Books Etc Resistance.

Good Sense: An Interview with Mary Pipher

by Larry and Connie Harvey, published in Southwest Nebraska News, Jun 26, 2003 from a delightful conversation with Mary Dec 15, 2002 at The Mill, Lincoln, NE

SNN: Please introduce yourself to our readers.

PIPHER: I am Mary Pipher and I am a clinical psychologist. I also have a degree in anthropology and I am a writer. The question that I have asked in every book is, “How does culture affect mental health?… If you look at say, Reviving Ophelia, it is how the culture affects the mental health of teen-age girls — Shelter of Each Other, how does the culture affect the family and the mental health of family members — and even this latest book, The Middle of Everywhere, is really about how globalization and this sort of tossing together of people from all over the world affects… the mental health of people in Lincoln NE.

SNN: Your book on Lincoln is somewhat critical. How is your message being received by Nebraskans?

PIPHER: You know, it is very interesting. This book, I think, is my most popular in Nebraska. For example, the University of Nebraska used it for their summer read for incoming freshmen and they also used it for an adult education program across the state… the topic is very relevant right now to Nebraskans. There are so many communities in our state where there is either a large Latino population or a large immigrant population.

SNN: Could you list the books that you have written? Do you have a favorite?

PIPHER: I started out with Hunger Pains, I wrote that in about 1992 — then Reviving Ophelia, Shelter of Each Other, which is a book about families, Another Country, which is a book about my generation’s (the baby-boomers generation) relationship to our adult parents — and then my last book that has been published is Middle of Everywhere, which is about refugees in Lincoln. I would say they all were my favorites at the minute I was working on them. In fact, I am kind of a fickle writer in that if I wanted to be really wealthy I would have written Reviving Ophelia, the sequel, or I would have written a book about adolescent boys… I made so many relationships in the refugee community writing this book — for example, after I finish with the Mill, I am going by the home of Martha, the young woman I wrote about from Sudan in the book, and taking her some Christmas presents and seeing her. I am still very involved with the refugee families in the book but generally my favorite book is my current one, my current project.

SNN: I’ve heard you say that you want to write to change the world.

PIPHER: Yes. I am actually doing a workshop this summer at UNL entitled “Writing to change the world”… We are a very cynical culture by now, but I say it very deliberately because I think it is very important for people to acknowledge that they want to make things better and that they are working to make things better… Sometimes, for example, I will get kidded for being serious, or people will be at a party and they will all just be goofing off and I will want to talk about AIDS in the sub-Sahara. I don’t resent my friends for it, it is a very American thing But it is very American right now to stay away from important issues, because the important issues are so overwhelming and they are such downers that people really try to distance from any involvement in really very serious issues of the day.

SNN: Here is a question from one of my students. I read him this quote, “Her articulate and energetic lectures create enthusiasm for her ideas in a way that unites, rather than polarizes, her audience.” He asked, “How does she do that?”

PIPHER: That is a very good question… I really worked through that issue writing Reviving Ophelia. Well, that book was kind of written at a point when gender wars were going on and there was a lot of division within the feminist community and there was kind of a backlash against feminism. My background is as a therapist. One of the most important things about being a therapist is learning to persuasively sell ideas and learning to anticipate and deal with resistance before it happens. As a therapist, at the moment you are in an argument, you have lost; the moment you sense you are arguing with a client it is over, you have lost already.

So, one of my goals as a writer and speaker is to take all the knowledge that I have about persuasion and resistance as a therapist and apply it to writing and speaking. It actually was a very helpful way to think about it because I did have a pretty good sense as to how to deal with resistance. For example, as a therapist you don’t blame people and you don’t call people names. You anticipate their arguments and build them into your assignments. So I figured out a lot of those things as a writer and a speaker.

SNN: And deliberately incorporated it into your writing?

PIPHER: Right, right. Here are two examples of things that I think are very effective at diffusing hostility.

One is, when I was writing Reviving Ophelia I never compared boys to girls. When I went out on the road, sometimes people would stand up and they would be mad and they would say, “Well, I don’t think girls have it any worse than boys”; they would assume I said that. I could say, “Well, if you read my book carefully you will notice that there is no place in the book where I ever make an argument that girls suffer more than boys”, because in fact, it is absolutely impossible to empirically demonstrate who suffers more. It’s a totally ridiculous point to try to make. So I am very careful about things like comparisons that oftentimes engender hostility in an audience. The second thing is, the best way to make a point is to tell a story and then let the audience draw their own conclusion. Generally with my most controversial points I don’t even make the point, I just tell a story and stop. Most people make the point themselves in their head, and then they can’t argue with me because they reached that conclusion based on a story I told. All I did was tell a story. That has been one of the most common ways that I try to stay out of trouble.

