Reviving Ophelia – Book Review

Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls

Mary Pipher (1995, 2005)

To Pipher, teenage girls occupy a lost, dead, chaotic world. “Girls know they are losing themselves. One girl said, ‘Everything good in me died in junior high.’ Wholeness is shattered by the chaos of adolescence,” Pipher begins. Girls are a miasma of “eating disorders, school phobias, self-inflicted injuries… great unhappiness… anxiety… a total focus on looks.” They are “moody, demanding, and distant… elusive… easily offended… slow to trust… sullen and secretive… depressed… overwhelmed… symptomatic… anorexic… alcoholic… in a dangerous place… traumatized.” They “bristle when touched.” They are fragile “saplings in a hurricane.” And we’re not even halfway into the first chapter.

I find myself immediately sorry that Pipher has had such depressing experiences with girls and described adolescence itself as such a sad and tragic. But then, the girls Pipher sees are in treatment for problems. Then, of course, Pipher invokes the Universal Mind, a monumental conceit: “My clients are not that different from the girls who are not seen in therapy.”

How could Pipher know this? There are 19 million girls in the U.S. ages 10-19. There is no way she or anyone could know what “girls” are thinking. I could counter that the hundreds of girls I worked with for years, in programs, families, weeks-long wilderness work projects, classes, and tutoring were overwhelmingly healthy, optimistic, and happy—far from the one-dimensional mass of traumas Pipher depicts. Her gloomy characterization of a large, diverse population according to her personal experiences and lens-filtered observations involving a tiny number of girls is such a fundamental flaw that all we can really conclude is that Pipher is transferring her own dismality to girls.

None of us can know what millions of girls really think, but we can look at measures designed to probe representative samples. I’m no fan of surveys, but Monitoring the Future’s 2005 survey of thousands of teenage girls at least objectively queried a larger population designed to represent all girls—not the troubled girls in therapy that Pipher uses as her base. Monitoring the Future found that girls, allowed to respond anonymously to questions themselves rather than have a grim psychologist make claims for them, presented a much sunnier image: 70% of girls say they are happy with themselves (12% aren’t, the rest neutral), 86% are happy with their friends (6% aren’t), two-thirds get along well with their parents (19% don’t), 70% were happy with their schools (13% unhappy), 77% were happy with their lives (14% unhappy), 66% were having fun (16% not). Seven in 10 girls wanted to make a contribution to society (4% couldn’t care less), and 82% wanted their children’s lives to be better than their own (2% didn’t care). Four in five participate in volunteer work and community affairs, nine in ten wanted a job in which they could help others, and 62% exercise regularly (36% daily).

Not perfect, but not the swamp of misery, peer torture, alienation, laziness, self-fixation, and pathology Pipher and other girlphobes insist. Indeed, MTF reveals girls in a great deal of complexity, a refreshing image compared to the one-dimensional view of girls held by Pipher (“It’s totally simple what girls think,” she sniffs).

But are girls today suffering “a more dangerous world… a more dangerous, sexualized, and media-saturated culture,” as Pipher insists. “Why are girls having more trouble now than my friends and I had when we were adolescents?” Again, if representative samples of girls themselves are asked, they directly contradict Pipher’s claim that girls of the past had happier, more connected lives. Teenaged girls in the first Monitoring the Future survey (1975) were slightly less happy with themselves and their lives, less satisfied with peers and parents, and less civic minded.

A second way to assess girls’ risks today is to ask: how would we expect them to be acting if girls are, in fact, suffering mass inner turmoil, as Pipher insists? If girls are distressed, they are handling it much better than the rest of us. The suicide and lethal self-destructiveness rate among teenage girls is not only the lowest of any age or either gender (except preteen children), it has dropped sharply over the years and now stands at just one-third the rate of middle-aged women.

One human limitation we all suffer is that our heads do not contain the sum of the universe. Yet, again and again, modernity-fearing commentators seem to think it constitutes “evidence” for them to say, “I don’t remember that happening,” or, “my friends didn’t do that when we were growing up,” as if that proves such things didn’t happen. Pipher indulges the Universal Mind fallacy: “Many of us hated our adolescent years,” she says of growing up in Nebraska in the 1960s, “yet for the most part we weren’t suicidal and we didn’t develop eating disorders, cut ourselves, or run away from home.” That’s why Pipher thinks girls are in more danger today—she doesn’t “remember” girls having big problems in her youth. It’s amazing how common the universal-mind fallacy is among youth-fearing authors.

There were 18 million girls ages 10-19 in the United States in 1965. There were no measures of cutting or eating disorders back then, but vital statistics show that compared to today’s girls, those in Pipher’s supposedly protected girlhood in Nebraska in the 1960s were more likely to die from violent causes and to give birth while in high school.

Across the board, girls are generally safer today than in past generations, but there are some nuances. Girls’ self-destructive risks, at least of the lethal kind, have fallen rather sharply over the last four decades, reflected in the drop in fatal accidents. Self-inflicted deaths among girls, including suicides and accidents such as by poisoning or firearms, peaked around 1975 and have since fallen to record lows by the early 2000s—though there was a rise in 2004. The fact that traffic fatalities have fallen much faster among boys than among girls—both are down since 1965, with boys’ rates falling by 45% and girls’ by 10%–indicates more driving by girls due to their rising social status. Finally, murders of girls more than doubled from 1965 to 1980, leveled off in the 1990s, then fell back to pre-1970 levels by the 2000s. The dangers have shifted, but today’s is not a more, but a less, dangerous world for girls. Check the reviews of books by Garbarino, Prothrow-Stith, and Wiseman for girls’ real trends, which are far more optimistic than Pipher pretends.

In short, there is no tangible evidence, either cited by Pipher or substantiated in real trends, to justify her melodramatically frightening assessment of modern teenage girls generalized from the severely troubled clients she sees in her clinical practice. Nor does Pipher address the fact that girls today are doing remarkably well, given that they are coping with the most difficult parent generation on record. Their mothers and fathers—the ones Pipher insists were raised in more settled times—have set new records for middle-aged drug abuse, serious felony arrest, imprisonment, HIV infection, and family breakup.

None of the girlphobe authors address this crucial issue; all pretend it doesn’t exist. The overwhelming impression lent by their writings is that it is not real hazards to real girls than concern them most, but the repugnance authors feel for modern society and popular culture. Yet again, I agree with a lot of their revulsion, though they seem not to recognize that “popular culture” is very diverse, and girls are stronger and more capable of choosing affirming images than their worriers admit. What is inexcusable is their denigrations of girls as an easy scheme to denigrate offensive culture.

Reviewed by: Mike Males,

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