An interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena
Dr. Raeleen D’Agostino Mautner holds a Ph.D. in Educational/Cognitive psychology and specializes in self-help strategies that are both effective and grounded in research findings. She is a public speaker, the author of many Italian-themed articles and currently working on her fourth book.
L’Idea Magazine: You are a multitalented author, researcher, former university professor, radio personality, actress, and professional singer… If one wanted to define your expertise, it would be a very hard task, but let’s start with how you transitioned from teaching to the field of research leading to the work you do now.
Raeleen Mautner: My entire career, albeit multi-faceted, has really been characterized by only two themes: my love of psychology (both from an academic and self-help perspective); and my love for the Italian culture, language, and traditions of my grandparents, who influenced me greatly growing up. After over 25 years of teaching psychology across several universities, I switched over to the field of research after my husband died of a heart attack. I received a call some months after that from someone at Yale University, where a study on stress reduction in patients with heart issues was being conducted. They asked me to be the interventionist and to conduct the stress reduction sessions. It was very meaningful to me in light of what happened to my husband, so I started part-time, then was asked to work full time in various capacities over several studies that were going on at the Yale Program on Aging. From there, I was asked to coordinate a cancer study that was being conducted at our local VA hospital, working with veterans. My father was a World War II veteran, and I was honored to be a part of that team, interviewing and enrolling participants of our study. I continue to hold this position at the VA and work more in an ongoing administrative role now for that same study, overseeing the ongoings across several collaborating VA’s.
L’Idea Magazine: You once worked as a behaviorist for a hospital-based obesity program, then later for your doctoral research, conducted a large cross-cultural study, comparing Italy and the United States on body image dissatisfaction, body mass index, eating disordered behavior, and other lifestyle factors. Was this study the trigger for writing your book “Change your Mind, Change your Weight”?
Raeleen Mautner: I have always been concerned about the way our culture here in the US has idolized skinniness, to the point of driving girls as young as middle school all the way through middle age to become obsessed with losing weight and dieting. The focus was less about health than it was about appearance, and what the media presented as “normal”, was for most people unattainable. Fortunately, I think this is less the case now. We all know that while weight has an important influence on one’s health, an obsession with skinniness is not healthy, and can lead to body image disturbance (BID) and life-threatening eating disorders. While there were a number of cross-cultural research studies comparing the US to non-European countries, there was only one study that I could find that touched on this subject with respect to Italy.
On the other side of the weight and body image spectrum, when I worked as a behavioral consultant at a local hospital for an obesity program, the life-threatening issue was “morbid” obesity; which also puts people at risk for illness and premature death. For a time, I was honored to have collaborated in Italy with the renowned Dr. Riccardo Dalle Grave (A.D.A. Associazione Disturbi Alimentari), helping to translate one of his books and later giving a presentation of my own research at his Casa di Cura Villa Garda. His concept of Il Peso Ragionevole (reasonable weight) just made so much sense.
From my work at the hospital, I became immersed and further trained in a cognitive-behavioral approach to weight loss, and that was my inspiration to write Change Your Mind, Change Your Weight, which was endorsed by the late Dr. Albert Ellis, one of the founders of cognitive-behavioral/rational-emotive therapy.
L’Idea Magazine: In addition to working as a university psychology instructor for over 25 years, you had also developed workshops and presentations based on two of your self-help books: “Living la Dolce Vita” (Sourcebooks) and “Lemons into Limoncello” (HCI Books). How did you happen to write these books? Could you tell us more about them?
Raeleen Mautner: Over the years, I have traveled extensively to Italy both professionally and to visit my father’s family; and I even did some coursework there as a college student. No matter how many times I land in the Bel Paese, I am always left breathless by its beauty and its familiarity. It feels like home. It feels as if I am completing the circle left open by my grandparents who, with heavy hearts, had to leave their families of origin behind, and their precious motherland. I learned everything I know about how to really live life from the values, wisdom, and traditions they brought with them from Italy. They lived simply, serenely, and with a passion for the small pleasures in life. I wanted to share this lifestyle “blueprint” with the world, and also dig into the research to discover what made this way of life so positively affect our mental and physical wellbeing. Hence, Living la Dolce Vita was written and for a brief time went all the way to the number 2 spot on Amazon, as well as being translated into several languages.
On the other end of the spectrum of life, we all face moments of crisis, and such challenges require resilience. One morning, thirteen years ago, when my husband and I were preparing to go grocery shopping before our guests would arrive for lunch, I came out of the shower and found him unresponsive on the floor; having suffered a sudden heart attack. I could barely breathe from the horror of trying desperately to resuscitate him until the ambulance could arrive yet knowing the life had already been drained out of him. He was my childhood sweetheart and the only life I knew. My way through grief and recovery was heavily influenced again by what I observed when members of my Italian family were affected by loss, and also from the wisdom of ancient Roman and contemporary Italian philosophers. Lemons into Limoncello came from my own exploration of Italian-inspired resilience.