Also as a speaker, I am very low-key. I am actually, in real-life, a much more opinionated person than I come across. As a speaker I am a very low-key person…

SNN: How important is the profit motive, profit as the only bottom line, in the way we have structured our culture and in trying to re-structure it?

PIPHER: Well, I think it is terribly important.

First of all, it has gotten more and more important. Money is so much more important in our culture than when I was a kid, there is no comparison. I mean, whether we are talking about advertising slapped all over the place and 3000 ads per day, whether we are talking about every business functioning pretty much with the bottom line as an imperative or whether we are talking about just sort of the corporatization of everyday life such as the branding of products for 18 month old kids. You know, they are doing product placement everywhere, they are doing product identification studies with toddlers.

It is a really pervasive system of accountability based on money and there really aren’t many demons in the story. I mean, for example, people that work for corporations, CEO’s, I think they make too much money and if I were a CEO I wouldn’t take the kind of money a lot of them take. But, they are basically working with a system of rules they didn’t set up and they have certain requirements that they have to meet to keep their jobs and they are not, for the most part, immoral people. Just as a guy who makes a video game for Sega that is violent and sexual and teaches 12 year old boys how to kill women isn’t necessarily a bad person in his neighborhood where he coaches Little League and is a decent father and community member and so on. Because of his work rules he will do something that has a very harmful effect on kids and the reason he will do it is to make money, because money is a way we organize our culture now.

One way to think about that is: think how different our culture would be if 3000 times per day instead of hearing advertisements we heard public service announcements telling us to be kind to other people, to brush our teeth, to exercise, to eat healthy foods, to avoid alcohol and tobacco, to be conscious that if we saved money we could send some of that money to Africa for AIDS relief. I mean, it would just be a totally different world if that was the message that we heard 3000 times per day. The reason that we don’t hear that message is that it doesn’t make anybody money to have that message be the one that we are constantly teaching people.

With globalization it is going to be much worse, because right now there is only one real message in globalization, which is greed. That is the only message and it is systematically being stamped all over the world. I don’t know whether the people that don’t like that message all over the world can stop it or not, but it is certainly a kind of plague right now spreading all over the world.

SNN: Are you hopeful?

PIPHER: Well, yes and no. I am very unhappy about our current political climate… I am very unhappy about our lack of interest in a good international set of policies on everything from human rights to workers rights to protection of the environment to reasonable equity in terms of standards of living around the world. You know, we could have by now on this planet a system of laws where everybody had enough to eat, clean water, we had a decent sustainable environment and no war. If governments were committed to that, we could have that….

On the other hand, what gives me hope is that I am very involved with the world. I know a lot of people, I do a lot of traveling, I meet people all the time who are just amazing in what they are doing and in their commitment and that gives me hope. My own work also gives me hope. I think that people who feel the most hopeless are the people that are doing nothing. If you can define some work for yourself and just steadily work on it, then you can feel a little bit of hope. Maybe not that you are going to change the world, but you are going to change your neighborhood or your state or a particular group of people you are trying to influence. So I think the best antidote to despair is work; work will give you hope.

SNN: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

PIPHER: I guess the main point I would make, based on Middle of Everywhere, which is my most recent book, is that I wrote that book in the hopes that it would encourage people to welcome newcomers to Nebraska and make people welcome in their communities, their churches, their homes, befriend a newcomer. I think every newcomer to our state needs an American family who will say “I want to be your friend, I’ll help you learn what the deal is,” so my favorite outcome for this article would be that some of your readers decide, “I am going to walk across the street and befriend my new neighbors from Mexico or Guatemala or Sudan”.

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  • This is addressed to Mary Pipher, so I hope it reaches her.
    For the rest of us, it’s a take on the lives of teh rich and famous.
    Dear Ms.Pipher,we met about four or five years ago to discuss my adapting your book, REVIVING OPHELIA, into a play.I am a playwright of some note. You were not enthusiastic, and I shouldn’t have pushed. But writers do that sometimes when they’ve latched onto an idea. I wrote a first act on spec, one I was proud of. I heard nothing from you for a long time, and finally a cold letter came from your agent. You were not interested. Yes, agents have to be and are expected to be,
    cold. THey are yes, supposed to be the fire wall for their clients. But I don’t believe that best selling authors who write about relationships, self-esteem and personal reflection should be. I don’t know if the play was ever written by another author. I know that the Universe gave me a good out. I did not and would not have made the author the hero, and perhaps that was my most grievous fault.
    the author and agent saw that as non-negotiabled

  • Thank you for leading me to new readings, I am personally hoping to attend the Women in Leadership conference in DC this March. There is work to do! Lizlane