If Your Mom Owned "Reviving Ophelia" in 1995, My Best Guess For Her Non-Fiction Purchases In Each Subsequent Year
Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls spent three years on the New York Times Best Seller list, so obviously a lot of moms owned it — a lot of non-moms owned it too — and therefore it’s impossible to perfectly predict which ones stayed in the Women Who Run With The Wolves genre or which ones stayed in the Child Called It genre, because “anxiety about presumptively-white teenage girls” can take endless final forms. So this isn’t an exhaustive or even necessarily precise predictions.
But I’m reasonably confident that if your mother owned Reviving Ophelia in 1995, I’ve correctly guessed at least one other book she’s kept on her nightstand in the years since. If I’m wrong about your mother, please send a corrigendum and a SASE to the Chatner’s central office and I’ll refund you the cost of the book, adjusted for inflation. For those of you whose mothers never owned Reviving Ophelia in the first place, please stop reading now.
1996: A Child Called It, Dave Pelzer — perhaps the most straightforward and intuitive next option. “This child is in trouble!!!”
Dressed To Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras, Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer — a bit of a curveball, because Reviving Ophelia isn’t itself quackery, but it’s a possible step in the direction of full-blown, omnidirectional panic about the state of womanhood for the already-susceptible.
Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Michael J. Behe — Reviving Ophelia was smack in the middle of a strange Venn Diagram that included a lot of pretty mainstream feminists on one side and a lot of evangelicals who might not have otherwise considered themselves to have much in common with feminists; in the 1990s a lot of those evangelicals were looking for a genteel, credentialed version of creationism they could comfortably sign off on, and Behe (a biochem professor at Lehigh) offered just that. Both of these groups would balk at say, a road trip to a creationist museum, but while the former would object on principle, the latter would find it déclassé. “Just the book, thanks.”
My Dog Skip, Willie Morris — Pretty straightforward, I think. If you’re temperamentally worried about modern teenage girls, you are temperamentally reassured by stories about brave little dogs in the American South, particularly when those brave little dogs challenge segregation via colorblindness.
1997: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, Don Miguel Ruiz. “Based on ancient Toltec wisdom.” (Maybe she bought Naomi Wolf’s Promiscuities, which also came out in ‘97, but I think it’s less likely.) Definitely The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence, which she may have given to you as a going-away to college present a few years later.
1998: She either bought Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie or Spencer Johnson’s Who moved My Cheese? I know the Chicken Soup for the Soul series was everywhere at the time, and I’m sure the occasional copy found its way to her, like it did everyone, but I think the Reviving Ophelia purchaser found the Chicken Soup books a little tepid, and was aiming slightly higher on the inspirational anecdote/self-help/pop-psychology register.
1999: This year’s a little tricky. It was the first year that saw the publication of an Ophelia-response, which was itself a small cottage industry (Sara Shandler’s Ophelia Speaks was followed by Ophelia’s Mom, by Nina Shandler, Sara’s mother, and Cheryl Dellasega’s Surviving Ophelia, both published in 2001), but none of them made anything like the splash, or possessed any of the staying power, of the original, so I think we can safely discount them. My money is on either Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess — after all, what was Princess Diana if not a perpetual teen-in-crisis story? — or Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel.
2000: I feel extremely confident about this year’s predictions. She absolutely bought Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. This was around the same time that a lot of women started writing books about how public schools disadvantaged (again presumptively-white) boys, and there’s a decent chance she picked one of those up that year, probably Christina Hoff Sommers’. Probably also John Colapinto’s biography of David Reimer, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl. 2000 was a strange year.
2001: So too, obviously, was 2001, but it was a little early for the big aughts-era Islamophobic/jingoistic waves to have made it to book publishing, so she probably picked up Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, even though she found it depressing.
If she had a husband, he got the David McCullough John Adams biography that year.
2002: She bought Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. Easy. She might have also picked up The Purpose Driven Life, but if she was more “watches Oprah” spiritual than “goes to a megachurch every week” religious, she didn’t finish it. This was the turning point for the next phase of public anxiety about feminine adolescence, with bullying (particularly “cattiness”) taking front and center place on stage.
2003: Another Traveling Mercies-type book that bridged the gap between “evangelical Christians” and “lightly spiritually curious but unaffiliated:” She read Blue Like Jazz this year. If she was suspicious of evangelicalism, she got Reading Lolita in Tehran instead.
2004: French Women Don’t Get Fat. Scoop of vanilla, scoop of chocolate, don’t waste my time.
2005: Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. And she started asking you about whether they had rainbow parties at your school. Maybe she got into Malcolm Gladwell this year too.
