Radical Psychology
Volume Nine, Issue 1


Transforming the Stories Of Adolescent Girls

Suzanne Montz Adams *

In her provocative book, Women who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes (1992) teaches other women about the timeless wisdom of myth, the necessity of listening to our intuition, the shattering of identity that occurs in female adolescence, the loss of voice and silencing, and so much more that threatens the life of the soul.  In my forties when I first read the book, I felt such a sense of betrayal that this vital information had been lost to me for so many years that I couldn’t help but imagine how different my life would have been had I known.  Though I recognized that certain wisdom can only be attained with age and experience, I felt compelled to pass on what I had learned to ensure that other girls would not suffer from the same fate as I had for far too long—living in a vacuum of unawareness and disconnection from self.  And I wanted to illustrate how the power of words and artistic expression can aid in resisting that blindness and dissociation.

I designed a workshop, called “It’s All About You,” for adolescent girls ages eleven to fourteen with topics such as identity and self-esteem, expressing yourself, and relationships.  Though any of the language arts can be utilized in this type of class, my workshop concentrates primarily on writing and to a lesser degree, painting and collage to promote self-awareness, confidence, and communication.  Participation in the workshop is voluntary.
 
The impetus for this workshop, and many others like it, grew from the roots of an emerging field called Transformative Language Arts or TLA—social and personal transformation through the spoken, written, or sung word.  TLA work is practiced with at-risk populations—those in juvenile detention centers, prisons, or mental health centers—and with groups who have experienced traumatic events—cancer patients, rape crisis centers, or hospices.  TLA can also be equally effective and life-changing with teens, parents, senior citizens, or anyone who is open to the transformative power of narrative. 

Writing as a healing art is gaining ground in the medical field as numerous controlled studies have proven that expressive writing about traumatic events and our deepest thoughts and feelings about them can increase immune function (Petrie, 1995, p. 790), reduce pain and fatigue in fibromyalgia patients, (Broderick, 2005, p. 332) and decrease symptoms for those suffering from chronic illness like asthma and arthritis (Smyth, 1999, p. 1307).  Writing is not only good medicine, but it is also an act of listening and revelation.

After the first few weeks of facilitating this workshop, I learned that I could listen without having to fill the space with advice or further questions.  While remarking on Carol Gilligan’s observation that staying in connection with women and girls in this way is “profoundly revolutionary,” Carol Lee Flinders (1998) notes that, “The single most important strategy behind this revolution . . . is almost certainly the simple act of listening, carried to altogether new heights” (p. 291). 

The girls’ moods and daily experiences would dictate the pace and content of our workshops and I eventually grew comfortable with navigating that ever-changing river.  Some of our most lively, thought-provoking, and valuable workshops bloomed out of the weeds of the girls’ day-to-day troubles as we interwove those issues into our topics.  We were trying to dismantle the teachings of our culture which tells us that we are not valuable for who we are; everything of value is outside of us and must be acquired.  As Flinders points out, if women know who they are, they are immune to exploitation.  And “if a whole generation of girls could grow up knowing who they are, inoculated against sexism, their very presence would bring into question everything that has kept women at the margins of life, and from that nothing but good would come” (Flinders, 1998, p. 302).

From my research in mythology and feminist developmental theory and from my own experiences, I thought it important to discuss the value of intuition with this group of girls.  I introduced the topic through storytelling and recounted the tale of Vaselisa (an early Cinderella story) from Women who Run with the Wolves.  Vaselisa is the story of passing the blessing of the power of intuition from one generation to the next and includes nine tasks for the young girl (or the psyche) to perform, all of which pertain to the wisdom of the “Old Wild Mother.”  The Wild Woman or Wild Mother is the psychic and spiritual health of all women, their essence and wholeness (Estes, 1992, p. 8-9). 

The girls were unfamiliar with the concept of intuition and were very curious about the inherent symbolism in the story of Vaselisa.  From there, we entered a lively discussion about what intuition is and how we recognize it.  One girl, Jordan [1], described her intuition as a heat or fever that makes her hot and turns her nose pink.  She also mentioned that she had powerful dreams and we talked about the ways in which dreams communicate to us and how our intuition is brought to light in dreams.  Another girl, Hannah, knew she had intuition, but was uncertain about whether she used it and was unsure how to identify it.
 
