Prison Baby by Deborah Jiang Stein

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.

The yarn dog on the cover is a gift her biological mother sent her after Jiang Stein removed from the prison.

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.

42 comments

  1. Sounds like a complicated issue. On one hand, we want to know more about their situation, how they were feeling, how they coped as readers. But on the other, they probably still have to protect a bit of what their experience was, perhaps for emotional reasons. Regardless, having a child in prison is probably one of the scariest and toughest situations a woman can ever be in.

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  2. This sounds like such an interesting case, it’s too bad it turned out to be a bit flawed. It sounds like she still just wasn’t quite ready to go fully introspective and put as much of the story as was needed on paper- which is fine, though it does hamper the reading experience.

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    • I wonder if I judge such memoirs too harshly. I felt the same way about my review of The Love Prison Made and Unmade, another memoir. I guess it’s hard to know how much the writer “should” tell to make a book worthy of reading vs. an article, or something like that, to raise awareness.

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      • Was Orange is the New Black comparable for you also? That’s the only prison memoir I have to judge by so far, though I’ve got more on my TBR! Raising awareness is good and important, but I’m with you on wanting an author to do a little more with that awareness then beyond pointing out the issue.

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        • I distinctly remember one moment in Orange when Kerman paused an actually reflected deeply in her experience. Overall, I thought Orange was pretty shallow, making it come off like the prison version of a girls’ sleep over camp. Personally, I think a book like The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a good example of a reflective work by someone who spent time in prison, though prison is only a few chapters in that book. There’s a memoir by a prison librarian called Running the Books that is highly reflective that I recommend.

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  3. This sounds really interesting, even if it sounds like it lost steam a bit towards the end. I am glad she managed to develop relationships with both her adoptive and birth mothers eventually, even if it was a very difficult road for a long time.

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  4. The only prison memoir I’ve read that I can think of is Nelson Mandela’s, and you get the impression the SA authorities did him a favour putting him in a place where he could think and plan. Modern-day jails will be talked about one day (soon I hope) as places of horror, particularly in relation to solitary confinement. The sooner we (all of the West) get a better system the better, And the end of Prohibition Mk II, otherwise known as the War on Drugs would be a good place to start.

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    • Bill Clinton really kicked off things with his touch on crime/war on drugs mandatory minimum sentences. At the time, people were so terrified of the crime in the 1980s that they demanded something “tough” to deter criminals, but all they did was create a big, expensive, inhumane holding pen.

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  5. This sounds like a fascinating story, even if the telling is flawed in parts. My mom was adopted in the 1950s and when I was a teenager she got in touch with her biological family. Her story isn’t quite this dramatic but those relationships are complicated and I find a lot of fictional portrayals of adoptees to be overly tidy so this memoir appeals as a realistic portrayal of how messy adoption can be.

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      • I had a daughter adopted out, from a high school romance. We didn’t meet for another 32 years, but we’re good friends now and it worked out best for everyone. Even the mother, I think, who has never tried to contact her daughter. But yes I know a few messy ones. All children it seems, want to think their real parents loved them.

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        • Oh, Bill. I did not know that. You are layered like an onion. Does she like to read, too? My husband meet his bio dad, and then his bio parents got married, so it’s VERY weird in ways no one expects.

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          • I have written about it, well mentioned it in passing. The high school girlfriend, ‘Fancy’, I stay in touch with is the mother – she reads my blog, so I can’t say much. But yes my daughter is a reader and a writer. No names! Milly and my oldest daughter has another father too and she is amazingly like him, though she was 20 before she met him.

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            • Ah! I do remember you writing about Fancy and your daughter, but I don’t think I comprehended that she was adopted. And Milly. I still want some kind of Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks ending for you two (I can say that because she doesn’t read my blog). 😍

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      • I’m not sure…I’ve only watched secondhand so I can’t speak to all the emotions but they do seem complex. There is loyalty to the family who raised you but the strong draw of biological family too. And there are usually very real, complicated reasons a parent gives up a child and those don’t necessarily go away, even forty or more years later. It sounds like this book delves into a lot of that.

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          • That adds such a sad, extra layer. Unfortunately, it seems like that wasn’t uncommon, especially for minorities or anybody the powers that be deemed “undesirable”. In Canada, forcible adoptions from Indigenous parents were sadly quite common in the 1950s and 60s.

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            • Australia, in the early 1900s adopted a policy of ‘breeding out’ First Nations peoples, and all their children with European ancestry were taken from their mothers and made wards of the state up to at least the 1960s, creating multiple ‘Stolen Generations’ of Indigenous people who did not know their parents. Lots were adopted out but lots more were trained to be servants and farm workers where they were often unpaid.
              Teenage unmarried mothers too were under enormous pressure to adopt their babies out, and the church run homes, which pregnant girls were sent to, used questionable practices to get new-born babies to their customers without letting the mothers see or hold them.
              The Australian parliament, against the opposition of right wing troglodytes, apologised to the Stolen Generations in 2008, and to teenage mothers a few years later (when we briefly had a woman Prime Minister).

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              • We have a similar history in Canada. Residential schools were designed to eradicate First Nation culture and existed until very late in the 20th century. Their effects are far-reaching today. It’s horrific what people can do to other people.

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                • We (whites) were brought up believing that our occupation of Australia was ‘peaceful’. I don’t believe that we will achieve Reconciliation until whites acknowledge that white settlement was achieved only by widespread murder (and slavery). I think we acknowledge now that kidnapping children was wrong, though the same policy continues through other means, eg. refusing to educate Indigenous children in their own languages.

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                  • Interesting point about language, Bill. I know in my hometown there is a small Ojibwe college, and they teach the language there. The Anglicized version of Ojibwe, Chippewa, is the name of the local public university. They also have Ojibwe classes and a good relationship with the local tribe.

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                  • It’s an ongoing struggle. There is some effort now where I live to teach young people their traditional languages but there are so few left who speak them fluently. A lot of the culture and history has been lost.

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              • I’ve read and seen movies about the Catholic homes for mothers, and they just seem like something on par with Nazi torture. I can’t believe religion would allow for something so vile. Then again, religious folks have to decide which part of the religion they follow: fire and brimstone or love and acceptance.

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