K's Reviews > Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls

Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher
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Jun 18, 2011

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bookshelves: professionallit, readablenonfiction, we-re-all-going-to-hell
Read from June 18 to 22, 2011

Hmmmm....very mixed feelings about this one.

Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls covers a lot of the same ground as Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student. We read about adolescent girls struggling with depression, eating disorders, self-mutilation, premature sexual involvement, etc. Both Mary Pipher and Miriam Grossman are mental health practitioners who treat these girls and view their difficulties less as individual issues than as an indictment of the high-pressure, overly sexualized, hedonistic, materialistic, narcissistic society in which they live. For all their overlap, I couldn't decide why Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls irritated me so much more than Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student did.

I hate to think that my own biases played a role here, though I have to admit they probably did. Miriam Grossman is, I believe, an Orthodox Jew like myself who shares a lot of my beliefs about traditional values and the benefits of a religious lifestyle which may be why I felt more open to her perspective. Mary Pipher, in contrast, appears to be a staunch feminist who attributes the problems she sees to a misogynistic society with unrealistic ideals for women. While I'm sure she's not entirely wrong, I found her views at times overstated and alarmist.

“Girls have four general ways in which they can react to the cultural pressures to abandon the self," says Pipher on page 43, "They can conform, withdraw, be depressed, or get angry.” Um, how about simply resisting the pressure in a positive way? Doesn't anyone do that any more? Is the world really so awful? What about all the people who come out “normal,” whatever that means? Surely some girls make it through adolescence without needing therapy for an eating disorder or self-mutilation, don’t they? Is that just my background talking (sheltered, religious, single sex schools, little contact with the opposite sex before college)? In fact, I'm aware that girls from my background can also struggle with serious issues like the ones Pipher describes but I meet a lot more girls who don't.

In a similarly monolithic statement, Mary says on page 150: “If we picture depression on a continuum, at one extreme would be severe depression with some biochemical basis and disturbed family functioning. AT the other end of the continuum would be ordinary adolescent misery [how about happiness, Mary? Why wouldn’t that be the other end of the continuum?]…Most girls suffer depression somewhere between these two extremes.”

Really? Most? Well, probably most girls in therapy which is where her information comes from. But actually, I believe there are some reasonably happy, or at least relatively contented, adolescent girls out there.

Mary also claims on page 158 that “Girls are under more stress in the 1990s.” Actually, this is debatable. In “Spin Sisters,” the author posits that women’s magazines sell the impression that women are more stressed out today when in fact, women have never had it so good. Does that apply to girls? I’m not sure, but I certainly think that a blanket statement like “Girls are under more stress in the 1990s” without research to support it should not be made in this unqualified way.

Can we examine this a little? Why are girls under more stress now than when they had to help out on the farm and couldn’t go to school? I agree that there are new, unprecedented stresses today on girls that didn’t use to exist. But is there more stress? I’m not sure. Mary herself acknowledges in a later chapter that, while many things have become more difficult for adolescent girls than they once were, other things about the world they live in are actually more flexible and positive.

Here's where the feminist agenda irritated to me and felt like a misattribution. On page 175 Mary asserts that, “They [anorexic girls] epitomize our cultural definitions of feminine: thin, passive, weak, and easy to please.” Um, isn’t this a little outdated? Is this still our cultural definition of feminine? I mean, yeah, this ideal certainly isn't dead but I wouldn’t go so far as to make the blanket statement that it, and only it, is our cultural definition of feminine. Although Piper complains, legitimately, about many movies’ sexist portrayal of women, I can also point to popular films where women are strong and tough and get for what they want by working for it, not by looking pretty.

Which brings me to another point. My husband has a great-aunt who, obviously, comes from an older generation with more old-fashioned ideals for women. So she never particularly progressed in a career; she raised four children, did a lot of volunteer work, and may have had some pink-collar job or another at some point. This woman, now in her late 80s, is lovely. She’s charming and sociable, always put together – a real lady in the true sense of the word. She’s also a happy person who doesn’t appear to feel particularly deprived or disappointed that she never became a fast-track career woman; she enjoys many satisfying memories of family and positive experiences.

