C.R. writes: As a girl, Deborah Jiang Stein (soon-to-be heroin addict, bank robber, and self-destructive, gun-toting rebel), couldn’t understand why she felt so alienated from her professorial Jewish family. Sure, she knew she was adopted; she understood that her features and skin color marked her as different on the outside. But why did she feel so different on the inside?
At the age of twelve, Deborah found a letter, buried in her mother’s sachet-scented lingerie drawer. In her newly released book, Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus: Inside the World of a Woman Born in Prison, she tells us what she read:
“Can you please alter Deborah’s birth certificate,” my mother asks in the letter to the family attorney, “from the Federal Women’s Prison in Alderson, West Virginia, to Seattle? Nothing good will come from her knowing she lived in the prison before foster care, or that her birth mother was a heroin addict.”
This mind-bending information triggered, unsurprisingly, a profound sense of disassociation. She begins a wild, emotional journey as she tried to reconcile her self, her roots, and her connection to both her mothers: “One mother in prison, behind bars, a criminal, a drug addict, a woman who tugs at me, her face and voice, images and her sound buried deep in my subconscious. The other mother, the one I face very day, the one who keeps fresh bouquets of flowers on our teak credenza. I don’t connect with this mother.”
Out of the depths of her pain and her eventual acceptance, Deborah created not only this ruggedly honest book (which entranced me—I read it in one gulp), but also some creative and important projects, including the unPrison Project. Deborah visits and talks to some of the one million women currently incarcerated in the United States. Because she’s genuine, she’s been there (she committed several crimes, became addicted to drugs, and “white-knuckled through withdrawal”), her candor and shared experience touch these women and give them real hope for themselves and their children.
Some of the statistics she cites in the back of her book are staggering: Between 5000 and 10,000 babies are born in prison in each year; last year, over 250,000 babies were born addicted to heroin, as Deborah herself was. But she was one of the blessed ones—half of all babies born addicted to heroin don’t survive. Those that do face many problems, including neurological damage. According to Americanpregnancy.org:
Using heroin during pregnancy increases the chance of premature birth, low birth weight, breathing difficulties, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), bleeding within the brain (intracranial hemorrhage), and infant death. Babies can also be born addicted to heroin and can suffer from withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms include irritability, convulsions, diarrhea, fever, sleep abnormalities, and joint stiffness. Mothers who inject narcotics are more susceptible to HIV, which can be passed to their unborn children.
“Prison is my birth country,” Deborah says upon visiting the prison where she was born, and goes on to describe the sense she has of the drug’s effect on her. “Like a dandelion puff in a flutter from a breeze, I fly off above the prison in a distortion of time and space, my cells in a dance. Did my mom feel mind flips like this, too?”
Over time, Deborah discovered the importance of being Deborah, the self comprised of her past and present and unfurling future—and beyond. Her language deftly conveys her experience of sensory disorder and I found myself riding on the waves of her emotions and her sense of time and her insights into the deep changes she made: “Curiosity replaced drugs, crime, and thrill seeking.”
Deborah is a good argument for the truism that therapy and personal growth take hard work and perseverance and finally, acceptance. Today, poised and successful, she continues her unPrison Project work, writes a few blogs (one for Huffington Post), and is a public speaker. At one time she was even a contract writer-in-residence for public schools across the state of Minnesota.
As for the tutus of the title? She makes and wears them—over jeans, at the farmer’s market, with her daughters—and says the tutu “represents what so many of us grapple with: how to turn a rough past into a gentle future.”
I recommend Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus to anyone not reconciled with their past, their moms, their sense of self. You might find yourself in these pages, whether or not you were born in prison, have gone on crime sprees, or shot up speed and heroin.
Connect with Deborah at her web site.
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Last reviewed: 17 Jan 2012