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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2300

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.

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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 possible biases and influences built into their research process. In following the developmental trajectory of Sonia, an African American girl, they purposefully call attention to the differences in the “voice” of the girl as she encounters a white and later an African American interviewer. In early interviews, she attempts to find a solution to the mole/porcupine conflict that lets her remain “nice” to all involved. Her voice changes when she is interviewed by a member of her own ethnic group; she then claims that she would toss the porcupine out, reacting with anger to individuals who hurt others, even unwittingly. She then speaks openly about conflicts in her own life, times when she had to take assertive action, and about the painful consequences of rebellious behavior, even when she is supported by her equally strong and assertive mother. In Sonia’s tale, the authors find hope for nurturing girls into self-confidence; they linger over the possibilities of women helping each other through the trials of childhood, and finally, as did the interviewer and interviewee, meeting across the generations to productively discuss strategies for navigating through a world hostile to female self-assertion.

As Brown and Gilligan’s subjects make the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood, they experience an increasing degree of pressure from both peers and adults to conform to very narrow definitions of proper behavior. In “Approaching the Wall: Three Guides into Adolescence,” the authors pinpoint the metamorphosing voices of three girls, Noura, Judy, and Victoria, as they approach “the wall,” an impasse that Brown and Gilligan claim limits the ability of girls to articulate feelings, recognize their own anger as justified, and relate honestly to themselves and others. In some of their most cogent analysis, they trace the movement from fulfilling, if often volatile, relationships both among young girls and between them and their parents and male siblings, to the “false or idealized” relationships that they find characteristic of young adult and adult female lives. In doing so, they account for the sudden popularity of clubs and cliques among young adolescents and the increasing difficulties encountered by girls in distinguishing genuine forms of pleasure and love from false and even painfully constricting relationships.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the moving tale of Noura, a talented Syrian American girl from a middle-class family who follows a developmental path of tortuous negotiations and increasing degrees of self-denial. At the age of nine, Noura has a voice resonant with playful teasing, with excitement and joy, and with other strong feelings as she relates stories of conflicts and compromises with family and friends. Even so, at age ten, Noura and her voice have started to change; she is more hesitant in describing situations in which she acted spontaneously or rebelliously. Her descriptions of herself and her family are punctuated with phrases such as “I don’t know” and “it really doesn’t matter.” Noura clearly struggles to move beyond such hesitation; in an interview at age eleven, Noura tries to regain her voice as she tells of unfair situations in which she appealed to authority figures to hear “her side” of the story. Perhaps such appeals fell on deaf ears, because as Brown and Gilligan follow Noura into her early teen years, they find that she becomes obsessed with perfection, consumed by desires to please others. Afraid of losing the approbation of her parents, teachers, and friends, Noura even refuses to think about her own feelings, indicating time and again her fear of saying too much, thinking too much, or asking for too much.

If such tales appear relatively unimportant or forgettable because, as in the case of Noura, many of these girls remain model students and daughters, Brown and Gilligan are careful to show the terrible consequences of the increasing silence and self-denial demonstrated by their subjects. The tales of both Judy and Victoria reveal seeds of adult behavior patterns that include allegiance to abusive relationships and renunciation of physical intimacy. For Judy, the path toward adolescence is one through a maze of parental arguments and familial neglect. In order to make sense of this seemingly chaotic, even hostile world, Judy retreats into romantic fantasies that exclude all physical contact and expressions of individualism on her own part. Victoria’s story is even more alarming. Surrounded by abuse at home, she gradually loses the ability to respond to it, falling into the terrible trap of attempting always to please her abuser. Seeing her mother’s unhappiness in an unfulfilling marriage and confiding to the interviewer her own desires for a “real” and “happy” relationship, Victoria wonders if she is going crazy, imagines killing abusive men, but hastily denies her own feelings, retreating into inarticulation and self-denigration. As Brown and Gilligan make abundantly clear, these girls’ chances for future happiness are at stake; even their lives are in jeopardy as they become adult women in a violently patriarchal world.

In their final section of case studies, “Rivers into the Sea: Three Guides Through Adolescence,” the authors trace three girls’ paths into adulthood. All three stories are affecting, but perhaps the most disturbing, and the one with which Brown and Gilligan effectively tie together much of their analysis, is that of Liza, an upper-middle-class white girl who literally transforms herself to meet social expectations. Picking up the strand of her tale at the age of twelve, the authors show a preteen who is inordinately conscious of the gaze and judgments of other, who desperately needs the approval of her parents and teachers. Her main problem, she claims, is that she does not have blond hair, the social signifier of beauty and femininity in a culture in which the Barbie doll is the ideal against which girls are judged and learn to judge themselves. In succeeding years, Liza gradually distances herself from her female classmates, withdrawing into a solitary world of single-minded drives toward perfection and the approval of boys. By the age of fourteen, she has bleached her hair blond and lost weight, commenting on how good she and her new boyfriend “look” together while admitting that his possessiveness toward her can be alarming. Constantly aware of how others see her and suppressing her own needs in order to meet the demands of a glamorous image, Liza, by the time she enters high school, has become anorexic and trapped in an abusive relationship. For Brown and Gilligan, her story is typical, for it effectively foregrounds the violence perpetrated against girls’ bodies by media representations and social expectations.

Brown and Gilligan’s conclusions are important and worth detailing here. They see the developmental process for most girls as inherently traumatic and even tragic, as girls lose the ability to listen to their own internal voices and needs as they conform to the demands of others, specifically the mandates of a patriarchal culture. Although different girls take different paths and adopt different strategies, most lose the ability to distinguish between healthy, mutually satisfying relationships and oppressive ones built upon the subsumption of women’s voices and needs into those of men. The implications for their findings are profound, especially for parents and teachers. They demand that adults begin by listening carefully to girls, validating individualism, and responding to veiled cries for help. Although their vision of a less traumatic, more nurturing developmental process remains somewhat vague (which is one of the few flaws in this study), Brown and Gilligan’s concern is admirable, and the base that they have constructed through the recording and careful attention to the voices of their subjects is sound.

Meeting at the Crossroads is an important book for teachers and parents, as well as for anyone interested in developmental psychology and women’s studies. One cannot help but wish that Brown and Gilligan had concluded their book with a specific agenda, a detailed list of suggestions for meeting the needs of adolescent girls, but one finishes the study with a sense of being effectively called to action. Meeting at the Crossroads is a book that will help women reevaluate their own childhoods and adolescent experiences and one that may help concerned adults better meet the needs of the girls in their families and classrooms. Perhaps future studies will be less disturbing and contain far happier tales, as girls learn to value their own individual voices and as society allows those voices to be heard and appreciated.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. October 4, 1992, p. 35.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 29, 1992, p. 6.

The New Republic. CCVII, December 7, 1992, p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, October 4, 1992, p. 13.

School Library Journal. XXXVIII, December, 1992, p. 27.

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