Secret Letter Reveals Prison Birth

A partial repost from Huffington Post

In honor of my mothers.

Mothers, mother-mutts and mentors, they all helped make me.

As a girl growing up in Seattle, I always sensed something amiss about me and often snooped around the house looking for clues to my differences, especially my racially ambiguous looks — caramel colored skin more Latina than anything but my eyes suggesting Asia in me somewhere, and some called me biracial: black/white. I never knew until later what races I could claim.

Altogether, my features differed from my parents’ Eastern European looks.

One day I went on a snooping adventure in my parents’ room that would change my life forever. I’d been grounded, banished to my room, a common enough event even though I don’t remember why. The thrill of digging around in prohibited terrain relieved my boredom.

The house was still except for the quick tick-tick of the second hand on my mother’s alarm clock on her nightstand. The smell of forbidden space hung in the air.

Check the dresser, I thought. Lodged under silky slips and parchment-wrapped bars of French soaps at the bottom of my mother’s drawer, I unveiled a copy of a typed letter, only a few sentences long.


The Letter provided facts that would distort my life forever.

While I don’t recall the exact words, I stood alone at the dresser and soaked in more than a little girl could ever understand, that I:

  • Was born in prison
  • Heroin addicted at birth
  • Had foster family(s)
  • Was multiracial and no one knew what

There’s more to the story, but isn’t this enough for now?

I don’t recall much in the moments after I found the letter, other than my guts sunk into my socks.

Prison? Heroin and foster care took the back seat to the startling prison news.  I didn’t have any recollection about foster care and only knew I was adopted.

I don’t remember the walk from the dresser into my parents’ bathroom, where I faced the mirror over their sink.  My body in overload, my eyes gritty, a sour taste in my mouth, I tried to wash the sensation away.  The skin itched on my arms as if tiny ants crawled along the bones in my forearms.

What does this make me now? I wondered.  The prison-born offspring of a heroin addict and convict, or the daughter of two Jewish professors?  Right then and there, I felt compelled to choose which girl to be.  The contrasts were so extreme, my world spun out of control. I never told a soul I found that letter until years later.  Its truth stirred an inner agitation and restlessness, a sensation that took me over like a hunger.

I was a wild child in the making, transformed into a raging, rebellious, violent and rule-breaking adolescent, attracted to everything against the norm. At least, I thought, now I belong somewhere.

I started to resent the whole idea of white families and their interracial adoptions.  In time, though, I came to understand the complexity of human nature as reflected in my parents and accepted that they truly did love me from the start. It is their support, love, and encouragement all along — even when I estranged myself from them — that led me to where I am today.

Since I’m attracted to brevity, the six-word (or less) memoir idea led me to distill my life into:

Secret letter reveals prison birth.

But it’s the miniscule spaces in-between the letters, the pauses between words, that make all the difference as to why I’m not right now in prison myself.

It’s what you don’t see before those six words, and what follows, that give me my ultra-creative energy to innovate, invent, and build. Whether it’s with writing, or in marketing or business and program development, my passion to create is how I’ve taken what was given me and made the most of it. That, and at my side, the strength of all the people who have believed in me.

It’s all about the attitude. I  look at what I want to turn around, what feels like a setback, and then give it a new twist. I find a glimmer of positive, and watch it begin to glow once my outlook changes. Pretty simple.

What do you do that pulls you through adversity?

About Deborah Jiang Stein
Speaker and writer. I'm an advocate for personal transformation, and tour prisons across the country as a speaker as well as keynote in conferences and other events. Memoir in the works, along with a story collection.

2 Responses to Secret Letter Reveals Prison Birth

  1. Wow, incredible blog structure! How lengthy have you been blogging for?
    you made running a blog look easy. The entire glance of your web site
    is excellent, as neatly as the content!

  2. renegadesouth says:

    “Soaked in more than a little girl could ever understand,” I’ll say! Thank you so much for sharing that pivotal moment, Deborah. I have known the main elements of your story, but I have never understood it as I do now.

    What I love about your writing is that you not only face painful memories, but you connect them to universal messages of hope. Indeed, “it’s all about attitude.” All of us, even those with far less dramatic revelatory moments in our lives, need to remember that we have the power to interpret the past; we don’t have to grant it the power to define who we are.

    What a meaningful Mother’s Day message you provided!

    Renegade South

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