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Studies in Gender and Sexuality

3(3):321–341, 2002

Learning to Speak the Language
A Relational Interpretation of an Adolescent
Girl’s Suicidality

Carol Gilligan, Ph.D.
Lisa Machoian, Ed.D.


Through a clinical case study, this paper explores the peak in
girls’ suicide attempts at ages 13 and 14 and offers a relational
interpretation of girls’ suicidal behaviors as symbolic and indirect
speech, ref lecting a language that is deeply encultured. In early
adolescence, girls learn that if they threaten to harm or endanger
themselves or actually do so, people take notice. Girls then
discover the communicative value of threatening or enacting
harm, danger, or violence against themselves. Thus they “learn


Carol Gilligan, Ph.D. recently moved to New York City, where she is
University Professor at New York University. Her latest book is The Birth of
Pleasure.
Lisa Machoian, Ed.D. is a Lecturer on Education in Human Development
and Psychology, Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the conference of
Psychological Trauma: Maturational Processes and Therapeutic Interventions,
Boston University Medical School and Massachusetts Mental Health Center,
March 1998; and at the Biennial Peter Blos Lecture, Jewish Board of Family
and Children’s Services, New York City, December 1998. A version of the
case study is in the doctoral dissertation of Lisa Machoian (1998).
The authors thank, in alphabetical order, Blair Barone, Psy.D., Holly
Gelfond, Ed.D., Francis Pescosolido, Ph.D., Elizabeth Rice–Smith, Psy.D., and
Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D. for their support of this work.

321 © 2002 The Analytic Press

322 Carol Gilligan and Lisa Machoian


to speak the language of violence.” The clinical case illustrates
how girls who speak this language can be called manipulative
and not taken seriously, but also how, when their communication
is heard and interpreted relationally, it can explain why girls’
suicidality peaks in early adolescence and why it is associated with
hope.


W hen their speaking voices are not heard or when they
have no words to say what they feel and think, children and
adolescents will often speak in the indirect discourse of
symptoms, enacting or saying indirectly what they want and
know. Running away, stealing, cutting, starving, bingeing, and
suicidal behavior can all be seen as forms of communication.
We are interested in the language of symptoms and, specifically,
in the meaning of girls’ suicidality. From a gender perspective,
violence is coded as masculine and typically connotes acts
directed toward other people. As we observe girls learning to
speak a language of violence at adolescence, we discern that
they are discovering that this language is taken seriously in our
society.
By speaking of violence as a language, we mean simply that it
is a system of communication that like the language of dreams,
calls for interpretation (see J. Gilligan, 1996). When we speak
of girls’ suicidality we are referring to a continuum leading from
threats to kill, harm, endanger, or place the self in harm’s way,
to potentially lethal acts of violence directed toward the self,
typically referred to in girls and women as self-harm. Referring
to suicidal threats and acts as part of a language of violence, we
recognize that, if these same threats or acts were directed toward
another person, they would be considered violent threats or
acts. Our title, “Learning to Speak the Language,” refers
specifically to the discovery, often made by girls in adolescence,
that violence is a language that people understand and take
seriously. When girls threaten to harm or kill themselves or
place themselves in dangerous situations, for example, by
running away, people do take notice. Thus girls learn that people
respond to threats of danger and self-directed violence. When

