A Conversation with Kirsten Kangelaris

Kirsten Kangelaris
Assistant Clinical Professor

Kirsten Kangelaris

First, how do you properly pronounce your family surname?  Where did it originate and does it have a particular meaning?

Do you mean “Kangelaris” or my maiden name, “Neudoerffer”? The former I took from my husband. It is Greek. His family is from an idyllic Greek Island called “Lefkada”. According to my father-in-law, it is so ancient that no one knows what it means anymore. Neudoerffer is pronounced "Noi-durf-er" and means “new villager”. It comes from my father’s family in Germany. I took my husband’s name because it was more phonetic and my patients couldn’t pronounce my maiden name. However, they really can’t pronounce Kangelaris either, so I usually go by “Dr. K”.

Your CV reveals that, in 1998, you received an A.B. Honors in Comparative Literature and German and studied for a year in Freiburg, Germany. Can you describe the most memorable thing about living abroad?

That year was incredible. My fondest memories are mountain biking in the Black Forest, traveling across Europe on a Eurorail pass, Oktoberfest, falling in love with Rome, and yummy Turkish street food. I have to confess, though, that the highlight was meeting my husband there. His family lived 5 miles from mine in Michigan and we both went to the University of Michigan. However, as fate would have it, we met across the Atlantic.

Who were the writers, German or otherwise, whom you admired at that time?

I was fascinated with literary criticism of the 20th century, and in particular with the works of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and J. Hillis Miller. The idea that language can be analyzed in a way almost analogous to science intrigued me and gave me new appreciation for how interpretation of discourse plays a crucial role in defining cultural identity and scientific progress.

In 1998, I believe, you wrote a thesis, “Mechanisms of the ‘Second Memory’ Dynamic and Holocaust Memorial in Germany Today.” What was its inspiration?

Having a father who is German, I always felt personally connected to the atrocities of the Holocaust. While living in Europe, I became interested in the ways new monuments were being designed to engage viewers in the process of memory, in contrast to conventional, more stoic monuments. A powerful example is a Nazi book burning memorial in Bebelplatz at Humboldt University in Berlin, where on May 10, 1933, 20,000 books by “un-German” authors were burned. There is now a lighted square hole in the ground covered by a translucent panel. Underneath are stacks of empty, white bookshelves large enough to contain all the books burned that day. Nearby is a plaque with the famous words of the Jewish-German poet Heinrich Heine from his 1821 play, Almansor, translated as, “That was merely foreplay. Where books are burned, in the end people will burn”. It is a very powerful effect that transcends one point in history and one generation.

Are you a good cook?  Is there a particular Greek dish that you learned from your husband’s family and would you share that recipe? 

Cooking is not my forte. I am impatient when it comes to food and want to eat as soon as I think about being hungry. As a result, most of my meals consist of spaghetti or string cheese. However, I do like to eat Greek food, and my husband’s sister makes some mean spanikopita (savory phyllo pastry usually filled with spinach and feta). I have her recipe but it will cost you.

What are your favorite family activities? What places make you happiest?

I have a two-year-old, so simple things are best. We love the beach, California Academy, playgrounds, music class, and anything that brings on those giggles. It is all about discovering the simplest things, like ocean water and wet doggie kisses.

Are you a fun Mom?  What gift would you like most to impart to your daughter?

I’m a total goofball. Although my two-year-old loves that now, it is likely to backfire when she decides she wants a “cool” mom. I would like to impart to her the courage to learn who she is and what she is passionate about. I also hope my daughter gets my talent for making up nicknames. I must say, I’m very good at that.

If a movie were to be made of your life, would it be a drama or a comedy, and what would be its title?

It would be a Kung fu movie. Life is too short for drama. I always wanted to be a sequel. The title would be “Kung Pow! Enter the Fist II: Kirsten-style”. We need more leading ladies in Kung fu movies. The part of me would be played by either Scarlett Johansson or Angelina Jolie, but not Kirsten Dunst – she stole my name.

Thank you, Dr. K!

- by Oralia Schatzman

View Kirsten's professional bio | See previous faculty interviews