Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia:
Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls was an influential book that captured
the concern about the plight of young women in our society, at risk for eating
disorders, abuse by boyfriends, stormy relationships with parents, teen
pregnancy and mental illness. Many people found that this picture of young
women fit with their own experience and they believed that it showed the
alarming state of our culture in the USA. It also raised some controversy,
with some critics arguing that it exaggerated the problems of young women and
played into a victim culture. They charged that in fact young women are less
fragile and vulnerable than such a book suggested. Indeed, people such as
Katie Roiphe in The Morning After argued that life is full of dangerous
situations and it is a mistake to try to protect young women from such dangers
because this would make life bland. But those who defended this movement
linked it to the conscious-raising movement of the 1960s feminism and the
struggles of the women's movement. They argued that sexism that affected women
also affected girls at school in ways that had not previously been noted.
Cheryl Dellasega is certainly a
strong believer in the Ophelia movement, and in her preface she explains that
her own experience of her stormy relationship her daughter confirmed the
message of Mary Pipher's book. She decided that it would be very valuable to
tell the stories of mothers like her who try to help their daughters, and that
was her inspiration for putting together the stories of women in Surviving
Ophelia. After she sent out a call for submissions, she was overwhelmed by
the response. Many mothers had gone through hell trying to help their
daughters and were very happy to be able to share their experiences.
Reading through this book (or
listening to the audiobook) gives the reader a sense of the desperation of
these mothers who find their daughters' behavior so mysterious and upsetting.
The girls are self-destructive and go against they were taught when they were
younger. Story after story shows the problems these families go through, and
one gets a strong impression of the helplessness of the mothers as well as the
mixed feelings of sympathy and anger they have towards their daughters.
There are some hopeful stories
here, and readers may get comfort from knowing that other families had similar
difficulties to their own. It is possible that some readers may learn some
helpful ideas from the stories that end well. But for the most part the book
is pretty depressing and occasionally one feels frustrated with both the
daughters and the mothers. Maybe this reaction is unfair, but it is
nevertheless a common response to hearing 8 hours of people telling their
troubles. One also gets a strong sense that many of the girls here had major
psychological problems, so while the stories are framed as particularly
concerning the sexist culture of the modern world that puts pressure on young
girls, in fact the problems are more to do with the lack of support for
adolescents with mental illnesses rather than sexism per se. Personally I
don't find books such as these helpful or particularly informative, but clearly
some people will find it some kind of solace.
© 2004 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also
editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.