girls’ nonlethal suicidal acts appear not as thwarted or failed attempts at killing themselves but.. as ways of enacting the hope that someone does care about them and will listen and take them seriously. 1990. they can get the help they need. The key developmental findings of the case point to the way a girl’s hope for relationship may peak in early adolescence as she sizes up her situation and sees a possibility for bringing about change. as the girl discovers a way to be heard and taken ser iously in the face of what seems to her the world’s overwhelming deafness. specifically a hope for relationship. we move to theory and research on girls’ development as a way of framing the case study. they tend to be characterized as manipulative or attention seeking and not taken seriously (Machoian. Reading her suicidal act as a symptom— that is. 1991). a more common symptom among women. Here we follow an early adolescent girl seen by Lisa Machoian in therapy. Learning to Speak the Language 323  these same girls do not actually kill or harm themselves. depression. Jack. however. 1998. In contrast. it thus becomes important that we recognize girls’ hopefulness and encourage their experience of themselves as powerful. Research on girls’ development shows early adolescence to be a time when girls’ resilience is at risk and that what is at risk is the possibility of a confiding relationship (see Gilligan. . as a symbolic or indirect form of speech—we listen as she obser ves that she was only taken seriously when she threatened to kill herself. we find evidence suggesting that her suicidality was a complicated expression of hope. we suggest that this dismissal overlooks what may have been the meaning of the suicidal act in the first place. 2001). signifies hopelessness and powerlessness (McGrath et al. rather. Seen in this light. The peak in girls’ suicidality at ages 13 and 14 (see Background Research) thus may ref lect the peaking intensity of their fight for relationship at this time. When we consider what she was saying or dramatizing through her suicidal behavior. by speaking the language of violence. After an overview of epidemiological research on suicidality. In this way girls who are desperately in need of help may learn that. When responding to an adolescent’s suicidality. On the basis of clinical evidence. 2002).

1984a.. Perry. and Herman. 1981. and Bartok.. compared with boys. 1985. 1986. 1995. 1992. but boys more often kill themselves. Asarnow. King. 1982. Researchers also report a strong correlation between suicidal behavior and a history of trauma (Herman. and Guthrie. 1987. Dyer and Krietman. Borst.. Rhode. This epidemiological finding takes on added significance in the light of the surprising discovery that although feelings of helplessness correlate with suicidality in adults. Lewinsohn. . We speak of girls’ “suicidal acts” rather than “suicide attempts. Borst and Noam. 1986. However. 1980. boys tend to behave suicidally in childhood whereas girls’ suicida l behav ior tends to begin in early adolescence (Pfeffer et al. Kosky. and Gatsonis. and McNamara. Alpert. 1997). 1993). b. girls engage in suicidal acts more frequently than boys do. are hoping to achieve something else—and perhaps they are succeeding. Romans et al. Metha et al. more often fail to kill themselves and also to recognize the presence of hope in their actions. 1991.. 1982. 1996. 1999). 1983. by acting suicidally. Pfeffer. Rotheram-Borus and Trautman. 1992. while girls and boys alike may experience sexual and physical abuse during the childhood years (Russell. 1998). 1993).” both to counter the implication that girls attempt but. 1984. 1993. Rutter and Garmezy. 1988. Angold and Rutter. THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK The relational interpretation we bring to our analysis of an adolescent girl’s suicidality rests empirically on longitudinal and cross-sectional studies with girls between the ages of 6 and 17. 1987. 1996. 1997. 1983. Lipschitz et al. Noam. 1991.324 Carol Gilligan and Lisa Machoian  BACKGROUND RESEARCH Epidemiological studies have repeatedly indicated that suicidal acts peak among girls at the ages of 13 and 14 (Deykin. Kovacs. 1992. van der Kolk. It may be that girls. During adolescence. and Seeley. Finkelhor. Angold and Rutter. 1988. hopelessness is not significantly associated with suicidality among adolescent girls (Carlson and Cantwell. Rutter. 1983. Velez and Cohen. Carlson.. Kaplan et al. Goldston. van der Kolk.