L’Idea Magazine: Always on the line of self-help books, you are now working on something of a departure—a series of Italian-inspired lifestyle gift books. Can you tell us more about that?
Raeleen Mautner: The world of book publishing, as you know, has been changing and evolving. While my previous self-help books were pretty traditional in format, I am finding that readers are asking for beautifully illustrated books that are shorter and even more inspirational. I am working on a series now to address that need. After a long and often isolating past year and a half due to the pandemic, readers want to be refreshed and comforted. What could be better than beautiful thoughts and ideas inspired by the Bel Paese?
L’Idea Magazine: You won BroadwayWorld.com’s 2017 “Best Actress in a Professional Musical” award in your state of CT. How did that come about?
Raeleen Mautner: I have been involved with acting and local theater since High School, then for many years put that part of my life aside while I tended to school, raising a family, working, and so forth. Several years ago I came across a tiny ad for auditions at the Windham Theatre. They were planning to put on a play by the illustrious Italian American playwright, Joe DiPietro. It was a delightful play about finding love later in life. I auditioned and was chosen to play the Italian American sister, Rose. That is when the acting bug hit me all over again, after receiving many accolades for my performance. I then auditioned for a professional musical theater called Pantochino. Bert Bernardi, an amazingly talented playwright, had just written a delightful play, based on his own Italian American family, called “Noni Cimino’s Kitchen”. I was chosen to play Noni, which won me that award. It was so much fun!
L’Idea Magazine: You’ve won several awards across the years. Which one is the award that you received that touched you more, emotionally?
Raeleen Mautner: Each award is always a humbling experience and great honor for me; but all in all, the awards recognizing the work I do for the Italian American community make me proudest because I know they would affirm all that my hard-working immigrant grandparents came to America for—to make a difference and contribute to the well-being of others.
L’Idea Magazine: You were an on-air radio talent for 7 years; hosting and producing two talk radio shows at WNHU (University of New Haven station): “The Art of Living Well,” and “The Italian Art of Living Well.” Is this in any way related to your psychology background? Did you interact with listeners in these programs?
Raeleen Mautner: I produced and hosted those two shows when teaching psychology at the University of New Haven. That is where the studio was located. The Art of Living Well was really a call-in show with self-help tips and interviews with guests who were motivating and had their finger on the pulse of what it takes to live well. After that, and at the same time writing a weekly column for The Italian Tribune, I changed the theme of the show to The Italian Art of Living Well. Again, this was an interview show where I highlighted Italian Americans who are doing great things in the world, such as Dr. Manny Alfano founder of the One Voice Italian American Coalition; Ted Grippo, attorney and founder of AIDA (American Italian Defense Association), TV host and chef Lidia Bastianich, PBS host of Ciao Italia, Mary Ann Esposito, the wonderful tenor/crossover singer Michael Castaldo (whose song “Calabrisella Mia” became the show’s theme song), novelist and Italian enthusiast Mary Donnarumma Sharnick, Stephen Spignesi, author of The Italian 100 (and many other books), Professor Joseph Luzzi who authored a book on his journey through grief with lessons he learned from Dante—and so many many more wonderful guests who I apologize in advance if I haven’t mentioned them. This too was a call-in show and I received a great deal of positive feedback for this format.
L’Idea Magazine: Let’s talk about your experience with periodicals. You wrote two columns for ‘The Italian Tribune;’ one based on Italian lifestyle and the relevant research; another an advice column. You also contributed to ‘America Oggi’ and published articles in ‘Psychology Today,’ ‘eDiets.com,’ ‘Italian America,‘ ‘Quirks Market Research Journal,’ and the Sunday Travel Section of ‘The Chicago Tribune’; apparently a much-diversified readership. What were the main topics of these various articles? Are they always related to self-help?
Raeleen Mautner: All the above, except for the eDiets articles, were topics that involved the Italian culture in some way. That has always been where my heart lies—with a focus on doing three things: helping Italian Americans to enrich their lives by reconnecting to the traditions of their ancestral roots; to combat the negative stereotyping of Italians and Italian Americans–which is still prevalent in this country; and to help educate and entertain all who do not have Italian roots, but who nevertheless love Italian culture.
L’Idea Magazine: Could you tell us more about your blog “The Dolce Vita Lifestyle”?
Raeleen Mautner: I had two previous Italian-themed websites, which, unfortunately, I had deleted during the pandemic. I thought I would put my pen and notebook away for a while and reflect on what I wanted to do next. With some trial and error, it became clearer that once bitten by the writing bug, it lies forever like a flame that must eventually be fanned, even if you try to walk away. I believe that writing is a passion that is deeply rooted in all of us—whether writing for publication or just journaling to get personal clarity.
