Grown-Up Reads

Reviving Ophelia
All Over Again

by Laura Lambert

Image credit: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

The original Reviving Ophelia came out when I was a freshman in college, just barely out of adolescence myself – and it taught me a lot about the often toxic dynamics at play as I grew from a child to a young woman in the ’80s and ’90s. Now, 25 years out, I have an adolescent girl of my own – and deep, abiding concerns about how to raise her with her sense of self intact. So, as I read the 25th anniversary edition of Reviving Ophelia, which was released in June 2019, I related to the words on the page in various ways — remembering what it was like to be a girl of the ’90s, worrying about what my daughter faces in the 2010s, and simply hoping for the best for this next generation.

It goes without saying: A lot has changed over the last 25 years. When I was young, the biggest threat my parents could levy would be getting grounded. Now, as authors Dr. Mary Pipher and Sara Pipher Gilliam (her daughter) point out, it’s taking away a cell phone. Smartphones and social media have completely resurfaced the landscape of being a teenager. As Pipher and Gilliam write, when Reviving Ophelia was first published in 1994, girls appeared to be in a great deal of trouble. Over the next decade, their mental health improved in nearly every way. And then, in 2007, the iPhone was released. It’s been downhill ever since.

So now, a decade or more into the iPhone age, it’s time to reassess. I spoke to Pipher and Gilliam about all that’s changed – and what hasn’t – since their first book was published.

Practically speaking, how did you go about updating the book? There’s a mix of the original stories and new stories, too. 

Sara: The first thing we did was send copies of the original paperback book to diverse girls around the country and asked them to mark it up. They marked sections that didn’t feel relatable anymore and let us know what was missing. It was a really great way to launch the revision process.

We held focus groups for middle and high school girls, focus groups with mothers. We wanted to find the contemporary version of some of the same stories that were in the original. We also want to bring in new girls and new stories for 2019. It was dual purpose.

Were some girls’ stories just not applicable anymore?

Mary: In the end, we took out 30,000 words and we added 30,000 new words. Some of it was no longer relevant. [In the original], there were quite a few stories about girls with STDs — and that’s just not the same issue in 2019. In 1994, we talked about girls being at a disadvantage in the school system; but in 2019, girls are doing better than boys.

And, obviously, social media.

Mary: Yes, and it’s not just children. Social media and digital devices have the power to rewrite the script for humanity — it’s a large and scary idea.

With adolescent development, we produce certain kinds of adults. We want adults who are emotionally strong and empathetic and competent and in touch with their own inner resources and reality. This stage, from [ages] 11 to 20, is a critical life stage to interfere with in ways we don’t understand.

Sara: It’s so alarming. After Reviving Ophelia was published, girls were getting better and better. Then here come smartphones, and you see these dramatic downward turns.

Is that how you knew it was “time.” Or is 25 just a nice round number?

Sara: To be honest, 25 is a nice number. You know how you have your best thoughts in the shower? I was in the shower, thinking about 2019. (I pin this to my high school graduation anniversary.) I emailed my mom and her agent, and said, “You might want to do something for the 25th anniversary.” My mom was working on a separate book, in the throes of writing already. She said, “How am I going to fit this in?” We decided to work together. With the original Ophelia, we always said, “This is our family’s book.” It felt really logical. I worked in education for most of my life — I used to teach middle school — and I have an allegiance to this book.

One thing I will say, we were thinking of this revision in smaller-scale terms. We didn’t quite understand what we were taking on. 

There’s a bit of a dual narrative in the book. On the one hand, girls are in crisis — anxiety and depression are spiking, suicide is on the rise. On the other, I’ve never seen such strength, independence, and resilience as I have in some of the girls behind the March for Our Lives, for instance. 

Mary: It’s interesting you make that point. We could have spun this book in two ways. We could have said, families are getting along better, girls are not engaged in as many risky behaviors, they’re doing better at school, they’re more focused at school. That’s all true and good news. But… as we talked to girls and therapists and teachers, and the more we really dove into social media, the more concerned we became. There was a study out last week that said 70% of parents are really concerned about their children’s social media use. The American Academy of Pediatrics are now saying that part of an intake interview needs to be about hours spent on social media. There’s an impact on health.

Right at this moment, I’m feeling pretty validated.

Sara: There have been studies coming out every week this month that really seem to affirm, unfortunately, our concerns.

That said, one of my personal passions right now is looking at youth activism. I’m with you: There are positive takeaways. We try to close the book with that. A lot of young women right now feel like adults and policymakers don’t speak for their generation. Somewhat ironically, social media helps them connect with and communicate that to their peers, and we are seeing youth-led movements. We see that as a positive thing — girls empowering themselves about the issues that they care about.

What shocked you most in the new focus groups?

Mary: What shocked me most was the absolute volume of social media. One teacher had kids keep their phones on, to keep track of the messages they get in class. One girl had 115 messages. That volume was striking to me.

And then, there are ways you can look up YouTube videos about how to kill yourself. There are competitions online around scarring and self-harm. I didn’t know those kinds of things existed. I’m used to the human experience; this is the new human experience. I was also pleasantly surprised at how little family conflict there was.

Sara: I agree with all of that. I’m a little more dialed into the online world. I’ve got two young children. I see YouTube every day.

What I was surprised by was school shootings. We had a “throwaway question,” at the end of the list in the focus groups. We didn’t think it would be a big topic. When we got to the question — How many of you are afraid of school shootings? — every single girls’ hand would shoot up. They knew the flaws in their school’s security, the risks of having the first classroom inside the door.

There’s one line that keeps coming back to me, “Girls ache with the loneliness of life lived online.” 

Mary: My friends and I will text each other about going for a walk. But I have a policy: If there’s anything more that I want to say to someone, other than, “Are we meeting for lunch at noon?” I will call them up. If it’s emotional, if it requires more than just yes or no, if it’s a problematic issue, or if we need to respond to something that’s happening, I call. It’s the difference of being able to hear nuance and warmth in their voice, the difference in terms of feeling a personal connection.

It’s the loneliness of not being able to connect. My best friend [growing up] and I talked about everything — every teacher, every student in our class, every boy-girl relationship, who went to our church and what we thought of them, the neighbors, what was the best store to go to. We talked about books, lying around reading together. We talked about our families and what we thought about our parents. What we agreed with and didn’t, and who we wanted to be. That kind of unpacking and building of the self, you can’t do that online. That inner construction of a self has to be done in contact with the real world.

The beautiful parts of us that were born to flower aren’t able to flower. That’s the aching level of loneliness. The saddest thing on earth to me is unrealized potential — something that could grow but didn’t have a chance. That’s the essence of the book for me: giving girls the opportunity to grow.

Do you have a general sense of the direction we are headed? Should parents be alarmed by rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide — or thrilled that there’s less of an issue with drugs, alcohol, and sex?

Mary: I don’t think there’s an answer to that. Who can predict the future of America at this point — even the next six months?

What I’m comfortable saying about girls is that the world has changed a lot in 25 years, but the needs of girls are really very much the same. They need to be loved. They need to be useful. They need to be safe. They need to have a strong sense of self, and the ability to grow into the best they can be. Those needs have been around for hundreds of years.

Sara: My mom was really alarmed as a therapist in the early ’90s. That’s what led her to write. It was a call to action, saying, “Let’s start this conversation. We’re doing a huge disservice to our girls.”

We feel the same now. With Reviving Ophelia, a lot of positive change came from the conversations that book started. And we both want this book to launch a new round of conversations.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.