries as kids. We grew up, and I feel we are sisters in soul.

As far as putting the creative process on the back burner to connect with others and in favor of my marriage, I must admit that I never stopped writing, journaling, writing poetry (which only I seem to like) and short stories, one of which was successfully performed in Philadelphia in 2005. However, the proportion of time spent writing was minimal and, if anything, I put everything on a back burner for my children because I really wanted my daughters to have the childhood I never had, the mother I never had, the opportunities I never had. Everything else could wait. And it did.

Does writing wait? I have frequently nursed anxieties about the disappearance of the writing self, particularly during times of high stress and all-consuming work responsibilities. I still worry that, someday, if I don’t get it all down, I will find myself completely unable ever to write again. 

Writing waits but inspiration does not. Even if I didn’t take the time to organize my writings, I always kept a notebook by my bed and in my car. Many times, inspiration visits in the middle of the night or when one drives. You are correct, if you are a writer you need to “capture” that unique moment of inspiration before it flies away, never to be remembered. That’s why I said “on the back burner,” because I did not take the time to organize my notes and journals for years.

You also mention “family that is not [your] blood family”—is that an experience only children are forced to create? I’ve never been able to tell whether other people do this as voraciously, and perhaps desperately, as only children do. 

Speaking about families which are not our blood families, I cannot but think of the saying, “God chooses your relatives, you choose your friends.” My experience of creating a non-blood-related family has to do with my adult life more than my childhood because, once I came to the United States, I had no blood-related family, but I had many friends. In all truth, my friends selflessly extended themselves to me during the many hardships I encountered, more than a blood-related family would have. Cassandra and Nick Ludington, who in 1973 was the Associated Press correspondent in Bucharest, sponsored me to come to the U.S., but more than that, they continued to offer me the support a good “blood-related” family would, throughout my lifetime and my children’s. That’s what I referred to when I mentioned family of the heart, not of the blood.

Both I and the Chatting in Manhattan interviewers were surprised at the irony of the first half of your book initially being rejected because it “couldn’t” all have happened to one person. It’s interesting that the other half (perhaps the second life?) was the part that made it believable, that the fairy tale part was, unbeknownst to you, the part that would become an untruth. How likely is it, in your belief, that the initial rejection of the book was another instance of the gypsy’s prophecy coming true? 

I see it as a joke today that my first book, which was entitled Both Sides of the Coin, was rejected because it was not believable.

I thought long and hard about what happened and concluded that it was a combination of things. The book was probably read by a summer intern with little life experience and, indeed, it seemed not possible judging from the world she knew—very much like the total control we have over our lives if we only know how to “think positively.”

The second element which comes into play is the truth that I was still angry and, as I mentioned before, I cannot create well from a place of anger.

Of course, you are right on about my belief that the book was not destined to be published then, but now. After all, The Gypsy Saw Two Lives! Fortunetellers know best.

It’s interesting that both of your book titles contain a duality: two lives, both sides. Then, there are the dualities of having two books and your two languages. At the language level, dichotomies are built into the English language with its black/white, either/or structure. Is the Romanian language similarly constructed? 

Very interesting observation, as are all your observations, which go to a deep level of understanding and questioning at the same time.  Romanian is a Romance language, in the same family with French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. We, as Romanians, perceived ourselves as a “drop of Latin in a Slavic sea.” The structure of the Romanian language is very different from that of Germanic languages such as German and English. It winds on many private roads to only unexpectedly come back to the main road. It is a rich and beautiful language, sometimes so rich that one has to read twice to truly understand the real meaning of a phrase. Romanian has some of the most amazing, deep, and true sayings. I am in love with my native language, and it took a lot of work and discipline to stop writing in what, in English, are “run-on” sentences.

I am very curious about the differences in how you might express an idea in Romanian versus English. Of course, I don’t read Romanian except for picking out a few cognates, but could you give an example of how you would express an idea or feeling in Romanian versus how you would do so in English?

I chose a sentence from the interview: “True, everyone has a story and if I am asked, I’d say everyone, if they so desire, should write a book.”

The translation would be: “Adevarat, toata lumea are o poveste si dupa parerea mea as spune ca toata lumea trebuie sa scrie o carte, daca asta doresc.”

I am curious about the vision—real and perceived—of the Rroma as fortunetellers. In your opinion, do Rroma fortunetellers have some special knowledge of fate or the divine? 

I think it is all perceived. My perception is that they do have knowledge we don’t, passed from generation to generation.

How much does their work with fortunetelling contribute to the Rroma people’s lack of reception in society: that is, is having knowledge of the future taboo and therefore to be kept at a distance?

I personally do not think their “gift” to tell fortunes is a reason to keep them at a distance, but perhaps the lack of understanding of a unique culture. I must admit I am not personally an expert in Rroma culture, which I respect as I respect all cultures and beliefs because, as long as someone’s cultures do not infringe on others’ liberties, or do not hurt anyone, they are fine by me. That doesn’t mean I am an expert in these cultures; however, I would love to learn more about any cultures or religions, because this is what makes life unique and endlessly interesting.

Last but not least, have you visited a fortuneteller since the title incident? What is your current relationship to knowing your fate?

Yes, many times. I am still waiting for that fortune and Prince Charming.

_________________________

T.M. De Vos is co-editor-in-chief of Gloom Cupboard and author of The Dimestore World, a poetry collection forthcoming from Patasola Press. She is a lover of sad languages, independent republics, and being in transit.  If you want a souvenir from Lithuania, or are an Eastern European author with something to say to her, please contact gloomcupboard@hotmail.com.

Published by tmdevos

BIO: T.M. De Vos is the author of Cimmeria (Červena Barvá Press, 2016); a 2015 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow; and Co-Editor-in-Chief of Gloom Cupboard. Her work has appeared previously in Embark Literary Journal, MockingHeart Review, Vagabond, Folder Magazine, concīs, Juked, Pacific Review, burntdistrict, HOBART, and the Los Angeles Review. De Vos is the recipient of fellowships from Murphy Writing Seminars, Summer Literary Seminars, and the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. She recently completed her first novel.

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