Growing Up Fast

Joanna Lipper




Trade Paperback

432 Pages



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Growing Up Fast tells the life stories of Amy, Liz, Collen, Shayla, Sheri, and Jessica—six teen mothers whom Joanna Lipper first met in 1999 when they were all enrolled in the Teen Parent Program in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Making a short documentary film was only the beginning of an extraordinary journey that continued for four years as Lipper videotaped and thoroughly interviewed these girls, their families, and the fathers of their babies. This raw material was the basis for Growing Up Fast, which, in the words of Naomi Wolf, "reads like a nineteenth-century novel describing young women burdened by fates they did not choose."

Less than a decade older than her teen-parent subjects, Lipper was able to blend into the very fabric of their lives. She earned their trust as they shared with her in much detail the daily reality of growing up too fast in an economically depressed postindustrial landscape.


Praise for Growing Up Fast

"Extraordinary reporting . . . Clear, insightful prose . . . Growing Up Fast succeeds because of the author's evident respect for her subjects."—Mother Jones

"Lipper, an accomplished documentary filmmaker, takes a close look at the desolate landscape of family life in Pittsfield, Mass., once 'inextricably intertwined' with General Electric, now an economic wasteland with few decent jobs to offer. She zeros-in on the lives of six teenage mothers, some single, some divorced, and some temporarily 'hooked up' with unreliable or unsavory men, the teen fathers of their babies or the next boyfriend in line. The narrative focuses on their lives as daughters in families that range from the solid to the dysfunctional; these are teenagers who crave attention and thrills, and those desires get them into trouble that lasts a lifetime . . . Lipper's portrait of each of these teenage mothers is sympathetic but clear-eyed. Their stories unfold slowly and patiently, confronting the reader with a litany of violent relationships, desperate desires for affection and social status, and romantic longings that lead almost inexorably to out-of-wedlock motherhood. In an economy in which only the well-educated will garner jobs good enough to support a family, Lipper's young moms have practically no chance to overcome their early mistakes . . . Readers looking for a slice of life in deindustrializing America will find much to admire about this book . . . What [Growing Up Fast makes] perfectly clear is that becoming a teen mother poses an enormous challenge, even for the most determined. The book should be mandatory reading in middle school, for as the young mothers themselves explain, had they known what they were getting into, they never would have walked this path."—Katherine S. Newman, The Washington Post

"A searing, heart-rending account . . . In their own words, the girls describe home lives from hell, full of drug addiction and physical and sexual abuse, presided over by parents who are, with rare exceptions, hopelessly unfit. The girls' lives are often said to be 'empty,' and they are: of positive interests or role models. But they are full of violence and hypersexualized media that make teen motherhood look to them more like a solution than the difficult challenge it inevitably is. 'I wanted a baby so I'd have a friend 24 hours a day,' one mother told Lipper . . . [This book makes] 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."—Donald MacGillis, The Boston Globe

"[This] book does what no short film can do. In nearly 400 fast-paced pages of wonderfully evocative prose, much of it in the words of her six subjects, all teen mothers, [filmmaker and writer] 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 [these] people [possess] inner lives, and this is what Lipper is so deft at communicating . . . [Her book] will burden the conscience of its readers."—The New Republic

"Lipper has chosen six teenage mothers from Pittsfield and, against the backdrop of their disintegrating town, lets them tell their stories. It is a Dickensian collection of tales . . . [Her] exhaustively researched book grew out of her short award-winning documentary film on these six mothers. She found them among the many belonging to Pittsfield's Teen Parent Program, a day school for adolescent mothers that offers an array of services from child care to medical care. She then spent four years visiting, observing and interviewing the girls—four white, one Hispanic, and one black—and their families for this book . . . Lipper builds a detailed case against the systems—schools, welfare, the Department of Social Services—that repeatedly fail these girls . . . Still, [Lipper is a writer who] can paint the poignant moment nicely."—Lucinda Franks, The New York Times Book Review

"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

"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. 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 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 Amy, Liz, Collen, Shayla, Sheri, and Jessica so sensitively, and often in the voices of the girls themselves, their families, friends, and partners, this [book represents a] landmark work of empathy and of oral history . . . 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

"Lipper's book works as a literary representation of the film 8 Mile."—Nelson George, author of Hip-Hop America

"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 issues."—

"In her compelling and important first book, documentary filmmaker Lipper recounts the difficult lives of six teenage mothers in economically depressed Pittsfield, Massachusetts . . . This book adroitly illuminates a social crisis."—Publishers Weekly

"Far from being a charming New England burg, Pittsfield, Mass., is, well, the pits. First, General Electric pulled out in 1986, leaving thousands jobless. Then, PCB contaminated most of the city. Finally, drugs, prostitution, and crime took over—and the number of unmarried teen mothers soared. Psychologist Lipper, expanding on her 1999 documentary film of the same name, [in this book] profiles six teen mothers over four years. What emerges is a detailed, brutally honest look at families broken, dreams shattered, crime rampant, and a once-bustling city rapidly dying. Each chapter is a variant of the next, showing 14- and 15-year-olds who fought with parents, dropped out of school, enjoyed casual sex, considered domestic violence the norm, used drugs, and opted to continue a pregnancy rather than seek an abortion. Lipper discovers how teen mothers often change the usual spelling of their babies' names (e.g. Ezakeil, Leeah, and Kaliegh) to show that they are special, and she digs deep to reveal how the Pittsfield hospital set up lucrative contracts with New York City's Medicaid (as a result, hundreds of addicts were shipped to Pittsfield, where they often stayed and set up dealerships). Four years in the making, this excellent investigative study belongs in all academic libraries, particularly those supporting sociology and psychology programs."—Linda Beck, Indiana Valley Public Library, Telford, Pennsylvania, Library Journal

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Chapter One

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  • Joanna Lipper

  • Joanna Lipper is a writer and filmmaker who lives in New York City. She has made two documentary films, Inside Out: Portraits of Children and Growing Up Fast. She is also the writer/director of a remake of the 1953 classic Little Fugitive. This is her first book.

  • Joanna Lipper