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Born Behind Bars

Courtesy of Terry Gydesen

When Deborah Jiang Stein was a young woman, already smarting from feelings of being an outsider as a multiracial adoptee in her intellectual Jewish family, she discovered the documents that revealed the truth about her background: She had been born in prison, to a heroin-addicted mother.

After years of lashing out at her adoptive family — “every molecule in me is packed with rage” — she plummeted into her own addiction and self-destructive behavior. Finally she went on a searing journey to find out the truth about her early years of life. All this is chronicled beautifully in Jiang Stein’s memoir, “Prison Baby,” published by Beacon Press. This is a revised and significantly developed version of her previously self-published memoir, “Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus.”

“I’m headed home. My mother country, prison,” she writes in its pages.

For Jiang-Stein, confronting the truth, as painful as it was, led to a lessening of pain and a freedom from her “emotional lockdown.” Now a mom herself, she works as a writer, speaker and advocate for women and girls in prison, particularly incarcerated moms. Her current project is pushing back against a new Tennessee law that could criminalize pregnant women who use drugs. She corresponded with the Forward’s Sarah Seltzer about parental patience, family secrets, Jewish values and why she thinks that more Jewish groups should get involved with prison reform efforts.

Sarah Seltzer: How do you think your family’s Judaism or their Jewish values influenced both their decision to adopt you and their reaction to keep your heritage a secret?

Deborah Jiang Stein: My mother told me when I was an adult that they deliberately sought a child of color to adopt. My parents had been “aligned” with a Native American girl, but then that fell through. I was considered an “at risk and special needs” child, and multiracial, so I very much fit their social consciousness, their desire for a blended family. When I was a girl, this fact infuriated me because I felt used, as if I were a tool to help them advance and promote their liberal image. Today, though, I understand that they meant no harm and in fact loved me. I also understand, while I don’t blame them, that they didn’t have the resources or foresight to imagine our reality as a family in the 1960s pre-civil rights years — or the reality of racism I would face outside the family.

You wrote that in some ways you felt more at home with your boisterous, religiously observant cousins than with your more intellectually rigorous, secular family.

I think it’s a nature/nurture question. By nature, although I’m very thoughtful and pensive, I was playful and silly and I still am, [traits] those relatives allowed in me.

Your relationship with your adoptive mom took decades of patience and forgiveness until it healed. What does your story teach other moms, both adoptive and not?

My mother’s enduring love still moves me, how she stuck it out through the intense rejection I threw in her face. When we’d reunited after some years of estrangement and discussed the challenges of our past, she told me that “some people are easier to love that others,” in reference to my parents’ relationship with my older brother. I knew what she meant, even though it hurt. I wasn’t easy for them, and our relationship wasn’t easy for me, either. Adoption is complex no matter what, and my background and birth circumstances in prison presented more challenges than anyone knew how to address.

What would you tell today’s social justice minded Jews about the need for prison reform and rethinking incarceration?

A term in Judaism comes to mind: tikkun olam, “to repair the world.” The big message in my prison work is renewal, rehabilitation and repair. Each of us has good to do in the world, every one of us, not just the entitled and privileged — which I consider myself because I’ve had the privilege of education, among other things. I see potential leaders inside prisons: women, men and youth who could be out here, whole and healed and able to do good things in our communities.

Has your prison work been supported by Jewish groups?

The nonprofit I founded for the prison work, The unPrison Project, has been supported by several denominations, yet none of them is Jewish so far. Across the country, [Christian] congregations, all aware that I’m Jewish, have opened their doors and their checkbooks to support this work. I’m not referring to only the financial support they’ve offered — although we do need this to continue the work. It’s about having the voice and community behind me, and for some reason it’s come from non-Jewish denominations. I’m curious about this pattern without any judgment. Not many Jews are in prison, but the issue of who is incarcerated shouldn’t affect whether the Jewish community would support this work or not. It’s a universal social justice and public health concern.

Family secrets, and their destructive power, are a big theme in the book. How does your story demonstrate that?

Once I recognized that everybody has a secret at one time or another, then I could see beyond my born-in-prison story. When I could see the universal story, I felt freer. I came to understand that the truth didn’t destroy me. What almost destroyed me was the ways that secrecy about my story manifested itself as self-hate, self-destruction and rage. The secrets — the details of my birth and everything that surrounded it — those are just facts, impactful facts. The trauma of the secrecy took its toll. But my healing eventually transformed the secrecy into triumph.

This interview has been edited for style and length.


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