By Margaret Nelson
June 24, 1996 12:00 PM

Mary Pipher had a perfect record—13 submissions, 13 rejections—before Grosset/Putnam published her book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls in 1994. Since then, the paperback of Ophelia (Ballantine), a thoughtful study of teenage girls, has spent 63 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, and Pipher has published another book, The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families, a survival guide for parents and children. “As I travel giving lectures, I have found that families all over the country are facing the same problems and blaming themselves,” says Pipher, 48, a clinical psychologist in Lincoln, Neb. “I wanted to look at those issues and offer some ideas.”

At the center of the Ophelia phenomenon is a warm, grounded woman who favors common sense over psychobabble. “I deliberately set out to be accessible,” says Pipher. “Not simple ideas, but ideas simply put.” That lack of pretense traces back to a secure Middle American upbringing in tiny Beaver City, Neb. (pop. then: 480). The oldest of seven children of the town doctor and her husband, a farmer, Pipher studied cultural anthropology at Berkeley before getting her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Nebraska. She and her husband, Jim, 45, also a psychologist, have raised two children: Zeke, 25, and Sara, 19, both college students.

Despite her elevation to guru status, Pipher leads a quiet life in a Lincoln neighborhood. “I’m a middle-class, middle-aged woman from the middle of the country,” she says. “That’s why people relate to me.” Pipher shared her ideas on the pressures facing families with correspondent Margaret Nelson.

What happens to girls in adolescence?

I refer to it as the Bermuda Triangle, where the selves of girls crash and burn in a social and developmental abyss. Studies show that girls’ math and science scores plummet. They lose optimism and resiliency, and they become more deferential, self-critical, depressed. Unfortunately, just when they need a guiding hand, they’re told by society that they should be breaking away from their parents.

Do you think they want to break away?

One reason I got interested in writing about families is that I noticed that a lot of kids I know did not want to go out of state to college. When I was their age, the bright kids wanted to get as far away from the Midwest as they could. But all these kids were saying, “I wouldn’t mind going to the state university and staying in town.” I started thinking about the world being a harsher place. I also started thinking about how hungry kids are for adults who will spend time with them.

Is this generation’s coming-of-age really that different from your own?

The issues that boys and girls struggle with now in adolescence—should I have sex, drink, get involved with bad people?—are issues I didn’t face until college. When I was 15, I hadn’t been kissed. Now I’m seeing 12-year-old girls who are sexually active or have been assaulted. Also, I grew up in a place where everyone knew everyone. Many families today are totally isolated from their relatives and neighbors. The community sustained families in ways that it doesn’t now.

As a therapist, how do you try to help the teenage girls you see?

One of the basic skills I teach them is centering—find a quiet place where they can sit alone every day for 15 minutes and focus on their feelings and thoughts. They’re bombarded by all kinds of negative messages. I work on helping them make conscious choices. They must decide how to spend their time and how they choose their activities and companions.

How can parents help their children?

For lots of reasons we as a culture started thinking that other things were more important than family—careers, possessions, individual fulfillment. We let ourselves get too busy to spend time with our children. Many kids spend more time watching TV than with their parents; they know Beavis and Butt-head better than they know their aunts and uncles. Besides time, parents have to share their values. R.J. Reynolds and Madonna are sharing their values; we parents had better share ours. We have to rebuild relationships, a sense of community.

How do we do that?

As I say in my new book, I like front porches, neighborhood parties, potlucks—ways people mingle and get to know each other. We can make fewer people strangers. To survive as a family in the ’90s, parents have to protect their families from what is ugly and child-hurting in this culture.

What steps can families take to change?

Among other things, make conscious decisions about the media you consume, about the things you buy. Think it through—how will this computer affect our family time, our interaction? We have families isolated in their homes, each family member in a different room with their appliance of choice: a television, computer, stereo. No one’s talking.

You say that family therapy isn’t always the answer. Why?

For the past 25 years, the middle class has been going to therapy if the family isn’t functioning well. But while people have been in analysis, communities have broken apart, and life for families has gotten worse. If I want my family to have good mental health, we have to live in a viable community. If one of my children is in trouble, I don’t necessarily call a therapist, but I may call other parents. We can share ideas, problem-solve.

How has success changed your routine?

I heard that Margaret Mitchell never wrote another book after Gone with the Wind because she spent the rest of her life answering mail. For a while I personally answered every letter, every phone call, but there just weren’t enough hours in a day. I’m booked solid with speeches through 1997. I’m still doing some therapy, I still teach part-time. The main effect of the books is that I’m very, very busy. And I’m optimistic. People have to be hopeful that they can make a difference, or they won’t do anything to bring about change.