Pied Pipher Child-rearing: Mary Pipher is leading a legion of parents in the fight to protect children from a harmful culture.

November 14, 1996|By Maryalice Yakutchik | Maryalice Yakutchik,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Mary Pipher doesn't do talk shows. A lone appearance on "Oprah" a while back left a bad taste in her mouth. So she refuses to spew sound bites of self-help psychobabble, even though they are the staple of the audience she most wants to reach.

Rather than use the airwaves as the medium for her message, which is all about saving families from drowning in technology, Pipher relies on the tradition of story. And it is her stories -- empathetic, amusing, painful, disturbing -- that have made her a cult figure among parents.

Pipher returned to Baltimore Tuesday night for the second time in a year to speak to a sellout crowd of 950 at the College of Notre Dame. She's introduced as a wife and mother of two. As a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lincoln, Neb. As a teacher, a radio commentator and nationally touring lecturer booked solid through 1998. And as the author of "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls," which continues to sell 1,500 copies a day after 85 weeks on the the New York Times best-seller list.

In the audience, legions of fans clutch her latest book, "The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families." For them, Mary Pipher is nothing less than a seer.

The seer herself is unfailingly modest when she talks about what has made her such a phenomenon. In fact, Pipher attributes her success to being "ordinary."

This middle-age, middle-class woman from middle America talks with a subtle twang and admits to a penchant for porch sittin' and cloud watchin'.

She always loved writing. But she gave up on herself in high school when a teacher gave her "C" and scrawled the word "trite" on one of her stories. She didn't rediscover the joy of writing until her youngest child, Sarah, was in the third grade. She was 35 and already a therapist.

"I thought, I don't want to work any harder" as a therapist, she remembers. "I want to write."

A creative writing teacher encouraged her to write about what she knew. In the early '90s, she knew a lot of young girls. She began thinking about those who came to her for therapy, and about her own daughter, who was riding the roller coaster of adolescence. She was struggling to make sense of it when a client told her: "Everything good in me died in junior high." And "Reviving Ophelia" was born.

In it, she tells the stories of Gail, who burned and cut herself when she was unhappy; of Holly, a suicidal Prince fan who would wear only purple; of the Boyd sisters, Abby and Elizabeth, who did drugs and became pregnant as they hurled insults at affectionate and intelligent parents.

Pipher takes much the same approach in her new book, using anecdotes from her own family and others to detail a culture at war with its families.

Pipher collects stories, writes stories, encourages stories, tells stories, invites stories, inspires stories. After all, the story is how people through the ages have come to terms with their world.

"I sort of trust the things humans have done for 4 million years," she admits. "I like primal experiences."

Human interaction

Faxes, e-mail, car phones and talk shows are decidedly not primal. Despite pressure from all sides, Pipher simply refuses to buy into any of these "tools," which she describes as fixes for things that aren't broken. She advises her audiences to do the same.

"I hate talk shows," she says in an interview from her home in Lincoln. "I don't participate in or cooperate with things I think are disgusting and horrible. America has a way of turning important ideas into pablum and homogenizing ideas via their popularization on TV."

The way she wants to meet people is through her book, or in person. She requires an hour or more of their precious time (for which she always politely thanks everyone) so she can develop her ideas about their children, families and communities in all their complexity. She doesn't want anyone tuning out before she can elaborate on such sobering statements and numbing statistics as these: Children are raised by appliances. Children spend an average of 35 minutes a week with their fathers and 35 hours with the TV. Children hear up to 40 ads a day.

She doesn't want any parents' eyes glazing over with despair when she challenges them to be antidotes to advertising.

So she offers respite with a hearty helping of down-home anecdotes. She reads from her grandfather's poetry; the audience chuckles. She tells about a woman whose life changed during a domino game with her octogenarian aunt and uncle; the crowd is wistful. She relates one family's harrowing vacation-from-hell; everyone relives their own experiences.

"But the one I was gonna tell ya about is Roberta," Pipher says, as if the capacity crowd in the college auditorium is an intimate grouping around a campfire.

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