Yet when I asked the girls to either write or paint what their intuition felt or looked like, Jordan wrote a poem describing hers as “a sister, friend, and mother.”  Another girl, Lindsay, painted what appeared to be an animal, though we differed on what type of animal it appeared to be.  Animals are well-known bearers of instinctual knowledge.  Hannah painted several red “V’s” that indicated love and drew what looked like a turtle in the bottom corner.  To certain Native Indians, turtles represent the power of feminine energies as well as the primal mother.  Obviously, intuition lived far beneath the girls’ consciousness as it does in so many of us.  A “naming” needed to occur before they could access it and from there, realize that they could call upon this intrinsic source of knowledge whenever needed and could  rely on its value and trustworthiness.

*     *     *
   

In the busyness of everyday living, it can be difficult to process all that happens to us and what we think or feel about those events.  Writing is a conduit between our hands and hearts, transferring what lies deep within us into an insight or epiphany on the page.  Through the act of writing—simply, without constraint or ego—we discover and rediscover ourselves in surprising, profound ways.  Things we didn’t know, or thought we didn’t know, arrive galloping onto the paper and we can no longer pretend to be ignorant of them.
 
Words are powerful, as any of us who have been attacked or energized by them can attest.  When we write about our fears, our goals, our confusion, we are finding words to concretize what, previously, might have been inaccessible or cloudy.  If we stay with the writing, we may, despite our pain or subconscious resistance, write ourselves into clarity and in doing so, find that we have set our intentions for conquering our fears, accomplishing our goals, and unmasking our confusion.  Writing illuminates the darkness.

Writing also enables us to be the protagonists in our own lives rather than the supporting characters in the epics of others.  Many of us discover, with shock, that we have been carried along for years on the winds of someone else’s desires because we have been either unaware or uncertain of the power of our own.  Yet when we allow our pen to unveil what is hidden in our hearts, we come face to face with our true desires, our authentic opinions, the adventures we have yet to pursue.  As we write about what sets our hearts in motion, we become, as never before, the authors of our own stories.

If we hope to be the authors of our own lives, we need to recognize when others are imposing their thoughts or desires on us or when they are overstepping their bounds.  During the course of the workshop, I noticed that the girls had difficulty with setting and maintaining boundaries, a fundamental, pervasive problem for many girls and women.  Hannah, in particular, admitted that she had no boundaries whatsoever.  When I asked her how she felt when she was talked into something she didn’t want to do, she replied, “I don’t know.”
 
Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan discuss the origins and consequences of “not knowing” that occur so readily in adolescent girls in Meeting at the Crossroads : Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development (Brown & Gilligan, 1992, p. 166-185).  The phrase “I don’t know” is symptomatic of a disconnection with what the girls do know and what society is telling them is acceptable to speak of and know, a psychic split from which some girls never recover.  This dissociation with self is destructive in that not only are girls unable to name what they are thinking or feeling and thus operate as non-living beings, but their disconnection prevents them from making the leap to action.  If they know, then they must respond, and that is exactly what they are afraid to do.
   
Peggy Orenstein also speaks of this lack of self-knowledge in Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, connecting girls’ loss of self with the future inability to fulfill their potential and an unwillingness to accept challenges.  “They will be less prepared to weather the storms of adult life, more likely to become depressed, hopeless, and self-destructive” (Orenstein, 2000, p. xxxii).
 
To counteract the seeming haziness of boundaries and to encourage their ability to recognize the loss of their physical or emotional space, I gave them five guidelines to follow on setting boundaries which I borrowed from Cheryl Richardson’s Stand Up For Your Life.  I asked them to write down three prompts and come up with ten responses to each one.  “People may not _______.”  “I have a right to ask for _______.”  “To protect my time and energy, it’s okay to _______.”

We discussed a few possible responses and they began.  Hannah asked what to write as a boundary statement if she didn’t want a boy to tickle her and touch her breasts.  I suggested to her, “People may not physically touch me without my permission.”
 
As I struggled with my anger over what Hannah is dealing with in a typical middle school environment, I also recognized how imperative it is that she is given the language and courage to stop this type of violation.  I tried to redirect my own feelings into helping Hannah traverse the chasm between silent indignation and appropriate action.  The language arts activities we practice in TLA are some of the best tools I have ever found in which to do this successfully.

