Deborah Jiang Stein recounts her story of being adopted in Prison Baby. It’s not what you might expect; we don’t start in prison, but in a nice home with loving Jewish parents who are university professors. Jiang Stein accidentally finds out from a cousin that she’s adopted, which explains her mixed ethnicity that does not match that of her white family. But it is when she is twelve and snooping in her mother’s dresser drawer that she finds a letter Mother wrote a lawyer asking to keep Jiang Stein’s origins — born in prison to a drug-addicted mother — a secret. Unable to process, Jiang Stein keeps what she learned a secret until she’s in her thirties.
Like many others, Jiang Stein struggled with behavior issues as a child that are likely the result of being born addicted to heroin. She finds herself behaving both badly and recklessly, even as a small girl. Despite Mother’s love and support, little Jiang Stein hates Mother every time Mother says she’s just like them and she belongs with them. Her parents seem to miss the point, at times, but this is an issue of lack of education, not willful ignorance. Jiang Stein was adopted in the 1960s when there were still Jim Crow laws. Her multiracial features look somewhat Asian, somewhat African. She pulls away from her family.
At seventeen she leaves home, and Jiang Stein becomes a drug user, dealer, and mule. More reckless, more angry, more addicted. Eventually, she returns to the place of her origins after writing numerous letters to the warden of the prison at which her biological mother was imprisoned. The memoir explains how the author created a relationship with Mother, got to know her biological mother and her family, and became an activist and spokesperson for incarcerated women.
Everyone had hoped all along that we’d one day love each other as daughter and mother, and at last we’d made it. I never let Mother close to me, either physically or emotionally. She didn’t stand a chance against my fierce loyalty to my biological mother. No one did. But Mother was the one with the stamina to wait for me. Some things just take time. Decades even. I’ve never met another person with my mother’s patience.
One problem I find with memoirs written by people who were addicted for a number of years is that that time frame is often fuzzy, causing the dangerous lifestyle to read like words instead of feel like danger. Perhaps the author didn’t want to “wallow” in her addiction, or maybe she doesn’t remember, but to me it reads more shallowly that I would prefer. The emotional connected must be created by the reader.
I did appreciate that Jiang Stein wanted to keep her story for herself as she processed the emotions and information she gained as an adult. News got out about how she lived in prison after her birth, and how her biological mom refused sign over custody of her. Thus, media wanted Jiang Stein to tell her story, but she knew it wasn’t ready for the public because she wasn’t ready. Birth in prison, foster care, adoption. She doesn’t remember it all. Or does she? The psychology presented — do we remember out time as infants? — is fascinating. Such moments highlight the author’s maturity as she went to counseling and researched her personal history.
I listen more than talk and answer her intake questions with one-word replies. The counselor suggests that my behavior and escapades have been my way to return to the place I first felt safe: prison. “You’ve taunted the world to send you back where you first felt love,” she says.
One issue that I often have with personal growth memoirs is that they can quickly turn into wide sweeping pronouncements about what it means to feel love, to be alive, and to discover then shape one’s identity. Quite a chunk is devoted at the end to how wonderful and mysterious life can be, and it read like Jiang Stein wasn’t sure how to end. I wanted to know more about her relationship with her biological mother’s family, about the work she does as an activist, and what she’s learned by talking to other women who are incarcerated and have delivered infants in prison. Such a deeply personal history needs to be revealed fully on the page after serious introspection and clear descriptions of how that process happened.
Overall, if you’re interested in adoption, incarceration, and addiction you’ll enjoy this memoir. Also, I’m providing information about Jiang Stein’s work through the UnPrison Project, helping women and children affected by incarceration.