I like seeing men here," whispers Joanna Lipper, motioning toward the dozen Y-chromosome-bearers mixed among the roomful of double Xs in Harvard University's Gutman Conference Center. The author and filmmaker is always pleasantly surprised when men turn up for her events, like tonight's screening of her 1999 documentary "Growing Up Fast," since they're usually dealing with an issue typically cast as a female interest: teen pregnancy.
By devoting four years of her life to her documentary and a 400-page nonfiction work of the same name, both about six teenage mothers raising children in the Western Massachusetts city of Pittsfield, Lipper has become a bona fide expert on the subject. Though her own private-school upbringing provided her with little firsthand experience, Lipper knows more about the big-picture aspects – statistics, legislation, education – of adolescent parenthood than most adolescent parents do. That's because in addition to interviewing the young women featured in her film and book, the 1994 Harvard graduate also devoured all the background materials on "economics, anthropology, sociology, industrial history, medicine, literature, psychology, politics, and environmental science" she could get her hands on.
In the year since her book, published by Picador, hit shelves and garnered effulgent praise from the likes of the New Republic ("Wonderfully evocative prose"), the Washington Post ("Should be mandatory reading in middle school"), and Mother Jones ("Extraordinary reporting"), it's become clear that it's "touched a wide spectrum of people," Lipper says. That's why she never knows exactly who'll drift into her various screenings, signings, and lectures. Sometimes it's a crowd of adolescents. Other times, it's a small army of concerned adults: social workers, high-school teachers, parents. Tonight, in addition to the outnumbered men and a pubescent boy, the audience is mostly professional women, many still dressed in office attire of brooches, blazers, and embroidered jackets.
"I wanted to talk a little about the journey I took along the road to this project," the redheaded, red-lipsticked young author, dressed in pointed-toe boots and an ankle-length skirt, says from the podium. "The film you're about to see tonight was actually the very beginning of the road."
Growing up in Manhattan, Lipper was both "very focused academically" and athletic, playing on basketball, softball, and volleyball teams. "I loved to read, definitely as a teenager and throughout my whole childhood. I lived vicariously through stories and I always loved storytelling." After high school, she attended Harvard, where she studied under esteemed professors like film-theory philosopher Stanley Cavell and literary theorist and cultural critic Elaine Scarry – an experience that, she gushes, "changed my life. I just really, really, really loved it."
Since she's usually the one conducting the interviews, Lipper is all too familiar with how far information can travel. She clings to her personal details, never imparting more information than necessary. But she's always happy to discuss "Growing Up Fast." She shot the film five years ago, after Harvard professor Carol Gilligan invited her to videotape a writing seminar organized through Pittsfield's Teen Parent Program, an alternative school for local adolescent mothers. Gilligan had seen Lipper's first film, "Inside and Out: Portraits of Children," a 1996 documentary featuring five-to-12-year-old children openly discussing their inner lives and fantasies, at the Boston Festival of Women's Cinema. The film, which Showtime eventually bought and aired on subsidiary network the Sundance Channel, demonstrated Lipper's talent for making people comfortable enough to reveal themselves candidly – likely a consequence of her postgraduate degree in psychoanalytic-developmental psychology from the University College London, which she attended after Harvard.
In the film version of "Growing Up Fast," Lipper introduces six young women: Shayla, a doe-faced beauty; angry MaryAnn; Colleen, a chunky Christian with a junkie boyfriend in the clink; Jessica, a model student whose reckless rendezvous with an older man who has already fathered three kids results in her own; Sheri, a wounded-looking teen abandoned by her boyfriend during her pregnancy; and Amy, a rebellious, stubborn party girl who got pregnant twice, by two different men. Each woman volunteered for the project and was forewarned about what it would entail. "Aware of the level of intimacy, involvement, scrutiny, and commitment that the project required, they agreed to let me into their worlds," Lipper recalls in an essay, "From Documentary to Book: The Making of 'Growing Up Fast,'" distributed as part of a publicity packet. "My impression was that the young mothers who volunteered to be in the documentary shared a deep desire to rebel against the negative stereotypes that were heaped upon them solely on the basis of their identity as teen mothers."
Each girl narrates her own history in the film, explaining the circumstances that led to her pregnancy. The camera follows Colleen to her Burger King job, and Sheri and her boyfriend to graduation and prom. But it never feels like exploitive voyeurism, just a candid glimpse into a lower economic and social echelon in which Lipper sees that teenage parenthood is "sometimes a rite of passage for young women" and incarceration "sometimes a rite of passage for young males."
That's certainly true of Shayla and C.J., high-school sweethearts who intentionally get pregnant. In the film, 16-year-old Shayla explains her mind-boggling motivation: "I thought it would make my life a lot better, not only in my relationship with C.J., but with my friends. I thought it would bring my popularity up because people would be like, 'Hey, she's got a baby, and that's cool.' " C.J. initially proclaims that with his son's arrival "my life started all over again." But even in the few months Lipper collected footage for the documentary, C.J., a fatherless substance abuser with a violent streak, becomes more interested in lifting weights, playing video games, and chilling with his tattooed homeys than in helping Shayla raise their son.
After completing the film, Lipper began to realize that her subjects' stories were much more complex and valuable to the national dialogue on teen pregnancy than she could possibly convey in a 30-minute documentary. "Once I met their extended families and their boyfriends and began to hear not just the voice of the teen mothers and the grandparents, I realized that this is a story about households across America. It wasn't just a specific girl in a specific place," Lipper explains. That's when she decided to collect the stories of most of the same girls for a book.
