It is rarely that one comes across a book about young girls that is not merely a saga of their times, of the pain and struggles in their lives, but also takes a proactive approach to actually doing what the title suggests – Reviving Ophelia.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia struggles to please and find approval from both Hamlet and her father and ultimately she loses her sanity and her life. This is a tragedy that is not just familiar from the pages of medieval European history, but is also representative of the condition of girls growing up in modern times. The tragedy of Ophelia is not over.

The author, Dr. Pipher, is a therapist with other books to her credit: Hunger Pains: The American Women’s Tragic Quest for Thinness; and The Shelter of Each Other. Reviving Ophelia was written out of her quest for understanding the reasons behind the ever- increasing rate of suicides among young girls, the many cases of eating disorders, ‘doing drugs and alcohol’, self-mutilation and so on. As a therapist, she was bewildered by the spate of such young girls coming in for therapy, and sought out the conditions and causes that she shares with us in her book.

The book is an attempt to reveal, through the narratives of many young girls’ experiences, the reasons behind why adolescence proves to be such a period of turbulence, pain, underachievement, anger and discord in the lives of these seemingly bright, and talented girls. A few broad pointers that she stresses throughout the book are:

  • Girls today are much more oppressed than before.
  • The culture in which they are coming of age is more dangerous, sexualised, and media-saturated.
  • The culture is indeed a ‘girl-poisoning’ (sic) one.

She goes on to add that the problem faced by girls is a ‘problem without a name’ and that the girls of today deserve a different kind of society in which all their gifts can be developed and appreciated. As she states in her introduction, her hope is to generate a ‘debate on how we can build a society for them’ that allows them the space to develop as best as they can.

The author explores her questions through an anthropological point of view. She clearly sees that cultures and individual personalities intersect, even as she explores the period of adolescence – a fascinating, extraordinary time of life when ‘individual, developmental and cultural factors combine in ways to shape adulthood. It’s a time of marked internal development and massive cultural indoctrination.’

Often we have clichéd approaches to adolescents and adolescent behaviour. What we forget is that while she is growing up, the child, and later the adolescent, is largely absorbing the social norms that her interfaces with family, peers and society offer. When they feel oppressed and disturbed by these, they grow sullen. Like always, adults react to the symptoms instead of exploring the heart of the problem.

The author draws out the fact that in a male-dominated society, the dominant view of women has not changed, despite the tremendous changes that have happened in their lives. In spite of the fact that there has been a raising of consciousness due to the women’s movement; that women are working in traditionally male-dominated professions; that fathers and husbands are helping with household chores and childcare, there has been very little significant change in the status of women. While all these changes appear to amount to something, the equality seems to be mere lip service.

Dr. Pipher’s clients are American girls ranging from twelve to eighteen years of age. Each one’s story begins with entry into puberty and a life that starts to steadily go downhill: drugs, self-mutilation, sex, date- rapes and babies while still at school. As Indians we may find it hard to identify with this scenario. But the fact is that these issues are not so far away. Urban girls here, too, are highly susceptible. While this book may be about American girls, girls here too find themselves drawn into exhibiting the messages and norms that society churns out to them.

When girls enter puberty, they face enormous cultural pressure to split into ‘false selves’. Being authentic is an ‘owning’ of all experience, including emotions and thoughts that are not socially acceptable (read ‘among peers’). Since self-esteem is based on the acceptance of all thoughts and feelings as one’s own, it is a hard stage for girls. Adolescent girls discover that it is impossible to be feminine and also a mature adult. The social rules for girls are confusing. While the rules for proper female behaviour are not clearly stated, the punishment for breaking them is harsh. Girls who speak frankly are labelled as ‘bitches’. Girls who do not make themselves attractive are scorned.

