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Mental Disorders

by Cheryl Dellasega
Blackstone Audiobooks, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 18th 2004

Surviving Ophelia

Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls was an influential book that captured the concern about the plight of young women in our society, at risk for eating disorders, abuse by boyfriends, stormy relationships with parents, teen pregnancy and mental illness.  Many people found that this picture of young women fit with their own experience and they believed that it showed the alarming state of our culture in the USA.  It also raised some controversy, with some critics arguing that it exaggerated the problems of young women and played into a victim culture.  They charged that in fact young women are less fragile and vulnerable than such a book suggested.  Indeed, people such as Katie Roiphe in The Morning After argued that life is full of dangerous situations and it is a mistake to try to protect young women from such dangers because this would make life bland.  But those who defended this movement linked it to the conscious-raising movement of the 1960s feminism and the struggles of the women's movement.  They argued that sexism that affected women also affected girls at school in ways that had not previously been noted.

Cheryl Dellasega is certainly a strong believer in the Ophelia movement, and in her preface she explains that her own experience of her stormy relationship her daughter confirmed the message of Mary Pipher's book.  She decided that it would be very valuable to tell the stories of mothers like her who try to help their daughters, and that was her inspiration for putting together the stories of women in Surviving Ophelia.  After she sent out a call for submissions, she was overwhelmed by the response.  Many mothers had gone through hell trying to help their daughters and were very happy to be able to share their experiences. 

Reading through this book (or listening to the audiobook) gives the reader a sense of the desperation of these mothers who find their daughters' behavior so mysterious and upsetting.  The girls are self-destructive and go against they were taught when they were younger. Story after story shows the problems these families go through, and one gets a strong impression of the helplessness of the mothers as well as the mixed feelings of sympathy and anger they have towards their daughters.

There are some hopeful stories here, and readers may get comfort from knowing that other families had similar difficulties to their own.  It is possible that some readers may learn some helpful ideas from the stories that end well.  But for the most part the book is pretty depressing and occasionally one feels frustrated with both the daughters and the mothers.  Maybe this reaction is unfair, but it is nevertheless a common response to hearing 8 hours of people telling their troubles.  One also gets a strong sense that many of the girls here had major psychological problems, so while the stories are framed as particularly concerning the sexist culture of the modern world that puts pressure on young girls, in fact the problems are more to do with the lack of support for adolescents with mental illnesses rather than sexism per se.  Personally I don't find books such as these helpful or particularly informative, but clearly some people will find it some kind of solace.

 

© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.