1990. and economically privileged families. Brown. to read the human world around them. when. It highlights the relational dynamics of the research situation. and Sullivan. 1989. involved girls from public and private schools. 1995). Our relational approach clarif ied the importance of creating a resonant research relationship with girls and also highlighted the importance of considering girls’ development within a societal and cultural framework (see Gilligan et al. and Latino and Portuguese families (Gilligan. Centr a l f ind ings include obser vat ions t hat of fer a psychological explanation of why girls’ resilience is at heightened risk at adolescence.” This method directs attention to the unspoken as well as the spoken. Gilligan. 1991. middle-class.. 1992. Gilligan et al. 1993b. Rogers. Girls’ awareness. especially as they become young women. Brown and Gilligan. Lyons. Brown. 1997. often arouse fears and concerns leading to attempts at silencing on the part of even well-meaning adults and peers. 1990. in press).. 1992. Brown and Gilligan. Caribbean-American. and Tolman. Learning to Speak the Language 325  The research. b. Consequently. and builds into the analysis a recognition of the layered nature of psychological processes and the interplay of psychology with biology and culture. 1996. Documenting these strengths among girls. 1991. Taylor. Gilligan. Gilligan. and with whom it is safe for them to speak (Gilligan. Gilligan. East Indian- American. Gilligan et al. Rogers. Brown. the research found strong evidence that the risk to girls’ resilience in adolescence occurs when girls’ relational strengths begin to jeopardize their relationships. working-class. and their outspokenness.. and Hanmer. Rogers. Rogers. 1991. . conducted by the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development. girls from poor. and to distinguish authentic from false relationship. relational method called “The Listening Guide. b. and Noel. their knowledge. Asian-American. Gilligan. 1990a. Most striking is the evidence gathered across culture and socioeconomic class that preadolescent girls can show a remarkable ability to speak their thoughts and their feelings. 1992. Critical to the discoveries of this work was the use of a voice- centered. and Rogers. 1991. including girls from African American. and girls from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. 1990a. girls quickly discover where.

From yearly interviews with girls moving from childhood into and through adolescence. can. The phrases “I don’t know. the giving up of relationship for the sake of “relationships. THE CASE OF ABBY It is autumn. become a psychological resistance. We have changed some identifying information in order to protect the privacy of those involved. On a breezy. Documenting a healthy resistance among girls at the edge of adolescence to losses that are psychologically consequential— the loss of an authentic voice. caring and not caring. 1995). evidence suggesting an onset of dissociative processes at adolescence appeared in the form of sudden shifts between knowing and not knowing. and loss of voice.” we witnessed a progression whereby a healthy resistance or fight for voice and relationship turns into a political resistance as girls claim authority and power.” “you know. dissociation becomes a brilliant although costly way to hold on to two or more contradictory realities and to protect a vital self from being overwhelmed. and warm Wednesday morning our clinical team assembles for its weekly meeting and the director reads a referral: A 13-year-old g irl.” “I feel. 1991). 1992.” and also the reiterative “I mean. . dissociated knowing (Gilligan. p. this political resistance. named Abby. and I (Lisa Machoian) am beginning my clinical training as a clinical psychology fellow. It is her hope that by our doing so she may help other adolescents and those who work with them. When a girl’s healthy or political resistance is curtailed by fears or threats or actual reprisals. A girl’s voice is a barometer of her relationships.” became verbal markers of girls’ moves in and out of dissociation. 1993a. 1990a.” and “I think.” “I don’t care.” “I know. sunny. b. a symptom of trauma. in turn. signals a loss of relationship (Gilligan.. 502). 1994. b. a less healthy. feeling and having no feelings. especially when it is not joined. 1990a. 1 from a middle-cla ss fami ly wit h a  1 The authors thank “Abby” (a pseudonym) for permission to tell her story. thus challenging the continuation of patriarchal structures. Taylor et al. meaning and not meaning what they say. Brown and Gilligan.326 Carol Gilligan and Lisa Machoian  1991. signaling their presence and absence with others and with themselves.

