"When our cultural heroes are scoundrels and takers we produce scoundrels and takers. When we idolize victims, we produce them. In a healthy society, the main stories are about exemplars. Our culture is filled with such people, but their stories are rarely told. We need more stories about sacrifice, loyalty, kindness, and strength through adversity. We become what we tell ourselves we are."
--Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia
"Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls" is an excellent book written by Mary Pipher, Ph.D. and published in 1995. It is essentially an endeavor to understand the young woman’s experience in today’s overwhelming society pressures. Pipher offers a copious amount of caseloads she has dealt with in her practice, and while she offers no panacea to their troubles (of course there is none), she makes keen observations, sheds light on the multitude of problems young adolescent girls must face, and offers readers (namely parents) insight on ways to deal with particularly difficult situations.
Mary Pipher practices in Lincoln, Nebraska and has been for over two decades. She received her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from Berkely in 1969 and her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Nebraska in 1977. She also has several other books to her credit, all focusing on women and families.
Why does Pipher call the book "Reviving Ophelia?"
Ophelia, a tragic female character from Shakespeare's "Hamlet," goes crazy and drowns herself in a river after breaking under the pressures of what is expected of her as a woman, and not being capable of handling the tortured Hamlet, whom she loved. She represents the calamitous end all young women could face. To revive her would be to restore the healthy woman she once was, and the book is an attempt to revive and restore the selves of young girls today.
Pipher primarily emphasizes the detriment that today’s “dangerous, sexualized, and media-saturated culture” has on girls and the pressure put on them to be thin, beautiful and sophisticated. She notes when the impact of the media and peers begins to become most significant, which is usually around the age of 12 or 13. Pipher writes about how most pre-adolescent girls with normal upbringings are smart, loud, happy, often tomboyish and seemingly completely “together” until they hit their early teens. The pressures that surround them in school and attack them through all forms of the media are often too much for someone so young to handle appropriately. They can misinterpret what they see, which often leads to early sexual activity and drug and alchohol abuse.
Pipher breaks the book up into manageable sections. There are several chapters that focus mainly on the mother-daughter and father-daughter relationships common today and what affect these relationships have on a girl. Other chapters concentrate on particular issues such as depression, sex, drugs and alcohol, violence, and eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
“To totally accept the cultural definitions of femininity and conform to the pressures is to kill the self. Girls who do this are the “Muffys” and “Barbie dolls” with hair and smiles in place and a terrible deadness underneath.”
Pipher refers to adolescent women early in the book as “saplings in the storm.” She stresses their delicate impressionistic natures and how crucial the family role is in their lives. The high rate of divorce in modern society is noted as one of the problems they must deal with, but Pipher does not place blame on unwed mothers and fathers and in fact cites examples of relatively healthy girls who are brought up in single parent households. She points out that different girls will flourish under varying circumstances, and that virtually all of them will experience difficult teen years regardless if their parents are “perfect” or not.
I greatly appreciated and admired Pipher for never pointing a finger at parents, the children, or at men. She discusses how much more sexual young boys act today towards their female peers, as opposed to what she experienced in the 50s. Although sexual harassment towards girls in middle school and high school has become far worse than in the 50s, she notes that young men are just as vulnerable to society’s pressures and they are simply acting on their own influences on what it means to be thought of as cool and to be “a man.” She does waste ink on blaming them or our culture’s misguidance, but rather focuses on each individual girl’s problem and what they can do to better their role in the world.
One particular revelation of Pipher’s I found interesting was what the long-term effect usually ended up being on girls with family upbringings that took opposite ends of the child-raising spectrum. She expounded on a number of cases where girls were brought up in either an extremely strict (but loving) household and those who experienced a very free- but also loving- upbringing. Generally speaking, girls who had strict (and often religious) parental guidance had less problems in their teens, but grew up to be far less self-realized as adults. She cited instances where women that had strict rules and guidelines early on got through those tough years more easily because they were more forced to follow the path set for them, but would come to Pipher much later on to find themselves lost on who they were and whether they were living lives that were truly “them.” On the other hand, teen girls who had more freedom to experiment had far more difficult teen years, but very often grew up with a sound mind and heart, knowing themselves better because they were able to seek it out for themselves. The risk of course in having a freer youth is the chance of them falling into irreparable situations; i.e. pregnancy, damaging drug and alcohol addictions, or even suicide.
The most important factor in whatever family upbringing a girl receives, however, is how much love they’re shown by the family. Explicated cases in Reviving Ophelia showed time and time again how essential love and respect is for them to receive. Pipher watched a range of parental types that come to her office not understanding the rage and hurtful hate their once loving adolescent girl is suddenly throwing at them. They often feel like they did something wrong, are not sure how to handle their child’s shocking behavior, or have been reacting poorly to the confused child’s assault. Pipher explains how all teens will strike out no matter how “wonderful” the parents are, and that it’s important to set rules and perhaps use punishments, but that whatever happens to show them unconditional love.
I found this book incredibly engaging on a personal level, having experienced a tumultuous adolescent life through the 90s myself. Pipher talked about subjects I experienced and none were particularly shocking, but I know that parents could find it quite enlightening and informative. I found one particular case I could relate to and felt better reading about her similar circumstances, and I felt more at ease after getting an informative overview of young girl modern life as a whole. I empathize more now with young women who are very different from me and think I have a greater understanding of their plights.
The book is at times harsh, though, particularly the section on rape and violence. Pipher’s involvement in cases where girls were brutalized—especially one case where a young healthy girl was gang raped—upset and angered me. Pipher helps this girl and all the others who enter her office with a patient attitude and an admirable proficiency—she is living proof that a psychologist can truly assist sometimes, and that there are quality doctors available. She was not able to help every single client in the manner she wanted; not every case has a nice ending—but such is the way of the world and it only reinforced Pipher’s professionalism to admit this and use those instances in the book for the greater edification of readers.
This is a book that can be beneficial for anyone to look at.