Born Behind Bars: Powerful Memoir Chronicles Woman’s Quest to Break Out Of Emotional Prison
Nature and nurture dance a full-tilt rock ‘n’ roll tango in Deborah Jiang Stein’s adrenaline pumping memoir,”Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus.” As a multi-racial child, adopted by Jewish academics in the early ’60′s, Deborah’s feelings of isolated “otherness” are ratcheted up to mythic proportions when at the tender and tumultuous age of 12 she discovers a letter that will shatter and change her life. The adoption is obvious ( though her parents rarely talk about it), but the circumstances surrounding it are unimaginable. In the secret letter–found in her mother’s sachet lined dresser drawer– an appeal to a lawyer seeks to have Deborah’s birth certificate sanitized, altering her place of birth 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 mother was a heroin addict,” her mother writes.
That devastating news will fuel Deborah’s undoing and ultimately prove her salvation. “Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus” chronicles her emotional downward spiral from angry adolescent to volatile drug addicted young criminal, and her triumphant recovery and reinvention as an advocate, speaker and writer.
During a chat last week, Deborah discussed the arduous, but cathartic writing process as well as her future hopes for her Non Profit, The UnPrison Project, that sends her all over the country speaking at women’s prisons and conferences.
Ironically, Deborah first fictionalized her story and shopped it as a novel. Remember this was some years back when all those phony memoirs fell off the shelves in the wake of the big James Frey fake memoir Oprah betrayal brouhaha. “Once they ( editors and agents) heard it was a true story, they kept saying it should be a memoir, but I didn’t want any part of that.”
So she put it away for a while. But our stories have a way of nagging at us, until they just spill out, no matter the anguish. ” It’s not like my story is ever far behind. I can relive the whole thing in a minute. But I wrote through a lot of wet pages,” she concedes. “I had to peel the real story out of the novel.”
And the real story is one of the most raw and riveting books I’ve read in recent memory. As a writer and a teacher and creativity coach who works with writers, I am blown away by Stein’s authentic voice; there’s nothing sentimental or apologetic about it. Here, give a listen to an excerpt from one of her presentations, and you’ll hear what I’m talking about.
It’s that unconditional love of her parents, as well as the education and opportunity to develop her creativity that save her. In case you were wondering, this is where the tutus in the title come in. As a young girl, Deborah is introduced to dance and loves it, but thinks a girl born in prison is unworthy of the elegant art. That’s one of the many heartbreaking revelations. Another is when, as an adult, she finally returns to tour Alderson and is ushered into the very cell where she spent her first year of life. Her visceral reaction stirs an emotional tsunami that took me by surprise in the middle of Starbucks ( that’s okay; it gave me a chance to share the book’s potency with a few fellow patrons). There’s also a beautiful reconciliation scene with her mother, so long in the coming, it will likely pull at your heart.
“Most of the women–whether they have any real education or not–are thirsty for change. They know they need it. They want to believe it’s possible,” Deborah says. “And I know having an education helped me change. It gave me a way to get out of my head, a new way to look at the world. I know it can do the same for so many others.”
And there are certainly many to help. The facts about women in prison are staggering. Women are the fastest growing population in U.S. prisons, with over 1 million serving time; that’s 1 % of the female population. 75% of these women are mothers, most with kids under 18. 2.3 million minor children, most under 10, have a parent behind bars. Between 4 and 7 % of women entering prison are pregnant. The majority of incarcerated women are sentenced for nonviolent drug offenses and over 85% are in drug and alcohol abuse programs.
I’m not passing out Get Out of Jail Free cards; so the hardliners who usually toss cyber tomatoes at me about now, can hold their fire. But there’s got to be a better way, folks. So many people languish in prison for excruciatingly long sentences, often for crimes largely against themselves. As a society we have to change this,. Somehow, some way. Even some red meat Republicans are starting to see the wisdom of sentencing and prison reform, even if that change of heart is propelled by the fiscal bottom line, it’s a start.
Speaking of starts, as part of the UnPrison Project, Deborah Jiang Stein would like to fund college scholarships for the daughters of prisoners at Alderson and eventually other prisons. “I want to give them and their children a way of reframing their world. the way I’ve reframed mine.”
Of course, you don’t have to have a prison story to be affected by this book. I think everyone can relate to the powerful grasp secrets can have on a person, the emotional lockdown they can slam on a vulnerable psyche. It’s the sharing of those secrets, whether to the world or just yourself, that is so liberating and transformative. That’s why writing can be therapeutic. And reading a book that gushes rage and regret in equal measure with reconciliation and hope can illuminate the strength and grace of the human spirit. “Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus” is one of those books.
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