The business of the addiction-and-recovery memoir writer is to tell all about the tenuous, soaring highs and gripping, crashing lows of substance abuse. The tool of choice is brutal honesty, and the goal is redemption. Minneapolis writer Deborah Jiang-Stein proves herself a master at this — and then some — in her searing new book, “Prison Baby,” the story of an adoptive daughter raised by socially and politically progressive, academic Jewish parents.
Jiang-Stein cuts to the chase on the first page by recounting the heart-stopping, disorienting moment of trauma she experienced when, at age 12, she came across a hidden letter revealing that she had been born in prison to a heroin-addicted mother.
“Time and space distort inside me,” Jiang-Stein writes. “I don’t know where I am. My feet seem to lift, my body and brain separated by some wedge, and I’m disconnected from my house, from my neighborhood, from Earth, from humanity.” From that moment, Jiang-Stein enters an “emotional lockdown” that imprisons her for almost 20 years.
“Who loves anyone from prison?” Jiang-Stein asks herself. The answer is that her gentle, patient adoptive mother does. But Jiang-Stein cannot feel this love. The only genuine emotion that Jiang-Stein can feel for many years is an intense longing to connect with her prison mom, whom she can recall only as a shadowy figure seen amid the bars of a crib or prison cell.
Jiang-Stein’s self-destruction is not so much a fall as a leap, as the trauma ignites a passion for risk-taking that leads from jumping from high walls to trafficking drugs across borders and into prisons. The rush of adrenaline “drowns out everything else,” she writes, just as addiction seems to do — until she witnesses a stabbing that truly frightens her and she gets the help she needs to recover. While Jiang-Stein’s life of crime, violence and addiction had put her on the path to life as a prisoner, in recovery she uses that experience to return to prison transformed into an advocate and mentor for incarcerated girls and women. She also unlocks her capacity to love her adoptive mother.
Jiang-Stein’s journey and her captivating account of it are beyond astonishing. Along with her, we learn that she defied the odds in surviving gestation and birth to a heroin addict — and that her physical and emotional systems were damaged by the heroin exposure. That a woman with such challenges could surmount and turn trauma into good is profoundly inspiring. But what lifts this trauma-to-redemption tale well above the genre is the author’s extraordinary power to harness words to convey what it feels like to be utterly — and ultimately understandably — out of control.
Rosemary Herbert is a longtime literary critic and the author of “Front Page Teaser: A Liz Higgins Mystery.”