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'Reviving Ophelia' Turns 25


In the early 1990s, therapist Mary Pipher noticed a disturbing trend. More and more of her patients were teenage girls, and they were coming to her with serious issues - eating disorders or the desire to self-harm, alcohol and drug use, harmful sexual experiences, intense conflict with parents - and their parents had no idea how to help. As a psychologist, Pipher met with patients and did more research, and she concluded that teenage girls had been overlooked by the field of psychology. And she became convinced that there was something about the changing American culture that was creating a crisis for girls, so she wrote a book about it.

"Reviving Ophelia: Saving The Selves Of Adolescent Girls" was published in 1994. It spent the next three years on the New York Times bestseller list as worried parents reached for a lifeline to help them understand their daughters. And now, 25 years later, Mary Pipher has released an updated version of the book for girls and parents today. And she wrote it with her own daughter, Sara Pipher Gilliam, who was a teenager when the original came out. And both Mary Pipher and Sara Pipher Gilliam, a former middle school teacher, join us now to talk about the updated book. Mary is with us from Lincoln, Neb., and Sara is in Ontario, Canada.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

MARY PIPHER: We're happy to be here, Michel.

SARA PIPHER GILLIAM: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: OK. Mary Pipher, I'm going to start with you. You've had 25 years to think on this question. What do you think it is that made your book such a hit when it first came out?

PIPHER: What I think was happening in '94 was teenage girls were crashing into a sleazy, toxic culture that nobody understood very well - neither parents, educators, professionals nor girls. And, for example, the suicide rate had gone up 500% since the '50s, and nobody really could explain that. The theory at that time was the dysfunctional model - if your teenager was in trouble, it's because you weren't being good parents. And what I saw working with girls was that the parents were actually doing their best to save and help girls.

But what was happening was when they consumed the movies and television they were consuming and the music and entered the mean streets of what we then called junior highs, girls were really stressed out and having a great deal of trouble. So I wanted to switch the conversation from what's wrong with our parents to saying we have a systemic cultural problem that is affecting girls in this country. And to fix that problem, we need to fix the culture.

MARTIN: Sara, what do you think about that? And I'm also curious if you've thought about it over the years yourself because, as I said, you were a teenager when the book first came out, and you were living through it. And, you know, now, looking back on it, what do you think about that? Why do you think it was such a hit?

PIPHER GILLIAM: Well, I completely agree with my mom. And one thing - you know, our family joke is that I am the original Ophelia, which is, you know, our sort of family - our family funny sarcasm. But the fact is that many of my friends were interviewed for the original book, and I did a lot of editing for sort of teen accuracy in the dialogue. And, oh, kids don't actually listen to this musician, or they wouldn't say something like that. But through that process, I ended up reading many drafts of the book as it came together. And, frankly, it very much mirrored the. experiences that I was having as a teenage girl, that my peers were having.

So I was - from the get-go, I was really proud of my mom's work. And then I was in college when it really kind of became the cultural juggernaut that it became. And it was so fun to watch my mom's ideas create this cultural conversation. You know, we were all reading the book in women's studies classes and psychology classes. I mean, my friends today - I'm 42 now, and my friends today have middle and high school daughters, and they're all saying, this book meant so much to me when I was a young person, and I'm so excited now to be able to share it with my daughter.

MARTIN: And, Mary, you write that a lot of the behavioral issues of teenage girls in the '90s have really changed and that teenage girls on some measures are doing better now than they were in the '90s on, like, the alcohol and drug use, for example. On the other hand, you have a whole new chapter on anxiety in this edition that has become a very real concern. Why is that, by the way? Could you just tell us...

PIPHER: Well...

MARTIN: Why is it that it's changed so much? Why this - why that then and this now?

PIPHER: Right. We know that 1993 was a very bad year, historically bad year for the mental health of girls. And so with cultural education, with a new conversation, with the development of many new programs all over the country, the mental health of girls got better and better. And it was on a steady upward swing until 2007 - And that was the year the iPhone was invented - at which point all those graphs that showed progress did a U-turn. So now we have again a situation where girls are having a lot of mental health issues.

