One Greek-American’s Journey in Conflict Resolution
By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. – Lowell, Massachusetts. So well known as the town where Greek immigrants came to work at the turn of the last century. But, until last week, not so well-known as the birthplace of one of Greek-America’s most well-known and greatly-admired stars of stage and screen. For it was last week that Olympia Dukakis’ memoir, Ask Me Again Tomorrow, became available. Released on July 9, the anniversary of the death of her mother, the mother Olympia was determined to defy, it is less an expose of the behind-the-scenes life of a movie star and stage actress than it is her therapeutic exorcism of the cultural and social demons she struggled with as a Greek-American woman, as well as a lesson about the contradictory nature of this Greek-American icon, whose struggles are largely the result of the identity conflict experienced by so many Greek-American first-generation women of her time and continuing even today.
Writing a book was the last thing Olympia Dukakis originally wanted to do. She didn’t want to look at the past; she wanted to look toward the future. Until she learned that she could use the process to resolve some of the unresolved conflicts of her life. But the process, she told a small group of reporters the day after the book’s release, was “very, very difficult.”
“I found myself not able to sleep, all of the stuff that came up, writing about my mother and all the difficulties we had and my father, though I did get a hold of some things that were foggy and I was able to say things that brought it home for me a little better than it had for me up until that time.”
Through its title, Olympia’s first literary effort expresses so succinctly her ongoing mental and spiritual struggle.
That’s why it should be no surprise to anyone who picks up this memoir that the story contained on its pages is merely the initial exploration of a complicated psyche, a psyche still in evolution. A psyche that doesn’t know from one day to the next the answers to her questions about identity life continues to bring.
“I’m hardly the poster girl for the [Greek Orthodox] Church,” Olympia says.
But who is she? How does she identify herself? Through her book, we learn about the contradictory nature of the woman who is Olympia Dukakis.
We learn of her struggle to defy a Greek identity at home, while defending it on the streets of the towns where she grew up and where it was challenged. We learn how she rebelled against any requirements established by her mother that she take on traditional roles, that she be the defender of a code of honorable behavior, that she accept the role of the woman for whom the title “Greek” was of primary importance.
Yet, we also learn how much the same Greek culture she rebelled against played a role in who she would become. A fighter for what she believed was important, someone who wanted to give back to her community because of what her community had given to her, someone whose separateness from the non-ethnic or white-ethnic communities in which her family lived helped her to channel “all of [her] separateness, all of [her] natural aggression, into playing every organized sport [she] could find.” Of course, it would later translate into the determination and hard work it took to create the award-winning portrayals (an Oscar as best-supporting actress in “Moonstruck” among them) for which she became famous.
The conflict, the contradiction about her identity continues to rear its challenging head even near the end of this very readable 200-page book:
“…I’m still finding out who I am within the context of being Olympia Dukakis, Greek-American, woman, wife and mother,” she writes, after appearing to have come to resolve her lifelong conflict.
Though “Greek-American” is the first word she uses in her self-description here, readers should be alerted that Olympia Dukakis’ affinity with her Greek identity is largely absent in the years between the time she left her Massachusetts home to attend college and throughout her life as an actress, wife and mother. It should come, therefore, as no surprise that, when asked whether she lived a Greek life, her response, given with a chuckle, was: “No, I lived like an actress.”
And only one of her three children – Stefan – has an interest in learning about his Greek (and Yugoslavian) heritage.
Another contradictory expression of her identity, mentioned in the first half of the book, is her assertion that she [and cousin Michael] had “fulfilled the aspirations of our parents and had validated that what our parents believed in and cherished most mattered.” Yet the reality she chooses through these words to ignore is that her parents hadn’t wanted her to become an actress, hadn’t approved of some of the productions she was in, and hadn’t approved of her lifestyle choices, including living with Louis Zorich, the Yugoslavian man who later became her husband, before they married, and the “open marriage” they had before the birth of their first child.
Readers will likely be surprised to learn that Olympia first went to school to become a physical therapist and played a critical role in several states in the treatment of polio.
It was also surprising that, aside from one chapter that describes a family effort made in the face of life-changing catastrophic event, Olympia, who proudly lists one of her titles as “mother,” makes little mention of her three children in the book.
When asked why, she explained: “There were things that my children didn’t want me to talk about, so I respected their wishes. Those things were, of course, very much a part of my life, but since it impacted on them, I said ‘there’s enough of a story here; we don’t have to do everything.’”
Because of her wholesome roles, typically as an older and wiser woman, the element of surprise exists in the revelation that Olympia struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, and even tried to commit suicide. She attributes it to “a lot of stuff in my background that confused and confounded me. I lived with a lot of contradictions growing up”. This included the emotional abuse her mother suffered in silence despite, or possibly because of, the importance of family honor.
“I was very rebellious but had no clarity. I could say ‘no,’ but I didn’t know what to say ‘yes’ to…When I left home after I graduated and especially when I went to graduate school, I had to start saying “yes” to something. And that’s when I really began to unravel. And as I unraveled, that’s when the drugs, the liquor, came in.
Because, out of respect, she couldn’t turn to her parents and indict them for their contributing behavior, she said therapy was her only alternative.
For Olympia Dukakis, writing this book was like a journey on a train.
“I could have gotten off at a lot of local stops, but I felt that if I did that I would lose the line, the express. I began to understand that I couldn’t lose the story with [many] details. “Maybe if I was better at it, I could have done it. I don’t know.”