Language as Boundary

Language as Boundary

by Anastasia Piatakhina Giré
Multilingual, multinational therapist Anastasia Piatakhina bridges language and music with a client struggling to find his true voice.

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A Child of Tongues

In the post-Soviet world, boundaries were scarce. Growing up in the Russia of the 1990s, I had a heightened awareness of crumbling walls. Though that time felt mainly liberating, it was also scary; many of us felt unsafe in this new suddenly-turned-turbulent, wall-less world.

Unsurprisingly, in the same 1990s, learning foreign languages became the most obvious and appealing choice for many Russian youngsters, myself included. It was our way of pushing the barriers.
When I proudly announced to my father that I would pursue studying linguistics, he bursted out in anger
When I proudly announced to my father that I would pursue studying linguistics, he bursted out in anger saying that languages were futile and would not give me any tangible skills. Growing up in the Soviet Union, my father had never had an opportunity to master a foreign language. This skill was not on the state’s agenda for its citizens, probably another means of keeping the iron curtain in place. In the most classical Ivan Turgenev way, what was the most liberating and empowering choice for me reminded my father of his own inability to speak any tongue other than his own, naturally triggering a feeling of shame.

Jhumpa Lahiri, an American writer of Bengali origin, reflects on her relationship with Italian, a language that she learned later in life and adopted for her writing. Her love affair with Italian resonates with my own feelings about speaking other languages and abounds in separations—shut doors, locked gates, permeable skin: “A new language, Italian, covers me like a kind of bark. I remain inside: renewed, trapped, relieved, uncomfortable.” This sensitivity to separateness is familiar to many of my multilingual clients who evolve on cultural boundaries and countries’ frontiers.

Language as Boundary

I have ended up practicing psychotherapy in three languages that were not originally mine; and through dialogues with my displaced clients, I have realized that learning a foreign tongue not only opens new doors but, in some cases, also becomes a way of installing a boundary where there was none.

In environments where we must put up with an intrusive parent who does not respect our boundaries, or with a totalitarian state that scrambles our personal space, we survive in different ways. Some make inner safe spaces of creativity, like my artist father; others actively rebel and flee to a different land, like many of my emigrant clients and myself. When leaving is the only way to develop better boundaries with the original context and with others, mastering a new language becomes a crucial step towards this goal.

Much of my therapy work with displaced individuals happens through video conferencing
Much of my therapy work with displaced individuals happens through video conferencing, thus we keep our regular sessions even when they return to visit their parents for holidays. As they connect “from home,” they sometimes choose to use their second language (when we share one), in order to protect their privacy from their family members. These sessions open a window to their original context—a concrete opportunity for me to get a sense of the place which they come from.

This way, I get to enter vibrant Indian houses filled with the whir of fans; small Russian kitchens where I can nearly smell the sour cabbage soup of my childhood; Victorian manors straight out of British novels; and other colorful contexts in which my clients were brought up. In such situations, the language that they have acquired later in life acts as a shield protecting them from the intrusiveness of their home; something that was not possible for them during their childhood.

The Case of Andrey

In the case of Andrey, the first and only session we had in English offered a fascinating opportunity to reflect on his past. Andrey was a Russian violin player who had made a life in the United States. He came to therapy because of his feelings of shame about his failure to find stable orchestra work and about his deteriorating marriage.

We started off rather smoothly, as Andrey was able to identify the main reason for his struggles—his incapacity to be emotionally present with others. He was fearing intimacy and had found refuge in music, which now seemed to isolate him from his wife and friends. He would easily blame himself for his shortcomings, never questioning the adequacy or fairness of others, nor the environment itself. Was he unable to secure a stable orchestra appointment because of a lack of talent, or was it due to the competitiveness of the field and bad luck? Despite his multiple prizes and other achievements, it felt clear to Andrey that he was just not good enough.

This tendency to take the blame too quickly and entirely made it difficult to access his real feelings. This was another boundary—a cover up—a way of hiding from the more complex reality in which others failed to meet his needs. I was feeling frustrated with having to constantly point out this unbalance when Andrey decided to go back home for Christmas.

His parents were living in a small town in the very North of Russia. Snow covered much of the industrial squalor for six months in a row, offering an immaculate landscape to those who would dare to go outside; many preferred to contemplate this view from behind a frosted window. Andrey had often felt guilty about not being back home more often, but the trip was complicated and costly.

The stigma associated with mental health issues and therapy was still omnipresent in this remote corner of Russia
Just after Christmas, he connected from his parents’ flat, the very one where he had grown up. In the background, I could spot the familiar, trapped-in-the-past decorum of a Russian kitchen. To my surprise, even before I could greet him, Andrey kicked off in English. “My parents are just behind the wall,” he said in a whisper; “so for them, you are an American colleague, and we are talking about a forthcoming concert.” It felt odd to be suddenly transformed into an American musician.