MARTIN: So let me go to Sara on this. And, Mary, I'm going to come back to you on - one of the things that people really appreciated about the book the first time and I think will appreciate about this updated version is that you don't just frame the problem. You offer some ideas about solutions.

But, Sara, I'm going to ask you about this as well because in the first book, you know, your mom wrote about a moment when she realized that the world she grew up in was totally different from the world that teens were living in when you were a teenager. Sara, what about you for this? I mean, was there something that really stood out to you that really surprised you?

PIPHER GILLIAM: Yes, absolutely. I mean, one thing that we were really struck by - and this ties back to the high levels of anxiety that we're seeing in girls and young women today - is the very real fears of personal safety and security, particularly vis-a-vis school shootings. And, if you think about it, "Reviving Ophelia" was published in 1994. The Columbine shooting happened in '99. So most of the girls that we interviewed for this book are what we call members of the lockdown generation, which means that since they began elementary school, they've been participating in things like active shooter drills.

And so when we sat down with our first few focus groups, they could speak incredibly specifically about where are the sort of flaws in their school security system, or I like to go in this door because I know it's - it locks behind me. And they had a really acute understanding of their safety or lack thereof when they were at school. And so that was one that really surprised us, and it made us realize that there's this kind of undercurrent of anxiety that girls are existing with just living in America today.

And the social media piece was really big. The first thing that we did when we started on this project, this revisioning project, was send actual copies of the original paperback books to girls around the country, and we asked them to mark it up. We said, take a Sharpie, put X's through paragraphs that don't feel relevant anymore. Feel free to say this is boring, or this doesn't apply to my life now. And then, likewise, we asked them to write margin notes and tell us, what's missing? What do you want us to cover in this book?

And those books came back screaming at us - social media, social media, social media - and in every chapter - in relationships with parents, in academics, in terms of sexual violence, in terms of anxiety and depression. There's a strong connection between social media and every aspect of adolescent development.

MARTIN: I'm going to throw a curve in here. And if - obviously, the book is about girls. You know, boys aren't having the best time. Is this culture any less toxic for boys?

PIPHER: That question - well, what about boys? - comes up over and over. And why aren't you writing about boys? I've never, ever in any of my writing suggested that boys and their needs weren't as valuable and as important and significant as girls. We're writing this book because this is our topic. I did therapy with adolescent girls. I taught psychology of women. And so this is the area where I feel like I have some expertise. And I would welcome anyone who wants to tackle boys' issues, to take them on at the same level Sara and I have taken on girls' issues in 2019.

MARTIN: You know, you've given us so much to think about. It's almost, you know, unfair to ask each of you to give us some sense of what it is that parents should be thinking about or...

PIPHER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: What should we do be doing? Mary, do you want to start?

PIPHER: Sure. Well, adolescence is time for identity-building. And one of the problems with this heavy social media use is there's a sense in which girls are never alone. They've always got a device. So one thing that will help girls build the inner architecture they need to have a strong, true self is simply time alone and time where they're reflecting and thinking versus texting and looking on social media.

The other thing is because girls in this generation are very risk-averse, one of the things we encourage girls to do is nudge them toward stress. So, for example, a parent could say to a girl, we want you to plan a party for your friends and put that party together, or we think it's time that you figure out a way to save enough money through whatever kind of jobs you can get to go visit your grandmother. And you figure out a way to find the money, and you figure out a way to get there. The main thing we tell parents is the primary duty of parents is to connect their daughters to what is good and beautiful and true and to protect their daughters from what is noxious and harmful.

MARTIN: That was psychologist Mary Pipher and Sara Pipher Gilliam. They are the mother and daughter co-authors of the 25th anniversary revision of "Reviving Ophelia: Saving The Selves Of Adolescent Girls." Thank you both so much for talking with us today.

PIPHER GILLIAM: Thanks very much for having us.

PIPHER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.