Female. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (literature and film); University College, London, M.Sc. (psychoanalytic developmental psychology).
Filmmaker and author. Director and producer of documentary and feature films, including Inside Out: Portraits of Children, Growing up Fast, 1999, and Little Fugitive, 2004.
Hollywood Discovery Award, 1996, for Inside Out: Portraits of Children, Growing up Fast named among outstanding short documentaries of 1999, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
(And photographer) Growing up Fast (based on Lipper's documentary film of the same title), Picador (New York, NY), 2003.
Joanna Lipper's Growing up Fast grew from her experience in making her 1999 award-winning documentary film about six teen mothers being served by the Teen Parent Program of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In the book, which also includes photographs by Lipper, she studies the lives of the girls, four of whom are white, one black, and one Latina, over a period of four years. Important to understanding the reasons why these girls chose to become mothers rather than have abortions are their family circumstances and their home community of Pittsfield. A town in the Berkshire region of western Massachusetts, Pittsfield was once the "Plastics Technology Center of the Nation." As such it was home to the General Electric Company's electrical transformer manufacturing plant, an operation that produced 140,000 pounds of PCBs a year; the chemical was so potent it burned the soles off the workers' rubber boots as they stood on the factory floor. Fuller's earth was sprinkled onto the floors to absorb the liquid, and it was then given away as dirt fill to be used in playgrounds, parks, and gardens. General Electric used its influence to drive out other operations that would have provided job diversity for the Pittsfield work force, and when it pulled out in 1986, thousands of people were left without jobs in a contaminated community. Adding to the town's problems was the fact that the Pittsfield Hospital contracted with New York City's Medicaid, an agreement through which hundreds of addicts were transferred to Pittsfield. Many stayed and then became drug dealers.
Crime, drug use, and prostitution flourished in this environment. The girls of this study experienced domestic violence, used drugs, and were sexually exploited. Many of their parents suffered from depression, poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, and an inability to parent, and a number of them had similarly destructive childhoods.
The girls Lipper profiles suffered from a lack of love and direction, and in their loneliness and isolation they chose to bear their own children. When babies were born, the young mothers gave them variations of conventional names to show that they were special. Lipper, who videotaped interviews with the girls and their families over the course of four years, notes that some of the boys and men who fathered these children abandoned the young mothers, who then sought help through the Teen Parent Program. Library Journal contributor Linda Beck wrote that "what emerges is a detailed, brutally honest look at families broken, dreams shattered, crime rampant, and a once-bustling city rapidly dying." A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that "this book adroitly illuminates a social crisis."
The six young mothers also participated in the Shakespeare Company writing project run by feminist author Carol Gilligan, who involved them in exercises that included writing letters to the fathers of their children that these men would never actually receive. The book relates some of the individual successes that occasionally occurred. One young mother, for instance, managed to work and attend junior college, and the father of another woman's child decided to commit to his new family. Elizabeth M. Alderman wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association that Lipper "writes with compassion and insight, is not judgmental, and accentuates her subjects' strengths. She depicts excellent mothers who try to raise their children independently without assistance from their own mothers. I would recommend this book not only for health care professionals taking care of adolescent girls but possibly to teenagers themselves, so that they can read firsthand the struggles of these young parents."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, September 15, 2003, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Growing up Fast, p. 185.
Chicago Tribune, April 18, 2004, Emily Stone, review of Growing up Fast, p. 5.
Journal of the American Medical Association, July 7, 2004, Elizabeth M. Alderman, review of Growing up Fast, p. 108.
Library Journal, October 15, 2003, Linda Beck, review of Growing up Fast, p. 87.
New Republic, November, 2003, Martin Peretz, review of Growing up Fast.
New York Times Book Review, December 14, 2003, Lucinda Franks, review of Growing up Fast, p. 34.
Publishers Weekly, August 25, 2003, review of Growing up Fast, p. 46.
Joanna Lipper Home Page,http://www.joannalipper.com (August 5, 2004).