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Girls, interrupted
In Growing Up Fast, documentarian Joanna Lipper offered a piercing look at teen motherhood. Now her book lets six young mothers tell their stories in their own words.

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.

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Issue Date: November 26 - December 2, 2004
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