The story of how discovering the secret of her birth transformed Stein’s life.
In the opening chapter, the author recalls how, as a 12-year-old girl of mixed, uncertain race adopted into an academic family and a life of the arts, she found a letter that devastated her. Her adoptive mother had long ago made a request that the author’s birth certificate be altered so that she would never learn that she had been born in prison to a heroin-addicted mother. It also seems that, as a baby, she had passed through a series of foster homes, none of which she remembers. “I tuck the paper back into the liner and float from the dresser into my parents’ bedroom and stare at myself in the mirror over the sink, my body in overload” writes Stein. “Time and space distort inside me, I don’t know where I am.” Perhaps the revelation comes too early in the narrative, before readers have gotten a chance to get to know the writer, but such overwriting (and overdramatizing) initially seems to undermine a story that is powerful enough on its own. Through the first half of the memoir, it remains difficult to get to know Stein due to the fact that she doesn’t really know herself. She plainly had some behavioral issues before the revelation—a deep resentment toward her adoptive parents, a penchant for acting out and a hyperactive mind that would likely be diagnosed as ADD—but she spiraled downward into addiction, crime, and unsatisfying sex with both men and women before she turned her life around. The redemptive second half of the memoir explains much of the first, as she learns what heroin in utero can cause, follows a paper trail back to her prison origin, comes to terms with both her birth mother and her adoptive family, and devotes her life to helping and raising consciousness about women in prison.
A book of hope for lives that need turning around.