Archive for the ‘ Memoirs ’ Category

‘Prison Baby’ Author Deborah Jiang-Stein Says Sometimes Girls Should Throw a Punch

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

Prison Baby author Deborah Jiang-Stein was born in prison addicted to heroin just like her mother was. Deborah spent her first year of life there and eventually went into the foster care system and got adopted. Today, she is a national speaker and founder of The unPrison Project, a nonprofit working to empower and inspire incarcerated women and girls with life skills and mentoring to plan and prepare for successful lives after prison. She’s the author of the brand new memoir, Prison Baby (Beacon Press.)

Today, one of her biggest roles is mother. Here’s what she has to say about teaching her daughters to stand up for themselves–even if they need to throw a punch.

“When one of my daughters was in third grade or so, I got a call from her school’s aftercare program that alarmed me. She’d punched a boy in the face and split his lip open. When I picked her up, the teacher pulled my daughter and me aside and reminded us about the no hitting rule. The aftercare worker didn’t know the reason for the incident. So at the time I just agreed, and repeated back the words, “No hitting.”

As she and I walked out of the building, she cried, hugged my waist and said, “You always told me that if my body was threatened, I should fight back.” I didn’t remember that I’d said that, but it sounds like me.

Right then I knew there was another story behind the story. As it turns out, two of her classmates, both boys, had pinned her down and had teased her about crushing on another boy. All in fun, and kids play around like this. But I’ve raised my two daughters as fierce, gentle warriors. I’m raising them to hold love and kindness in the highest esteem and also to stand up for what they believe. And to physically defend themselves if they are physically attacked. It’s survival—how simple is that?

If she’d been a boy, would I’ve been called into school? We don’t expect girls to scrap around in a fight. We don’t expect them to compete with boys either.

A few years earlier in a school parent conference, her homeroom teacher, a socially-conscious instructor who we adored, made me a proud mother when she said: “Your daughter’s a hard worker and a delight in class. “

“But,” the teacher went on, ”whenever we lineup in the hall for transition time, she fights her way to the front of the line.”

I remembered my school days when the boys would rumble around in the hall and the girls lined up nicely waiting for instructions from the teacher. I was a rumbler, too.

I asked the teacher if any other girls did this, or just my daughter. Turns out, just her, along with most of the boys.

“Are you speaking to the boys’ parents about their scrapping around too?” I asked the woman.

We both sat in a silent teaching moment. “No,” she said. “Good point. I haven’t talked to the boys’ parents about their sons ruckus in line.”

Social expectations carve deep into our parenting and teaching. I’m raising my girls to show up as gentle and kind and fierce human beings, all in the same bundle. From generation to generation, I learned this from my progressive parents, and I’m sure also from my incarcerated birth mother with whom I spent one year in prison where I was born. But it was a year where I’m sure women surrounded me with love and strength, wisdom and kindness.”

Read the rest of her story in Prison Baby.

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Love, Loss, Birth and Death: ‘Both Sides Now’ Shows One Mom’s Strength

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

Nancy Sharp is the author of a highly praised new book, Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living.

Check out her heartbreaking yet totally inspiring memoir that she excerpts below:

“Imagine giving birth to twins, your first children. This is the miracle you and your husband have been waiting for, babies to affirm the future. It’s hard to describe the joy and release the two of you feel. Now imagine this: hours later, with you still in your hospital robe, your husband receives a surprise phone call from his neuro-oncologist. His voice cracks when he answers and you know immediately the news is bad from the way he slumps onto the hospital bed, turning his face from you.

Everything blurs in that instant, and while you should be the one consoling your husband, he’s the one trying to calm you. You are wild with post-pregnancy hormones, wild from fear.

How is it that a person holds life and death in the same moment?

This exact scenario happened to me on May 20, 2001. I’d just delivered twins, a girl Rebecca, and a boy Casey. Like many multiples, the twins were born prematurely, at 30 weeks. They were too tiny and frail to hold so they lay in incubators in the neonatal intensive unit at New York Cornell Hospital (check name). With the babies’ needs being met, and our immediate worry over their well being quelled, finally, my husband Brett and I had a quiet moment to ourselves. We nuzzled on my twin size hospital bed, dozing comfortably in one another’s arms.

That’s when the call came, jolting us from our dreams. Brett’s brain cancer had returned. The routine MRI he’d taken only a few days before revealed that there was a tumor in his brain and now down his spine, too.

These were terribly unlucky odds: new life and certain death all at the same time.

Fortunately, Brett lived until the twins were two and a half years old. We stayed put in New York City, trying to go forward but remaining horribly stuck in the past. We needed to make a bold change.

Which is how I decided in 2006, with the twins getting ready for kindergarten, that we would start anew in Denver, Colorado, a place Brett and I had always been drawn to. The Rocky Mountains offered a sense of permanence and peace. Besides, my college roommate and her family lived in Denver.

That brave decision led to so many others: buying a house on my own, selecting a school for the twins, making new friends, and even, risking love again by reaching out to a widowed TV anchor with two boys who was featured in a local magazine as one Denver’s most eligible singles. We wound up getting married and blending our families.