L’Idea Magazine: You have been described as “a gifted international keynote speaker who received outstanding reviews” What are the topics of your presentations?
Raeleen Mautner: I love public speaking as I am an educator at heart. While I loved teaching my students at the university, my adult audiences don’t require that I correct exams, term papers—or even take attendance. It is a more relaxed setting and those who attend really want to learn about the topic, without fear of being graded!
My many presentations have included La Dolce Vita—Bring the Passion, Laughter, and Serenity of Italy Into Your Daily Life; Lemons into Limoncello/Resilience After Loss; Cognitive-Behavioral Weight Loss Techniques; Negative Italian Stereotypes and How to Combat them; Why We Need to Keep Columbus Day Alive; How to Find Love, Italian-Style; 10 Simple Keys to a Happier Life based on the principles of Positive Psychology; and Aging Happy in an Ageist Culture.
L’Idea Magazine: How much have your Italian roots influenced your personal life and your career choices? How strongly do you feel about Italianità, the feeling and realization of being Italian?
Raeleen Mautner: Much of this I have already addressed, but I think it is clear to anyone who knows me that my italianità is the motor behind my creativity and is the theme of my life. It influences every aspect of my life—from the way I eat to the way I dress, to the way I think and handle relationships—and to the way I embrace the joys of life as well as knowing how to “arrangiarmi” when life gets tough.
L’Idea Magazine: Have you visited Italy many times? Which one is the city that you found more fascinating for you?
Raeleen Mautner: I have visited Italy from top to bottom and find that I am fascinated with every single part of the Bel Paese. I love the different dialects, the local cuisines, the diversity of its population and ideas, amidst an approach to life that endures through the decades. The genius, the artisanry, the dignity of its people, the spirituality—all of this is Italy to me, despite the shortcomings that many of its inhabitants rightfully complain about. How can one choose? Just walking along the cobblestone roads so rich in history and seeing the aqueducts built over the course of 500 years by Roman soldiers—still an engineering feat that astounds us to this day—every part of Italy is unique and special.
L’Idea Magazine: If you had the opportunity to meet and talk to someone from the past or the present, who would that person be and what would you ask?
Raeleen Mautner: I wish I could meet every person of my Italian ancestry, going back to the beginning of time. I would love to ask how they lived, how they got through their challenges, and what wisdom would they have for me that would help me live the best life I could.
L’Idea Magazine: Do you have any special projects that you are working on?
Raeleen Mautner: Besides the series of gift books I am working on now, I am also a professional singer, and front a wonderful Italian American band called “Enterprise”. It was founded by Aldo Signorello, who was born in Sicily and started the band when he emigrated here. His brother Dino plays drums. It is so much fun to sing the Italian songs my mother and I used to listen to, as well as perform more contemporary Italian and English language songs. I love the idea of helping to keep this music alive.
L’Idea Magazine: Any special dreams?
Raeleen Mautner: I feel I have achieved so many of my dreams and have been blessed in so many ways, despite several hardships along the way. And of course, as someone with a behavioral science background, instead of letting my dreams remain as such, I turn them into goals and plot out the steps necessary to achieve them. Next goal? Perhaps to live part of the year in Italy and part here after I retire someday from my full-time position at the VA.
L’Idea Magazine: I know that you have such a diversified curriculum that this question may sound silly, but do you have any other interests? Traveling, maybe? Do you cook Italian style?
Raeleen Mautner: During the pandemic, I decided to “reconnect” with some of the instruments I used to play rather well, but then after decades of neglecting them, I barely knew where to begin. I am talking specifically about the piano and guitar, which I am starting to re-learn, and along with those, I am trying my hand at songwriting!
I cook Italian style and for years have followed a traditional Mediterranean Diet. As of late, with new research coming out on the health benefits of a Whole-Food Plant-Based style of eating, I have given my traditional cooking a vegan twist. One of my forthcoming books will highlight some of the recipes, and your readers may even come across them in an article or two for l’Idea Magazine.
L’Idea Magazine: If you had to define yourself with three adjectives, what would they be?
Raeleen Mautner: Hard-working, compassionate, and definitely Italianissima!
L’Idea Magazine: A message for our readers?
Raeleen Mautner: The “good” Roman Emperor, Marco Aurelio, in his Book of Meditations, listed all the people in his life who had a profound impact on shaping him. From his grandfather, for instance, he learned good morals and how to govern his temper. From his mother, he learned piety and simplicity of living. From his great grandfather, the importance of having good teachers, etc. I would like to inspire our readers to reflect on the wisdom of their own ancestry and of the people who influenced them the most in life—whether in a good or bad way. Then think of how they might take these important lessons and use them to enrich their own lives and the lives of those around them, in a positive and productive way.