Psychologist Carol Gilligan is best known for elucidating the ways in which preadolescent girls, acceding to societal expectations, learn to stifle their innate wisdom and exuberance. In her latest work, loosely encapsulating two decades of variegated studies, she broadens her area of inquiry to extend to both sexes (young boys entering grade school, she has observed, begin to curtail their expressiveness in much the same way) and, by extrapolation, to question the diminution of joy that typically accompanies growing up. Ultimately, her aim is to examine, and possibly uproot, Western civilization's deeply ingrained adherence to a tragic story . . . where love leads to loss and pleasure is associated with death. It's an ambitious undertaking, and Gilligan covers a lot of ground cited sources range from W.E.
B. Du Bois to the Indigo Girls to prove an elusive point. Central to her thesis is an insistent gloss on the ancient story of Psyche and Cupid, whose dramatic, near-tragic courtship ultimately gave birth to a child named Pleasure. Beautiful Psyche, Gilligan holds, was something of a proto-feminist, refusing to accept the image imposed on her by a patriarchal society and deciding instead to seek love on her own terms. This reductionist approach often rankles: after all, the beauty of myths, their enduring value, lies in the fact that their meanings can't be so neatly confined.
Yet if one is willing to go along with this premise and attendant pronouncements, the journey yields all sorts of eye-opening moments, the most vivid of which involve Gilligan's recollections of her own mother, whose social and private selves seemed scarcely the same person. Still, memories of pleasure resurface, as well as her encouragement of my pleasure. Love does invariably entail loss, in that those we love die; it's the human condition. Gilligan is to be commended, though, for advocating in this brave, if sometimes frustrating book that we question our predilection for living on the far side of loss, east of Eden, as a way of protecting ourselves. Men and women alike, she contends, need to summon more courage if we are to transcend an age-old script. After all, as she notes: The birth of pleasure in itself is simple, but staying with pleasure means staying open. Sandy MacDonald is a writer based in Cambridge and Nantucket, Massachusetts.