2006: The Secret feels too obvious. I think it’s likelier she got Deborah Tannen’s You're Wearing THAT?: Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.
2007: This Is Not the Life I Ordered: 50 Ways to Keep Your Head Above Water When Life Keeps Dragging You Down, jointly authored by Deborah Collins Stephens, Michealene Cristini Risley, Jackie Speier, and Jan Yanehiro.
2008: This was a year for worrying about boys, I think. David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction came out that year in tandem with his son Nic Sheff’s Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines (a few years after the similarly-tied but more explicitly antagonistic dueling-memoirs of Sean Wilsey and his society mother Pat Montandon’s Oh The Glory of It All/Oh The Hell of It All), plus there was another Hoff Summers’-type bestseller that year, The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do, by Peg Tyre.
2009: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, hands down. Nicholas Kristof? “Turning oppression into opportunity”? The promise of the microloan industry, the titillating moral panic about human trafficking, the celebrity endorsements? It was an easy sell.
2010: Possibly The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Certainly Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. She loves Laura Hillenbrand. She wishes Laura Hillenbrand were her daughter.
2011: Either Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman or Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, both of which were inescapable that year, and likely also Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.
The “What Happened to My Daughter?” genre was strong that year. Who took my sweet little girl away from me? She was so affectionate when she was eight, but now she’s too princess, or she’s too pageant, or she’s too tomboy, or she’s too mental health diagnosis I’m suspicious of, or she’s getting transed (but I’m getting ahead of myself, as that particular anxiety wouldn’t hit the Reviving Ophelia set in a significant way for another few years).
2012: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (“Do you think you might be an introvert?”) and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar.
2013: Three books this year: Lean In (which she might just as easily have liked as disliked), I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban (which she liked too much), and Everything I Need To Know I Learned From A Little Golden Book, which she loved but entirely forgot about within six weeks of finishing.
2014: I don’t have a strong sense for this year. There was the big Rebecca Solnit title this year, but I’m not confident Men Explain Things To Me is the answer. I just can’t think of anything else. Same goes for 2015. Maybe Boston Strong? Maybe Miracles From Heaven or So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed? Possibly The Shepherd’s Life?
2016: I’m back on solid ground here. This year she bought Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.
2017: I’m afraid it might have been The Reason I Jump, originaly published in 2007 and translated a few years later by Keiko Yoshida and David Mitchell, which introduced a lot of people to the thoroughly-discredited technique of “facilitated communication.”
2018: Michelle Obama’s Becoming, obviously, but also (and sort of confusingly) Lukianoff/Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure alongside Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: “We need to just come together and appreciate one another, but also we need to toughen up.”
2019: Three Women, Lisa Taddeo; Educated, Tara Westover. Hesitated at the final moment over Rachel Maddow’s Blowout, then got Demi Moore’s autobiography instead.
2020: Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters is obviously polemical where Reviving Ophelia is at least interested in the idea of even-handedness and peer-reviewed standards, but there’s still a pretty direct through-line from “My teenage daughter likes Prince too much and won’t talk to me anymore” in 1994 to “Why are my beautiful daughter’s strange new friends trying to convince her she’s a boy” in 2020. If not Shrier, maybeWhy We Can’t Sleep, swapping out anxiety of the specter of transition for anxiety of the specter of artificial light.
So, I am the mom in this scenario. I did, indeed, read Reviving Ophelia in 1995. Working at a used bookstore in North Carolina, I sold A LOT of copies of A Child Called It, but I did not read it. I most assuredly owned, read, and enjoy Traveling Mercies, although I also remember Anne Lamott becoming problematic a few years ago, maybe, which has cast a pall on that book for me. I read As Nature Made him with great interest, as one of my best friends—seriously, we have matching tattoos—was transitioning at the time and I was getting deep into gender. Judith Butler, Anne-Fausto Sterling, the whole thing. Eventually I would interview Jeffrey Eugenides about Middlesex, which was kinda, sorta based on As Nature Made Him. I read reviews of Nickel and Dimed and Hillbilly Elegy. That's it.
Mitigating circumstances: By 1995 I had already been to a women's college during peak Third Wave Feminism. That trans BFF I mentioned. By 2020, my own kid had already been transed. I thought about hate-reading Irreversible Damage but just read articles about it instead and yelled about it on the socials.
But now you've got me imagining a parallel universe in which I read My Dog Skip and turned into a very, very different person. Possibly someone who wears a lot of matched separates.
If my mom didn't buy that book, it's only because I'm perpetually 2 years old in her headcanon. Adolescence? Not for MY little girl!