What I know today is that bold living has been at the heart of every rewarding thing that has ever happened to me. In spite of what life throws our way, it’s up to us to make the moments count. Are you daring enough to live the life you want to lead? Beauty and opportunity are abundant; take the time to see them.”

I wish you bold living.

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Best Books of 2013 Roundup: Oprah, The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly–See Who’s List You Like Best

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

What were your favorite reads of 2013? I’ll list my Parents picks in the next few days, but today I’ve been having fun with are everyone else’s. Other editors and reviewers from Oprah and The New York Times don’t agree on many of the Best Books of 2013, as you’ll see below. Publisher’s Weekly culled through 9,000 reviews (15 I wrote myself) to come up with their choices–most I haven’t even heard of. So what should you read? I’m thinking about The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner which showed up twice–so did Good Lord Bird. The Interestings gets one nod, and that’s one I loved it this summer.

So stop what you’re doing–work and watching kids can wait. Take time to peruse these awesome reading choices below. I’m sending this list to my book club. (Hi girls!) We need a great new read to ring in 2014.

Oprah’s 10 Best Books of 2013

1.The Isle of Youth
By Laura van den Berg
The gist: A quirky story collection filled with unique and strong female protagonists.

2. Country Girl: A Memoir
By Edna O’Brien
The gist: A memoir by one of Ireland’s most famous fiction writers that has been compared to Angela’s Ashes.

3. The Signature of All Things
By Elizabeth Gilbert
The gist: This one about a strong 19th Century botanist proves that the Eat, Pray, Love writer is at the top of her game. Gilbert makes moss a fascinating subject, I hear.

4. Vampires in the Lemon Grove
By Karen Russell
The gist: This hugely creative collection of short stories–one about a vampire who’s afraid to fly and another about U.S. presidents reincarnated about horses–proves that the author of Swamplandia has staying power.

5. The Flamethrowers
By Rachel Kushner
The gist: The award-winning saga of an electric young woman’s full-throttle pursuit of love amid the class war and cultural upheaval of the late ’70s.

6. The Good Lord Bird
By James McBride
The gist: A slave boy and abolitionist John Brown change the course of American history in this novel that is inspired by real events.

7. The Interestings
By Meg Wolitzer
The gist: Through well-tuned drama and compassionate humor, Wolitzer chronicles the living organism that is friendship, and arcs it over the course of more than 30 years.

8. The Cuckoo’s Calling
By Robert Galbraith
The gist: A book for mystery lovers by J.K. Rowling.

9. Dog Songs
By Mary Oliver
The gist: This Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s combo of woman’s best friend and poetry is irresistible.

10. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul
By Bob Shacochis
The gist: What is the legacy of war—and how long does it last—are the questions behind this brilliant and gripping novel.

Publisher’s Weekly Best Books (gathered in no particular order)


1. See of Hooks
By Lindsay Hill
The gist: “Pure reading pleasure on every single page, not to mention a wallop of pathos.”

2. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief
By Lawrence Wright
The gist: Wright’s prodigiously researched investigation of Scientology does what good reporting ought to do: examine something in search of truth, lay out the findings, and let conclusions be drawn.

3. Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield
By Jeremy Scahill
The gist: The Nation’s national security correspondent surgically exposes how the War on Terror is actually conducted: secret prisons, torture, extralegal assassinations, drone surveillance and warfare, gamesmanship with corrupt regimes. 

4. Men We Reaped
By Jesmyn Ward
The gist: Critically acclaimed novelist Ward (Salvage the Bones) bravely enters nonfiction terrain in this starkly honest and deeply tragic account of the deaths of five important men in her life.

5. People in the Trees
By Hanya Yanagihara
The gist: In this novel, a ccientist who, after graduating Harvard medical school in the 1940s, travels to a remote Pacific island chain where he may or may not have stumbled upon the key to immortality.

6. Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery
By Robert Kolker
The gist: “Even hardened true crime readers will be haunted by New York magazine contributing editor Kolker’s provocative tale of five young escorts who became linked by the tragic circumstances of their disappearances, and the discovery of their remains on Long Island’s Oak Beach.”

7. Miss Anne in Harlem
By Carla Kaplan
The gist: In this beautifully written, empathetic, and valuable addition to the history of the Harlem Renaissance, scholar Kaplan (Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters) presents the untold story of six notable white women (including Fannie Hurst and Nancy Cunard, members of a larger group known collectively as “Miss Anne”) who embraced black culture—and life—in Harlem in the 1920s and ’30s.

8. Constellation of Vital Phenomena
By Anthony Marra
The gist: A Chechen village, a young girl watching her father taken by Russian soldiers and her house burned to the ground: so begins Marra’s startling debut, in which a tough doctor ponders the extent of her obligation to help Havaa, an eight-year-old girl who has been brought to the doctor’s wretched and abandoned hospital by Akhmed, the girl’s neighbor.

