Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Deborah Jiang Stein is a rock star. Just read her new memoir, EVEN TOUGH GIRLS WEAR TUTUS, and check out her non-profit, The unPrison Project, and you’ll understand what I mean. Born heroin-addicted to an incarcerated mother in the Alderson Federal Prison for Women in West Virginia, Deborah spent her first year of life behind bars. Literally. She shared her mother’s prison cell, even going to “the hole” when her mother was put in solitary confinement.
After a stint in foster care, Deborah was eventually adopted by a Jewish couple in one of the few mixed-race, cross-cultural adoptions that probably occurred in 1960s Seattle. And though Deborah’s adoptive mother was a pioneer in this respect, she was also ill-equipped to help her daughter face growing concerns about her identity, especially after Deborah, at age 12, discovered she’d been born in prison.
“I belong in the…magazines with photographs of people from tropical countries and other continents more than in my white family. The map at school gives me a place where I can imagine myself, even though I can’t say in what country or with what race I might belong, whether with Thai children with my same wide smile and lips or dark-complexion boys from Samoa whose skin color resembles mine. My nose is like those of people from the Philippines. Babies wrapped on their mothers’ backs in China wear my eyebrows. I see my own feet in the photos of South American girls, their bare feet brown like mine.
“Whenever I ask my mother about my caramel-colored skin and button nose, about the hint of almond shape to my eyes, all different from my family, she just says, ‘I love you, Pet,’ her solution to everything, always.
“In truth, there was no love big enough to cover the stigma and shame I felt about my prison roots.”
Deborah struggled with much more than identity issues growing up, and by the time she was a young adult drug use and smuggling had become not only addictions but very likely pathways to her own incarceration. Her story of survival will amaze you.
But also will her determination to do more than simply cope with her prison birth and drug addictions. Through her unique non-profit, The unPrison Project, Deborah travels to women’s prisons across the country to share her story and inspire the women she visits—many of whom are parents in prison because of drugs—to strive to overcome the past not only for their own sakes, but for their children.
I received my copy of EVEN TOUGH GIRLS WEAR TUTUS just as I finished Mary Karr’s third memoir, LIT. Another story of redemption despite one’s incredibly troubled past, LIT chronicles Mary Karr’s battle to overcome alcoholism while she also comes to terms with her relationship with her extremely complex mother. Deborah’s struggle to reconcile her loyalty to her prison-born mother with her difficult relationship with her adoptive mother weaves throughout the greater story of her “white-knuckled” rides to overcome drug addiction. Both writers draw strength from their ties to their original parents but also struggle to free themselves to live their own lives clean of their mothers’ destructive tendencies. The ways Deborah and Mary both reach beyond merely overcoming obstacles that would destroy most people to reaching out to others, bettering their own futures in the process, show the strength inherent in the human spirit, offering hope to those who need it most.