I think feminism gave us many things, and like anything else, it’s not all-bad or all-good. But here is one of my problems with feminism. I think it rejected the idea of being like my husband's great-aunt. Being a lady is no longer something to aspire to; it’s considered outdated at best and repressive at worst.

Maybe we need to take a look at this. Was every woman who stayed home unhappy? Was every woman who expressed her femininity by looking good and having a social persona that put everyone around her at ease depriving herself and inevitably disappointed in her life? Why aren’t there more women like my husband's great-aunt today? Is there something wrong with aspiring to be a lady like her? Can a woman admit it if she feels this is something she would like to be? If not, isn’t feminism in its own way just as repressive as the alleged misogyny of earlier days was?

Okay, so my husband's great-aunt was pretty and spent time putting herself together in the morning. So her idea of enjoying herself included taking care of her kids, mah jongg and swimming with the girls, volunteer work, etc. So sue her. I wouldn’t describe her as thin, passive, weak, and easy to please. Easy to get along with, yes. But passive isn’t the word I would use, and neither is weak. These are pejorative, loaded terms when something more positive (diplomatic, tactful, socially adept, engaging) can be substituted. Thin enough, certainly not anorexic. Mary Pipher appears to be echoing feminist rhetoric when she claims that anorexia is an attempt to conform to feminine ideals. In fact, the ideals she describes date back to the days before anorexia. Anorexia actually became more of an issue once these ideals of femininity were challenged and, to some extent, rejected by many.

And yet, for all my gripes, I found myself agreeing with many things Pipher said. For example, her views of divorce (pp. 133-4):

“In the late 1970s I believed that children were better off with happy single parents rather than unhappy married parents. I thought divorce was a better option than struggling with a bad marriage. Now I realize that, in many families, children may not notice if their parents are unhappy or happy. On the other hand, divorce shatters many children…Of course, some marriages are unworkable. Especially if there is abuse or addiction involved, sometimes the best way out of an impossible situation is the door. Adults have rights, and sometimes they must take care of themselves, even when it hurts their children…But divorce often doesn’t make parents happier. Certainly it overwhelms mothers and fathers, and it cuts many parents off from relationships with their children. Many times marriages don’t work because people lack relationship skills. Partners need lessons in negotiating, communicating, expressing affection, and doing their share. With these lessons many marriages can be saved…So in the 1990s I try harder than I did in the 1970s to keep couples together and to teach them what they need to know to live a lifetime with another human being.”

I've seen friends and relatives struggle with difficult marriages, and I readily acknowledge that sometimes divorce is the only answer. I respect Pipher, though, for viewing it as a last resort. In fact, most of the struggling teens she describes have divorced parents, a fact which is mentioned peripherally and then discarded in favor of further diatribes about society's misogyny and impossible feminine ideals.

Pipher also echoed my ambivalence about the Haim Ginott school of parenting (p. 242):

“…parents tolerate…open anger much more readily than earlier generations would have. I’m confused about whether I was more repressed as a child or just happier. Sometimes I think all this expression of emotion is good, and sometimes, particularly when I see beleaguered mothers, I wonder if we have made progress.”

She agreed with my feelings about psychology's overemphasis on family dysfunction (p. 251):

“While Miranda [a bulimic teen] was in this program [a treatment center for eating disorders], her parents secured a second mortgage on their home to pay for her treatment. They called her daily and drove to the faraway center every weekend for family therapy…

“My first question to Miranda was, ‘What did you learn in your stay at the hospital?’

“She answered proudly, ‘That I come from a dysfunctional family.’

“I thought of her parents…They weren’t alcoholics or abusive. They took family vacations every summer and put money into a college fund. They played board games, read Miranda bedtime stories…And now, with Miranda in trouble, they had incurred enormous debts to pay for her treatment. For all their efforts and money, they had been labeled pathological.

“…Psychology has much to answer for in its treatment of families. We have offered parents conflicting and ever-changing advice. We have issued dire warnings of the harm they will do if they make mistakes in parenting, and we have assured them that they are inadequate to the task. Our tendency to blame parents, especially mothers, for their children’s problems has paralyzed many parents. They are so afraid of traumatizing their children that they cannot set clear and firm limits. They are so afraid of being dysfunctional that they stop functioning.”

