Feature

While San Francisco and Seattle experience periodic jolts of earthquake activity, Lincoln, Neb., is undergoing its own seismic shifts--only Lincoln's are cultural, says best-selling author, psychologist and social observer Mary Pipher, PhD.

Hundreds of immigrants and refugees are flooding the gates of this typical Midwestern town, challenging a community previously defined by close-knit but insular bonds. The resulting shock is just the sort of challenge Pipher revels in.

"Lincoln has been the most white-bread, homogeneous place forever, and all of a sudden, that's being upended," the 53-year-old Lincoln native comments. "We have immigrants and refugees from 52 language groups, and Lincoln has become one of the top 20 diverse communities in the nation."

As keynote speaker at the APA Annual Convention's opening session Friday, Aug. 24, from 5­6 p.m., Pipher will tantalize attendees with tidbits from her forays into this new territory, the subject of a new book to be released next spring titled "The Middle of Everywhere: The World Comes to Nebraska."

Her new book is her best yet, believes the author of the mega-best-selling "Reviving Ophelia" and three other works.

"After I finish a book, I always say, 'This one's my favorite,'" Pipher chuckles. "But this one really is my favorite. I felt more intellectually alive writing it than I've felt in my entire life."

A cultural pioneer

That fills a tall order. Pipher has reaped uniform praise for her pioneering works on several of our country's forgotten populations, including adolescent girls, the frail elderly, women with eating disorders and families in transition.

"Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls" (Grosset/Putnam, 1994) was on the New York Times best-seller list for nearly three years. "The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding our Families" (Grosset/Putnam, 1996) and Pipher's most recent work, "Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders" (Putnam, 1999), which chronicles the world of the very old and their families' efforts to care for them, also hit the best- seller list.

Critics laud Pipher's books for their canny observations on human relations, their graceful language and their cultural breadth. Pipher, a psychotherapist for many years, knows intimately the terrain she writes about and shares practical insights on how family and community members can foster one another's growth, healing and well-being.

With her new book, "I'd like to help prepare people for the new world we're entering, and have people's attitudes toward this new world be interested, eager and accepting, versus fearful and rejecting," says Pipher, who received her PhD in psychology from the University of Nebraska and a BA in cultural anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley.

To this end, she spends much of her professional time these days with Lincoln's newcomers, helping them navigate the system and providing them with therapy, which she now does only for free.

New encounters of a close kind

Those new to Lincoln include people as diverse as Kurdish refugees fleeing oppression in the Middle East and young members of the Dinka tribe, pegged by the media as the "lost children of Sudan." Some 20,000 of these young people were separated from their parents during a bloody, ongoing civil war that left many homeless and on the run.

Intersections between these newcomers and longstanding Lincoln residents range from frustrating to touching to downright funny, Pipher says. A group of Asian Hmong people entering Lincoln, for instance, didn't know the world was round, and believed that when they flew to America they were going to heaven, she says.

Many Lincoln residents, Pipher adds, are doing a wonderful job adapting their Midwestern values to their new neighbors. "If you walk into one of our local libraries, you're likely to see a table filled with kind, sweet, middle-aged women working with small dark people with furrowed brows who are trying to learn algebra," she laughs.

In another effort, a group calling itself "The One Hundred Lawyers" offers free legal services to the newcomers, while local churches set aside a day a week to drive refugees wherever they need to go. "There's a lot of welcoming going on," Pipher says. "Many people are really excited and interested and eager to learn about these people. They're really on fire about how much fun it is."

Lincoln residents who aren't rising to the challenge appear to be victims of what Pipher calls "JPI," her acronym for "just plain ignorance."

"A lot of remarks I hear people make are actually the result of a lack of understanding," she says.

Personal rewards

Tailoring the mental health system to better accommodate these new realities may help everyone involved, Pipher believes.

"Our mental health system is still very much locked into the paradigm developed in the late 1800s by white, educated Europeans," she says. Features of that model include the importance of verbal disclosure, uncovering a person's hidden motives and processing the past.

"While that's a pretty broad paradigm, it's not nearly broad enough," Pipher asserts. "Many of the ideas we have about what will help others need to be updated."

New models should include the latest knowledge on what strengthens people's natural resources and an understanding of cultural differences, she says. One of the best ways to change the system is to take time with people to understand them, she emphasizes.

She recounts the personal reward she has gleaned from her own experience helping a young Kurdish woman who had been working in a factory sign up for college.

"I got up at 6:30 a.m. on an icy day, and it was a big hassle getting through the bureaucracy to sign her up for classes and financial aid," Pipher recalls. "I was just thinking to myself that this was taking up a whole morning of writing, when she turned to me and said, 'I am the first woman ever to go to college in my family.'"

A desire to help others and glean such personal renumeration is exactly what Pipher hopes her book will kindle.

"My hope," Pipher says, "is that people who read it will say, 'I'm going to help a refugee learn English,' or 'I'm going to hire an immigrant to work in my business.'"

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.