Submerged in fear of the angry Ophelias who could lead our girls to water's edge

January 16, 1996|By Susan Reimer

When doctors told me that I was carrying a baby girl, I wept.

Not out of joy. And not out of disappointment. But out offear.

I was afraid that I did not have what it would take to teach agirl to navigate a world that was predisposed to defeat herbefore it had even met her.

The irony in my reaction, of course, is that I was predisposedto be defeated before I had even met her.

It is 10 years hence, and it is clear now that I was not givingJessie much credit, either. She appears to be built for success --a kind of human all-terrain vehicle for a world that is not muchmore friendly to women than it was when she was born.

But my relief may be premature.

Author and psychologist Mary Pipher warns of a changeling thatslumbers inside my daughter.

Inside my tender-hearted but plain-speaking swimmer-ballerina,my fight-cat, book-worm, mall-doll is a confused and angry childwho will awaken during puberty.

That secret girl will eclipse the Jessie I know and cause herto withdraw from me, to quit school, paint the walls of her roomblack, dye her hair purple, contract a sexually transmitted disease from a boy whopressures her into sex or try to destroy herself with drugs,alcohol or a razor blade.

As I turned the pages of Dr. Pipher's book, "Reviving Ophelia:Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls," I shed again the fearfultears of a decade ago.

"Reviving Ophelia," a national best-seller recently releasedin paperback, takes its name from Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Ophelia, unable to please either her disapproving father or herscornful lover, goes mad and drowns herself.

In it, Dr. Pipher, who had a kind of "Andy of Mayberry" childhood, describes the results of a growing-up quite different from the one she and many of us knew.

The young girls she treats in alarming numbers are the shattered, jaded or defeated victims of a "junk culture" that bombards them when they are most vulnerable and from which their well-meaning parents have been unable to protect them.

It is devastating reading. Certainly for Dr. Pipher's descriptions of these girls. But more so for her descriptions of their next-door-neighbor parents. These girls do not come from dysfunctional families, but from families caught completely unawares when their daughters marched off to middle school and sold their souls to the packs of conformity junkies that roam the halls there.

These are not perfect families. There are angry mothers and distant fathers and divorce. But these parents care enough for their daughters to seek professional help when the girls lay down those broad hints of teen-aged trouble: bad grades or bad attitude.

What Dr. Pipher uncovers in her therapy sessions are girls who have drowned their true selves as surely as Ophelia did. Who held their individuality, their emerging sense of self, under water until it stopped struggling.

Aggressive boyfriends, vicious, sniping girlfriends, MTV, R-rated movies, Alicia Silverstone, Luke Perry, Calvin Klein ads, rap music lyrics, Cindy Crawford commercials. Teachers who think girls aren't good in math or science. Mothers who preach equality but who can still be seen doing all the housework after a day at the office. No 12-year-old girl, whose body is awash in new chemicals and in unattractive metamorphosis, could stand long against this cacophony of messages. Is it any wonder our daughters withdraw or lash out?

What's a mother to do?

Dr. Pipher warns that we should not cocoon our daughters, even if it was possible. They would grow into frail and colorless women.

Nor can we hand over to them the reins of their young lives in the name of trust or informed decision-making. They are hopelessly ill-equipped for this. Worse, Dr. Pipher's patients saved their deepest anger for the parents they believe did not protect them from this harsh new world.

Not surprisingly, she advocates a balance, but one so delicate as to require almost daily adjustment. There must be unconditional love and acceptance of the emerging adult -- in whatever alarming form it temporarily takes.

But there must also be controls, structures, rules, limits. Flexible and occasionally renegotiated perhaps, but always in place. Your daughter cannot make the kind of choices the "junk culture" will offer her. If you are not there to lead her to safety, she will be guided by the lost children in the hallways of her school.

Snowbound, I read "Reviving Ophelia" and looked up from the pages of the book to watch Jessie play in the snow or entertain friends or do battle with her brother. I see no sign of the dark child Dr. Pipher describes. I cannot believe some hopeless, angry Ophelia will ever take Jessie's place in the crook of my arm. But neither did all the mothers of all the Ophelias in Dr. Pipher's book.

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