Learning to Speak the Language 327  multicultural background. green eyes. The following week.” she says. I appreciate the magnitude of the act. and self-destructive behavior in the form of scratching herself. “I don’t know” until I decide to address the relationship between us directly. I say. I hear her questions as a test of relationship: will I be authentic with her. When I ask if anyone has told her why she was coming to meet with me today.” and then I ask her. This detail catches my attention. she lived in shelters and multiple foster homes. “Are you married? Do you have your own apartment? Do you have children? Are you a student? Who do you live with?” Rather than exploring with Abby why at that moment she wants to know these things about me. Slim. uncertain. The referral note cites such problems as anger. has been referred to the clinic. She has a histor y of early physical abuse and severe neglect. sits up in her chair. Having been a teacher. she sits in the waiting room. Perhaps it was the sense of exhaustion. and she chooses to come with me by herself. her family relationships have been disrupted. stealing. The referral note also mentions that Abby saw a psychotherapist for over a year. During the middle of her latency years. A bright and academically successful girl. I tell her that I am not married. I feel worried about her. she was adopted into a single-parent home. She says. and that I am a student. running shoes. she looks up at me with large. Abby says quietly. “I’m asking you a lot of questions. with short brown hair. although she went to her sessions. “I saw the sign when we came in that . she did not speak at all. and also who am I? Deciding to take her questions at face value to let her know that I’m not hiding myself from her. “Do you want to ask me some questions?” Now Abby suddenly comes to life. and eagerly nods her head in assent. she recently stole her teacher’s grade book. Immediately.” She continues to respond to my questions by saying. “Why did you wonder if I am a student?” I ask. Throughout her infancy and early childhood. “Yeah. and jeans. but. I meet Abby. and tired. As I introduce myself. I offer to take the case. shy. I ask her whether she wants to come with me by herself or wants to bring her mother with her into the therapy room. engrossed in a book. wary. “I don’t know. smiles at me with bright eyes. that I have my own apartment. that I do not have children.

despite the knowledge of substantiated abuse in Abby’s current home. In our second session. that I will do all that I can to help her. I like that. I learn that a similar report of abuse had been f iled in the past year. deprived of food. She agrees to come back the next week. “I live on my own. We write down the addresses of friends’ houses close by where she can go if she is physically threatened. and I feel like crying but I don’t want to cry in front of the other kids. She recalls being removed abruptly from that home. They didn’t seem to care much. we construct a safety plan. and I give her other emergency phone numbers. she says that she tried to run away a year ago but that. called names. she names her favorite characters on television shows. Before she leaves.” I say that I do care. in response . slapped. She replies. but.328 Carol Gilligan and Lisa Machoian  said this was a teaching hospital. substantiated by that agency. she tells me that she remembers being in one particular foster home where she was hit. When I call the state child protective services. “I can’t take it anymore. and left alone for long periods of time with other foster children. When I remind her that I am mandated by law to report what she has told me to the state’s department of child protective services. when the police found her. Yet. kicked. or do you live on your own?” I tell her. “That’s OK.” When I ask her if she wants to tell me about what happened when she was little.” The agency closed the case because everyone was in therapy. “Sometimes at school I remember what happened to me when I was little.” Returning to the one unanswered question. Talking about her current situation at home. and verbally abused by her mother.” She tells me she is hit. she is classified as a “defiant adolescent butting heads with authority.” “How do you feel about my being a student?” I ask. she repeats. smiling. and she looks relieved. Abby tells me about an incident at school when a boy made fun of her because she did not live with her birth parents.” Abby then tells me about herself: she likes poetry and is good at soccer. She adds. they made her return. She tells me that she told workers from the state’s child protective service about the abuse: “They came and talked to me once and never came back. “Do you have roommates. she loves school and enjoys reading and writing. she says.

I’ll run away.” I say I know how hard it is not to be listened to and explain that I cannot change the shelter’s rules. that she is there and that she followed the safety plan. The next morning. and she refuses to speak to me. When the state’s investigator determines that Abby’s situation does not warrant removal from her home. During this time. Learning to Speak the Language 329  to my report. I tell her that I will do all that I can to find a good placement for her. to my relief. When she breaks a rule at the shelter that she says she did not know about. Abby stays at the friend’s house until the state’s investigation concludes. But because she ran away. she tells Abby she must return home. With permission from her mother and her friend’s mother. I believe our continued phone contact may be the key to understanding the rapid escalation of Abby’s behav ioral demands to be heard and taken seriously. Although Abby’s mother does not acknowledge her own abusive conduct—she blames Abby’s history instead—she does seem to have Abby’s best interests at heart. She had been physically threatened at home and went to the home of one of the friends on the list. I call her back. . This decision is critical since no residential settings would accept a girl her age without a referral from the state. although she is eventually found. that I take her feelings seriously. I’m going to run away. and the police are involved. Abby is not returned home and instead is placed in a 14-day temporary shelter for teens quite a distance from where I work. I receive an emergency phone call. when I call her school. especially right now as it is nighttime. Sobbing and deeply disappointed. I find. “Please get me out of here. She pleads. Abby has run away from home. her mother and I develop and maintain a very positive relationship.” she threatens. I ask the staff to leave Abby notes with my messages when she refuses to take my calls. Throughout Abby’s treatment. Abby calls. Abby and I remain in phone contact because she cannot come to sessions. Abby responds. she is punished by losing the privilege to walk home from school with her best friend.” which she proceeds to do. “If I go home. When I tell her that I am worried about her safety. they determine that they will investigate. she hangs up on me. “If I can’t get out of here. One evening during the week between Abby’s disclosure and the investigation.

