Volume Nine, Issue 1
Suzanne Montz Adams *
In her provocative book, Women who
Run with the Wolves, Clarissa
Pinkola Estes (1992) teaches other women about the timeless wisdom
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
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.
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.
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 ,
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
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
* * *
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’
& 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,
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
* * *
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
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
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.
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
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.
 All names are
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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