And I loved some of the things she had to say about therapy and the way she works with people.

So where does that leave me? Did I hate this? Did I like it? I think if I ever had the opportunity to meet Mary Pipher, we would have a long talk and many heated arguments. But we would also agree about a lot of things. And the book was certainly readable, and though not based on empirical research, offered a large quantity of case studies to support its points and was clearly more than speculative.

So I guess I'm giving this a conflicted three stars -- one of those times when my feelings weren't neutral but rather, all over the map.
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Reading Progress

06/18/2011 page 116
38.0% "This book is really annoying me."
06/19/2011 page 152
50.0% "Way too alarmist for me, although I keep wondering if that's just because I come from a sheltered background." 4 comments
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by Reese (new)

Reese A well-written, captivating, and cogent review. And but for one (very important) fact, I would say that, despite your biases, your treatment of Pipher's book was not unfair. But since Grossman's book was published twelve years after Pipher's, I think a comparison of the two is inappropriate.


aPriL does feral sometimes I haven't read the book but I read your review with interest. I really had a dysfunctional family (extreme alcoholism , violence, poverty, mental illness) and I'm a native American citizen. There are two worlds in America: 1. Sitcom family comedies and noir dark dramas. I think when psychiatrists try to help ordinary sitcom families they are at a loss as to treatment but want the money more sometimes and otherwise see dragons when there are only little mice of mental problems there. Teens act out in both types of families but perhaps therapists only have one preferred treatment of choice or think of responses more applicable to noir families. Many therapists come from noir families. Europeans and Americans/Canadians are fortunate people since we have treatment for mental illness, unlike the vast majority of people on earth, however the small minority of American sitcom type families should stop looking for a psychiatrist to solve their normal teenager's problems. Noir families REALLY need help but rarely get it until their family problems spill out into so-called normal sitcom types. Religious homes of protected children and middle class American parents living in big mortgaged homes in suburbs are lucky people.


message 3: by K (new) - rated it 3 stars

K Thanks, Reese. I hear what you're saying about comparing "Unprotected" and "Reviving Ophelia," although I do think there's some overlap and it's hard not to consider that.

April, your points are really interesting and provocative. I'm thinking about my experience as a therapist. Since I'm still kind of in the learning stage, I've mostly worked in sliding-scale clinics where less experienced therapists working under supervision see families who can't afford more experienced private therapists. Sadly, these families' poverty is often accompanied by serious problems and they can be challenging to work with. I actually find that there's often a divide between the cerebral, theoretical material I learned in graduate school and the very basic unmet needs that need to be addressed in these families. I hear the argument that "noir" families, as you put it, have more serious needs. At the same time, something else I've learned is that pain and distress are very subjective. As a supervisor of mine once said, one family will anxiously seek therapy because a child's grades have declined and another family will be blase about a suicide attempt.


aPriL does feral sometimes Sigh. I know. It's just difficult to sympathize with people worries that a hangnail might mean cancer when you are missing an arm ( I'm not missing an arm by the way, simply using an argument). I've gone through all my life biting my tongue and remembering what you said about all pain is subjective. But I vent sometimes inappropriately. Sorry. I'd never tell a little kid with a torn knee after falling from a bike "buck up! Pull it together! Kids in a foreign country have no knees!". Let's just say sometimes it gets to me. I understand how hard it is for wartime soldiers to return to civilian life. Reading saved me but it's not true for everyone. Books like what you are describing might really help someone if not you or me.


aPriL does feral sometimes P.S. I'm a feminist, old fashioned 1970's style. Two, I took a Statistics class which totally astonished me at the larger meanings behind math predicting human behavior. I also worked for an insurance company with lots of tables predicting human behavior through math and historical record keeping. Emotions aside (pun intended as what is therapy after all) basically 20% of people in a crowd will never get fixed or cured or solved or win a lottery or graduate from high school or whatever. Now THAT'S scary! However, I think if I were a therapist, it should releave some of the pressure. Bulimia could be peer pressure related, parental abuse, head injury or genetics or personality disorder as well as our monkey brain love of physical beauty. We do the best we can, I guess.


