Backtalk

"Ophelia Speaks," a book by teens for teens, talks back to adults who think they know what's up. This teen says it doesn't speak to her.


Lillie Wade
September 15, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

In the wake of Columbine and other school shootings, I resented how "experts" in their 40s and 50s immediately swooped onto the scene and brayed to the nation's teenagers about how we were supposed to feel. Adults -- clearly suffering a case of amnesia about their own high school days -- don't like to admit that sex, drugs and violence are as much a part of teen life as they are a part of adult life. When they see teens who are confronted with adult problems, they treat us like children who need to be coddled, or criminals who need to be punished.

"Ophelia Speaks," a collection of autobiographical writings by girls between the ages of 12 and 18, is marketed as a self-help book for teens by teens. Edited by a 17-year-old, Sara Shandler, it sets out to show that teenage girls can speak for themselves, and thus are more mature and responsible than they are often thought to be. The book grew out of Mary Bray Pipher's bestselling "Reviving Ophelia," which Shandler read at 16. Although Shandler agreed with Pipher about the issues confronting teenage girls today, she was disappointed in the lack of voices from teens themselves. "I didn't just feel spoken to," writes Shandler, "I felt spoken for." From this she conceived "Ophelia Speaks."

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I was not as impressed as Shandler with "Reviving Ophelia." Pipher does discuss important issues facing teenage girls today -- dysfunctional families, incest, abuse, eating disorders and premature initiation into sexual relationships. But she fails to come up with a convincing solution to these very real problems: She peddles tired feminist ideas like praising androgyny as the cure for problems between the sexes, and hilariously suggests that so many teenage girls embrace vegetarianism because they identify with animals' inability to speak.

Ultimately, "Reviving Ophelia" blames all of the problems of the girls in the case studies on a "girl-poisoning society." Pipher never mentions genetic factors (such as inherited mental illness) and rarely explores early childhood trauma in depth. Indeed, she faults everything that happened to the troubled girls in her book on a bogeyman-ish patriarchy that is so brilliantly evasive, most women are unaware of it.

"Ophelia Speaks" is divided into five categories -- the body, family, friends, sex and overcoming obstacles. Pipher explored all of these subjects as a psychologist, parent and -- let us not forget -- adult. Shandler treats them in a less clinical way; each section features first-person essays by teenage girls who have direct experience with the issues. Sometimes, however, it's hard to decide which is worse: Pipher's feminist bombast, which is harder to digest than a bowling-ball-sized wad of ABC gum, or the hand-wringing style of Shandler and her contributors.

Before each new chapter, Shandler writes a little introduction about how the topic has affected her. Unfortunately, this is one of the book's biggest weaknesses. By the book's standards, Shandler has had an easy life; she is the daughter of happily married, upper-middle-class parents. By her own admission, she has never suffered parental abuse, eating disorders or sexual assault. The only problem that she shares with her contributors is depression, which she cured by reading books. She tries to be empathetic, but she is actually condescending, with dowager-like sympathy for all the poor, benighted souls she tries to address. This rather obliterates her "by teens, for teens," approach. She has little connection with her contributors, and seems to be using the opportunity to make her life seem more of a cinematic agony than it is. One of her sentences -- "New England humidity can be unbearable sometimes" -- is laughable from my Southern view, in which New England may as well be Canada. I eventually found myself disliking her, not because of her easy life, but because she constantly tried to make her life seem harder than it is.

The girls' writing, however, is surprisingly poignant. Many of the pieces in the anthology are surprisingly well-written -- and even those that are not are often strengthened by their lack of sophistication.

"Stepping Stone," a story about abortion by Amy Jean Salamon, is written in the voice of a child. She seems unable to articulate anything more profound than "I cried so hard. I cried so hard." But her experience is made all the more poignant by her inability to express it. One can see a young girl writing in a diary with a little lock.

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The pieces on eating disorders are by far the best, darkly describing the sinister poetry of their self-hatred. In "My Hand Holds the Taco," E.G.K.Z. intimately describes her longing and loathing for food:

I binge

-- all the things that I don't want to eat (dairy, chocolate)

the things that give me comfort

and separate me from my starving friends

until my stomach is so full

I can feel it stretching

and I know this is a feeling I don't want,

disgusting and bloated

and I have disappointed both selves

-- the self that wanted to starve

and

-- the self that simply wanted nourishment

Indeed, food has become the new sex: a vulgar physical need that must be relieved either in secret or with much apology.

Shandler received more pieces on eating disorders than anything else. One of the best pieces in the book is a poem called "Mirrors," in which Charlotte Cooper writes with scathing honesty about her consuming hatred of her body, and laments:

I can't torture myself physically

I'm not dedicated enough to be

Bulimic

Anorexic ...
I am jealous of anorexic women

Reading this, I was chillingly transported to the days when I was 10 and 11. Horrified by my slovenly flesh, I envied the girls who didn't eat. With their elegant, fragile bodies, they seemed otherworldly. Their transcendence of food made them seem holy, like angels.