9. The Silence and the Roar
By Nihad Sirees
The gist: “Sirees’s deeply philosophical and satirical novel echoes Kafka and Orwell.”

10. The Good Lord Bird
By James McBride
see details above

The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2013

1. Americanah
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi

2. The Flamethrowers
By Rachel Kushner

3. The Goldfinch
By Donna Tartt

4. Life After Life
By Kate Atkinson

5. Tenth of December
By George Saunders

6. After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead
By Alan S. Blinder

7. Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House
By Peter Baker

8. Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
By Sheri Fink

9. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
By Christopher Clark

10. Wave
By Sonali Deraniyagala

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Ellen Stimson, Author of ‘Mud Season’ Didn’t Believe in Barbies or Toy Guns Until…

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

Author Ellen Stimson‘s memoir Mud Season recently hit shelves. It’s about her family’s move to gorgeous, rural Vermont after one magical vacation. Things pretty much go south from there in her witty and bittersweet book.

Ellen had a lot of ideas about parenthood that went south, and she shares them with us in this most excellent essay below. Find out what happens when well-meaning pacifist, gender-neutral parents come to blows with their feisty kids’ personalities. Would you let your kid have a Barbie? A toy gun? They didn’t think so until…

Parenting 101 by Ellen Stimson

When our kids were little we had very definite ideas about what their raising was going to look like. There would be no gender biases in our toy purchases for one thing. We were not going to fall into the truck and gun or pink and purple trap. Our house would be free of the stereotyping messages that our culture bombards little boys and girls with on TV and on the playground. Our house would be a gender-neutral zone, where preferences and natural identity were respected and exploration of biases examined. Multiculturalism would be taught and thoughtful discourse would be encouraged. This was the way we made our way in the world, and it was the way we would raise our children, by golly.

We had spent lots of time thinking about these issues and planning our parenting styles. Our ideas had been long-considered, and we were going to wind up with balanced kids who treated everyone they met with kindness, dignity and respect. They would not be bound by society’s notions of male and female. Their lives would be fuller and richer as a result. I’m sure we saw them bringing peace to the Middle East and curing cancer while they were at it.

In the whole nature versus nurture debate we fell squarely on the nurture side. We figured if parents would just provide loving experiences and offer up ideas at the supper table, kids would gravitate toward tolerance. What debate? We had this whole thing figured out. Only then, we actually met the kids. We had forgotten that they might come to the party with their own ideas. (more…)

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Author Janna Vought of ‘Evolution of Cocoons’ Opens Up on Mothering her Bipolar and Asperger’s Daughter

Friday, October 4th, 2013

For mothers who weep despair, I am a mother raising a child diagnosed with debilitating mental and developmental illnesses. I share an intimate glimpse of this journey with other parents in my book, Evolution of Cocoons: A Mother’s Journey Through Her Daughter’s Bipolar and Asperger’sThrough my writing, I find my voice and hope to be a source of inspiration and comfort to other mothers walking a similar path. I want to share a slice of my life through this essay:

It happened again, another mass shooting, another mentally ill individual succumbing to demons trapped within. A man, tortured, plagued, debilitated by chemical imbalances in his brain exacted his twisted sense of justice upon the innocent irrelevant to his pain. Like Newtown, Aurora and Tucson, we witnessed the destruction of the human soul forged in the mind of the mentally ill. We vilify, shake our heads, wonder how those so disturbed are ever allowed to feel the warmth of sun upon their face, certain the world would be a better place if such people didn’t exist. Shame on them for indulging their insanity; shame on society for casting such stones without understanding. Isolated events on behalf of the few does not provide an accurate representation of the whole.

As I watched the story of the naval yard massacre in Washington D.C., I considered the shooter’s family, as I do each time such an event occurs. I harbor a level of empathy for their plight cannot be fathomed. I listened to the interview with shooter Aaron Alexis’ mother, heard her sorrow infused voice as she struggled to understand the actions of her son, her attempts to explain his erratic and destructive behavior, all while cloaked in secrecy, obscuring her identity in order to preserve what little sanctity remained in her life.  My heart ached, as it does for all the faceless parents of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, for I too am the vessel of society’s shame, the mother of a daughter infused with the breath of the devil, a bipolar girl with Asperger’s syndrome, plagued by an unbalanced mind.

With words, I illuminate our existence, mothers who dwell in shadows, fearful of our discovery.  We suffer in silence, frozen inside, observers to the devastation of our children, isolated by a world who does not grasp the concept of difference. I shatter assumptions of the mentally and developmentally ill and their families. I expose my truth so others know they’re not alone. Why should we be sequestered from the rest of humanity because of a slip in chromosomes that no one could control? We are good parents, strong women, devoted to the care and well being of our children. Thousands of us exist.  We deserve a voice.

I do not profess to have the answers; I have no sage advice. I offer comfort, friendship, and compassion, a guide from darkness into light.

Janna Vought is a writer who is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in education. Her daugther, Kamryn, is diagnosed with Bipolar I and Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, making her intimately qualified to write on parenting a special needs child.

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