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First Person: Raising girls for life

Our culture works against girls' emotional health, but we can get strong one family at a time

Wednesday, August 11, 1999

I 've been reading "Reviving Ophelia," psychologist Mary Pipher's melancholy report on America's adolescent girls. Though first published five years ago, its message remains fresh. She finds that American culture is deadset against affirming the basic integrity of girls; her rallying cry is that we as a community must recognize this before we raise a generation of psychically lost, emotionally dead women.

  Sandra Collins is a writer living in Ben Avon. 

As the parent of three girls -- one on the cusp of preadolescent angst -- I considered this prime summer reading material.

The trajectory of the reading, though, has sent me further and further into my own psyche. I'd like to think that it's a sign of my psychological maturity. A better guess, though, would be that I'm not that far removed from adolescence myself (psychologically, that is) and still stumble into adolescent behavior and attitudes that bring me into disturbing proximity to a 13-year-old soul. The cruelty and the emotional loneliness of the junior high and high school years that Pipher recounts rushes back to me in a flash, as real and palpable as if it were yesterday.

Strangely, in thinking on these matters of cultural cruelty, I am remembering not myself, but a young man I once knew.

His name was Ted and I neither dated him nor really knew him at all. He was the older brother of a kid I had a crush on in ninth grade. The kid, the object of the crush, never noticed me, a painfully shy, chubby girl sporting Janis Joplin hair in an era that worshipped the Farrah Fawcett mop. But I knew about Ted, the older brother. He was a dark, athletic young man, not terribly tall and not terribly handsome. But he was determined to get into West Point and spent all of his considerable athletic talents and energies toward that goal.

In the summer after high school, Ted contracted some sort of eye infection. It worsened; eventually, he lost his eye and with it, all chance of an academy career. A state senator tried to help his cause, but to no avail: All that he could do was enlist in the service to pursue any military career plans he might still hold.

After high school, I was at one of those late '70s field parties, with kegs of beer and lots of kids with too much time on their hands. My same boyfriend, as always, abandoned me to cavort with his buddies at the tap.

I saw Ted sitting alone on a bench in the dark and, in a rare burst of exuberant self-confidence, I went and sat by him. We talked about nothing; he was well into his cups. He seemed sad, angry, emotionally unavailable.

Me, having the social skills of a slug, worked too hard on trying to find something pithy and witty to say. He hardly seemed to notice. Later, my boyfriend the philistine reclaimed me with a baleful grunt, remarking that talking to Ted was a useless enterprise since all he ever wanted to do was get drunk.

Many years have past since then. Recently I read in the paper that Ted was killed, shot in an exchange of an unspecified but unsavory nature. He was discovered rolled over a hillside. He was no more than 40.

"Reviving Ophelia" challenges parents to change the culture of little girls. It encourages them to consider the ways in which they might work to bring about a world sympathetic to the tremendous challenges girls face with the onset of menses and the rich panoply of choices that such changes present.

Yet I am thinking about a young man, sitting on a picnic bench in the dark, and I wonder: If I had been more authentic, more real, could I have made a difference?

At 18, I had no concept of how to be genuine. But what if I had had it within myself to say to Ted, I don't care about your eye or West Point or your disappointments. You're a really neat person, all by yourself. Could I have been a small voice that might've made the difference in someone's life, between a gunshot death over a grassy hillside and maybe that normal, middle-class American life?

I wonder -- maybe if someone, at some party in the late '70s, had affirmed Ted's basic integrity as a young, vibrant, likable male, would he be alive today?

My parents divorced while I was in college. After a considerable period of tribulation, someone -- I don't even know who anymore -- told me we all have pain in our lives. Take the time to deal with it and get over it. And I did. It gave me the OK to move ahead, to no longer wallow without hope for the future. Maybe that's all Ted needed -- not the philosophical lecture on how a little rain falls into every life.

This isn't a misplaced messiah complex. We sprinkle little seeds throughout our lives, often with no knowledge of where they go or how they affect others. Our hope is that they do some good. Perhaps this was a little seed that I should've sown.

Maybe enough of those seeds -- mine and others -- add up over a lifetime to make the difference between self-loathing and self-destiny. Maybe even that's a little too ambitious.

I don't know if I even knew what it meant to validate another at age 18, but if I had, who knows the course that either of our lives might have taken?

Mary Pipher's challenge to parents of daughters has made me rethink myself. So much of the cheerful encouragement that we hear today wants parents to remake the world.

But I realize that my goals are much more modest. I know I can't change the world; I can hardly get my kids to go to bed on time. The change that I can effect is only within myself. I can strive to live authentically, to speak with honesty to the issues at hand and to, in some regard, model for my girls what it means to genuinely grapple with being "a real person."

The best thing that I can do for my daughters, then, isn't changing the world or writing angry missives against misogyny (although, that won't stop me from doing it). Rather, it's helping them to discern what's authentic and real within themselves and helping them to encourage the same in others.

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