SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH speaks to DEBORAH JIANG STEIN, a runaway turned writer and advocate for women in prison
In her book, Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus, Jiang Stein courageously explores her challenging, often painful past. She writes of her beginnings: how she was born in prison a heroin addict because her incarcerated mother was addicted to the same drug and how she discovered the shocking truth about her birth when she was 12 and came upon a letter in her adopted parents’ bedroom. She writes of how that discovery changed her whole world and the chaos that followed leading her to teeter dangerously off course from a normal life, feeling like she didn’t belong anywhere, feeling like she could only find peace when she broke the rules.
Although she was a good student, Jiang Stein struggled through her school days, often spending more time in the principal’s office than in the classroom. In later years, her rebellion developed and grew. Drugs became a part of her life and so did alcohol. Jiang Stein then goes on to reveal some of the lowest points in her life, which include her run-ins with the law, before she unveils the chain of events that finally gave her purpose and helped her turn things around.
The most captivating aspect of Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus is the fascinating juxtaposition that it represents: the simple language makes the book easy to read but the topic it explores is, at times, heartbreaking. Jiang Stein displays a writing style that is piercingly honest and her personal truth sings throughout the prose but she admits that revealing her tortured thoughts wasn’t something that came easily. “I’ve been working on this book for ten years, first as a novel—a poorly written one,” explains Jiang Stein, with characteristic candor. “Even so, it attracted serious interest from a publisher but I was encouraged to work the story as memoir. I wasn’t ready at the time.”
Even when she finally sat down to begin her book, Jiang Stein had to resolve a significant dilemma. “The biggest challenge was first to choose which stories to tell, and then to peel away the novel and let my truth stand out.”
Despite the challenges, Jiang Stein’s motivation to tell the unvarnished truth never disappeared. Her focus was always on the people who would one day read her words. “We all carry some secret at one time or another, and I bet everyone has felt shame at least once,” she says. “As I wrote my story, I hoped readers would take away some kind of freedom and courage to walk out of any shadows in their lives. It’s not really a story about my prison birth as much as a book about the darkness caused by secrecy, stigma, and shame, and what the other side can look like.”
Near the end of the book, Jiang Stein has included an interesting section called The 10 Commandments of the Tutu where she packs in all the lessons she learned into pithy one-sentence messages. “Readers will discover in my book how I’m drawn to whimsy and playfulness, and I created the Ten Commandments of the Tutu out of pure fun and also finding truth in the messages,” she says.
Jiang Stein also talks about the significance of the ballet dancer’s tutu that is featured in the title and cover illustration of her book. The tutu was originally part of the title of two articles she wrote called “Who says tough girls don’t wear tutus” and “My Mama wears a tutu” but Jiang Stein reveals that it’s far more than just a catchy heading. “The tutu evolved into my metaphor for the internal conflicts we all face. Why not let opposites live together—fierce and frill holding hands? What better story of hope than one about a child cast off and adrift? This is one of the messages of my book and I weave in the tutu to tell the tale.”
These days, Jiang Stein’s life couldn’t be more different than the one she experienced when she was growing up. As a mother of two girls aged 12 and 16, she begins each day eating breakfast with her daughters before driving them to school. She spends her free hours visiting friends, eating out, roller skating, going to museums, flipping through magazines and just daydreaming.
Her writing schedule varies, depending on how much time she can spare on any give day. “Sometimes I wake before my daughters and write and if not, I use the morning after school drop-off to write, catch up on emails and social media.” Jiang Stein doesn’t have a set formula when it comes to writing. “I have the discipline of an oyster squishing out of its shell all over the place. Some days I jump from a writing project to Twitter, read emails, Facebook, back to writing. Other days I’m all focus.”
Other than being a successful writer who contributes to respected print and online publications such as The Huffington Post, Jiang Stein is also a speaker who gives talks in women’s prisons across the United States as well as the founder of the unPrison Project—a nonprofit organisation that advocates education and mental and emotional wellness as well as addiction rehabilitation for hundreds of thousands of women prisoners in the U.S. It also serves the 2.3 million underage children with a parent in prison. This is a cause that is, understandably, close to Jiang Stein’s heart. “Each prison is different, every speaking engagement brings me a new audience but the basics are similar,” she explains. “I’m with women who’ve lost everything, women with one thing left, for those who kept it: their spirits. I’m there to plant a seed of hope, which is how and why I created ‘Freedom on the Inside’ as the tagline for The unPrison Project.”
Although busy with her many interests and responsibilities, it’s no surprise that Jiang Stein cherishes the priceless bond she has with her daughters above all else. She is determined to teach them about the most important things in life—the lessons she has gathered through a turbulent and difficult past. “If I teach my daughters to respect themselves and others and to do good things in the world, I believe my job is done. I work hard to help them develop kindness and generosity in their spirits. I hope all the rest falls into place.”
The 10 Commandments of the Tutu
- Let your world stand on four things: justice, peace, curiosity and the truth of the tutu.
- Let it ruffle. Who cares if you’re the only one?
- Honour the spirit of your tutu more than the tutu itself.
- Tutu does not the woman make, but it does build the power of her dreams.
- Walk humbly in the grace of your tutu as you would anything else that brings you cause for celebration.
- Rejoice not in the fall of another’s tutu. Instead, offer to pick it up.
- You shall bear witness to the integrity of the tutu even if it’s not for you.
- Do not judge another until you have stood in her tutu.
- If you covet your neighbour’s tutu, do it with love and tell her so.
- Look for the divine sense behind the whimsy of the tutu.