An Interview with Nadia Natali, Author of Stairway to Paradise

Nadia Natali is a clinical psychotherapist and dance therapist, and author of the book Stairway to Paradise: Growing Up Gershwin.

Growing up as Frankie Gershwin’s daughter, the sister of George and Ira Gershwin, was quite a challenge. I didn’t have the perspective to realize that so much unhappiness in a family was out of the ordinary. But I knew something was off. My mother was often depressed and my father was tyrannical and scary, one never knew when he would blow up. I learned early on that I had to be the cheery one, the one to fix the problems. Both sides of my family were famous; the Gershwin side and my father who invented color film. But even though there was more than enough recognition, money, and parties, I understood that wasn’t what made people happy.

As a young adult adrift and depressed I broke from that unsatisfactory life by marrying Enrico Natali, a photographer, deeply immersed in his own questions about life. We moved into the wilderness away from what we considered as the dysfunction of society. That’s when we discovered that life had other kinds of challenges: flood, fire, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and bears. We lived in a teepee for more than four years while building a house. Curiously my mother never commented on my life choice. She must have realized on some level that her own life was less than satisfactory.

Enrico had developed a serious meditation practice that had become a kind of ground for him. As for me I danced. Understanding the somatic, the inner body experience, became my way to shift the inner story.

We raised and homeschooled our three children. I taught them to read, Enrico taught them math. The kids ran free, happy, always engaged, making things, and discovering. We were so sure we were doing the right thing. However, we didn’t have a clue how they would make the transition to the so-called ‘real world.’ The children thrived until they became teenagers. They then wanted out. Everything fell apart for them and for Enrico and me. Our lives were turned upside down, our paradise lost. There was tragedy: our son lost his life while attempting to cross our river during a fierce storm. Later I was further challenged by advanced breast cancer.

It was during these times that I delved deeply into the somatic recesses of myself. I began to find my own voice, a long learning process. I emerged with a profound trust in my own authority. It became clear that everyone has to find his or her way through layers of inauthenticity, where a deep knowing can develop. And I came to see that is the best anyone can offer to the world.

Enrico and I still live in the wilds of the Lost Padres National Forest, a paradise with many steps going up and down, a life I would not change.

Read on for an interview with Nadia Natali.

S.R: What inspired you to write Stairway to Paradise?

N.N: A good friend who teaches writing at UCLA said to me, “You have such an interesting story to tell you ought to write a memoir.” Her suggestion confirmed an impulse I had been holding, which was to write how being part of such a famous and wealthy family was completely at odds with my finding a wholesome life and the challenging journey I took to find it.

I joined my friend’s weekly writing group and found it daunting as I listened to the other professional writers read their pages. After months of feeling painfully inadequate I stopped participating and wrote the rest of the book at home. Luckily my friend was very encouraging and without all those listeners I realized I was better off working on my own.

Even though it took several years to write, Stairway to Paradise: Growing Up Gershwin, I felt I had a hand at my back that pushed me through the whole process. It was hard work but for me there was little or no resistance. I guess you really need to want to do it; if there is any doubt I imagine the process could be agonizing.

S.R: Memoirs by nature are very revealing and require a lot of deep digging. What was the biggest challenge in writing your memoir?

N.N.: There were times I felt an uncomfortable sensation in my belly as I wrote challenging parts of my story. I believe my belly was telling me that what I was writing was either not genuine or off center. My desire to be authentic pushed me to rewrite whatever was necessary to go a to deeper level that allowed both authenticity and integrity. Sometimes the sensation was there and I had no idea why but I had to rewrite until it disappeared.

S.R.: How has living in the wilderness with Enrico changed and shaped your perspectives?

N.N.: Enrico and I attempted to create a wholesome place in the wilderness, a nourishing place where we raised and homeschooled our three children. They were cheerful, inquisitive, and flourished. Nevertheless we knew they were going to have to fit into society later and we didn’t know how to prepare them. The kids eventually went on to high school and struggled to adjust to the ‘real’ world. Living in the wilderness was out of sync with society and perhaps not the best way to raise children who were going to have to find their own way. However I imagine I would do it again as it has been such a remarkable and rich life for all of us.

S.R.: What do you hope readers take away from your book, Stairway to Paradise: Growing Up Gershwin?

N.N.: One may believe genius, fame, and wealth bring happiness. That was not my experience. My mother, sister of George and Ira Gershwin, and my father who invented color film were the primary models in my childhood. Growing up with such talent as I did, I learned early on that it distorts values. That was my first lesson. The next was how to find my own truth. That journey took me inward to body sensation, my inner experience, rather than looking to authority or others for answers. The third and perhaps most important, was how I found my boundaries, my authenticity and my voice, which led me to find a meaningful way to help others.

S.R.: What are you working on next?

N.N.: Currently I am finishing a second cookbook, Zafu Kitchen, offering alternative choices in each recipe for gluten and dairy free diets. I am also considering writing a book about my work as a dance psychotherapist.

Nadia Natali, author of the memoir, Stairway to Paradise: Growing Up Gershwin, published by Rare Bird, Los Angeles, 2015, and The Blue Heron Ranch Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from a Zen Retreat Center published by North Atlantic Books, Berkeley CA, 2008, is currently working on a second cookbook titled Zafu Kitchen Cookbook

Natali, a clinical psychotherapist and dance therapist, specializes in trauma release through somatic work. She earned a master’s degree from Hunter College in New York City in Dance/Movement Therapy and completed another masters degree in clinical psychology with an emphasis in somatic psychology at the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute. Nadia is a registered practitioner of Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy (RCST) and is also a certified Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP) who trained with Peter Levine.

DanceMedicine Workshops is Natali’s creation where participants move through their trauma with dialogue and dance. She also offers the Ojai community, DanceMedicine Journeys. In addition to her private practice, Nadia and her husband offer Zen Retreats at their center.

Born into a famous family that was riddled with dysfunction, Nadia Natali made the choice to turn her life inside out and step away from fame and fortune. Against her parents’ consent she married an artist and moved to the remote wilderness in California. It was there that she found grounding as she and her husband raised and homeschooled their three children and opened a retreat center. As she gathered her own momentum, she enrolled in a doctorate program finally becoming a clinical psychotherapist specializing in psychosomatic work. She and her husband live in Ojai California.

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