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Growing Up Fast: Teen Parenthood

Joanna Lipper | United States

These photographs first appeared in Joanna Lipper’s nationally acclaimed book, Growing Up Fast (Picador, 2003) .

Growing Up Fast tells the life stories of six teen mothers from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a post-industrial city in Berkshire County that was until the late 1980's, a manufacturing base for the General Electric Company. It documents the lives of these teenagers, their families and members of the community, as they witness factory closings and the transformation of their hometown under the strain of economic and social upheaval and the influx of drugs. Often masked by statistics, demonized by the media, and stereotyped by people of all political persuasions, the voices, stories and photographs of these teen parents reveal the complex, disturbing, and often painful reality behind a vast array of social issues including welfare reform, low wages, drugs, domestic and dating violence and the prevalence of child abuse.

Whenever teen parenthood is filtered through the media, so often the national spotlight remains fixed on the moral and theoretical battles waged between liberals and conservatives.  Each side comes to the table armed with competing agendas regarding sex education, contraception, abortion, family values, and the relationship between Church and State.   In contrast, most pregnant and parenting teens remain sequestered on the fringes of society, represented as statistics, deprived of a forum to refute those who stereotype them; positioned helplessly as scapegoats; and powerless to contradict those who have written them off as ignorant, irresponsible youngsters with doomed futures.  

Motivated by my desire to give teen parents a platform, I made a documentary film and subsequently spent four years researching and writing a book, Growing Up Fast (Picador, 2003). Accustomed to being neglected, criticized, marginalized, ignored and underestimated, the teen mothers I worked with craved recognition of their thoughts, validation of their feelings, and acknowledgement of their hard, often unappreciated work in their multiple roles as parents, students, and low-wage employees They wanted their views to be heard and taken into account; they wanted respect; and they wanted their presence and their children's needs to be taken seriously.

The first documentary film I ever made was about children and imagination.  That experience left me fascinated by the ways in which kids alternate between functioning as sponges absorbing the adult world around them, and acting as mirrors, reflecting the adult world back uncompromisingly, with all of its conflicts and defects-yet also with a certain innocence, hopefulness, romanticism and idealism.  As I worked with teen mothers, the sponge and mirror analogy came up in my mind as a framework for understanding why this particular population was so often the center of controversy and so frequently on the receiving end of scorn, resentment, and blame for so many of society's ills.  While I recognized that many taxpayers resented shouldering the economic burden of teen parenthood and its related consequences, I also recognized that negative reactions to teen parents ran way beyond purely economic parameters into moral and emotional territory. 

The body of a pregnant teenager is provocative precisely because its very shape and the implications of that shape-like a mirror-clearly reflect aspects of American life that many would prefer not to see.  The pregnant body of a teenage girl silently spells out what society does not want to verbalizeSexual abuse can be hidden.  Domestic and dating violence can be hidden.  Alcoholism, substance abuse and mental illness can be hidden.  The identities of the children of the two million Americans who are incarcerated can be hidden.  While all these insidious risk factors and forms of household dysfunction that are linked to teen parenthood can be hidden, denied or pushed out of immediate consciousness under most circumstances, at eight months, the body of a pregnant teenager articulates a powerful, highly visible, unequivocal reality that is difficult-if not impossible to ignore and this has incredible implications, economically and socially, that most people would rather not confront.

Toni Morrison addresses the complex dynamics of society's negative reaction to teen parenthood in her stunning first novel, The Bluest Eye.  In the following passage, the narrator talks about Pecola, a young girl who became pregnant after being raped by her father:               

"We tried to see her without looking at her, and never, never went near. Not because she was absurd, or repulsive, or because we were frightened, but because we had failed her."

In her autobiography, A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton recalls the scandalous reception of her novel Summer which was set in Berkshire County and dealt frankly with teen pregnancy and surrounding issues: 

"Summer was received with indignant denial by many reviewers and readers; not the least vociferous were the New Englanders who had for years sought the reflection of local life in the rose and lavender pages of their favorite authoresses -----and had forgotten to look into Hawthorne's."

These quotes say so much about why people often look the other way and dissociate from the issue of teen motherhood.   Often it is not just a statement about the individual teenage girl who has chosen to become a mother; it can also be interpreted as a statement about the society that all of us play a role in creating and sustaining both directly and indirectly through the officials we elect to represent our interests.