From a sociological standpoint, Pittsfield was an ideal place to research the factors contributing to teen pregnancy. It offered a perfect example of the effects of corporate downsizing on a community; General Electric had left the local workforce largely unemployed when it closed its area factories in 1998. And Pittsfield's teen birth rate was on the rise: according to statistics from the Berkshire Coalition To Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the number of births to teenage mothers in the city of 50,000 increased 24.8 percent between 1992 and 2002, and shot up 24.4 percent between 2001 and 2002 – though teenage births in America have reached their lowest annual rate in 60 years, according to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "By studying these communities where you have a jump like that," theorizes Lipper, "it can give you insight into the problem overall."
And Lipper was infinitely fascinated by what she was discovering. "I just found myself so compelled by the stories that were emerging, and by what I was learning personally about this place. It changed the way I looked at America as a country. It just really intrigued me."
After seeing the film, Liz, a Mexican girl who'd been shuttled between countless foster homes and who as a seven-year-old suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her mother's boyfriend, wanted to get involved with Lipper's work. "She was really pregnant [during the documentary filming]," remembers Lipper. "She was a minor and she was also living in foster care. And of course her mother didn't really want her to do the film, just because of all the circumstances. After the film was done and she saw it, she came back to me and she said, 'I really like the film and I'm living with my boyfriend, Peter. Is it too late for us to be part of the book?' "
As Lipper dug deeper, she continued to see that the factors contributing to these pregnancies were much more complicated than one bad decision. Sheri's mother had children as a teenager, but neglected them, did drugs, and fought violently with her live-in boyfriend. Nearly all the other girls were victims of the kinds of household dysfunction endemic to the childhoods of teen parents: alcoholism, substance abuse, incarceration, sexual abuse, domestic violence. Among the fathers of the girls' babies, four were eventually jailed.
Based on her research, Lipper feels there's too much emphasis in the public-school system on cognitive learning, and not enough on emotional or social education. Many of these young women don't know how to maintain healthy relationships because they've never witnessed any. "They want their children to have what they didn't have," says Lipper. "And so they sort of displace that onto the child, their own desires of what they're going to give the child.... Some of the girls who grew up with parents [who] ended up incarcerated ended up with guys who were in and out of jail.
"They have the best intentions," Lipper says, "but the irony is that often, the old patterns that they grew up with tend to resurface pretty quickly."
Over the subsequent four years, Lipper regularly visited Pittsfield, conducting interviews for her book with a handheld Sony digital video camera. She also taped phone conversations, photographed her six subjects, and kept reading secondary sources. Since the young women were juggling school, children, and jobs, she made herself completely available to them, willing to meet on their lunch breaks and in between classes. In the meantime, she fleshed out her research with interviews with Pittsfield officials, including the city's mayor and police captain.
In the resulting book, each of the six women – five are the same as in the book's cinematic counterpart; on the page, Liz appears in place of MaryAnn – gets her own chapter, consisting mostly of her own monologue. Lipper's voice isn't palpable in the text; her only obvious interventions are her gentle psychological assessments, occasionally interspersed between quotes, that tend to serve as emotional summaries. "What I tried to do was write a book that reads like a novel and preserves the vernacular of the subject," Lipper explains, citing journalist Studs Terkel and child psychiatrist Robert Coles as inspirations. "Instead of wanting to tell the story from my point of view, which was that of an outsider, I really decided that the story had to be told from the point of view of the insiders. It was really my effort to create a safe space, where they could travel within themselves."
Despite the critical acclaim lavished on "Growing Up Fast," not everyone has positive things to say about the book. The Teen Parent Program (TPP) tutors, many of them mentors to Lipper's subjects, don't really like it. "In Pittsfield, as in any city, there are teens who live in difficult situations," Teen Parent Program tutor Laurie Schwartz says, reading a statement on behalf of eight TPP tutors. "Having their personal issues made public and organized around a specific theme may serve to capture the reader's attention, but may not be in the young woman's personal best interest."
"Pittsfield is not a real big place," Schwartz explains. "[Lipper] used their names and their photographs. So when the book was published, everybody now knows not only who they are, but they know who was raped and who was sexually abused and whose mother was a substance abuser." She pauses. "As teachers who really know them, we not only felt very protective of them, we felt this was going to be really difficult for them to handle."
Though the TPP tutors complain about making these young women's secrets public, they don't discourage their students from reading Lipper's book. In fact, there's a copy of it in the TPP library. "Even students who are not avid readers will sit down and really be interested in that book," Schwartz allows.
That's why, in addition to having given these teenage mothers a medium in which to tell their stories, Lipper would also like to see Growing Up Fast used as a teaching tool. "It's really interesting to get really close to a story and read it as if you're living it and then go through all the ups and downs that some of the [teen mothers] went through." She's hoping the stories of teenage motherhood, even experienced only vicariously through her book, will deter kids from repeating the same mistakes. "Then maybe you don't have to go through it in your own life because you see how it turns out."
Because, of course, kids don't always realize that actions have consequences. "As a teenager, your long-term vision is somewhat limited," Lipper says. "You don't necessarily see the trajectory that lies ahead."
As for what she plans to work on next, Lipper doesn't want to confine herself just to film or literature. "I consider myself a filmmaker and a writer," she says. "I like using both modes of storytelling. I think they're both really different and they allow you to do different things ... I find the boundaries between the two have been fluid."