(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

From 1986 to 1990, Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan led a team of researchers who conducted periodic interviews with one hundred girls from Cleveland, Ohio, all of whom were students at the Laurel School, a private girls’ academy. The members of the group whom they interviewed ranged in age from seven to eighteen and came from working-class, middle-class, and upper-middle-class families, as well as from a range of ethnic backgrounds. From the stories generated by this varied and interesting group, the authors chart the difficult transition faced by women as they enter adolescence and young adulthood. Drawing liberally from the transcripts of their subjects’ voices, Brown and Gilligan draw attention to the ways in which individual freedom is slowly but inexorably curtailed as girls are encouraged and even forced to conform their behavior to socially constructed “feminine” roles. They effectively demonstrate that for most women, adolescence becomes a time of disconnection, in which individuality and a sense of self-knowledge give way to ardent attempts to please authority figures and a male-dominated society.

In listening carefully to girls’ voices, Brown and Gilligan pay close attention to what they call the “harmonics of relationships.” They attend not only to what is said but also to how it is said and in what context it appears. Thus for these researchers, silences, hesitations, and body language become key parts of interpreting girls’ lives and stories. Brown and Gilligan draw not only on clinical psychology but also on literary inter- pretation as they examine recurring images, telling metaphors, and tonalities. In establishing a “Listener’s Guide,” they attempt to gauge each girl’s metamorphosing sense of self in relationship to others, looking for ways in which early interpersonal relationships become key components in forming adult behavior patterns, integral factors in the gradual loss of assertiveness and self-assurance that they found characterized almost all the developmental trajectories examined. In focusing specifically on the tales related by nine girls of different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, Brown and Gilligan urge readers to draw their own conclusions, never simply relating their findings in a cold, scientific manner, but instead humanizing the research process so that their study is both engaging and poignant. They encourage readers to reconsider their own childhood and adolescent experiences, as well as those of their mothers, sisters, partners, friends, and students.

Divided into six chapters, Brown and Gilligan’s study first gives ample information concerning the background and methodology of the research team’s work. Brown, an assistant professor at Colby College, and Gilligan, a writer, full professor, and respected researcher from Harvard, establish their credentials and statistical parameters thoroughly and demonstrate a clear knowledge of the limitations of their research. They do not claim that a group of girls from a very selective private school can represent all girls in American culture, but they make a strong case for listening carefully to the intersections in these students’ personal testimonies. In chapter 3, “Whistle-Blowers in the Relational World: Three Guides Through Childhood,” they relate first the relative openness and directness of preadolescent years. Although never romanticizing childhood or denying the impact of social forces on the articulations of seven- and eight-year-olds, they note that young girls readily vocalize their desires and their disagreements with others: “These seven- and eight-year-old girls blow the whistle on relational violations, such as interrupting, ignoring, hurting people’s feelings.… These girls interrupt the surface calm and quiet of daily life with their insistence on saying what is happening between people.”

Brown and Gilligan are careful to avoid unsubstantiated generalizations and facile elisions of differences in individual girls’ lived experiences. They focus intensely on three girls’ lives to establish both the nuances of difference and the surprising similarities in three journeys through childhood. Jessie is the first of their detailed case studies. A “whistle-blower” in the beginning, in the sense that she speaks out directly about her own perceptions of injustice and her own passionate desires, Jessie gradually comes under the “tyranny of nice and kind,” two of the most insidious demands made upon young girls in order to curb their individualistic behavior. Brown and Gilligan use a complex fable concerning a family of moles and a porcupine to gauge their subjects’ ability to discuss relational honesty. In the tale, a prickly porcupine takes refuge from the cold in the den of the well-intentioned moles, who soon discover that living with a porcupine is impossible. The dilemma concerns what the moles should do: throw the porcupine out into the cold or endure physical pain in order to meet the other’s needs. In early interviews, Jessie is able to talk about the essential incompatibility of the two types of animals. As the interviews continue through her childhood, she learns to curb her opinions, speaking instead about the necessity of “being nice” to one’s friends. Brown and Gilligan make a powerful case for this new caution and self-denial as a significant consequence of the girl’s acculturation into a society demanding the renunciation of self in women and women’s silence in the face of uncomfortable, even abusive, relationships.

Not all the interviewers’ subjects follow the same path, and Brown and Gilligan are always willing to muse on...

(The entire section is 2300 words.)