Reconnecting With Your Roots And The Cost Of Keeping Them Hidden

Deborah Jiang Stein's adoptive parents didn't want her to know that she was born in prison to a heroin-addicted mother. She talks about how she struggled to overcome the damage of those secrets.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now it's time to go Behind Closed Doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters that many people prefer to keep private. Today, we want to talk about what it means to know where you come from. Now, a lot of Americans believe that a lot of the problems in this country - and frankly, many of the conflicts outside of it - stem from people who are too tied to their roots, to their religion or ethnic identity or race. But our next guest has a very different take on that. She wants us to reflect on the toll of being disconnected from your roots, even when they are less than ideal.

For Deborah Jiang-Stein, the beginning of her life was shrouded in secrets. She didn't know she was adopted until a cousin broke the news to her at a family gathering. She was never told why nobody else in her white, Jewish family shared her dark skin and almond-shaped eyes. But there was an even bigger secret at the heart of her family story that involved where she was born. She talks about all of this in a recent essay for the website xoJane and in her new memoir "Prison Baby." And Deborah Jiang-Stein is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DEBORAH JIANG-STEIN: Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Your adoptive parents gave you what sounds like a good childhood. You know, you had French lessons and ballet...

JIANG-STEIN: Right.

MARTIN: ...And swimming and trips to museums. But you describe always feeling out of place. Can you talk a little bit about that?

JIANG-STEIN: Right. Before I knew any facts, I knew that I was different. I could see that visually. And I also think just innately, I knew that there was something deeper than what I knew beyond just being adopted.

MARTIN: How did you figure out that you were born in prison? As I understand it, you didn't find out until you were 12.

JIANG-STEIN: Right. And I didn't figure it out. I landed on a letter that my mother wrote, probably well-intended. But, you know, I was pre-puberty, which isn't good for anything. And I found this letter, and it sent me into a tailspin. She wrote a letter asking the attorney to change my birthplace. You know, I don't have the letter now, but I remember it enough. She wanted to remove any records that my birth mother was a heroin addict and those mentions of foster care. So I knew nothing about that.

MARTIN: Were you ever able to ask her why it was so important to her to hide the fact that you were born in prison?

JIANG-STEIN: I did later on, once I went through - you know, a wild life between finding out and approaching her. And all she could say was, well, we were worried what would happen to you. And I said, well, Mother, look what did happen.

MARTIN: What did you find out - or what were you able to find about why your mother was in prison, and why you were born there?

JIANG-STEIN: After a lot of research and getting her prison documents and returning to the prison, I learned that more than just being a heroin addict, she had spent most of her life in and out of prisons and jails, starting in reform school as a teen. And so she was doing what addicts do. And on one of her many sentences, she was pregnant, and the prison didn't know what to do with me. And I was allowed to stay with her for a year, which is kind of the quirky part.

Now we have 11 prisons around the country with nurseries, keeping the babies on the compound. But, you know, the backdrop of my life in the '60s, they did not know what to do with me. And I don't have a complaint about it because I believe I was surrounded by love. And I don't think a baby knows what a prison is.

MARTIN: She wanted you with her.

JIANG-STEIN: She did. But what I read was, there was this dilemma. And I recently met with incarcerated women who are pregnant, and I see that dilemma as well. They want to keep their children and then at the same time, want a better life for their children. And so she wavered her documents so that one day she wanted to keep me, and another day she'd say, can you remove the baby and find a good home for her? So she was conflicted.

MARTIN: You were telling us that as a child, even though your physical circumstances were pretty comfortable, that it was tough for you. I mean, you were called, you know, the N-word on the school bus.

JIANG-STEIN: Right.

MARTIN: And, you know, when you told your adoptive mother, she didn't seem to know how to respond. Could you talk a little bit about that?

JIANG-STEIN: You know, it was filled with so much self-hate before I even knew these facts. So adding on to I'm a different color, I'm from prison, I have this addiction in the background, which I didn't know much about as a child - all of it I turned on myself and also blamed everyone else for. I mean, that was really the story. The secret is I blamed myself for it and hated everyone else for it. And my parents just did not have the resources and weren't able to talk about it. I mean, even throughout their life they weren't.

MARTIN: At the time that you were growing up, parents didn't talk about a lot of things with their kids.

JIANG-STEIN: Right.

MARTIN: I mean, they barely talked about sex. They didn't talk about illness. You know, when people got cancer, they'd call it the Big C. There was all kinds of stuff back, you know, when you were growing up that people just did not talk about. And people thought that was better.

JIANG-STEIN: Right, that secrecy was better.

MARTIN: Yeah.

JIANG-STEIN: But to me, if there is stigma or shame, it exists whether we hide it or not. And so I think it's better to just face the demon whatever it is and be able to walk with it or overcome it instead of hide it in a back pocket. And so I'm proof of that. I hid that. I never told anyone for 20 years that I knew I was born in prison. But it leaked out like this poison everywhere. It was when I could start to say it, which was really only some years ago, outside of prisons. I never was very public about it until recently that I realized I could put it in a certain place and not have it conquer me.

MARTIN: You write about the fact that you acted out a lot as a child. You started using illegal drugs in the seventh grade, and it kind of - how would you describe yourself in this period?

JIANG-STEIN: A thug in the making is what I say. You know, at the time, I was probably called a juvenile delinquent. I don't know that consciously I was trying to be like my birth mother. But my relationship to the world was one of rage. And so whatever I could do to hurt myself and others really felt like the only satisfying way to walk in the world. I know now I was masking pain and sorrow and grief.