” I receive an emergency call from the shelter staff. But the crisis evaluation team at the emergency room determines that her behavior is not dangerous enough to . a crisis evaluation team is summoned to assess her danger to herself. At this point. in the rain and got lost. in a hospital emergency room. they are concerned about suicidal thoughts and feelings. an idea that her mother supports as well. The other girl was frightened when Abby knocked on the doors of strangers’ houses to ask for directions. my agency. and. Abby and another girl ran down railroad tracks one night. She writes a note wondering if anyone knows how many times a day she feels like killing herself. indicating perhaps that she took my concern about her safety seriously. The crisis evaluation team does not think she should be returned home and recommends an out-of-home placement. T he adolescent shelter where she is currently residing recommends a group home. When they conclude that she is not a danger to herself. During her second week at the shelter. She writes a poem: “I want to be out of this horrible pain/this horrible life/my spirit yearns to break free/soar free out of this pain. the staff tells me she waved a butter knife during dinner and later was seen hiding in a nearby graveyard. the shelter. but the next day after school she “ran away”. that is. Abby becomes frankly suicidal. At the shelter. remarkably—although the crisis team. She returned to the shelter at sunset. She also runs away daily and does not return until well after dark.330 Carol Gilligan and Lisa Machoian  I learn from the shelter staff that Abby did not in fact run away that night. I continue to call her and leave messages for her when she refuses to speak to me. and Abby’s mother all request placement—the state’s child protective agency maintains the plan that she must return home at the end of the week because they do not think her situation is serious enough to warrant removal from her home. she walked home with her friend and spent the afternoon with her. Yet. she is sent back to the shelter. Abby is told once again by the state agency that she will have to return home at the end of the week. The staff of the shelter calls an ambulance to take Abby to the nearest hospital emergency room and decides her behavior is too potentially dangerous for her to return to their program.

Finally the state agrees to send her there. The following day Abby is sent to the adolescent unit of a psychiatric hospital. but child protective services still maintains the plan to send her home. she became silent in our relationship. where she stays for over three months. she learned the language that would be taken seriously and listened to—the language of violence—a language that everyone understands and also a language that is widely spoken in the society and culture in which she lives. She felt it was not safe for Abby to be in home care at this time. When she realized I was unable to protect her. The next day I drive to see Abby to reiterate my team’s recommendation for placement. Over the weekend Abby’s mother tells me it looks as though Abby might run away at any given moment and that she suspects that Abby turned on all the stove burners. Discussion It seems clear that Abby had to escalate her self-destructive behavior if she was to be effective in getting her needs met in this treatment system. The psychiatric hospital treatment team refuses to discharge her home and even provides her with free care when her insurance expires. She is sent that evening to a specialized foster home for the weekend. her mot her feared that t his youngster wa s psycholog ica l ly deteriorating quite rapidly. Learning to Speak the Language 331  warrant hospitalization. multiple clinical recommendations from various agencies. nor Abby’s speaking plain language had any effect in changing the plan to return her home. In our terms. Abby looks scared and exhausted but resumes speaking when she sees me and begins drawing with the markers I brought along. which she eventually discovered. although perhaps the very fact of the relationship gave Abby the courage to speak for . We eat lunch together while she waits to find out where she is going. although she stays in the emergency room for the night. one that allows her to continue to work with me. Neither my speaking on her behalf. They do not discharge her until an appropriate adolescent residential group home program is found for her. Although she said she liked Abby.