message 6: by K (new) - rated it 3 stars

K I hear you, April. Sometimes I have a challenge in terms of bridging the gap between a client's values and mine; I've had clients come in with problems which seemed superficial to me and have wanted to tell them, do you know how others are suffering and you're worried about this? But part of my job is appreciate the pain that my clients are in even when their value system is different. Sometimes it takes effort, but if I couldn't do it, I wouldn't be a good therapist. At the same time, many existential psychotherapists (in keeping with Victor Frankl's beliefs) feel that it can be helpful to a therapy client to give them a meaningful cause outside themselves, which could mean that, on occasion, it's appropriate to help clients see the larger picture.

My feelings about feminism are mixed. I feel it gave women a lot of options they didn't have before; at the same time, not all the changes are positive. But that would be a very, very long discussion.

It's true that therapy is not always effective, and according to what I learned, the strongest factor in whether therapy will work is the client (their motivation, internal resources, etc.) over which the therapist has no control. That can be scary or empowering, depending on how you look at it.


aPriL does feral sometimes This has been a good conversation! Thank you. When can we all call you Doctor?


message 8: by K (new) - rated it 3 stars

K Thanks, April! I actually do have my Psy.D., but I took a long break from clinical work to raise my family. I am slowly getting back into it and feel relatively new even though I already did my doctoral work a while ago. That's one of the reasons I try to read a lot in the field, because I still view myself as being in the learning stage (and probably always will).


aPriL does feral sometimes Thumbs up! I'll look for your reviews.


message 10: by K (new) - rated it 3 stars

K Thanks! I look forward to more discussions.


message 11: by Skylar (new)

Skylar Burris Great review!

] "On page 175 Mary asserts that, “They [anorexic girls] epitomize our cultural definitions of feminine: thin, passive, weak, and easy to please.” Um, isn’t this a little outdated? Is this still our cultural definition of feminine? I mean, yeah, this ideal certainly isn't dead but I wouldn’t go so far as to make the blanket statement that it, and only it, is our cultural definition of feminine. Although Piper complains, legitimately, about many movies’ sexist portrayal of women, I can also point to popular films where women are strong and tough and get for what they want by working for it, not by looking pretty."

This part caught my attention, because as I was watching a children’s movie with my kids the other day, and it suddenly hit me: in the vast majority of these children’s movies, the female character is strong, smart, capable, and courageous, and the male character is bumbling, inept, and/or timid and needs the assistance of the female to accomplish the mission (whatever that may be) and improve himself. I had thought of this trend vaguely before, but it really hit me hard during this movie the other day that my son has not been exposed to that many strong, courageous, and capable male role models via television and movies. This is even true of a lot of the modern children’s books I have read as well. In some ways, it seems to me the negative stereotypes have been completely reversed rather than balanced. There are exceptions, of course, but the standard shtick these days seems to be – boys: weak, cute, and stupid; girls: strong, smart, and courageous.


message 12: by K (new) - rated it 3 stars

K Thanks, Skylar!

Really interesting point about gender roles in the media. It makes me think of what I often hear about sitcoms, how it went from "Father knows best" to mothers outsmarting their bumbling husbands to kids outsmarting their bumbling parents.

In some ways, it seems to me the negative stereotypes have been completely reversed rather than balanced.

Very well put.


message 13: by MAP (new)

MAP Gonna be honest, out of everything you wrote, and I loved all of it, it was the "not based on empirical research" that hurt me the most. I have no doubt that a lot of what she is saying is true, but I'd like it a lot more if I could see the data to back it up. ;)

Great review, Khaya!


message 14: by K (new) - rated it 3 stars

K Thanks, MAP! The book was certainly intelligent, but the emphasis on anecdotal rather than statistical data reduced it to a collection of musings and experiences in my opinion. I agree that much of what she says is probably true and has relevance beyond her therapy practice; at the same time, I could see the emotional power and immediacy of the stories overtaking a reader's instinct to be critical about the empirical validity of her conclusions.


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