As I talked more with the girls in my workshop about boundaries and why they are important, I thought of a creative project that would encourage them to associate specific thoughts and feelings with their relationships, hoping that by doing so, they would also recognize when their boundaries had been crossed.  I asked them to think about the worst relationship they had ever had.  “How do you feel inside?  What color are you?  What colors are around you?  What is your expression?  Your posture?  How do you react to others?  What image comes to mind when you think about this relationship?”

I told them to think about this relationship for a few minutes, then when they were ready, they could go to the painting table and begin to paint this image.  I turned on the music as they dipped their brushes into the colors.  They didn’t talk much while they were painting which surprised me.  They were rarely quiet.

After they finished this painting, I told them to set their artwork on the floor behind them.  “Now, I want you to think about the best relationship you have had or have.”  Then I repeated the same prompting questions.  “Paint the image you see.”

When they were done, they all wanted to share their work.  Hannah told us that her worst relationship was with a former boyfriend and she had painted a large black box cut into two pieces to symbolize her brokenness, blue rain for her sadness, and a little yellow stick figure that signified her feeling “small.”  Her best relationship was with her two best friends and she had painted images of bright colors, a long red block signifying her feeling “tall,” a round center of wholeness, and a cheery smiling face.
 
Lindsay’s worst relationship reflected a fight she had with two good friends earlier in the year and she had painted a forest of tall trees with large trunks.  A cut-down stump in the forefront symbolized how she felt during the fight—cut off from her friends and without her branches.  A relationship with a former boyfriend was one of her best in which she painted a large purple crown symbolizing how he made her feel and a yellow crown symbolizing how she thought she treated him.  There is a bright sun and a collage of color in the background.

Emily’s worst relationship was with a former boyfriend.  She had painted herself half pink and half black to symbolize how she felt divided—happy with herself, yet knowing he was not good for her.  The background around her is dark.  She was holding hands with the boy who had a bright background and a crown on his head.  His head was turned away from her as he looked at other girls.  Her best relationship was with her friends and she had painted the three of them conjoined.
 
I asked them if they learned anything new with the paintings and they said that their feelings became clearer, though they had always known the truth about those relationships.  Yet, at the conclusion of our workshop that day, each girl mentioned a revelation that had become apparent during our session.
 
By reflecting on their experiences and making a connection with the feelings associated with those experiences, they were able to identify and name those feelings.  Awareness is the first step on the road to authenticity.  We cannot be who we are, understand the composition of our unique selves, unless we can name and define the specific ingredients, and identify specifically what we think and feel.  “Only by staying connected to their emotions and by slowly working through the turbulence can young women emerge from adolescence strong and whole” (Pipher, 2005, p. 58).

This work with adolescent girls pricked old wounds of my own as I was forced to acknowledge how trapped I had been in the dissociation from my own knowing during the teenage years.  At twelve, I started a petition among my fellow students to oust our sixth grade teacher, an ineffective and indolent woman who frequently left our classroom to smoke in the women’s restroom next door.  She would bang on the wall between us whenever she heard us growing too loud or disruptive as students will tend to do when left unsupervised.  As an atypical kid who loved learning, this sort of lackadaisical behavior in a teacher was unacceptable to me.  Thus, the petition emerged out of my resistance.  Of course, the teacher found out about it and chastised me in the hall outside the classroom, but I never backed down.

Fast forward three years, to age fifteen, I was unable to identify what I cared about beyond getting along with my friends and not making any waves.  I did quit the girls’ drill team at the end of that year, an unheard-of occurrence, but I was also accompanied by my best friend who, like me, found the endless practices and touchy politics not worthy of our time or energy.  Yet at this age, I felt my individuality slipping away as I became an expert listener and a non-existent participant in the crowd of girls gathered at lunch or after school.  I was afraid to speak for fear of saying something wrong and for which I would be ostracized forever.
 
At twelve, I knew I wanted to be a writer.  At fifteen, I no longer wrote or even remembered that the dream of writing had once consumed me.  Like Neeti, one of the girls described in Meeting at the Crossroads, I became increasingly quiet, involved in complicated, futile attempts to be continuously nice and kind, choosing to bury myself in an effort to stay in relationship with others.  I was struggling to fit the image of the perfect girl both at home and at school.  In focusing on this impossible goal, I became emotionally distanced from my own thoughts, feelings, and desires, eventually unable to identify them in the journey of  “not knowing.”   At eighteen, one of the girls who had been in my group of high school friends for the last three years said to me, “You’re a hard person to get to know.”  Of course, I was.  I didn’t even know myself, much less have a self to share with others.

