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The New Republic Online
Thursday, November 20th, 2003


Growing Up Fast

by Joanna Lipper

Rust Proof

A review by Martin Peretz

Mention the Berkshires to nearly anyone and you will evoke the image of a bucolic life for landed locals and a place of respite for frazzled New Yorkers and Bostonians who want quiet hills of green and great old trees. And great old houses, too. Besides what nature provides, the Berkshires provide the lineaments of high culture: Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow, art museums, two of the little Ivies, two of what used to be called the Seven Sisters, summer stock, exquisite food. The Berkshires are not the frenetic Hamptons; they are its opposite: tasteful, allergic to celebrity, calming. For many of its residents, the Berkshires are paradise.

Except that there is also the nineteenth century small city of Pittsfield which sits at its center, a sore, a scar, eerily reminiscent of the parsimonious prosperity that came with the steady industrial work of thousands of unionized workers in General Electric plants and the middle class that grew beside them. All this is now barely memory, and for some not even memory. Prosperity is history in Pittsfield. This is a real rust belt area outside the rust belt, characterized by polluted waters, pockmarked lands, unemployed laborers and the social consequences of worklessness as a way of life. It's not that these people don't want to work. It is quite simply that there is no old work, and no one — certainly not GE — has ever tried to engineer a transition to new kinds of work. (Lipper discusses the closing of a major GE plant in the area.) Let's call contemporary Pittsfield clear evidence of Jack Welch's industrial statesmanship.

This is the setting for Joanna Lipper's first book, Growing Up Fast, which she began to write after directing a documentary film, called Inside Out: Portraits of Children. Growing Up Fast is the end-product of another short film, much lauded and also honored. But the book does what no short film can do. In nearly 400 fast-paced pages of wonderfully evocative prose, much of it in the words of her six subjects, all teen mothers, Lipper has actually conveyed the social and personal history of a growing class of Americans for whom there is little help and less hope. But this class of people has inner lives, and this is what Lipper is so deft at communicating.

It's not that these young women — or even the men with whom in short flights of frantic ecstasy they conceived their babies — are lazy. But determination only goes so far; even bravery only goes so far. Social service agencies are, in this picture as in many others, not exactly central to the lives of the principals. Their parents are themselves depressed, their friends live lives not unlike their own, and their boyfriends are often also teens, undirected and untrained for a world that might otherwise welcome them. But in Pittsfield, Kentucky Fried Chicken, with the equivalent of Third World wages and no health care benefits, is an optimal ambition for many. Lipper does not hedge or bow to convention. She tells us what she sees, knows, understands. She follows no party line. She is neither politically correct nor conservatively callous. She tells us the truth as she hears it and grasps it.

These six narratives are not sagas about black people, although there are black women in the book and, thus, black cases. But, in Pittsfield, children having children and having troubles raising these children is a phenomenon that cuts across races and ethnic groups. This is an all-American problem and it will remain so, even though the statistics will ebb and flow a bit with the vicissitudes of the economy. Lipper has mastered all of the relevant data. She has also mastered the scholarship on teens, on teen families, on children of these families, on the families from which these mothers come. And, in my experience, a first: She cites the relevant websites than can inform and help.

Lipper is not only a filmmaker and writer. She is a photographer, and the book's chapters are interspersed with probingly gentle photographs of the dramatis personae, innocent, frightened, doubting, suspicious, even happy. Poor people, poor mothers and their children, their men-folk and fathers, want lives different than those they have been dealt. It is hard to imagine an American politics that will help them get it.

Give this book for Christmas. It will burden the conscience of its readers.

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