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On Fire Inside: A Child of Prison Uncovers Her Life
Prison Baby: A Memoir, by Deborah Jiang-Stein. (Image via NewSouth Books)

On Fire Inside: A Child of Prison Uncovers Her Life

Prison Baby: A Memoir, by Deborah Jiang-Stein. (Image via NewSouth Books)

Prison Baby: A Memoir, by Deborah Jiang-Stein, Beacon Press, 2014, $14.00, 172 pages.

For most of us, the forbidden fruit is the most alluring. For memoirist Deborah Jiang-Stein, the imagined magic was in her parents’ bedroom, a part of the family’s Seattle home that children entered by invitation only.

Needless to say, rifling through this off-limits space was an adventure writ large, at least until Stein found something unanticipated in one of her forays through the drawers. She was just 12 when she found The Letter. Written by her mom, it was addressed to the family’s attorney and asked him to alter Deborah’s birth certificate to remove its reference to the Federal Women’s Prison in Alderson, West Virginia. “Nothing good will come from her knowing she lived in the prison before foster care, or that her birth mother was a heroin addict,” the missive begins. “She was born in our hearts here in Seattle, and if she finds all this out she’ll ask questions about the prison and her foster homes before we adopted her.”

Not surprisingly, these revelations sent Stein into an emotional tailspin. But hers was a family that did not talk about feelings, and Stein’s queries were typically met by her mother’s deeply felt assurances that she was loved, assurances that silenced further questions about the who, what, when and why of her being. Since little factual information had been previously exchanged – and she could not admit to her unauthorized treasure hunt – this left Stein alone with her confusion. Racial identity was a major concern since she was aware that she was not white like her parents and brother. So what was she? Who was she? The Letter offered scant clues. “Thus begins more than a decade of emotional lockdown,” Stein writes. “The anguish seeps out of me like poison trapped in a balloon-sized blister. My brain battles as I force it to divorce from reality, the one way to metabolize what I’ve just learned: I was born in prison.”

The juxtaposition between this fact and the everyday reality of the Stein household rattled the child. For their part, the Steins were upper-middle-class, left-of-center, secular Jewish intellectuals who socialized with Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dick Gregory, Robert Lowell and Mark Strand. Close to idyllic? Perhaps, but since Stein felt unable to reveal what she had discovered about herself to her parents or their circle, her anomie led to profound self-hatred and self-destruction. As she got older, there was sexual risk-taking, drug dealing and use, and alienation from the people who had taken her in.

The result, described in Prison Baby, is intense and at times harrowing. One area that could have been expanded further remains: Deborah currently works as an advocate for imprisoned women and girls, and she also does writing workshops in prisons. Though we get a sense of how transformative this work can be, we don’t find out the specifics of what changes Deborah would like to see or how she came to be able to do this work on such a wide scale. However, that may just be the focus of a different, future book.

Prison Baby is nonetheless inspiring. As a story of love, loss and finding one’s place in the cosmos, it reminds us of what is at stake when we incarcerate pregnant drug addicts and shred the family ties that bind them to their offspring. Stein’s search for the truth further reveals that the ties between offspring and birth parents is monumentally important and that it does not denigrate the sanctity of adoptive families to reveal the facts of one’s genetic beginnings.

For Stein, the first step in making sense of her life involved getting clean. Once she became drug- and alcohol-free, counselors helped her pull some of the pieces together. “My behavior and escapades had been my way to return to the place I first felt safe: Prison,” she writes. “I suppose I thought the more I could emulate my birth mother, the less distance would divide us.” By this point, Stein was 32 years old.

Sobriety was initially extremely difficult. “The first month of my clean days I huddle at home, curl up on the sofa, and hug my knees,” she explains. “No one knows I’m getting help. Mother and friends call in the weeks after. I think they just need to check up on me, to make sure I haven’t moved, haven’t taken flight again. I’m scared of who I am, and at the same time, don’t have a clue who I am. Emotional pain clutches at my throat if I need to speak, and when I answer their phone calls, I fight not to cry.”

Over time, Stein reconciles with her adoptive parents, finally confiding, 20 years later, that she knows she was born in prison. As their relationship slowly improves, Stein begins writing, an avocation she had abandoned years earlier, but which she now finds satisfying, even thrilling. In addition, sobriety helps jump-start her courage, and she makes numerous attempts to learn about her biological kin. A hired agency that specialize in linking adoptees and birth families reveals that she is too late: Her mother has died, and her father remains unknown. The agency then throws her a huge, unexpected curveball. “We found a half-brother. You both have the same mom. . . . I scramble for a pen, drop it, and grab it again. I hang up and stare at my brother’s phone number. My mother’s dead. So is my lifelong dream to meet her. I yearn for a needle in my arm to take away the fear, the sorrow. A slam down of Johnnie Walker Red. Anything. I draw on everything in me not to score some dope. Instead, I exhale, pick up the receiver and dial. My brother, Nick, picks up on the second ring.”

Several weeks later the siblings meet, and Stein is further introduced to a slew of aunts, uncles and cousins. “Nick and I have different fathers, and it shows. He’s half Irish. And talk about shocked, he’d thought he was an only child,” Stein writes. As the two get to know one another, she learns disturbing details about her mother. As a longtime drug addict, she was in and out of jail and often subjected her son to broken promises and other disappointments. Relatives fill in other blanks. For example, Stein is told that she and her mom, Margo, lived together for a year before she was placed in foster care. The sum total is bittersweet and leaves her with numerous worries. “Two haunt me,” she writes. “What am I? What race or races am I? I’m sick of checking the ‘other’ box.”

A subsequent trip to Alderson helps quell some of Stein’s anxieties. “For the first time, I think of her pain and loss, not just mine,” she continues. There are other revealing moments. Seeing the cell the pair shared “soothes me like a scene in the dollhouse I played with as a girl. My home, this cell. My body melts, relaxes into a comfort like nowhere else before.”

Margo’s file, secured from the Department of Justice, supplies additional facts and reveals how hard she fought to keep her child in foster homes so that they could be reunited once she left Alderson. “I learn that my placement into adoption was finalized at around age 3 or 4. The courts had granted my parents custody when I was 2 or 3 but didn’t release me legally until Margo signed relinquishment papers. She took her own sweet time, several years, to do this.”

These discoveries strengthen Stein and enable her to work on her own healing and self-care. DNA tests offer other tangible information: “I’m part Taiwanese in addition to being part Greek and part Latina – plus, as my prison documents revealed – the possible ‘one drop of blood.’ Now, rather than an outcast, I’m a perfect palette of paints, part of the new multiracial demographic.”

Unfortunately, Stein also learned that she has hepatitis C, an incurable liver virus. Although she is presently symptom-free, she says that she lives in a constant state of “sorrowjoy” and admits that “to this day I’m a restless woman, on fire inside.”

Stein’s adoptive parents have now passed on and she expresses great sadness over these losses. Yet for all that, what shines through Prison Baby is Stein’s intrepid spirit. Hers is a story of self-actualization born of a constant search for hidden truths in the world’s cracks and crevices. Although she will never meet Margo, who knows what other treasures lie in wait?

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