and now I’m in the program. later. her wish to kill herself.” When I asked her about her thoughts of killing herself. From Abby we have come to understand more clearly the relational dynamics of girls’ suicidality and its relationship to girls’ resilience and resistance. “It got people to listen to me. Abby’s suicidal.” .” is now at age 13 in danger of being classified as a “borderline personality. When the protective people wouldn’t listen to me and I was going to have to go home. they will be taken seriously. and.” Abby.” and “trying to get attention.” She explained. “It was calculated. but sadly and paradoxically it also disqualified her: she was labeled “calculating. I continued to meet with Abby in therapy. we talked about her running away. 104). I told them I would run away and they took me to the shelter. As one of the crisis evaluators says about Abby’s success in getting herself into a residential program rather than being returned home. if they do not actually kill themselves. she said. she said.” “manipulative. they will be dismissed as manipulative and will not be taken seriously. suicide attempts were described by many distinguished psychoanalysts as a cry for help.” This catch-22 signifies the escalation of the relational crisis in girls’ adolescence: if girls threaten to kill themselves. I ran away and then I went to the hospital. “I didn’t want to go that far. once labeled a “defiant adolescent. in the past. and her potentially self-harming acts and explored their meaning to her. When I asked her what she liked about running away. dangerous behavior was the only voice that was heeded and hence the only way she could get herself placed in a good prog ram for adolescents. Laufer (1995) writes that. to use the “language of violence” and to believe that she would be listened to and heard. “When they wouldn’t listen to me about how bad things were at home.” Clearly Abby’s suicidality was effective. Reporting on research with adolescents. However. Either way—killing themselves or not killing themselves—girls will lose relationship in the attempt to gain relationship.” “controlling. he writes that this “very apt term has fallen into disrepute because it has been used in a pejorative way about those who have attempted suicide. but I knew it would get them to notice. implying that they behaved in a manipulative way to draw attention to themselves” (p.332 Carol Gilligan and Lisa Machoian  herself.

Consequently. or when her experience is unspeakable.” in our terms. “Not caring. Here is an example: Isabel. Isabel was sent to a foster home. as girls say. Endangering herself. means giving up hope for connection. crashed it. In middle and later adolescence. paradoxically. depends on relationship. She was hospitalized and given the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). that is. I saw our relationship as supporting her resilience and encouraging a healthy resistance. The stories she told all had people interacting in them. It is important to recognize that young adolescent girls like Abby are looking for a way to express themselves that will be recognized. Following her hospitalization. and then ran away to New York. even her stories in response to the two cards where no people are pictured. as an active f ight for voice. When Abby felt that I had left her in a dangerous situation. she communicated her knowledge that she was in danger and was asking in effect if anyone cared. Learning to Speak the Language 333  LEARNING THE COMMUNICATIVE VALUE OF VIOLENCE When a girl discovers that her voice is not being heard or not taken seriously. or. that no one will listen. She ran away because for the first month she was not allowed to see or speak with any people from her past with whom she had relationships. or the sense of self. Abby’s suicidality can thus be understood as an active resistance to disconnection. cut her wrists at the age of 14. she stole a car. a sign of hope. following years of chronic childhood sexual and physical abuse. she literally hung up on me and then proceeded to dramatize her predicament by subjecting herself to the danger and potential violence to which others had been willing to subject her. where she survived . Relationship depends on voice—on the presence of self—just as voice. I understood her suicidal behavior as ref lecting both her intense need for recognition and her belief and hope for relationship.” we believe that creative resistance and a commitment to voice remain possible if she can sustain a sense of hope about a relationship. girls will often protect a bruised and fragile sense of self-worth by “not caring” or appearing not to care. it becomes. “No one will believe me.

