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Reviewed: Deborah Jiang Stein’s “Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus”

We often think too much that we forget to feel. We wrap words in the armor of tough cynicism, or playful irony, or political and ideological garb. I am not convinced that we’ve grown out of the need to hide our genuine feelings of, “ouch, this hurts,” or, “I really just want be loved,” in some sort of protective clothe, but sometimes I see glimpses.

Despite our need for a cynical exterior we give leeway to memoirists to display unalloyed feelings, either because, like Dave Eggers, they hide behind a knowing wink of unease, or like Mary Kerr, their life circumstances shock the cynic out of our system, and quiet the part of us that worries about looking cool. We scour the shelves for the next sensational story, a boy locked in a room all his life, a schizophrenic mother who forced her children to grow up impoverished, despite the riches to their name. Extreme pain and trauma bypasses our need for a knowing wink of cynicism. These stories of life in extremis allow us to feel, again, without guilt. Sometimes, memoirists punish our indulgence with self-pitying or self-aggrandizing drivel, while other times, they reward us with profound insight into humanity. Memoirs, though, as with all writing, works best when it can transcend itself.

Given this mess surrounding memoirs, I hesitated when I first read Deborah Jiang Stein’s Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus. Stein, adopted by white academic Jewish parents, finds out that her biological mother, a heroin addict, gave birth and weaned her for a year in prison. From there, Stein barrels through life on rebellious, angry mode until her resilient self finds some sort of serenity in her current life in her ability to live with ambiguity. I desperately did not want to read the book for reasons too self-deprecating to go into, but I did, and as usual, my initial assumptions spoke more about my insecurities than anything else. It took me no longer than the first paragraph to fall a little in love with Stein:

Some people end up in prison. My life begins inside a prison, a five-by-eight-foot room, my first home for a year. This book is a piece of my story; about the ravages caused by secrecy, shame, and stigma, and what happens when opposites tug inside. All which led me to a bigger truth – not everything in life can be reconciled.

Stein writes with such a chosen simplicity, the ability to call rage rage, and truth truth, that it knocks down my defenses. I care about her, about her story even though it lacks complicated aesthetics, or piercing insights into the complexity of a post-post modern life. It just is, real and humane, and unabashedly emotional. For example, she creates, perfectly, the rage of an adopted childhood with one word. “Mother grounded me for some violation I can’t remember. She insisted Jonathan, my older brother, and I call her the formal Mother. We’re both adopted. I wanted to call her Mama but couldn’t let the softness out.”

That word choice, “softness,” kills me. It shatters my heart into a million little pieces. In terms of the craft, one of the harder challenges for a writer entails writing in the voice of a believable child. Few pull this off well, but here, using softness instead of kindness evokes the whole spectrum of childhood. The daughter of a poet, Stein inherits a poetic voice from her non-biological mother. (“But the secrets we bury stay with us forever, glued to our insides like sticky rice. Inside a river seethes, quiet and furious.” The wild images of a fiery imagination.)

In a style similarly shorn of any need for decorations, purposefully straightforward, and yet poetic, Stein tells the story of her transformation from a young rebellious, closed child to a criminal teenage and young adult, moving from one high to the next, until her acclimation back to a societal life: a mother of two, an inspirational speaker, and a fighter for the cause of prison reform. The FBI used her story as a paradigm of prisoner reform; it’s truly that drastic of a story, but without one ounce of self-pity or self-aggrandizement.

On the whole, though, the book navigates dangerous territory for a memoirist. The largest problem, a problem all memoirs need to navigate lies in the question of inclusion and exclusion. Not only because a writer cannot include every detail of their life, but because writers want to create some ambiguity, leave some mystery so they ask themselves, what facts, thoughts, insights, struggles, and motivations make the cut? I found myself wanting much more than Stein provided. Stein leaves out too many essential aspects of her life. She rushes through the rehab, the drug binges, the criminal sprees, and motherhood. I understand her motivation both in terms of pacing, concerns with length, and the desire to create an arc of a story that works in a perfect circle. Additionally, I understand the need for a public figure to leave some breathing space for her private self to live, but at a certain point, I felt overwhelmed by a litany of facts instead of feeling attached to Stein’s compelling stories.

Regardless, I find it hard to begrudge a book with such a raw, pure, emotional punch; a book unafraid of its content, or the lessons learned; a writer aware that often, our stories demand more than a portrayal, that our stories command a response, an action. Indeed, Stein continuously answers her own call. Stein created the unPrison Project, an organization dedicated to, “to enhance life skills and advance education, mental health, and emotional wellness for women in U.S. prisons.” With another memoir planned, as well as a companion journal to this book, and a book of short stories, I look forward to hearing much more from Deborah Stein, and I hope you do too.

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