As Brown and Gilligan (1992) repeatedly point out in their research with adolescent girls, “Women’s psychological development within patriarchal societies and male-voiced cultures is inherently traumatic” (p. 216).  As girls and women, we will never be able to live up to the ridiculous and soul-shattering standards of the “perfect woman,” “the feminine ideal,” “the angel in the house” without losing ourselves in the process.  There are “relational lies that are at the center of patriarchal cultures: subtle untruths and various forms of violation and violence that cover over or lead to women’s disappearance in both the public world of history and culture and the private world of intimacy and love” (Brown and Gilligan, 1992, p. 218).  Such processes are central to the silencing of us all.
 
I am also reminded of the continuing paradox for girls when others encourage them to be fearless, to take risks, to make their own choices; yet as soon as they step out of the box of what is considered safe or appropriate for “good girls,” they are in danger (Flinders, 1998, p. 221).  This danger is both physical in that their safety is continually at risk (as most of them live with the constant fear of being physically overpowered) and psychological in that their emotional and mental health can be compromised by the differences between what society tells them is reality and what they perceive with their own eyes and ears.  In the latter case, their only choices are to stay in relationship with themselves, to know what they know and speak the truth about that knowledge or to stay in relationship with others and lose themselves (Brown and Gilligan, 1992, p. 165).  These paradoxes, these “choices” are not acceptable. 

Mary Pipher in Reviving Ophelia states that “Girls have four general ways in which they can react to the cultural pressures to abandon the self.  They can conform, withdraw, be depressed or get angry . . . most girls react with some combination of the four” (Pipher, 2005, p. 43).

Despite the inroads feminism has made, the adolescent girls in my workshop still feel that incessant pull between societal conventions and constraints (which includes the charged power of sexual peer pressure) and their own integrity.  Though some boys may feel similar conflicts, neither the pressures nor the consequences appear close to what the girls experience.  Boys are generally encouraged to speak their minds and are admired for doing so, while girls are taught to be nice and kind, to not hurt anyone’s feelings, and are ostracized if they dare to overstep these gender-specific boundaries. 

*     *     *

In another class, I passed out a short essay from the book, No Body’s Perfect.  The essay, “From the Eyes of a Stranger,” is about a young girl whose inner critic is constantly telling her how she doesn’t measure up.  One day, she notices another girl walking up the stairs next to her and thinks to herself, “Wow, that girl is really pretty.”   Suddenly she realizes that next to her is a mirror and what she has seen is her own reflection.  She is startled into accepting an accurate picture of how she really is and how others might see her rather than how she has critically analyzed herself.

I opened a discussion with the girls about the inner critic we all have, especially in relation to our appearance.  Then I explained our creative project called “Body Talk” (from Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s, Write Where You Are) where they would choose a body part to write about.  What is that body part’s story—its history, its experiences, its problems, its daily life?  I read an example in which a fifteen year-old boy’s neck tells him to drop that heavy weight of his shoulders and to stop suffocating it with turtlenecks.
  
I told the girls to close their eyes and think about which body part is talking to them.  Where do they feel something in their bodies?  What does that body part have to say to them?  Emily said that her mouth was telling her things that didn’t make sense and I replied that she needed to just write and the message would become clear as she went along, her subconscious would take over and lead her.
 
Lindsay knew right away what body part she wanted to write about, but didn’t want to elaborate.  Her feelings about her body are complex and not easily resolved.  She has experienced highly-charged emotional responses within her family with regard to her body weight and of late, she has felt intense pressure to conform to a societal ideal.
 
We wrote for about ten minutes and then I asked if anyone wanted to share.  Emily volunteered and read about her mouth, how it tells her that she never stops moving it—from eating to talking to grinding at night—and when it finally rests, it is relieved because it is so tired.  Emily realized that her mouth is speaking to her about her way of life and the fast pace we all experience as normal, yet really, it is not.  Emily said she would like to incorporate into her daily life a period of rest or simply being still.
 
The other girls chose not to share their writing, yet there had been a definite shift in their perceptions of those body parts.  What was initially a source of discomfort or confusion evolved, through their writing, into an awareness of deeper value and meaning of those body parts beyond mere appearance or simple physical function.