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The contributors, as well as Shandler herself, frequently blame the media for eating disorders. Although I believe that magazine publishers and movie producers
have the constitutional right to depict whatever they want, I lament that the entertainment media shows only one type of female body. To see only one kind of female body portrayed as beautiful can only damage girls' views of themselves, and of women in general.
To combat such images, schools should show, from grade school on, great art portraying diverse female bodies as beautiful -- from Raphael's plump Madonnas to the small-breasted women in Renaissance paintings. We don't need to eliminate images of slender women; we should, however, repudiate the notion that only one kind of beauty exists.

Particularly distasteful to me was Shandler's treatment of rape and sexual assault. Her closest experience with sexual assault was having an attempted gang rape occur outside her dorm. She writes, "I am one of the lucky ones." Such a statement confuses empathy with pity, and fails to suggest a remedy for the "unlucky ones" who must cope with the aftermath of rape.

I was uplifted, however, by "A Childhood Lost," a piece in the "Rape and Sexual Abuse" section. Author Beth Anthany had suffered multiple rapes and sexual assaults, one by her own brother. But she worked through the pain, fear and humiliation, and learned to be strong.

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"You have to learn to fight it," Anthany writes. "Otherwise you let yourself lose and they will know that they won."

I hate the current ideology in which rape must destroy your life forever. The very idea is reminiscent of a time when virginity was a prerequisite for marriage and rape rendered a girl unfit to be a wife. Is this how we want young women to see themselves? Rape is a horrible experience, but it doesn't mean a victim can never be happy again. You must work hard: Get out of bed, do your work and find things to be happy about. To suggest that life after rape is impossible is an insult to women like me who have triumphed over sexual abuse.

Throughout the book, I noticed a lot of boy bashing. Boys are seen not as people, just boyfriends, and usually abusive and controlling ones at that. In "Shattered Dreams," the boyfriend of the anonymous author cheats on her, gets her pregnant, abandons her, then swears he'd never touched her. Maria Fedele writes about a boy who controlled her so much that she ends up stealing for him without a peep in "Do Not Fret Over Evil Men." The disturbing "Falling Dolls," whose author remained anonymous, is a story about a boy who commits incest with his 12-year-old sister.

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I won't dispute that bad boys are out there, especially given that these are all first-person essays. But why do these girls believe that bad boys are the only boys worth writing about? And why does Shandler believe that these are the only acceptable stories for publication? From reading these essays, one would think that these girls don't know any boys who are good boyfriends, or even boys who are simply good friends.

Perhaps early dating is to blame. It was a little depressing to read about serious romances and sexual involvement in middle school. My social alienation in high school prevented me from dating, and my close relationships with boys were always friendships. I thus learned to see boys as people, neither gods nor monsters.

I also often found the writings on death to be unsatisfying. Death is certainly a difficult subject for anyone to write about, but I felt uneasy reading many of the pieces -- especially those about the death of other teens. The writers in this anthology lacked even the barest faculties for coping with death. Shandler herself contributes to this: "Death during adolescence feels unfair. We're young. We're invincible. Death is supposed to come with old age. When death breaks into our lives and steals our innocence, its finality leaves us unnaturally older. There are too many elderly young people."

It may be useful for teens' delusions of immortality to be quenched; perhaps then so many young people wouldn't be killed or horribly maimed in daredevil stunts that no rational
person would attempt. Shandler's "innocence" is in reality naiveti: the inability to comprehend life's fragility. I wonder what Shandler would say about American life less than a hundred years ago, when babies and young children died so easily, or today in third world countries where health care and sanitation are still substandard, causing many similar deaths. What would she say about some American inner-city neighborhoods, where many young men don't believe they will live to see 30? In such circumstances, young people become far more mature than those with easier lives.

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Even when kicked in the teeth with death, the contributors seem unwilling to learn from it. In "This One Goes Out to the One I Love," Liddy Bargar writes of the death of her boyfriend, "I will celebrate his life, not mourn his loss." Mourning and reflecting on the loss of life is universal, especially when the person is young. Why does my generation cheat themselves of a natural, healthy process in favor of ignoring the inevitable?

As a self-help book, "Ophelia Speaks" does not fully succeed because its teenage contributors are unable to offer the guidance that their peers so obviously need. As a portrait of American girls, it accomplishes its goal, though I find this more troubling than encouraging. I had hoped that the voice of American teens would prove us to be more adult than child, more self-sufficient than self-pitying. In short, I hoped we would be able to explain ourselves where adults have failed. Instead, "Ophelia Speaks" shows teenage girls as overprotected, naive and woefully unprepared for the adult situations they are often involved in.


Lillie Wade

Lillie Wade is a 19-year-old freshman at the College of Santa Fe. This is her first piece for Salon.

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