Occhio, malocchio, prezzemolo e finocchio
Updated: Feb 8, 2022
On April 16, 2016, I walked into Anna Arcaro’s cluttered-but-clean - in the way it seems only a certain generation of Italian ladies can manage - basement, excited to interview someone who had been practicing malocchio for decades. It may be worth pausing for a moment here to talk about what malocchio actually is. In English, you may know it as the evil eye. And it's some kind of affliction, oftentimes a headache, which is given to someone, usually unintentionally, through another person’s envious thoughts or words. An unintentional malocchio could be avoided by simply uttering “God bless you” after compliments or praise, as that would show that your words are coming from a positive place. Unless, of course, you want to give someone malocchio on purpose. As someone else I interviewed explained, jokingly, “a person is either talking too good about you behind your back, or is talking really bad about you behind your back. So basically whenever a person talks about you, there’s 90% chance that you’re going to get the malocchio.”
These interviews were part of a larger project I completed in 2016, and an archive I continue to work with, to study the evolution of malocchio healing in local, contemporary Italian Canadian communities. I interviewed 5 healers, two third-generation Italian Canadians, two second-generation, and Anna Arcaro, a first-generation Italo-Canadian healer. All five of them were part of my navigation through personal networks. Within these networks, I was able to move through an ambiguous space: that of trying to understand malocchio, what it means and how it works… and how this changes depending on who explains or practices it.
However, this blog post, adapted from a short presentation I got the opportunity to give at this year's Underhill graduate colloquium at Carleton, will focus on just one of those interviews. Actually, the shortest interview. And it's about that conversation. It’s about Anna’s healing practice, but mostly about dealing with these shared stories through oral history as they are told in the present -- in bits and pieces, as interruptions, through laughter, and, of course, as soon as you stop recording. It’s also about the more solitary process, after the interview, figuring out how to use this information, especially when you are embedded in their networks and stories. What was my place at that table? Who was I in that moment? And how would that translate to the page?
And, really, is there a better time to post about the evil eye than on Friday the 13th?
“Sii fermata mo’? Hai stutato quella cosa?” Anna asked as I finished up her interview, making sure my recording device was off before continuing. As I sat at the head of the table, listening to the stories she would not allow me to record, her husband brought out plates full of fruit and bowls of their homemade snacks. A copper napkin holder, embossed with two hands holding a cross, was facing me from the other end of the table while Anna recited old malocchio healing prayers. She could share these, she reassured us, because they were not the prayers she used. At 75, she was the oldest of my interviewees and has been practicing malocchio healing the longest.
Born in Cantalupo nel Sannio, Molise in 1941, Anna came to Montreal in March 1953. As my nonna’s cousin, I grew up knowing her as my mom’s go-to malocchio healer. Her interview was quite different from the others, as my nonna and mother decided to come along. When I sat down to interview Anna, at the table with us were her daughter, my mother, and my nonna, while Anna’s husband puttered around the kitchen, preparing the snacks for later. At first, my nonna and mother made it a point to face away from Anna and I, in an effort not to distract us. However, towards the end of the interview, any semblance of formality had completely broken down as they began sharing stories, and prompting Anna, who seemed quite hesitant to respond to my questions in detail.
Michael Frisch’s idea of sharing authority is no longer a stranger to the halls of academia. As Stacey Zembrzycki writes in her book According to Baba, “in many respects, sharing authority has become both a ‘mantra’ and a black box among oral historians. Although it is often invoked, practitioners rarely offer the transparency and reflection that this imperfect process demands” (8). This is what I hope to tackle here, through this reflection. Part of sharing authority, I think, is putting yourself on the line, as a researcher. Being vulnerable, and maybe even losing that control just a little -- or a lot. Surrendering, and accepting that you’re not just playing one role here. The two key elements of storytelling are the listener and the teller -- we are both, and sometimes neither. I experienced that at Anna's table. This is what I find particularly inspiring about Zembrzycki’s work: her ability, desire, and need to discuss this delicate and difficult personal experience known as oral history.
I had high hopes for Anna’s interview. I figured she’s got a lifetime of stories to tell about malocchio. This is going to be juicy. Within five minutes, my heart sank. We weren’t on the same page and I didn’t know how to get us there. So this was dilemma number one. Dilemma number two: I get nervous when I need to speak Italian in front of older Italian people, even though I speak it quite well. I fumbled through the interview, trying to formulate my prompts, often turning to my nonna or mom for help getting my point across. Dilemma number three: interruptions. Whether it was Nicola, her husband, shouting at her from the kitchen, or my constant nervous laughter, I was starting to worry that most of my interview would be devoid of any kind of useful information. And, finally, as I wound down through my questions, and checked the time, I realized that we had only been talking for 11 minutes. Immediate disappointment set in: I didn't know what to do, I would only have 14, max 15 minutes of interview, this is not good enough. I failed. But, it’s in these moments, when you allow a small change in perspective about these dilemmas, that oral history really flourishes.