Isabel has two children and is married to a man who batters her. and not merely as attacks on the self. such patients will not settle. she was hospitalized. as such. If the presence of people in her stories suggested a hope for relationships at age 14. leaving and speaking. Suicidal girls. At age 19. The suicidal act becomes. she was raped. in our view. and a right to it. the other is paying attention and cares whether they live or die. on some level. 103)..” He called this the “‘rock bottom’ attitude .” we draw also on the insights of the economist Albert Hirschman (1970) and his analysis of exit and voice. 170) and the “voice that means it” (p. Erikson observed that adolescents often reach for a “benediction which is to lead to the patient’s conviction that he is an alive person. Moreover. and. . When suicidal acts enable them to get what they need. Trautman et al.1982. Again given the TAT. at age 16. they are more likely to kill themselves. has a life before him. In his work with adolescent patients. an expression of that desire and also a test of that relationship. an attempt to find that immutable bedrock on which the struggle for a new existence can safely begin and be assured of a future” (p. 1991). Rotheram- Borus and Trautman. 1988. and when she threatened to go after and kill the rapist. that girls’ suicidal acts are often not letha l ref lect s g irls’ cor rect reading of their relationships: that. And then. told very different stories. For less. Isabel. but it may also lead such girls to give up hope. it is important to recognize girls’ discovery that the language of violence is taken seriously in our society. it is a misconstrual to see these acts as “manipulative. by rendering their desire for relationship a matter of life and death. by age 16 Isabel may have given up this hope. exemplify what Erik Erikson (1938) called the “meaning of meaning it” (p.334 Carol Gilligan and Lisa Machoian  by joining a prostitution ring. . as alternative . It is crucial to respond to adolescent girls’ suicidal behaviors as expressions of the desire for relationship. By suggesting that this bedrock is “relationship. When Isabel was 16. literally or psychologically.” Treating such behaviors in disqualifying ways may be effective in temporarily stopping them. Researchers have discovered that girls’ suicidal acts most often occur in close proximity to a person with whom they may have a desire to be in relationship (Hawton et al. Moreover. This time there were no people in Isabel’s stories.. 198).

and loyalty. Suicidal acts have typically been interpreted as acts of self-destruction or violence directed toward the self. we make sense of two seemingly anomalous findings: that. . The narrator begins by recalling her impoverished childhood: the house was old and cold. as Abby did with Lisa. Hence. we also note that girls may stress the difficulties and disappointments of their relationships and forget or dissociate themselves from the experiences of love that continue to fuel their hope for relationship. asking. . but her memory of love. Hirschman notes that the possibility of leaving increases the likelihood of speaking and that the option of speaking is more likely to be exercised in the presence of loyalty. but it also suggests that the act itself may express a complicated hope for relationship. a child’s illness became the last straw. compared with those of boys. The Bluest Eye. thick and dark as Alaga syrup . in fact. girls may alert us to the relational aspects of suicidal behavior that are more difficult to see or to read in boys and. voice. encourage us to think through our responses to suicidal behavior in terms of relationship and what it is that constitutes loyalty. with an edge of wintergreen in its . As we observe this phenomenon. I could smell it— taste it—sweet. Our relational interpretation of an adolescent girl’s suicidality stresses the relational communication of the violent intention or act. girls’ suicidal acts are. Learning to Speak the Language 335  responses to an unbearable situation. musty. not an idealized or romanticized image of love or of mothers. “But was it really like that? As painful as I remember?” What she had forgotten was love.” Hirschman’s analysis also brings us back to the issues of gender that are embedded in our discussion of suicidality. less likely to be self- destructive and that girls who act suicidally generally do so in close proximity to a relationship. At the beginning of her novel. Contrasting the “neatness of exit” with “the messiness and heartbreak of voice. In this way. Toni Morrison (1970) illustrates and then undoes this form of dissociation. A subtheme of our analysis has to do with the readiness with which girls learn to speak the language of violence when they discover that it is the coin of the realm. her mother overburdened and distracted. But then she stops herself. Observing the interplay of exit.

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