This awareness is a form of insight, one of the many healing benefits of writing according to Dr. James Pennebaker, a leading researcher in the field of expressive writing (Pennebaker, 1990, p. 37).  As Flannery O’Connor said of her own work, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”  There are things so far below our consciousness that we need alternate paths of accessibility.  Writing has been that source of wisdom for me as well.   When I have experienced traumatic or confusing events in my life, I have literally written my way into clarity and insight.  It may take several pages of journal writing or even days or weeks of pounding out thoughts on my computer, but the moment always comes when I write out the truth and I am simultaneously shocked, calmed, and dazzled.  “It was there all along,” I think.  “I just didn’t know it.”
 

*     *     *


From my workshop, it was apparent that the recurring issue in girls’ lives was how to balance their truth with societal expectations, an issue I have spent the last thirty years wrestling with myself.  Until we can dig deep enough to name our truth and then unearth the courage necessary to speak that truth, we will continue to experience disconnection between self and others as well as dissociation from self.  Society will not teach us how to live with such integrity.  We must teach society. 

Of the four girls who participated in the workshop, three have continued to communicate with me about the ongoing conflicts in their lives.  They have repeatedly told me that they need an older woman with whom they can discuss personal problems, someone who is not their mother, but rather a mentor/advisor who can encourage their growth and independence and with whom they can be honest without risk of judgment or sanctions.

When women choose to come together in relationship with young girls in a meeting of voices and truths and willingness to speak in anger or conflict, a new paradigm is formed.  It has the potential to squash society’s false directives while encouraging the emergence of a song never performed in full chorus—the resonant sounds of wholeness in women’s relationships, of awareness and validity of women’s thoughts and feelings, of the power of women’s knowing—refusing to be silenced.

*     *     *

Me . . .
By Emily (workshop participant)

Today I looked in the mirror,
One good, long, hard look
All I did was judge and think,
Is this all I get?
Is this really me?
How did it get to the point,
Where this is what I see?

Sometimes I wish I could live
Without criticism and critique.
Sometimes I wish I could just be me
And live my life in peace.

But I know that won’t happen
With the people around today.
The critics and media
Trying to get me to look a certain way.

I’ll always know who I am.
I’ll always be okay with that.
I just hope that someday,
Others will accept me too.


Footnote

[1] All names are pseudonyms


References


Broderick, J.E., Junghaenel, D.U. and Schwartz, J.E. (2005). "Written Emotional Expression Produces Health Benefits in Fibromyalgia Patients." Psychosom Med, 67.2, 326-34. 

Brown, L.M., and Gilligan, C. (1992). Meeting at the Crossroads : Women's Psychology and Girls' Development. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Estés, C. P. (1992). Women Who Run with the Wolves : Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. 1st ed. New York: Ballantine Books.

Flinders, C.. (1998). At the Root of this Longing : Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst. 1st ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Kirberger, K. (2003). No Body's Perfect : Stories by Teens about Body Image, Self-Acceptance, and the Search for Identity. New York: Scholastic.

Mirriam-Goldberg, C., Verdick, E. and Dreyer, D. (1999). Write Where You are : How to use Writing to make Sense of Your Life : A Guide for Teens. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Pub.

Orenstein, P, and A.A.U.W. (2000). Schoolgirls : Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap. New York: Anchor Books.

Pennebaker, J.W.  (1990). Opening Up : The Healing Power of Confiding in Others. 1st ed. New York: W. Morrow.

Petrie, K. J., et al. (1995). "Disclosure of Trauma and Immune Response to a Hepatitis B Vaccination Program." Journal of Consulting Clinical Psycholology, 63.5, 787-92.

Pipher, M.B. (2005). Reviving Ophelia : Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. New York: Riverhead Books.

Richardson, C. (2002). Stand Up For Your Life: A Practical Step-By-Step Plan to Build Inner Confidence and Personal Power. New York: Free Press.

Smyth, J. M., et al. (1999). "Effects of Writing about Stressful Experiences on Symptom Reduction in Patients with Asthma Or Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Randomized Trial." Journal of the American Medical Association, 281,14, p1304-9. 


Biographical note:

Suzanne Montz Adams is a former CPA and has an MA with a concentration in Transformative Language Arts (TLA).  She facilitates writing and expressive arts workshops for adolescent girls in the Houston area and is on the Council of the Transformative Language Arts Network.  Suzanne has published essays in numerous journals and magazines over the past fifteen years and is currently working on a novel and the continued development of writing for transformation workshops. For further information on TLA, please visit www.tlanetwork.org.