Cassandra: What is malocchio?
Anna: What is malocchio? Beh… I was taught because I always had headaches and one of my neighbours told me “Should I enchant the malocchio now?” and I told her “yes.” She did this enchantment, after ten minutes, I felt better. And then I put it in my head that I have to learn, too. So I asked this lady, I told her she had to teach me, and she said no. She told me, “I can’t now. On the 25th, on Christmas, at midnight, I can write it down for you and you have to learn it at midnight.” The 25th, Christmas. And I learnt it and I started doing it, too.
My translation from Italian
Notice how she didn’t really answer my question. So, I had to ask again. And this idea of what malocchio is kept coming up throughout the interview, where she would keep specifying: “this is how I learned, or what I learned, what I know…”. Even though malocchio can only exist through its network of healers and believers, because you necessarily need a sender, recipient, and remover, it is also an individual experience. Malocchio is a deeply personal topic. When you talk about it, you talk about your friends, your family, your beliefs, your goodness. That’s how Anna, her daughter, my mom - Elisa-, and my nonna - Lucia-, talked about it.
"And, you know, who believes, who doesn’t believe, because who am I to remove malocchio? Why doesn’t God remove it? But maybe with those words, it helps… I don’t know. There are people who tell me: “but who are you to remove it? God doesn’t remove it, and you do?” But maybe, by saying those words, it ends up removing the headache."
Anna didn’t feel like she had a power, or that she could perform magic. To her, malocchio healing was simply using prayers, naming saints. And, actually, it’s about generosity: people call you with their aches and pains, and you need to take that time out of your day to sit, focus, and help them. So why would it be bad? She later would posit. There’s good and evil in this world, Anna explained, but what she does, the way she does it, is good. She started sharing stories of people who changed their minds - they didn’t believe in malocchio, but now they call her to help their babies. The question of whether I believe or not was floated around. Antoinette, her daughter, chimed in: “She does it to me all the time, I believe in it. Before no, before I would... sometimes, I would have a headache, I would take Tylenol and it was still my headache and I would call her. So I didn’t know if it was the Tylenol and her, I didn’t know which one, whatever. Now, I don’t take Tylenol anymore. When I have a headache, I call her first.” Netta and my mom had shared stories, too - they had just been to Florida together and had to call Anna a couple of times for some long-distance healing.
But it goes beyond that, too. Everything at that table was a shared story, between the six of us. And I don’t just mean it in the teller-listener sense. I mean it in the familial sense. This was our history. “Characters” came in and out of the stories - my nonno, Roberta, zia Netta - people who I knew, who needed no explanation, who Anna (or my zizi Anna) had healed time and time again. Although zia Netta is a particular story, but I’ll let my nonna tell you that one:
Lucia: Once, zia Netta came from Italy and her head really, really, really hurt. I told her: “Zia Netta, maybe you have… do you think you have malocchio?”
“Oh, you stupid girl, where did you get this idea?! Where did you hear about malocchio?” So, I called her [Anna] without saying anything, without telling zia Netta anything. Eh, after 10, 15 minutes, half-an-hour, she started feeling better. And after, I asked her: “Zia Netta, zia Netta, how’s your head?” I told her: “Zia Netta, how’s your head? Does it hurt?
“Mah, it’s going away. It doesn’t hurt anymore.”
Cassandra: Did you tell her?
Lucia: It is true. Ya, after I told her. She said, “you stupid.”
So, zia Netta didn’t believe it, but Anna healed her anyway, much to her dismay. There was a contradiction here: everyone said that in order for it to work, you have to believe. What to make of these sneaky triumphs of their healing abilities over the non-believer then? … I don’t know. “Nothing is certain in oral story,” (Zembrzycki 18) but things are even more uncertain in malocchio.
Another playful moment between my nonna and Nicola is similar. Let’s get it straight, malocchio isn’t fun. It’s not something you want to have. But, by suggesting that he doesn’t get it anymore because he’s old, my nonna was joking that there’s no way anyone would be envious enough of him to give him malocchio. Pride hurt, Nicola simply responded: lu fanno, lu fanno. They do it, they do it.
Where do I fit in all this? I’m not a healer, and I don’t get healed very often, but here I was, at this table, the “expert”... listening to family stories? And I have to say that, once we reached this point in the interview, I was just Cassandra. Not a student, not a researcher, definitely not the person leading the interview. I was Cassandra, Lucia’s granddaughter, Elisa’s daughter, Anna’s family. And only when I surrendered to this, and took my place as the youngest family member at that table, did the stories come forward.
What do I do with this? Well, first, I accept that this was not a solo interview. Accept that it was only 15 minutes. Accept that the recorder was unwelcome. I tried to only include Anna in my paper, but that didn’t work. The other four needed to be there -- I couldn’t write them out. Second, reflect. Which, unfortunately, I don’t think I did enough of in my original paper. So that’s what I'm trying to fix now.