The stigma associated with mental health issues and therapy was still omnipresent in this remote corner of Russia. In order to be able to talk openly, Andrey had to use our shared second language. His English was fluent, but during the first minutes, I had to make an effort to switch off an uncanny voice in my head that offered synchronous translation of his words back to Russian, our usual therapy language.

In Search of Sanctuary

During the session, Andrey recognized that having privacy had always been a struggle when he was a child: his mother always insisted that the doors of their small flat should stay wide open. “Why are you closing the door?” her high-pitched voice would resonate in the small flat every time Andrey would try to isolate himself in his small bedroom.

Maybe she wanted to make sure that her teenage son practiced his violin, or she was just too scared to be alone in front of her own inner realities. Back then, unable to find any space unpolluted by his mother’s intrusive presence, Andrey found refuge in music. She was not a musician, and through interpreting the most rebellious and passionate Romantic pieces, he was able to express his anger, his pain, and his isolation.

With time, this protective boundary turned into a fortified wall, efficiently separating him from others. His wife was bitterly complaining about the lack of intimacy that was haunting their marriage. He found it increasingly strenuous to get out of this space, or to let her in. Their marriage was on the brink of failure.

As Andrey was talking in English from his parents’ kitchen, we managed to recognize his feeling of shame, nurtured by the pressure to succeed that he had always felt. In his native town, the only hope for a brighter future was to work hard and be chosen for the Moscow Conservatorium. His father was a violin teacher in the local music school for children. He was drinking most of the evenings, as a way of escaping his own disappointments. Andrey had always known that he had to become a solo player to realize the dream his parents had instilled in him. But bursting out to the bigger classical music world had come with a price—the competition was such that Andrey had quickly realized that the soloist career was not for him.

During that ‘kitchen session’, Andrey told me how, the day before, he had picked up his grandfather’s old violin inherited by his father. He had not played the family instrument in years. Its sound, smell, and smooth touch brought up so many memories—the first time his father had let him play that violin was after he had successfully passed his music school exam, opening the direct path to Moscow…and freedom. What a pride he felt back then, what a commitment to music! All this had faded away, he had now lost these higher aspirations, after years of teaching American kids in a foreign language that he would never master as he mastered playing violin.

His parents had grown older but had not changed. His father was drinking less, as his health had deteriorated. But he had kept following his son’s artistic career with anguish. His mother was suspicious of his “frivolous” wife (she was French and a dancer). She was also pressuring him about having a grandchild. Andrey strongly suspected that she was eavesdropping from the corridor every time he was speaking to his local friends over the phone.

Andrey was not able to open up to either of them, out of fear of being judged or causing distress. His mother had a habit of crying, slamming doors (only to insist that they remain open later), and threatening him with heart failure. They were totally unaware of his anguish about his unemployment and his collapsing marriage.

Ironically, Andrey had never been able to share all this in Russian
Ironically, Andrey had never been able to share all this in Russian. The perceived neutrality of the English language may have provided the necessary distance for him to get in touch with the feelings he had previously been avoiding as unacceptable or threatening. What had allowed this shift to happen? Was it the juxtaposition of his original environment (filled with familiar significant objects like the old violin) with the neutrality of his second language that had built a bridge between his younger and adult selves?

In retrospect, Andrey recognized that being able to connect with me from his parents’ place had allowed his adult part (usually pertaining to his “life abroad”) to penetrate his original home. He felt supported and valued by me, as he had never been able to feel at home with his parents.

Maybe the fact that I could understand both facets of his life helped this integration—I was familiar with the peculiar culture of the intimate Russian kitchen conversations. I was also familiar with the intricate dynamics of the broader professional music world. Making links and recognizing echoes between these two realities that constituted his fragmented world, helped Andrey sort through his struggle. After all, he did not really have to endure the continuous pressure of his professional world. This was no promise of a sustainable subsistence. Once he recognized the shortcomings of his original environment, Andrey was finally able to think more creatively about his career and find other less mainstream ways of developing his potential.

Soon after that session, Andrey returned to the United States, and we have never spoken again in English. At the opposite side of the border, our native Russian is a perfect shield to protect our therapy space when his French wife is around. The session in English has remained our shared anchor, a time when we both started to see and understand him better.
 

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Bios
Anastasia Piatakhina Giré Anastasia Piatakhina Giré was born and raised in Saint Petersburg (Russia), and, before moving to Paris, lived and studied in Italy, Great Britain and Spain.
Her experience of evolving abroad, together with her multicultural marriage and trilingual family, makes her particularly sensitive to the sort of issues experienced by people living in a different country than that of their origin, or those who are part of a mixed couple. Life away from home and family brings along quite specific psychological challenges. An expat herself, she is passionate about fellow travelers. As a writer, she has been writing scenarios since 2006 for television and cinema, and has always felt fascinated by people’s stories. She offers online therapy as well as in-person sessions in Paris. See her website at www.expatstherapy.com.