David Shipler's acclaimed book The Working Poor is subtitled "Invisible in America" and those three words get to the very heart of why videotaping and photographing the subjects of my book was an essential part of my research.  I photographed and videotaped all the main subjects of my book and used their real names because my book aims to unmask teen parents who are often obscured by statistics, lumped into categories, used as scapegoats and misunderstood.  It's too easy to dismiss an abstract, impersonal number or a character that is a composite of several people with their identifying characteristics obscured-and who therefore, is not quite real. 

The more real and concrete people are, the easier it is to identify with them and the harder it is to dismiss them.  The human element can be quite powerful.  By interspersing photographs throughout the text and by using real names, I was trying to break through boundaries of intolerance and ignorance to create an empathic connection that lessened the distance between reader and subject.  I wanted the unifying force of human compassion to override the class lines along which American society is so sharply divided.  Through the book and documentary, I wanted to bring these young parents out of the shadows to confront the adults who are shaping and influencing the world that their children and grandchildren will inherit.

For more information please visit www.growingupfast.com


















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 Joanna Lipper





“Compelling and important. This book adroitly illuminates a social crisis.” —Publishers Weekly


“A Dickensian collection of tales....  Exhaustively researched... Lipper builds a detailed case against the systems—schools, welfare, the Department of Social Services—that repeatedly fail these girls.” —The New York Times Book Review

"In nearly 400 fast-paced pages of wonderfully evocative prose, much of it in the words of her six subjects, all teen mothers, Lipper has actually conveyed the social and personal history of a growing class of Americans for whom there is little help and less hope. But this class of people has inner lives, and this is what Lipper is so deft at communicating...  Lipper has mastered all of the relevant data. She has also mastered the scholarship on teens, on teen families, on children of these families, on the families from which these mothers come…..  Lipper is not only a filmmaker and writer. She is a photographer, and the book's chapters are interspersed with probingly gentle photographs of the dramatis personae."   - The New Republic   


 “A revealing sociological perspective on girls ‘growing up fast.’  This deserves a spot on the shelf near Robert Coles’ similarly accessible investigations of contemporary social life.”



“...A searing, heart-rending account... a strong argument for better state funding of teen pregnancy prevention programs that have seen cuts in recent state budgets. Somebody -- an art teacher, a basketball coach, a pastor, a therapist -- has to throw lifelines to these girls before they grow up too fast in a world in which premature sex and motherhood are rites of passage."

-The Boston Globe


 “GROWING UP FAST, the story of six teen mothers in a burnt-out rust-belt city (originally the subject of a documentary) reveals much about welfare reform, domestic violence, and the state of public education.”—The Washington Post


“What emerges is a detailed, brutally honest look at families broken, dreams shattered, crime rampant, and a once-bustling city rapidly dying.... Four years in the making, this excellent investigational study belongs in all academic libraries.” —Library Journal


“A touching treatise on the role of individuality, responsibility, and luck in American society.” Salon.com


“There are many reasons why Pittsfield, and similar struggling post-industrial communities, find it difficult to get at the problems that plague them, and one major reason is that those who suffer most from social and economic ills have no voice.  Pittsfield's growing class of teenage mothers get that voice in the new book, GROWING UP FAST and they should be listened to.”The Berkshire Eagle


“What is society's role in this saga of young moms and dads continuing a legacy of unhappiness and dysfunction? Lipper does an excellent job of exploring how society in general and government in particular have failed to address the issue of single parenthood and its attendant issues of poverty, drug abuse, violence, and hopelessness.”  —Commonwealth Magazine


"Writing in the tradition of Winesburg, Ohio, Joanna Lipper takes us into Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Growing Up Fast is an astonishing book combining arresting portraits of mothers and fathers who are themselves children with a devastating depiction of a community living on the edge of economic despair."  -- Carol Gilligan, author of In a Different Voice

"Growing Up Fast is a haunting testament to the vast, unfinished business of the abandonment of the working class and the resulting trauma that continues destroying lives. Joanna Lipper takes on the hard task of really listening to the young women who carry on, and she honors their predicament by rigorously setting out the complex context of their lives. This is necessary, enraging work. We're very lucky to have it."
-- Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family

"America has been waiting for Growing Up Fast for too long...In telling the stories of Jessica, Shayla, Amy, Sheri, Liz and Colleen so sensitively, and often in the voices of the girls themselves, their families, friends and partners, this landmark work of empathy and of oral history reads like a nineteenth century novel of young women burdened by fates they did not choose. Everyone who works with young people and children should read this book; so should policy makers; so should parents; so should young people themselves." 

-- Naomi Wolf, author of Promiscuities


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