In Growing Up Fast, Joanna Lipper pins the root cause of teen pregnancy in burnt-out Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on a sense of worthlessness and powerlessness that is best shorthanded as low self-esteem. Lipper, better known as a filmmaker, builds her case through extraordinary reporting: She follows the lives of six teen mothers over the course of four years, describing their maturation in clear, insightful prose.
Because these girls live in Pittsfield, a former manufacturing town devastated by General Electric’s downsizing in the ’80s, most of the adults they know are scrabbling for work or addicted to drugs. They become teen mothers because they aren’t confident enough to ask about birth control or fend off unwanted sex or tell their families they want abortions. And they are lonely: One girl chooses motherhood at 16 because she craves a baby’s unconditional love.
Though Lipper falters somewhat in her final chapter, presenting a haphazard assortment of policy prescriptions, Growing Up Fast succeeds because of the author’s evident respect for her subjects. She can describe teen motherhood honestly, as an arduous existence, a social ill to be prevented, without stigmatizing the girls whose lives are expressions of it. In one of the book’s most striking moments, Shayla, whose self-esteem Lipper initially describes as “achingly low,” drives her sick infant to a run-down hospital in the middle of the night and capably demands care until her son gets it. Motherhood has forced Shayla to mature, Lipper notes, and in the end, the pregnancy that stemmed from her low self-worth has also helped raise it.