The Psychosomatic Experience of Communism in România: An Interview with Pacifica’s Mădălina Bortes, A Fulbright Semifinalist

Posted by Angela Borda on Apr 29, 2021 11:00:00 AM

Untitled design (1)Mădălina Bortes, M.A. is currently at Pacifica in the Ph.D. in Depth Psychology program with a specialization in Somatic Studies. Her work covers “the psychosomatic experience of communism in România.” She has been nominated as a semi-finalist in the Fulbright program, and I’m delighted to be speaking with her.

Angela: Thank you for talking with me. How does your personal life story and background intersect with communism in România, and what inspired you to take that as your research topic?

Mădălina: It is a true pleasure. Thank you for asking me to do this. I was born in Sibiu, România, a very culturally vibrant city in the Transylvania area. It is one of those cobblestone streets, pastel-colored houses, and human-sized windows kind of a city. I was born just after the revolution, so I did not experience life in România during communism, and I did not hear about communism while growing up, there or in the U.S., which is where we moved after I'd finished the second grade. Communism was not an avoided topic, as it can be for some people; it was simply never mentioned. The absence of meaning-making, or the absence of “lustration,” as some post-communist scholars note, fascinated me. Whenever I spoke with anyone who'd experienced life in România during communism, such as my family members and their friends, I was awestruck by the great degree of flippancy they expressed about their lived experience. Everyone mentioned electricity limits, perpetually long lines, canned food for breakfast, and a lifestyle that resembled the days after a particularly severe natural disaster. However, no one seemed very affected by what they'd lived through, for ten, twenty, even thirty years; and more than this, everyone offered the same response to my naive question of how it was that they'd genuinely believed such a lifestyle was normal, was the only way of living. Everyone I'd asked said, "It was all we knew," and this greatly intrigued me.

A few months before committing to my current research project, I'd explained to a mentor that I planned to visit România during the summer of 2020 for my late grandmother's 10th year passing ceremony. Whilst there, I would collect oral histories about my grandmother and about the psychological facets of communism. I'd explained my frustration at the lack of psychological literature on the topic and my own experience of noticing a schism between the narratives about communism in the literature and my own experiences with Romanian and Romanian-American folks, all of whom seemed animated, boisterous, jovial, even—a very far cry from the depictions in the literature, and what one would expect after reading accounts of daily life in a communist nation.

This schism and the competing narratives pestered me to no end, and I could not answer any of my own questions. That very thoughtful mentor of mine, Dr. Mona Damluji, pointed out that while any immigrant-American researcher could carry out the project I'd initially proposed (which was about art-making and the lived experience of creative expression for immigrant-American artists), I was perhaps the only one who could carry out a project about the psychosomatic facets of everyday life in România during communism. I heeded her advice and leapt into the abyss that's become a several-year stay in România and a deeply rewarding project.

Angela: Your background is as a yoga instructor, and your work focuses "on nervous system health from a somatically-informed perspective." How did yoga lead you to psychology, and do you combine both aspects in your work?

Untitled design (2)Mădălina: I was very fortunate to have remarkable yoga teachers who created a sturdy container for inner-exploration through yoga postures and organic movement. Over the course of a few years, I'd begun to notice a phenomenon in every sort of yoga class I'd attended or taught: a lack of tools that one could use to integrate the rich experiences and discoveries made throughout class. Whenever trauma was involved, I felt strongly that such tools were necessary if the practice were to be used as a modality for empowerment and healing. My curiosities around conscious integration of the psychosomatic led to somatic studies, which offers the most diverse array of tools for holistic integration and a theoretical framework for making sense of (and accessing the appropriate language for) embodied experiences.

 I do combine both aspects in my work. However, since living in România, my work has shifted to a pared-down version of short nervous-system regulation classes via a project called Gather (available at

Angela: If your application to Fulbright proceeds, what will your research project look like? How do you research the experiences of people in communist România? What do you expect to find? Is the psychosomatic experience of living in a democratic society different from that in a communist society?

Mădălina: I'd applied for the Fulbright grant about a year into my dissertation research. That research will all but conclude by the time the Fulbright grant would begin. For my Fulbright research, I proposed focusing on a common facet of the post-communist experience in România: immigration. My project would involve conducting long-form interviews with Romanian folks whose immediate and close-knit family members (i.e., first cousins) have relocated to the U.S. I hope to better understand the nuances of how they navigate what is, for many, a significant change in the tapestry of their familial relationships.

Untitled design (4)Frankly, I am not sure of what I will find if I have the chance to conduct the Fulbright research. What I can say, however, is that the methodology I would employ (Portraiture) is closely aligned with Oral History, the methodology I am utilizing for my dissertation research—both involve a great deal of listening and stepping out of the way. It is quite a treat for a writer.    

As far as the psychosomatic experience of life in a communist versus a democratic society, yes, there are differences. However, there is also a great degree of similarity, which I'd not understood before beginning my dissertation research. Complacency is certainly a shared thread, however bizarre that might sound, and, interestingly, freedom. The stories I've heard through the interviews I've conducted thus far and the accounts I've read each demonstrate the creativity involved in our negotiations for freedom.

Angela: What has your experience at Pacifica been like? You have an M.A. in Depth Psychology and have opted to continue into the Ph.D. What about Pacifica called to you, and what do you find to be unique about our school?

Mădălina: I was drawn to the interdisciplinary curriculum and its thoughtful focus on praxis. For instance, my particular concentration, Somatic Studies, stipulated two summers of fieldwork as well as attending body-psychotherapy for a significant chunk of time. This offered a very unflinching (and tremendously nourishing) way of integrating the knowledge I'd grasped during my coursework, as well as the insights.

Angela: You're a talented photographer and writer. How does artistic expression inform your work on psychosomatic experiences? Or is it vice-versa that your emphasis on the somatic leads to creative expression?

Mădălina: Well, thank you. That is a very kind compliment. While I had a long-term intuitive movement practice before I began my studies at Pacifica, I had not yet started to paint, write, or even take photographs. These modes of creative expression emerged within my first months at Pacifica, and I sense that my program's focus on the living body as a source of knowledge (and direction) catalyzed and then supported what's become an ongoing practice of creative expression. Just as with my yoga teachers and mentors, I've had the great pleasure to learn from Marta Staudinger, a curator (Latela Curatorial) and painter who integrates a movement practice with painting and sculptural work. Marta has been instrumental in my development as an artist who utilizes the psychosomatic as an impetus for creative expression.

Angela: Thank you for talking with me. We at Pacifica are so very proud of your work and evolution as a scholar. We wish you the best of luck with the Fulbright!

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Mădălina Borteș was born in România in 1991 in the wake of the country’s transition to democracy. She has returned to România to conduct oral history research about the psychological facets of communism for her dissertation. While in România, she is also gathering preliminary material for a work of historical fiction centered around the six-week journey her great-great-grandfather, Petru ‘al sărac’ Filip (Petru ‘the poor one’ Filip), took from Noul Român, a small Transylvanian village, to the United States in the late 1800s, only to return to România several years later. You may find her current community service offering at



Angela Borda is a writer for Pacifica Graduate Institute, as well as the editor of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Her work has been published in Food & Home, Peregrine, Hurricanes & Swan Songs, Delirium Corridor, Still Arts Quarterly, Danse Macabre, and is forthcoming in The Tertiary Lodger and Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Vol. 5.

Topics: Connecting Cultures, somatic bodywork, depth psychology, Somatic Studies