An unsentimental look at teen parents in Pittsfield

Growing Up Fast
By Joanna Lipper
Picador, New York, 432 pages.

The Berkshires, or “America’s premier cultural resort,” as the region is referred to by the local Chamber of Commerce, is also the home of wrenching poverty–much of it in Pittsfield, the bleak industrial city just a few miles away from the cultural tourism hubs of Lenox and Stockbridge. Social service agencies now dominate a quiet downtown that, during the glory days of General Electric, throbbed with life, as GE workers and their families strolled in and out of busy stores. The agencies help the unemployable, the drug-addicted, the alcohol-ravaged, and, in alarming numbers, the young, single mothers.

The Teen Parent Program is the agency charged with the challenging task of helping these young moms deal with the difficult, often cruel, realities of their new lives that they had never anticipated, and it was to workshops at the Teen Parent Program that filmmaker Joanna Lipper, at the invitation of psychologist Carol Gilligan and her colleague Normi Noel, came to make a documentary. Over a period of four years, Lipper interviewed young mothers, their parents, and the fathers of their children. The result was not only a film, chosen as one of the outstanding short documentaries of 1999 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but now a book, Growing Up Fast, which turns the desperate young mothers who are usually no more than the stuff of government statistics into flesh and blood and tears.

Growing Up Fast focuses on six young moms–Amy, Shayla, Jessica, Colleen, Liz, and Sheri–as they confront societal obstacles that their youth and naiveté leave them ill- prepared for. The story of Colleen, who grew up in Dalton, a small town bordering Pittsfield, is representative of them all.

An alcoholic father and a depressed mother created a turbulent home environment that, in essence, deprived Colleen of her childhood. Her boyfriend, Ryan, is a heroin addict with a similar background, yet Colleen sees him as a white knight who may rescue her from her unhappy life. She is confident that Ryan’s weak points–drug addiction, a propensity for violence and petty theft–are things she can correct.

Unprotected sex leads to Colleen’s pregnancy, which does not contribute to Ryan’s anticipated reformation. He assaults Colleen, kicking her in the stomach, and is arrested and jailed. Neither does the birth of her child magically transform her life as she had hoped it would. She goes to school, with young Jonathan watched by her parents, who appear to have been jolted into sobriety by the birth of their grandson, then returns home for a few brief moments with her son before heading to her job at Burger King. After work, she heads back home, falls into bed, and begins the cycle again the next day.

Ryan responds to her visits to him in jail with verbal abuse, accusing her of cheating on him–as if she had the time. Nonetheless, Colleen convinces herself that this is not the “real” Ryan and she can still rescue him. When Ryan is freed, the couple moves in together, where the verbal abuse turns into physical abuse. Colleen, who blamed herself for much of her parents’ fighting, convinces herself that she is the cause of Ryan’s behavior and sinks into the paralyzing depression that has plagued her mother.

The clouds finally begin to part for Colleen when Ryan, whose heroin habit and thievery have kept the cops on his tail, flees to Florida. With Ryan’s abuse now limited to long-distance phone calls, Colleen moves back in with her parents, along with her son, and begins taking courses at Berkshire Community College.

Jonathan, however, is showing signs of problems. His right hand is clenched at all times and he drags his legs behind him when he scoots along the floor. For nearly a year, Colleen avoids taking him to the doctor, afraid of what she might learn. When she finally does, a neurologist informs her that her baby has cerebral palsy and polymicrogyria, a rare brain disorder. He will have difficulty controlling movement and posture and most likely will have impaired cognitive and verbal abilities. Since cerebral palsy can be caused by problems during pregnancy, the doctor asks Colleen if she experienced any trauma during her pregnancy. In denial to the end, Colleen says no.

Growing Up Fast goes on in this way with the stories of five other teen mothers, the particulars differing but the basic similarities strikingly and demoralizingly similar. The young moms and dads come from broken or dysfunctional homes, and they behave much as their parents and stepparents did. The girls believe that having a baby will improve their lives and aid in their efforts to reform their boyfriends. When this doesn’t prove to be the case, the girls generally soldier on. A couple of them try, selfishly if understandably, to join in the carefree social lives of their childless friends. Meanwhile, the boys make themselves scarce or react abusively, out of panic as well as irresponsibility.

Products of the MTV culture and prone to long hours in front of the television set, the single moms and their boyfriends have a worldview that bears little correlation to reality. A few of the young people profiled express a desire to become actors or models or wealthy in some fashion. Failing this, they go to work at Burger King. (Without belaboring the point, Lipper points out how much hugely profitable fast-food chains benefit from a large, uneducated class of young people with no other options for employment.) The vast middle ground of opportunity that lies between fast-food worker and celebrity doesn’t exist for these young parents; if they know it is out there, they don’t know how to reach it or lack the time and energy to make the attempt.

