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Interview: Carol Gilligan

What can Love and Diane's story teach us about the traumatic process of living with a damaging past? Distinguished psychologist Carol Gilligan shares her insights on the thorny questions that the film raises for everybody who has experienced personal conflict.

Love and Diane - Carol Gilligan

Carol Gilligan

POV: What's universal about the story of Love and Diane?

Carol Gilligan: Like any particular story, the universal is in the details. This is a human story, and any human being can relate to it. People do things that they regret, and then they try to go on in the face of it. Diane's courage, the hope that drives her, is a very beautiful thing. On the other hand, you can't shed your past. When Love comes back to Diane's house, she brings back that past, and we see how they try to deal with it.

POV: It's not much of a stretch to say that Love suffers from low self-esteem. What could be done to help her situation?

Gilligan: You have to ask, what are the sources of self-esteem in this world? One of the great sources of self-esteem is some form of accomplishment. You can't just create self-esteem. Diane would like Love to build her self-esteem on raising this child, Donyaeh, but that's very hard for a young woman who does not feel herself worthy of self-respect. A child who feels abandoned by a mother usually feels that it's because the child was worthless, that if the child had been worthwhile or "esteemable," the mother wouldn't have abandoned the child. Love has internalized that, and it's very hard to break.

The way out of that, usually, is through gradually drawing the self out to do things that the self could feel good about. A very simple, obvious road here is education. Education, music, art, athletics—all of those are avenues of self-esteem, ways to rebuild a shattered sense of self, a self that was never able to grip hold of a sense of being a worthwhile person in the world. But you have to build it on real things, real accomplishments.

POV: Is there a sense in which the U.S. "system" bears responsibility for Love's situation?

Gilligan: Some of the more painful scenes in the film for me were watching the interaction between the world that was supposedly offering help — the social work/therapy world—and these women in their lives. I think it raises a social question for everybody, which is, "What is a more in-touch, humane, helpful, developmental way of responding to people who get into trouble?" That's another universal story: people do get into trouble. What Jennifer Dworkin is trying to do is to wash away, as you would wash a window, what usually stands between us and hearing the humanity of the voices of these people. There's a whole set of moral judgments about who "they" are.

It takes a lot of time and a lot of relationships to respond to a situation like Love's. And that's just what this society doesn't want to support. You see a child who's been abandoned by a mother who herself was abandoned, and you want to break the cycle. We know how to do this, and we know it takes resources, but U.S. society is not devoting the resources. In a certain sense, the resources right now in this society are going to the opposite end of the social and economic spectrum.

POV: Do you see a connection between the situation in the film and what you've learned in your own research?

Love and Diane - Selected works by Carol Gilligan
Love and Diane - Carol Gilligan Bookcovers

Left: The Birth of Pleasure (Random House, 2003)
Right: In a Different Voice (Harvard University Press, 1993)

Gilligan: What I see in the film relates to the original work I did, which was a study of women who were pregnant and were thinking about whether to have the child or not to have the child. What Love says about wanting to have the child: "Because I wanted someone to love me, someone who would be for me" — I don't think I have her words exactly — that's almost verbatim out of some of the teenagers in In a Different Voice.

A girl's sense of herself, her valuing of herself and her development are undermined when they're not joined and strengthened. I think you can see that with both Love and Diane very clearly. What's remarkable about both of these women is the strength and clarity of their voices. You don't always like to hear what they say, but it's coming from their experience, and there is something very hopeful in that voice. It's their desire to do something about their situation. But if that desire is completely blocked and frustrated, they start to get confused, or they go on drugs, and you have all the problems that we're used to. I think the film is almost a demonstration that you can go into a situation that usually is talked about as "pathological" — you know, Love has HIV, Diane is poor, they're unwed mothers—and find remarkable strength. And I think the film leaves the viewer with the question: how can I support this, where can I go?

POV: To what extent is Love's situation an outcome of her troubled relationship with her mother Diane?

Gilligan: It's a perfect repetition. Looking at Diane is like looking into a crystal ball. You see Love. So the question is, should this go another generation? Left by itself, it will repeat. And yet the wisdom and the knowledge of psychology comes in and says, this doesn't have to repeat, you can break this cycle. And then, I think, we have to say collectively, what stake do we have in repeating it? I think the brilliance of the film is that it says, "We're not going to ignore these people, we're going to listen to them."

POV: What do daughters need from their mothers to become good mothers themselves?

Gilligan: To become a human being, or to become a good mother herself, a daughter needs to feel that she is a lovable, worthwhile, valuable and unique human being. If the daughter feels that about herself, because her mother feels that way about her, then it will follow down to the next generation, and she will approach her child as a person who is lovable and has a voice that is worth listening to with care and respect. In some ways, it's so simple.

What's remarkable about Love & Diane is that in the face of enormous obstacles, some of this still shines through. Diane hasn't given up on Love, and Love calls on Diane from the street. That was very poignant for me. So there's a sense that there's a potential here, but to realize it, all this other stuff has to be worked through. I think the ethics of the film, if you want to put it that way, is that the film itself enters this process, and provides an opportunity in a way that the social service system somehow couldn't. And that's fascinating to me, that artists can come in and do something that the social services system has been unable to do.

Carol Gilligan is one of America's most distinguished writers and teachers in the field of psychology. She was born and raised in New York City and earned her Ph.D. from Harvard where she was a member of the faculty for 34 years. Her award-winning research led in 1997 to the creation of Harvard's first professorship in Gender Studies and in 2001 to the founding of the university's Center for Gender and Education. Her 1982 book, In A Different Voice, has been translated into 17 languages. Returning to New York to become University Professor at NYU, she lives with her husband in New York City and in the Berkshires.





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