Written in the form of a novel, Prison Baby is an autobiography that tells the life story of Deborah Jiang Stein. When she is in sixth grade, she finds a letter that belongs to her adoptive mother, and the letter reveals that Deborah was born in a prison. Although her adoptive parents were open with her about the fact that she was adopted, they never told her that her birth mom was in prison. It takes Deborah two decades before she ever tells them that she knows about her prison birth. In the meantime, she struggles with some of the feelings that adopted children sometimes face such as lack of belonging and low self-worth. She grows up feeling incredibly stigmatized about her prison birth. She also feels stigmatized because she has brown skin, and her adoptive family is white. Throughout much of her life, she does not know which racial or ethnic group she belongs to. She says:
Adoption research surveys indicate that not until the 1970s did more than a thousand white families include adopted children of color. My pioneering parents stretched beyond the margins to adopt me. But whenever I asked my mother about my caramel-colored skin and button nose, about the hint of an almond shape to my eyes, she’d tell me she loved me and that I was one of the family. I was too scared to eke out even one word to her in response, to tell her I didn’t feel part of anything (p. 51).
As a child, Deborah experiences a lot of self-hatred, and she loves thrill-seeking behaviors. She also engages in what she refers to as “emotional lockdown.” As an adult, she discovers that she was born addicted to heroin. Her birth mother kept Deborah (whose birth name was Madlyn) with her in prison for the first year of Deborah’s life. Deborah then lived in multiple foster homes, and she was ultimately adopted when she was around two or three years old. Although she does not remember the first few years of her life, she attributes these years to the fact that she was never able to connect emotionally with her adoptive mother. She continuously rejected her, and this was probably due to a desire to protect herself from the abandonment that she must have felt in her early years when she was taken from her birth mom and then placed in and out of the homes of multiple foster moms.
She experiments with drugs as a teen. By age 19, she is a hard-core drug dealer who loses contact with her adoptive family. She highlights the manner in which substance abuse is a form of self-medication. For example, she says:
Drugs were never social entertainment for me; alcohol never just a beverage. They served as my anesthesia, a patch, medicine, healing, freedom (p. 96-97)
When she is in her 30s, she recovers from her addiction and reconnects with her adoptive family. She also visits the prison where she was born, and, subsequently, she begins doing some prison advocacy work, which includes speaking in prisons. She has spent the last couple of decades trying to heal mentally and emotionally. Ultimately, she seems at peace with allowing joy and sorrow to co-exist in her life. Throughout the book, she incorporates a lot of wisdom about mental wellness — here are some of my favorite quotes:
It takes a special kind of stamina to chase a dream, and even more to accept its demise (p. 69)
One of the best influences we can have on our communities and the world at large is to grow in self-awareness (p. 123)
Every part of the life cycle is a chance for personal transformation (p. 147)
The exact conditions I battled to avoid — the grip of loss, sorrow, and uncertainty — freed me to live fully, to taste life’s rich flavors (p. 154).
Nothing brings greater freedom than the discovery of how to live with the unlivable (p. 170).
The only criticism that I have is that a few pieces of information are incorporated into the book in a disjointed manner. For example, toward the end of the book, she briefly mentions that she was sexually assaulted by a neighborhood boy when she was a child. This came as a bit of a surprise to me because the book is written chronologically — the entire first eight or so chapters focus on her childhood, yet she never mentioned this assault. She also discusses her daughters toward the end of the book, but the fact that she became a mother is just kind of thrown in there, and the reader is never told whether she was ever married or given any details regarding how she ultimately ended up having children. In addition, toward the end of the book, she makes a reference to “When I lived in Tokyo,” and I thought “Whaaat? I just read through your entire life story, and you never once mentioned that you lived in Tokyo.” So, some parts of the book are a bit disjointed, but this is a very minor aspect of the book. With regard to her children, she does say that she feels that it is not for her to tell their story — they can tell their own story publicly some day if they choose to.
Overall, the book is written in a very beautiful (almost poetic) style. The author’s adoptive parents were English professors, and it’s clear that she inherited some of her literary talents from them. Due to the writing style, this book would be an enjoyable read for someone who normally enjoys fiction. The book would also be of interest for anyone who wants to learn more about adoption (particularly interracial adoption), substance abuse, prison, and mental health.