MARTIN: So you were using drugs. And then in your late teens, you started selling drugs.

JIANG-STEIN: Right, selling drugs...

MARTIN: You were even smuggling them.

JIANG-STEIN: ...running...

MARTIN: Right.

JIANG-STEIN: ...Smuggling drugs, carrying weapons. I joined a gang. I mean, I was just doing whatever I wanted. You know, I felt like I was outside the confines of any society. So I was doing whatever I wanted with whomever.

MARTIN: You know, amazingly, you never got locked up yourself.

JIANG-STEIN: I know, isn't that amazing?

MARTIN: Yeah.

JIANG-STEIN: And I don't brag about that. I was speaking in a person the other day - because I talk about this in front of law enforcement. So I'm not bragging. I've been close to being caught. I've been caught, but I've never been incarcerated.

MARTIN: What made you finally clean up your act?

JIANG-STEIN: I don't know that I have one turning point. There's a couple things I know. I was scared. I'd been witness to a stabbing. I knew I was mentally not well, and I was physically ill. I knew I needed to change. And I knew I couldn't do it alone. As much as I hated to ask for help, I knew I needed help.

MARTIN: So what did you do? You got yourself clean. I mean, that wasn't an easy process. I don't want people...

JIANG-STEIN: No.

MARTIN: ...To think that this was kind of this linear, like...

JIANG-STEIN: Right.

MARTIN: ...You woke up one day and all of a sudden you were clean. There were many relapses.

JIANG-STEIN: Right.

MARTIN: There were many twists and turns.

JIANG-STEIN: It was ongoing.

MARTIN: Yeah. What did you then decide to do? Like, how did you then kind of redirect?

JIANG-STEIN: My first direction was I ran away. I left the West Coast where I grew up, in Seattle, and I moved to the Midwest 'cause I thought nothing bad will happen in the Midwest, right? Well, suddenly, I'm surrounded by the same kind of people, the same drugs. And I figured out that - and it's not that hard - that wherever I went, I was bringing the same problems 'cause the same things kept happening. So I had that insight that I was part of the problem instead of everyone else, and that was a turning point.

MARTIN: In hindsight, 'cause you're a parent yourself now, what do you think would have been better? If you're adoptive parents had told you from the beginning - what do you think would have been better?

JIANG-STEIN: You know, I'm asked that an awful lot, and I wish I knew the complete answer. I don't know the exact right time to tell a child, but I think not hiding it is the best time. I also think if when I was little, I was introduced to formally incarcerated women, even though they were outside of the lifestyle of my parents. And if I had met former drug addicts, I could have put a face on that instead of thinking these are the beginnings of a monster. And I was the monster.

MARTIN: Do you think, in hindsight, that part of what you were made to feel shame about was being born in prison or was it being of a different race? I mean, transracial adoption at the time you were growing up was pretty rare.

JIANG-STEIN: Right. I think it's definitely both. So together it was a bomb. But I learned that my parents wanted to adopt, what was called then and still is, a special needs and at-risk kid. They, at one point, were looking at adopting a Native American girl. So my parents were the kind of people that voted for Dick Gregory for president, right? And so they were kind of out there in their liberalness, and they sought that deliberately, which actually really irritated me for a while...

MARTIN: How come?

JIANG-STEIN: ...Because I felt like I was their tool liberalness.

MARTIN: A project, not a person.

JIANG-STEIN: Right.

MARTIN: Yeah. Did you ever get a chance to talk to them about this and ever get a sense of understanding from them why they never wanted to talk about it?

JIANG-STEIN: I think they - I know, it's fascinating.

MARTIN: I just wonder whether this was ideological or emotional. You know what I mean?

JIANG-STEIN: Oh, it's totally emotional. My dad kind of thought it was interesting that I was looking for my roots. My mother was deeply hurt by it, and so I backed away. And I realized that I'm doing my search for myself not to prove anything to her and not for a need any longer to reject her. And so when I saw her discomfort when I said I found out I was born in prison, and she said, oh, we were so worried what would happen. And I could see by her body and her - she was turning red, and she was so uncomfortable. And I think behind that just sadness. You know, as a parent, you grieve when your kids grieve. And she didn't want me to have that pain. But I couldn't help but have that pain when I was younger.

MARTIN: What would you like people to learn from your story?

JIANG-STEIN: I think telling our stories as fully as possible, at least to one person, kind of reduces the secrecy and the shame about anything. It doesn't have to be about prison or race. I mean, my story really isn't just a prison story. It's a family story about healing and finding a journey of wholeness. And I find everybody relates to that. Everybody has a secret.

MARTIN: Could we wind up where we started the conversation? This whole question of there are a lot of people who feel in this country that we're just too much involved with these kinds of issues, you know, race and - you know, that people just spend too much time thinking about it. And your story is very much kind of a warrant for, you know, just saying that you need to know where you come from, that that matters. Can you talk a little bit more about why?

JIANG-STEIN: So I answer a question with a question when people ask me that. How can we be whole if we don't look at the broken pieces? And if we pretend it doesn't exist, I don't think we'll ever find solutions. And I feel like - and personally, I'm evidence of that. And my work in prisons is evidence of that. If we won't have conversations about what doesn't work, we won't find what does work.

MARTIN: Deborah Jiang-Stein is the author of the memoir "Prison Baby." She's also an advocate for incarcerated women and the founder of the unPrison Project. And she was kind enough to join us from Minnesota Public Radio. Deborah Jiang-Stein, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JIANG-STEIN: Thank you, Michel.

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