"Ophelia Speaks," by Sara Shandler; HarperPerennial, 285 pages, $12.95.
Sara Shandler's new book, "Ophelia Speaks: Adolescent Girls Write About Their Search for Self," is a collection of personal essays written by girls all over the United States on topics ranging from eating disorders and self-inflicted wounds to rape and sexual abuse.
Written when she was 17, the book is Shandler's arresting response to psychologist Mary Pipher's "Reviving Ophelia," a book that revealed our "girl-poisoning" culture through disturbing case studies of her female adolescent patients.
Pipher's book examines the clinical aspects of the problems adolescent girls face in the '90s; Shandler's contains the personal thoughts and feelings of the girls in their own words, along with the author's commentary.
It is difficult to describe my reaction to this book. When I read Pipher's book a year ago, I was horrified. The case studies in "Reviving Ophelia" are scary; the description of the 10-year-old victim of a gang rape left me terrified for weeks. Even the less horrific stories, of girls who were "just" depressed or slightly overweight, are sad beyond words.
"Ophelia Speaks," although it includes lighter material (essays on unrequited crushes and first loves), is also seriously disturbing, particularly if you are or know a teen-age girl.
The one statement I can make about this book with absolute certainty is that it is honest. It is accurate. It comes straight from the hearts and pens of teen-age girls.
The submissions are from girls of all ages, colors, creeds, shapes and sizes. The essays are as diverse as their authors; they range from the subtly humorous to the downright silly, from the sort of sad to the heartbreakingly depressing. They also vary in the quality of the writing.
Some of these essays are beautifully written, starkly honest, deeply moving portrayals of significant life events. Some are empowering, inspiring feminist calls-to-arms. Some are simply uninteresting and flatly written. Others are silly pieces of fluff.
The periodic commentaries from the author are sometimes cogent, eloquent, engaging and relevant; other times, they are inappropriate, unnecessary, intrusive and distracting.
Once again, it is difficult to criticize the writing. Although a certain piece may be very flat from a technical perspective, a reader might choose that piece as his or her favorite because it was the most familiar to his or her own experience.
The same can be said of Shandler's running commentary. While reader A might find it annoying, reader B might find it insightful. Because it is hardly possible to write a criticism of another person's feelings, it is inappropriate to approach "Ophelia Speaks" as a piece of literature.
The reader must respond in this case purely to the book's emotional impact, for the contributors featured in "Ophelia Speaks" are adolescents pouring out their souls, not award-winning writers publishing professional essays.
Ultimately, "Ophelia Speaks" is worth reading, especially if you are a teen-age girl or the parent of one. It is almost certain that you will not like all of the submissions, but it is also just as certain that you will see yourself in many of them. (The essay "Fight Girl Power" by Emily Carmichael, 15, is the funniest and most accurate analysis I have ever read of the way the mass media manipulate young women.)
The topics these girls write about are ones that sorely need to be addressed by adults; the experiences are common to all teen-agers. Every teen-age girl has gone through or knows someone who has gone through every experience discussed in the book, from losing a friend to being pressured to get into a top college. (The chapter titled "The Academic Squeeze" rings especially true as I enter my senior year of high school.)
Whether or not you agree with them or understand what they are going through, it is impossible to ignore the voices featured in "Ophelia Speaks." Teen-age girls are speaking honestly about their lives. We need you to listen.
Raina Lipsitz is a senior at City Honors High School.