Irene Sardanis was born into a Greek family in the Bronx in the 1940s in which fear and peril hovered. Her mother had come to New York for an arranged marriage. Her father drank, gambled, and enjoyed other women—and then, when Irene was eleven, abandoned her family altogether. Faced with their mother’s violent outbursts in the wake of this betrayal, Irene’s older siblings found a way out, but Irene was trapped, hostage to her mother’s rage and despair.
When she finally escaped her mother as a young adult, she married a neighbor, also Greek, who controlled and dominated her just like her mother always had. But Irene wasn’t ready to let her story end there. With therapy, she eventually found the courage to leave her husband and pursue her own dreams. Out of the Bronx is her story of coming to terms with the mother and past that terrified and paralyzed her for far too long—and of how she went on to create a new life free of those fears.
Q&A/Sidebar:How did you deal with the pain family caused you in light of how close the bonds of Greek family are supposed to be?
Not easily. I didn’t know how to find a way to deal with my mother’s outbursts. I felt there was something terribly wrong in our home but I didn’t have any idea how to deal with it. My father was gone, and who knows where he lived and who his latest mistress was. As a teen my relief was any boy in the neighborhood – and the library, my refuge. I searched for any place away from home to give me a feeling of safety. Each of my siblings found their own way to cope. We were all suffering and the conspiracy of silence made it worse, which was: don’t tell anyone, pretend that nothing is wrong. No one must know what’s going on. Where could any of us go to ask for help? We couldn’t.
Is it a myth that Greeks and other Mediterranean cultures have much loving close relationships?
I don’t think so. Every family has their own story. I’m always drawn to the yia-yias – the loving grandmothers I meet at the Greek festivals or in my travels. I want them to adopt me, and take me home with them. With adversities, there are families that find a way to care and love one another no matter what the hardships are. We had no one who could do that. There is suffering in all families and they manage to support, cope and care for one another. They get through those hard times. Regretfully, I didn’t know how to do that. As the youngest I looked to my older sisters and brother to lead us out of the despair around us. With a depressed mother and absent father, my siblings became surrogate parents. I think that dynamic occurs in large families. The older siblings are the “other” parents.
Did it make your pain all the more intense knowing that her family of origin was so far from the mark?
I had no way of comparing our family with others. I just knew something was wrong and like a detective I wanted to solve the mystery of my mother’s depression. I felt there was something more going on than my father rejecting and abandoning us without any support. I was always the curious one in the family and wanted to learn why things were so weird, unnatural. It was years ago when I went to Greece for the first time to visit my mother’s village and see my cousins and aunts that I got it: My mother never left. She brought her village, her culture, the whole catastrophe with her. I was raised as though I were in that village too, and with living in an American culture, I rebelled. I didn’t know how to reconcile the Greek and American parts of me.
How did you learn to forgive and get over the trauma?
The road to forgiveness was a long, painful and difficult one for me. I loved hating my mother and blaming her for any unhappiness in my life. What a waste of time! I believed there was something wrong with me and believed in therapy I’d find out what it was. Underneath I felt I deserved all the punishment I got from my mother, that I was really a bad person. I became a psychologist to understand the dynamics of childhood abuse. Trauma. I am sorry to say that one does not get over trauma. You learn to get over is going through it. To live with it, surround yourself with caring, loving and compassionate people. For me, writing has been an important healing component. When my writing coach asked me to write a piece about my mother, it was a turning point towards understanding and forgiving her. The piece was called, “My Name is Maria.” Getting under her skin and story helped me see the terrible childhood she had. What a catastrophe for her to leave her village for an arranged marriage and come to America to wed my alcoholic, womanizing, irresponsible father. After I wrote that piece I felt great compassion for her life.
Why did it take so long to write the book?
I never expected to write the book. I was afraid to write my story. I hid behind writing classes, conferences where I felt it was a safe place to express my feelings on paper but not allow any of it to go very far. Then my therapist suggested I contact the first therapist in New York. “You’ve done some good work,” she said. “You became a psychologist, you’re in a good marriage and have a satisfying life. Go see her and tell her how much you appreciate her helping you at age sixteen.” Great idea, I thought and googled her name. That’s when I learned she had died, and I just fell apart with grief. I wanted to see her again and thank her for saving my life, to tell her I loved her. I knew then I needed to write the story and dedicate the book to her. I hoped my story might give others who had similar stories to know they were not alone. The other reason I feared writing my story was that in my head I heard my mother’s voice saying, “If you write what happened, I will curse you from my grave.” I believed my mother had the power to destroy me. I had to do battle with that voice and say to her: “It’s too late, Ma, I’m going to write it anyhow.”
What advice to you have for Hellenic writers?
For God’s sake. If you have a story, a play, a poem, anything inside of you that needs creative expression, just do it. Find a class, a mentor, a conference, a tribe of others who have their stories too. If it’s too painful, get therapy. I had such shame to dare to write my memoir. How dare I write anything negative about my mother? No one would like me or befriend me. It wasn’t until I found the safe place, that writing class, that group of other writers who encouraged me, supported me every time I felt afraid to write something painful that more and more stories came out of me. It was a relief to get it out on paper.
How much do you love and how much do you hate being Greek?
As a kid I fought with my mother. “Don’t talk to me in Greek,” I’d say. “I’m an American.” Then when I went to Greece and said to myself, “Oh my God, I’m really Greek.”
I can honestly say I’m proud to be Greek. I love the food, the music the passion of being Greek. I think I have embraced my Greek culture and don’t fight it like before. If you ask, I would say I am both a Greek and an American – they don’t do battle inside me anymore. They co-exist as friends. I’m proud to be both.
How did the experience of being both Greek and American shape your outlook?
These two parts of me are important to who I am. In fact, with my book, Out of the Bronx, I feel I’ve embraced the Greek part of me in many ways. We Greeks know the word, “Philoxenia,” the fine art of welcoming a stranger. I like being welcomed wherever I go, whether it’s at a restaurant, a beauty salon, a conference, someone’s home. It is important to feel welcomed. The Greek part of me is a bit crazy, illogical at times. That’s okay. It’s nice to have the American part of me balance and be rational especially when something unexpected occurs. I don’t feel as afraid of my irrational emotions. I know they’re as much a part of me as my two identities – the Greek and the American.