The Right Person at the Wrong Time – Michela Murgia (1971-2023)

by Miriam Ronzoni on September 1, 2023


Michela Murgia: «La famiglia? È un'addizione» -

Michela Murgia – a very fine writer, and probably the most widely known feminist public intellectual within the Italian cultural landscape of the last couple of decades – died at the beginning of last month. She wasn’t very well known abroad, not even simply as a writer (her most widely acclaimed and awarded novel, Accabadora, was translated into English, and got some appreciative reviews, but that was it). I think she deserved to be, but that’s another story, and it’s now a bit too late for a celebratory obituary anyway. What I would instead like to share with you are two thoughts about how much potential the role she decided to incarnate as a public intellectual had…and yet how little it seemed to make a dent beyond the usual suspects.

Murgia was not a typical member of the intellighentsia. She was born and raised in provincial, almost rural Sardinia, in a very modest if not even poor family. As a teenager, she was taken in by by another family as a filla de ànima (a ‘soul-child’), a traditional Sardinian practice of informal adoption (more on this below). She went to a technical school; held many precarious jobs including a position in a call-centre and as an estate-agent for timeshare properties; and ended up being a religion teacher in secondary schools for several years before starting her literary career. If you listened even barely carefully every time she spoke, you could never really overlook this. And not just because she denounced the poor conditions of some of those precarious jobs in a number of public interventions and books (one of which was turned into an excellent film): Murgia went back to her Sardinian roots even when, on the contrary, she wanted to make some of her positive and most radical points. The tradition of having fill@s de ànima was, to her, one of the very first forms of unconventional, indeed queer, family models – before that idea even existed within liberal discourse. Fill@s de ànima were taken in by families other than their natural ones, often as older children or teenagers, and typically with a keen attempt to maintain the bond with the natural family (like in a permanent foster relationship of sorts). It was an extremely sophisticated informal institution, which delicately balanced different values. This was primarily done because the natural family was extremely poor, but could also happen (if still primarily in a context of poverty) because the child didn’t “fit in.” and didn’t get along with the family of origin. Murgia hinted more than once at the fact that several queer children and teenagers probably found a a way to survive thanks to the practice. Murgia’s advocacy for LGBTQ rights often ended up making references to fill@s de ànima – as a way of reminding conservatives that we should be careful when we invoke traditions in general and the “traditional family” in particular, because we might be surprised. Her point was that there are incredibly surprising, respectful, refined and careful progressive practices to be found in the places we never even look at, because we take for granted how backward they must be. A similar thing is true about the figure of the accabadora (the “finisher” in Sardinian, which shares many words and roots with Spanish) – a woman who, again according to Sardinian traditions, would be called in by families when someone was terminally ill and in great pain, to help them die in the most pain-free and dignified way possible. Again, her interventions on euthanasia never failed to make reference to the existence of this practice in rural Sardinian communities. In fairness, the jury is out on whether accabadore ever really existed – but the very fact that a culture might invent such a figure would be meaningful in and of itself.

In a nutshell, then, Murgia was the incarnation of intersectionality, standpoint epistemology, and (God forbid!) Rawslian political liberalism at the same time (she would have of course hated the latter label, she didn’t see herself as a liberal in the least). She often tried to show – and out of personal experience at that – that we do not need to dismiss our traditions to advocate progressive ideas. On the contrary, radical thoughts can be found where you least expect them.

The second feature I would like to mention is the sheer joy that permeated nearly all her interventions and public appearances. Just do a quick image search on Google, and see that contagious, mischievous smile nearly always printed on her face. And this was not a mannerism – in a way, all that Murgia ever spoke about was love. There was some bitter denunciations of working conditions in the modern world and of the official Catholic hierarchy – for a feminist intellectual and advocate there are always plenty of opportunities to be angry; but most of her work was about advocating for acceptance (of women, LGBTQ people, etc.) whilst showing that most cultures might already contain the roots for such an acceptance within themselves. Indeed, Murgia was a firm Christian believer throughout her life, and always hoped that this kind of acceptance could one day occur within the Catholic Church, as well. Even the accabadora was always portrayed (read her beautiful novel!) as a figure of love.

And yet, beyond the usual suspects – who probably would have listened to what she had to say even she had been a typical member of the intellighentsia – these features of her personality, personal story, and advocacy seem to have gone unnoticed. The conservative media never stopped portraying her through the stereotypical lenses of the bitter, angry, radical feminist intellectual with no connection to the real world. After she died, many conservative intellectuals, journalists, and politicians pointed out how sorry they felt, not only about the fact that her life was cut short before her time, but also about how “filled with hate” it had sadly been. I cannot even begin to explain how much cognitive dissonance I experience when I hear the term hate in conjunction with Murgia. Yes, she made some angry, passionate interventions on some topics. But her style was one of joy and love through and through – if with some mischief. She spent the last months of her life (whilst terminally ill) opening up to the public, with a  couple of in-depth interviews, about the nature of her own, multi-faceted, queer family (including several fill@s de ànima) – to show that it can and does work. Hate and vitriol is what she herself received from certain milieus, more like.

I don’t really know what lesson to draw from this. Maybe nothing, I just wanted to share. After all, her legacy is just starting to be built, and things could still change a great deal. Certainly, though, it is painful to realise that even the most promising, joyful, bottom-up ideas can be completely misread when the cultural, social and political circumstances are not conducive.



