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Where Hope Isn't An Option

Lipper probes teen mothers' vanished youth

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There are a few photos of a young woman named Shayla within the pages of Growing Up Fast. In the earliest one, Shayla looks like the post-millennial all-American girl: a young African-American woman with caf-au-lait skin, stylish hair extensions, sexy hoop earrings, and a wide white smile as perfect as a pop princess'. Grinning in the arms of her boyfriend, Shayla is carefree, happy, and pretty enough to be a model.

In a later photo not too many pages farther in, the fancy extensions are gone, replaced by a sloppy short ponytail from which chunks of stray hair carelessly slip. Shayla's face is solemn, dimmed, and free of makeup. The hard-won wisdom in her expression makes her look almost old enough to be the mother of the beautiful young woman in the earlier picture.

I doubt that more than three years separate the two photos. Three years, the birth of a son, and the collapse of Shayla's illusions surrounding a doomed relationship with the abusive, damaged young man who made a baby with her, and later beat her and failed to pay her any child support.

Filmmaker-tuned-author Joanna Lipper spent a few years interviewing and observing teen mothers Shayla, Amy, Jessica, Colleen, Liz and Sheri, and in Growing Up Fast she chronicles the punishing, powerfully transformative time during which the six metamorphose from giggling girls chatting in the schoolyard into harried adults with bills, jobs, and babies. All six young women hail from Pittsfield, MA, and their rust-belt hometown is a powerful force in their lives and stories -- Pittsfield is a former General Electric boomtown that was economically destroyed after G.E. pulled out, removing jobs and opening the way for drug addiction, poverty and a multitude of stresses on local families.

Ever wondered what temptation could make a smart young woman sign on for the grueling drudgery and financial hardship of teen motherhood? Lipper makes it clear that for these six, it's not because of ignorance or any desire to be supported by the welfare state. She explains her own views on the causes of teen pregnancy in a quietly devastating paragraph:

Hope is the ingredient that is missing from the lives of so many young women who become teen mothers. In depressed communities. . .where positive role models, supportive mentors, fulfilling job prospects, decent incomes, happy marriages, and tangible achievements are hard to come by, the fantasy of motherhood promises unconditional love, an identity, and a sense of self-worth that comes from being vital to the survival of a tiny human being. In some particularly dark environments, a girl's fantasy of finding comfort and intense intimacy though sex that results in a baby may be the only sparkle in her otherwise bleak vision of her own future.

Lipper's skill as a journalist is still developing (this is her first book), and her newness to the literary genre is revealed in rare, scattered examples of sub-par writing. But her beginners' errors are few and forgivable, and her occasional lack of objectivity, while jarring, is clearly the byproduct of Lipper's respectful, compassionate devotion to these young women's complex inner lives and histories. The book's minor flaws don't outweigh its importance as a readable and deeply thought-provoking social document.

The lessons Lipper's subjects offer are profound, even for those personally untouched by poor reproductive choices and a premature entry into the consequence-ridden world of sex. These young mothers' eye-opening stories may make many readers suddenly and overwhelmingly grateful for having enjoyed the kind of reasonably secure, loving childhood that many of the six Pittsfield women missed out on. Growing Up Fast drives home with undeniable force just how thankful anyone should feel who was lucky enough to enjoy a childhood unmarred by drug-addicted caregivers, a childhood free from sexual and emotional abuse, a childhood spent in a safe, friendly, and relatively prosperous hometown.

If you know an at-risk young woman in danger of entering parenthood prematurely, there are probably few more life-altering and empowering things you could do for her than to find a way to share with her the hard, hard truths of this book -- and to show her the two pictures of Shayla.

Joanna Lipper's Growing Up Fast (which is a short documentary film as well as a book) has a website and photo gallery at www.growingupfast.com

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