The author’s narrative makes for painful, yet relevant reading. ‘What girls say about gender and power issues depends on how they are asked. When I ask adolescent girls if they are feminists, most say no. To them feminism is a dirty word, like communism or fascism. But if I ask them if they believe that men and women should have equal rights, they say yes. If I ask if their schools are sexist, they are likely to say no. But if I ask if they are ever harassed sexually at their school, they say yes and tell me stories...’

From Charlotte, a 15-year old who smoked and drank, sneaked out to drink with older kids and then began ‘making out’ with an older man, Penelope, a 16-year old who attempted suicide because her parents refused to buy her something she wanted; to Tammy, a 17-year old, whose mother who was cutting herself with a razor, or Gail, a bright, gifted, sensitive person who began to fail, made friends with dubious characters, had herself tattooed all over, pierced her nose... each narrative is placed within contexts of parenting, divorce, of social demands that are explored in depth by the author.

The learning for a reader is manifold.

While the symptoms listed are typical of that culture, the problem is not. What do we have to offer girls in India except to fit into one of the conventional streams? Where the parents are ‘progressive’ they are allowed, a brief respite of exploring careers and then the bottom line is ‘marriage’. Our acceptance of all the inequalities of this system doesn’t help the girl who is a thinking person, who is simply raring to go and conquer her world.

Adults often have convenient responses to adolescent behaviour, responses that tend to be moralistic. ‘Your clothes are provocative and that is why you are eve-teased’; ‘you asked for it.’ ‘Quit playing, stop horsing around, don’t this and don’t that... ‘This is what many Indian girls often hear. Added to this, girls have to look good: thin, tall, fair and pretty. Girls also need to be docile, dumb and attentive, and fawn on their men.

Mary Pipher talks about growing girls who are like ‘saplings in the storm’, ‘ not waving…but drowning’; ‘falling into the cracks in the system’, ‘worshipping the god of thinness’. From the psychologist’s point of view, she talks about the pressures of adolescence, the effects of divorce, of sex and education around it. She makes us aware of the great dangers of bulimia and anorexia, which are generated by the fear of fatness. And finally she makes a plea for creating a positive society that will not take away from young girls their still-budding personalities.

The relevance of the book lies in the fact that many of us adults do not know closely enough what is happening to our children or those we interact with. We do not know or understand the developmental issues, and more importantly, the social pressures (especially peer pressure) that surround the period of growing up in fast-paced urban societies.

The relevance of the book, for me, is also despite it.

For instance, it brought home quite clearly the need for a plurality of cultures as opposed to the efforts to homogenise society. The ‘All American Dream’ is problematic and so is the notion of ‘Bharatiya Sanskruti’ that is reinforced at every level: in our curriculum, in our lives, and through the media. Clearly, there is no homogenous culture and to try to enforce it is to create a society where there are almost no escape routes, except through the psychiatrist’s office and perhaps a book like this written in our own context.

The book also brought home the need for parents and teachers to engage in healthy conversations, to become sensitised to these issues of growing up, and learn about sensitive handling of perceived teenage problems. We should not make it merely the domain of the psychiatrist.

There is clearly also a need to empower young people to make life decisions that are based on their true calling rather than societal demands. Often, one finds young people helplessly caught in the web of their own conditioning.

A book like this could form part of the Essential Reading section of the staff cupboard. In fact, as I was reading it, several colleagues and class 11 girls were curious about the title and the blurb. As I roamed around school, desperately finding time, in between corrections and reports and classes, to read through the book, the number of requests to borrow the book increased. If simply the act of a teacher reading a book like this stirred up questions like ‘Why Ophelia?’ and ‘Seems very interesting, when could I borrow it?’, I wondered whether reading this and other books on such topics could generate a different quality of discussion on this crucial issue.

I would recommend this book not only for the relevance that is indicated above, but also for its rare insight into facets of American life that films, television and fiction gloss over. It is also instructive because many of our youngsters yearn to go to America to study, to earn and settle down, and they (or their children) would then have to directly face many of the issues so poignantly raised by this book.