Maria 09.01.23 at 9:41 am

What an extraordinary and yet very ordinary woman, and what a life! I’d heard in passing of Murgia’s death, but had no idea who she was. Thank you, Miriam, for this. It is indeed maddening that the ‘anger and hate’ conservatives were determined to see was no more than a projection of their own reactions. It’s also very interesting to hear about the filla de ànima, or informal, class-crossing adoptions. We had this in our immediate family and as it doesn’t fit in modern, progressive categories, I’ve never known what to call it and rarely mention it to others (though our links are lifelong and into the next generation). Murgia’s insistence that traditions and practices like this precede both conservative ideologies of patriarchy and progressive interventions seems very valuable indeed.


Cranky Observer 09.01.23 at 11:30 am

This is a beautiful description of a person’s life – thank you for writing and sharing it.


CarlD 09.01.23 at 4:40 pm

Thank you for this. There’s sort of a type, ranging from Gramsci to Pirandello to the Taviani bros and Ferrante. They’re emergent from the same contexts that produce their fiercest critics.

And we do hate injustice, intolerance, bigotry, cruelty, hierarchy. In a structural way of course, hating the sin but not the sinner. It’s diagnostic of non-standpoint epistemologies to treat these contingent and morally optional qualities as fixed essences, so of course if we hate them we must also hate the persons who embody them. I bet Murgia understood this, but what to do about it is a wicked problem..


Ray Vinmad 09.02.23 at 2:08 pm

I cannot believe I have never heard of this wonderful person! Thank you for telling me about them. As someone raised in religion by people opposed to forms of social oppression, struggling so hard to maintain both things, I need to read her! So thank you. I don’t read Italian. I will look for her novel first.

Possibly the ascription of hatred to Murgia was the type of projection we often see with the right wing, especially racists, misogynists, antisemites, homophobes and transphobes.

When it comes to persecuted or oppressed people, they regularly see those people as hateful, no matter what they say or what they ask for.

It might be for a couple of reasons 1) They can only conceive of social relations as the type of hierarchy where someone loses and someone wins. They don’t trust the idea of equality. So they assume the losers will always hate the winners. 2) They think about what THEY have done to and felt towards oppressed people, and they simply imagine the reverse. “I have a strong desire to see Black people controlled and harmed. Therefore, they must have a strong desire to see me controlled and harmed. I hate gay people. Gay people must hate me. “

I just saw a meme on Twitter, ascribed to some Black person, whose name I don’t remember, to the effect that objecting to racism and sexism is hateful and people who experience racism and sexism, if their objections are acknowledged, will then go on to oppress other people (white men, I suppose) with the same fervor they were oppressed with.

But this is absolutely cracked. There’s no 500 + year (or millennia crossing, in the case of sexism) ideology of inferiority about white people, men, etc.. We don’t have a whole conceptual and affective cultural architecture designed to strip white males of dignity and humanity. If some people are irked or resentful about the treatment they have received at the hands of other people that were backed by racism or sexism, there’s no huge arsenal of tools that can be marshaled to keep the white person ‘in their place.” And of course, we don’t have to re-build one to get rid of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. because these were built to underwrite slavery and women as property. People of different social identities can simply be equals, just as people can be equals within a social identity. This should be obvious to everyone but somehow it is not.

There’s an amazing amount of fear towards people pushed to the bottom of a social hierarchy when they speak out, even when those people don’t have access to the special kind of power that enables coercion like wealth or political supremacy, but are merely relying on moral suasion to protect themselves and others.

I sometimes wonder if this fear is not connected to unconscious guilt, and fear of consequences for the bad things that have been done to oppressed people over the years.

As an example, ‘transgender activists’ (which always turns out to be anyone who simply regards transgender people as regular people, deserving of rights and equality or anyone transgender who objects to the loss of their rights or poor treatment) are always described as ‘hateful extremists’ by people trying to strip them of their rights.

Sometimes this rhetoric is merely a strategic way to strip legitimacy from a person’s claim to dignity and equality. But people seem to actually believe it, even though it is absurd.

Anyway, I do not claim these speculations explain why they have said these false things but I was struck by how perplexed you are that anyone could see her as hateful, and I think most of this IS perplexing if you do not have this particular world view. If you do have this world view that there are inferior people and they must be kept in their place there’s a lot going on in your head that makes you unable to hear what those people are actually saying and doing. They simply cannot hear or see the reality of other people through the lenses they have on.


Adam Swift 09.02.23 at 6:51 pm

Thanks Miriam. I confess I’d not come across her until reading this but thanks to what you say here I’m going to read Abbacadora (in English translation I’m afraid).


Ingrid Robeyns 09.03.23 at 9:32 am

This is so beautiful and sad at the same time. I’m really glad you wrote this post, Miriam. It seems like the world owed more recognition and gratitude to Murgia.


Miriam Ronzoni 09.04.23 at 9:10 am

Hi Ingrid,
To be fair she did very well for herself in many “classical” respects. She was very prominent and was seen as one of the key intellectual figures of “the left”. Her books won awards, were made into movies, and she was a very visible and popular media and radio personality in intellectual and progressive circles.
The issue I was raising is more that she had the potential to be more than that, given the features I described – to have a breakthrough beyond the “usual suspects.”


Miriam Ronzoni 09.04.23 at 9:11 am

Thanks! Also, I think one of the best comparisons for Murgia is actually Pasolini!


Miriam Ronzoni 09.04.23 at 9:12 am

Thanks Adam, please do drop me a line and tell me what you thought of it when you have!


Miriam Ronzoni 09.04.23 at 9:13 am

Thanks Ray!

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