Whisper Writing: Teenage Girls Talk about Ableism and Sexism

By Opini, Bathseba | Women & Environments International Magazine, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Whisper Writing: Teenage Girls Talk about Ableism and Sexism


Opini, Bathseba, Women & Environments International Magazine


WHISPER WRITING: TEENAGE GIRLS TALK ABOUT ABLEISM AND SEXISM By Melissa Jones. New York: Peter Lang, 2004. $29.95 US (paperback), 216 pages

In Whisper Writing, Melissa Jones reports on an ethnographic study that examined the institutionalization of and service provision for Emotional Disorder (ED) students in one segregated ED schooling environment in the USA. Specifically, Jones documents how three female students (Air, lsis, and Mandy) reacted to the ED culture in which they were submersed and how these girls' sense of identity was shaped by those reactions. The goal was to have the girls become more cognizant of the forces that contributed to their subjugation and choice of accommodation and resistance.

The book is emphatic. The author opens each chapter with emotive quotes from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. These incredible openings are not only thought provoking but also key connecting threads of each chapter. One is seduced, hooked, and left hankering for the emergent issues in the book.

Whisper Writing is organized into fourteen chapters. The introductory section explores the complexities of working with ED adolescents. Jones critiques the developing of programs for adolescents from adult perspectives. The author argues that such an approach ignores the adolescents' lives/experiences. In a bid to resolve this problem, Jones suggests that professionals and parents tap on their own adolescence experiences and memories and listen to the adolescents in order to understand what they are facing.

Chapter one gives an overview of the ED schooling environment: history of the program; eligibility criteria; partners in the program; organization and everyday routine of the program. The author illustrates how various apparatus, such as school administrators, teachers, teaching assistants, police officers, mental health workers, and school nurse, work to police ED students.

In chapters two and three, Jones documents Air's lifestyle; social relations; hobbies; home life and parental relations; relationships with teachers; encounters with the juvenile court system; and the various ways she gets to "survive" socially, physically and emotionally. Employing the victim syndrome concept, Jones describes Air as a victim of abuse, although Air does not see herseLf as a survivor.

Chapter four and five feature lsis, a fourteen-year-old bad tempered "tomboy". Isis's narrative highlights how she exerts control over her environment through strategic negotiation; manipulation; "straight talking"; avoidance; and interruption. Jones also divulges unforeseen findings on racism. Although the author had assumed that race could not be an issue in the ED environment because of the homogenous race and culture of the school population; Isis's story revealed racist and stereotypic attitudes towards blacks, Mexicans, and non-English speaking immigrants in general.

Chapters six and seven review Mandy's story. Like Air and lsis, Mandy was prone to victim blaming. She dealt with uncomfortable situations by way of avoidance; begging assistance from peers or teachers; developing a "don't care" attitude; or feigning injury or sickness. Perhaps disquieting in these chapters is the way the school team dealt with Mandy's behavioral problems by privileging the medical model of disability. Mandy was institutionalized in a residential treatment facility and later hospitalized.

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