In 1917, Edith Wharton wrote the novel Summer. Set in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts, Summer tells the story of Charity Royall, a teenage foster child who finds herself pregnant and alone after a short-lived romance. Wharton’s novel could have been set 80 years later and still it would be topically relevant. As Joanna Lipper describes in her recent book Growing Up Fast, the dilemmas facing Charity are the same ones daunting too many young women in the Berkshire region today.
The Berkshires are widely known as an upscale tourist destination, boasting popular attractions such as Tanglewood and Canyon Ranch Spa. However, just miles from these posh retreats — and from Edith Wharton’s own lavish estate — is the troubled town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Although it shares the same picturesque setting, Pittsfield might as well be 1,000 miles away from the economic prosperity that has graced much of the rest of the area. It is in Pittsfield that Joanna Lipper uncovered the stories of six teenage moms whose experience often bears uncanny similarities to that of Wharton’s fictional heroine. From their stories, she created Growing Up Fast.
Lipper, a documentary filmmaker, originally created a short film of the same title in 1999. The book, published in November 2003, takes a more in-depth look at the lives of the teen mothers originally profiled in the film: Amy, Liz, Colleen, Shayla, Sheri, and Jessica. Lipper’s accounts avoid the twin traps of condemnation and pity. Instead, she allows the young women’s stories, told with respect and clarity, to speak for themselves, while simultaneously framing them with a discussion of the sociological and economic conditions contributing to the high rate of teen pregnancy in Pittsfield.
One is tempted to call teenage pregnancy in Pittsfield an epidemic. The statistics that Lipper offers are striking: in this small city of 45,000 people, almost 60 teenagers gave birth each year from 1995 to 2000. That means that in any given year, about one in 14 Pittsfield high school girls were pregnant. What accounts for this high rate of teen pregnancy? One teen mom, Jessica, cuts right to the chase: “Pittsfield is very boring. . . . That’s probably why there are so many pregnant people around here, because there’s nothing else to do but have sex.”
Jessica’s flippant analysis nevertheless hints at the complex social circumstances contributing to Pittsfield’s high rate of teenage pregnancy. Primary among these was the closure, in the early nineties, of General Electric’s Power Transformer Division, which had previously employed up to three-fifths of Pittsfield workers. The plant’s closure started a cascade of economic casualties, culminating in a population decline of almost 12,000. Add to this an environmental crisis — the uncovering of extensive PCB dumping — and an influx of drug dealers from the New York City area, and you’ve got the recipe for a town with a low self-image and even lower hopes.
Having established this context, Lipper turns to the profiles of each of her six subjects. Lipper’s filmmaker’s eye is evident in her detailed, sensitive descriptions of each of the six young women and their circumstances. For example, writing about Colleen, 16-year-old mother to Jonathan, whom we later learn has two serious neurological conditions, Lipper observes: “When Jonathan was done feeding, Colleen held him on her lap, fidgeting with him incessantly: tugging at his shirt, diapers, and socks; smoothing his hair down with the palm of her hand; shifting him from one side of her lap to the other. Colleen’s hands were hardly ever still. In contrast to his mother, Jonathan was incredibly immobile.” Lipper’s descriptions give the reader a strong emotional connection to these young women, as do the striking black-and-white photographs of mothers, fathers, and children scattered throughout the text (the photographs can also be seen online here).
Although Lipper’s own writing helps to provide background for the girls’ stories and to piece together the four years of history that make up each profile, she is also skilled at sitting back and letting her subjects’ voices be heard. They speak matter-of-factly about the circumstances leading them to become pregnant, intentionally or not: childhood molestation, involvement with gangs and drugs, abusive relationships, estrangement from family. They also speak at length, sometimes quite eloquently, about being mothers. Amy, the mother of two preschool children, says, “I’m 19 going on 20, and I feel like I’m 50. I’m just so tired. I do what people are supposed to do when they’re 30, or in their late 20s. I’m running around all the time, getting up early, working, and chasing kids. . . . It’s hard. I feel like I’m old.”
In addition to capturing the voices of these six young women, Lipper also interviews their families and the fathers of their children. Some of these fathers, many of whom are teenagers themselves, are absent or in jail (incarceration, Lipper points out, is often a rite of passage for teenage boys in Pittsfield much as pregnancy is for girls). Others, though, maintain long-term relationships with the mothers of their children and express deep love and commitment to their kids. Peter, who was 19 when his girlfriend became pregnant, works hard as an assistant manager at KFC, but, he says, “When I’m in regular clothes, I’m this little guy’s dad and Liz’s boyfriend. The thing that makes me the most happy is coming home to my family. I like waking up knowing I still have them with me.”
Throughout, Lipper maintains a journalistic objectivity, telling her subjects’ stories without sentimentalizing their circumstances. Even so, the stories’ emotional depth will resonate with readers. Particularly poignant are these girls’ childhood dreams and ambitions, so many of which were sidetracked by circumstances outside their control. Shayla, for example, is a startlingly lovely young woman who dreamed about being either an NFL cheerleader or a professional model — but her parents’ violent relationship, her father’s drug-related incarceration, and Shayla’s own verbally abusive boyfriend all seem to derail Shayla’s dreams. Too discouraged to follow through on her long-term goals, Shayla became pregnant at 16. At age 20, Shayla still dreams of being a cheerleader, saying, “I know that a lot of the girls that are Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders have kids. So they must be able to do both. They make their schedules for dance classes and their exercising fit in with being a mom.”
Shayla’s continued dreams of cheerleading may seem naive in light of her life at the end of her story, working at Dunkin’ Donuts while raising two small children with virtually no support. Although many of these young women seem trapped in dead-end jobs and dead-end relationships, others, like Jessica, have at least some hope of escaping this suffocating environment. Jessica, an honor student, was able to graduate from high school and find scholarship assistance to attend nursing classes at the local community college. Despite problematic relationships with her son’s father and other men, Jessica took advantage of all the social services available to her, and she seems to have a good shot at leaving Pittsfield someday.
As Jennifer Niesslein has pointed out in a recent article in Brain, Child, the future might not be as bleak for teen moms as we might think. Niesslein, whose two sisters both became moms in their teens, writes, “Erin, at 20, was potty-training her toddler. But when Erin is 36, she’ll have money in the bank and the opportunity to throw herself into whatever she pleases. . . . At 36, I will still need a babysitter.” One hopes that the six mothers profiled in Lipper’s book, few of whom benefited from the kind of financial and emotional support Niesslein’s family provided, can view their own young motherhood as an opportunity of sorts.
At the close of Growing Up Fast, several of the young mothers, guided by their mentors in Pittsfield’s Teen Parent Program, stage a reading of Edith Wharton’s novel Summer. Many Pittsfield community leaders objected to the performance, arguing that they didn’t care to see these girls, and certainly did not want to celebrate them. Theater director Tina Packer retorted by saying, “Within a community, if you don’t hear what teenagers are saying and if they sense they are not being heard, it’s difficult to make progress in getting them out of that cycle.” Joanna Lipper, by allowing these young women to tell the stories behind the statistics, has taken a first step toward breaking the silence and the cycle of teen pregnancy in Pittsfield.