The sameness of these stories is a strength of Growing Up Fast, as it pounds away at the social problems behind broken homes and broken lives, resulting in the next generation of young parents who are a product of this dysfunction and carry on the sad tradition. In one sense it is a weakness, however, as incidents and actions that were shocking the first time around become numbing through repetition. A shorter, punchier book that concentrated on just four or five girls would have been a better book, if only by degree.

What is society’s role in this saga of young moms and dads continuing a legacy of unhappiness and dysfunction? Lipper does an excellent job of exploring how society in general and government in particular have failed to address the issue of single parenthood and its attendant issues of poverty, drug abuse, violence, and hopelessness.

But Lipper does provide some rays of hope in the fine organizations these young women come in contact with, the Teen Parent Program first and foremost among them. Jessica is able to attend Berkshire Community College thanks to a grant arranged by the college’s financial aid advisor and Berkshire Works (a collaboration between the state Division of Employment and Training and the Berkshire Training and Employment Program), which pays for her books. Many of these and other beneficial programs, however, have been hamstrung by severe budget cuts, and given the political climate in Boston and Washington, DC, that reality is not likely to change for the better anytime soon.

Young, single moms inevitably find themselves enmeshed in the welfare bureaucracy. Beacon Hill has congratulated itself in recent years because the welfare numbers have declined considerably. This is in part because of stricter work requirements –which send moms to the Burger Kings and Kentucky Fried Chickens, where they often work double shifts to make ends meet. Are “reform” measures to be celebrated when they leave babies to vegetate in poorly run day care centers or put children in the care of unstable grandparents? Lipper makes a convincing case that they should not be.

There are good day care programs in the Berkshires, but not enough of them. Shayla is dismayed when young Jaiden returns from a home day care bruised and withdrawn. Exhibiting the denial typical of these young mothers, Shayla explains away these injuries, rationalizing that her hyperactive son banged himself up playing, until the woman running the day care center dies of a drug overdose. These bruises are likely to turn into psychological scars that Jaiden will carry into young adulthood.

Growing Up Fast also portrays the foster home bureaucracy as a complete nightmare. Foster parents, at least the (unnamed) ones we see here, are in it solely for the money, warehousing kids at best, further contributing to their misery at worst. When the young girls or boys inevitably run away, they are tracked down and returned to their parent or parents, where the problems that sent them to foster care in the first place remain unaddressed. Soon enough they are in another dysfunctional foster home where the vicious circle continues. A foster care system this destructive needs radical reform, but again, there is little reason to see that happening.

The public schools seem to do little for the troubled teens in their classrooms, but it is hard to find fault with the harried teachers we see in Growing Up Fast. The shedding of teachers is an annual ritual in Pittsfield, as it is in many financially strapped school systems. The inability of teachers who are struggling to teach in overcrowded classrooms is just another of the societal and political failings Lipper illustrates.

The main weakness of Growing Up Fast is Lipper’s superficial knowledge of Pittsfield politics. Those who see Pittsfield as a helpless victim have her ear. Yes, General Electric’s slow departure from the city has led to a loss of jobs, income, and hope, not to mention the creation of related social problems. But while Pittsfield sees itself as unique, its story is shared by any number of New England and Northeastern industrial cities, many of which have found ways to bounce back. Pittsfield’s inclination to self-pity has slowed its response to problems that are all too common.

Nonetheless, Growing Up Fast should find an audience among readers who know or care nothing about Pittsfield because the plight of the six teen mothers is a universal one. The counterparts of Amy, Shayla, Jessica, Colleen, Liz, and Sheri exist all over Massachusetts and all around the country. Lipper’s book is powerful because she resists the temptation to preach and overanalyze, letting the girls speak for themselves.

Lipper tries to leave us on an upbeat note, and it is hard not to be cheered by the outreach program launched by Shakespeare & Co., the Lenox-based theatrical group, and its artistic director Tina Packer. Edith Wharton, that great chronicler of societal hypocrisy, lived and wrote in the Berkshires, and Packer’s workshops with young mothers employ Wharton’s works to help them understand that many of the problems they face are age-old, and that they don’t defy solution.

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Still, the larger sense a reader is left with is that of a lost class of young people, deprived of role models, repeating the mistakes of their parents, lacking self-esteem or a reason to hope, and failed by government–and this leads to a sense of alarm about the generation to come, the small children of these lost young women. This stark, insightful, often riveting book reminds us that the fate of what Lipper refers to as the “young sons and daughters of the class of ’99” remains up for grabs and must be addressed before they are lost as well.

Bill Everhart is the editorial page editor of the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield.