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Reviving Ophelia

January 15th, 2004 · No Comments

Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher sat on my desk for a while and I finally got around to skimming through it last week. So this review will be more of an overview because I didn’t thoroughly read it, rather I skimmed through sections.

Why did I skim this book, rather than read it? Curious, I had borrowed it from a friend last fall, months ago, and I felt guilty about how long it had sat on my desk. I wanted to get it back to her as soon as possible. And I also have a long stack of books piling up, so I wanted to finish it speedily.

But I also skimmed the book because it was too painful to read. The chapters were filled with stories of girls hurting and hiding. Most of them were trying to destroy themselves in one way or another, whether through sex or drugs or cutting or anorexia. Often their parents divorced, their worlds falling apart, their insides wounded deeply. Diving into each of these adolescent’s emotions and experiences was too intense for me. I would have cried too much. Simply skimming the book affected me, these young women weighing on my mind. Even now, days later, I can still see some of them: the girl obsessed with Prince, the perfectionist bulimic cheerleader, the teenager whose older brother had died in a car accident but no one had wanted to talk about it.

Pipher as a psychologist described her interactions and sessions with these girls. She described how she tried to help them. And whether her therapy was effective or not, what happened to these young women. The book was divided into chapters based on theme, by core problem – such as mothers, fathers, depression, suicide and eating disorders.

Now I think one would have to have had one’s head in the sand not to know that adolescents in America were in trouble. This book spelled out these troubles quite clearly with heartbreaking details. The pictures she painted emphasized how anonymous and alone, yet also driven and overloaded, adolescent girls were. She encouraged one girl to simply “strive to be ordinary”.

While I didn’t always agree with Pipher’s therapy – I’m not sure that doing things outwardly is always the solution to inward troubles – I appreciated the points she made. And I appreciated that Pipher realized her limitations as a “shrink” and the limitations that we all have as people: we can’t control each other. Although she would encourage her clients to make better choices, she knew that she could only help them learn the process of choosing, and also that they would be free to choose poorly.

A frightening realization I had while skimming Reviving: my own daughters are a generation removed from this book. Reviving Ophelia was written in the mid-nineties, and my girls won’t be teenagers for another ten years. So I can only imagine how it will be for them as adolescents. Wow.

While I would perceive the girls’ problems to be more spiritual in root than Pipher discussed them to be, I did think she had some good insights and advice. “Strive to be ordinary” was one I liked. Here are some quotes below…the first from a chapter where she compared her childhood to Cassie’s, age 15, and then more qutoes from chapters where she wrote about what she has learned as a psychologist from listening to her clients, and what she encourages parents to do…

Cassie’s community is a global one, mine was a small town. Her parents were divorcing, mine stayed together. She lives in a society more stratified by money and more driven by addictions. She’s been exposed to more television, movies and music. She lives in a more sexualized world…

Cassie is freer in some ways than I was. She has more options. But ironically, in some ways, she’s less free. She cannot move freely in the halls of her school because of security precautions. Everyone she meets is not part of a community of connected people. She can’t walk alone looking for the Milky Way on a summer night….

The most important question for every client is “Who are you?” I am not as interested in an answer as I am in teaching a process that the girl can use for the rest of her life….p254

Parents can teach their daughters to make choices. They can help them sort out when to negotiate, stand firm and withdraw. Then can help them learn what they can and can’t control., how to pick their battles and fight back. The can teach intelligent resistance…

I encourage the mothers to keep sharing their thoughts and values. They are planting seeds and there will be a later harvest.

Especially during this turbulent time, it’s important to have regular ways that the family can have fun together….

But even as I encourage parents to help, I admonish them to be gentle with themselves. Their influence is limited. Parents can only do so much and they are not responsible for everything. They are neither all-knowing nor all-powerful. Parents can make a difference in the lives of their daughters only if their daughters are willing to allow this. Not all daughters are. Daughters have choices and responsibilities. Friends will have an impact. The culture will have an impact.
p. 289

I like the idea of “planting seeds”. Also having fun as a family. And I appreciate her advice to be gentle with myself. We parents are not God. Our children will have to make their own choices, surrounded by a world trying to influence and impact them. As a mom I will have my limitations. I see some of them even now. I make mistakes. And I can’t make my kids do things. I can’t help them make the right choice even as a child. But I can help prepare them and teach them how to make choices. And I can pray for them.

Tags: books