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Review of "Ophelia Speaks"

By Sara Shandler
Harper Perennial, 1999
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Feb 24th 2002
Ophelia SpeaksIn Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher argued that the country's young women are in a sorry state, experiencing discrimination and pressure from peers, parents, and the media. Teen Sara Shandler read Pipher's book and was very impressed - she felt that it mirrored her experience. But she also felt that the book did not allow girls to speak in their own voices, and this led her to the idea for her book. In Ophelia Speaks, Shandler collects writing by teens from across the country describing their experiences of eating disorders, self-cutting, drugs, alcohol, rape, pregnancy, death, abuse, loss, depression, stress, and harassment as well as positive experiences of friends, family, faith, and sexuality.

In each chapter Shandler talks a little about her own experience as it relates to the topic at hand, and she introduces a few selections from the contributions by other writers. Some are anonymous, some are named, and all give the age and geographical location of the writer. Shandler herself was 16 when she started the project, and when the book was published she was a student at Wesleyan University. She is articulate and interesting in talking about herself and her experience in putting these writings together.

Many of the contributions are also interesting and even moving, and this book is a quick read. Maybe some girls will find it inspiring or reassuring to read about the experience of others, and maybe some parents will find the book informative as a way of getting a sense of what their daughters' lives are like. But readers need to keep in mind that this collection of stories is highly selective, and very likely does not represent the experience of many young women. Some readers may share my reaction on learning more and more about Shandler's experience with each chapter; as I read on, I reflected that I don't have much interest in her life. While she comes across as likable and forthright, there's nothing very exceptionable about her, and I would have preferred if she devoted less space to herself.

Furthermore, while the individual pieces by the contributors are all good, they are short and don't leave readers much the wiser about what it was really like to go through those experiences. What's more, and here I'm afraid I'm going to sound tremendously unsympathetic, but there it is, most of these girls don't have much to say that isn't about themselves. I am happy for people to express themselves, but I'm not sure exactly what others will gain from reading these pieces. My favorite piece in the book is at the end, "Fight Girl Power," by Emily Carmichael, 15, from a city in the Northeast. Emily's piece is a little angry and didactic, and I'm not sure if it is entirely coherent, but it's got an energy and criticality that most of the other pieces lack, and especially welcome is the fact that it is more about the world and the idea of "girl power" than a revelation of her unfortunate experiences.

So Ophelia Speaks may be of limited interest. Nevertheless, fans of Reviving Ophelia should find it an interesting resource.

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

    Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.

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