Excerpted from my memoir Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus: Inside the World of a Woman Born in Prison:
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.
What else does a twelve-year-old girl do when she's grounded but sneak around the house?
I listen a second to make sure I'm alone, then grip and twist the knob. A ray of Seattle's noon sun slants through the glass of the patio door on the far side of the room.
If they come in, I'll slip my slim five-foot frame out the sliding door and escape.
Check the dresser! For no reason other than I'm not supposed to pry into my parents' belongings, something drives me to do whatever I'm not supposed to do. I creep across the room, around my parents' footboard, and face my mother's dresser, tucked next to her nightstand where a bird book, two novels, and three volumes of poetry pile high against her alarm clock.
I slide my mother's top dresser drawer open.
The scent of Mother's French soap collection wafts out of her drawer. She collects soap bar rounds the size of silver dollars wrapped in parchment paper to perfume her drawers filled with neat stacks of folded underwear and stockings bunched in a pile at the back.
Nothing here. I nudge the top drawer closed to move on to the one below but a corner of white catches my eye. A crisp white piece of paper peeks out from under the pink drawer liner, plastic printed with miniature roses.
I peel up a corner of the liner.
I unveil a copy of a typed letter only a paragraph long, lodged under silky slips and parchment-wrapped bars of soaps, under softness and the scent of perfume, stashed like a rumpled stowaway in a first-class cabin.
Must be important if it's hidden. I already know I'm adopted so it can't be about that. Maybe it's about my race, or races. No one's explained to me why I'm brown in a white family, why my skin is caramel colored, often a sienna brown from the sun. Could this letter answer the mystery?
"Can you please alter Deborah's birth certificate," my mother asks in the letter to the family attorney, "from the Federal Women's Prison in Alderson, West Virginia, to Seattle? Nothing good will come from her knowing she lived in the prison before foster care, or that her birthmother was a heroin addict. After all, she was born in our hearts here in Seattle, and if she finds all this out she'll ask questions about the prison and her foster homes before we adopted her."
I read the letter over and over, these new truths imprinted into my memory.
My spine tightens as if someone just jammed a rod down it.
Impossible. Read it again. Everything blurs.
Foster care? I had no idea about anything before my adoption or even how old I was at the time or where I lived before then.
I step back a few paces and sink into the folded comforter at the end of my parents' bed.
Born in prison? No one's born in a prison.
The worst word, the worst place, the worst of the worst: Prison.
I tuck the paper back under the liner and walk from the dresser into my parents' bathroom. I end up in front of the mirror over their sink, my body in overload. Time and space distort inside me. I don't know where I am. It's as if my feet lift from the earth, my body and brain separated by some wedge where I'm suspended in mid-air, disconnected from my house, from my neighborhood, from earth, from humanity.
It can't be true. How am I lovable if it is true? Who loves anyone from prison? If people find out my secret, then what?
My skin itches as if tiny ants crawl along the bones in my forearms and I scratch so hard, red streaks rise on my skin. I splash water onto my burning face but give up. None of it washes away what I know isn't there, but I think I'm coated with grime on my cheeks, hot to my hands. I can't stop splashing my face to get rid of the gritty scratch in my eyes and to rinse the sourness in my mouth.
Born in prison? Nobody's born in prison.
Then something sinks in. My "real" mother's an addict and criminal. My "real" home is a prison.
While I don't understand until decades later, the trauma of learning about my prison birth sent me into a deep dive, an emotional lockdown behind a wall which imprisoned me for almost twenty years. The letter forced me into an impossible choice between two mothers, two worlds far apart. One mother in prison, behind bars, a criminal, a drug addict, a woman who tugs at me, her face and voice, images and her sound buried deep in my subconscious. The other mother, the one I face every day, the one who keeps fresh bouquets of flowers on our teak credenza. I don't connect with this mother.
I'm not hers. Not theirs.
It's the first and last time I read the letter, and I've never seen it again. I don't need to, for every word is imprinted in my brain and it's given me all the proof I need. I'm not the daughter of the mother and father who toss Yiddish quips back and forth, the mother who spends her Saturday afternoons throwing clay with a pottery teacher, then comes home with darling miniature ceramics vases. The mother who writes poetry with a Mont Blanc fountain pen and uses the same to correct her students' papers, the mother who cans cherries and whips the best whipped cream ever. The mother who says, "I love you, Pet," so many times I want to smack her. The mother I remind more days than not, "You're not my mother anyway," as I push her away when she tries to hug me.
The mother who waits for me in my ballet training every Saturday.
Don't think about it. It's not true, none of it happened. Not even the letter.
Some things we need to unthink and erase, just to keep living. To even stay alive. But the secrets we bury stay with us forever, glued to our insides like sticky rice.
Everything moves in slow motion as if on a conveyer belt at dinner the night of the letter. The voices of my family sound faint, like an echo far away. I forget I've ever read the letter, forget everything in it. Gone. Zip. Out of my mind and never shows up until another flash in another month. Maybe not a month, maybe eight. I forget this too. It never stays in my brain or anywhere inside me long enough for me to grasp it, but something this big can't hide for long.
I convince myself, "If I don't think of it, then it's not true. It never happened. I never read the letter. I wasn't born in prison."
But that doesn't mean it's not there. It seeps out of me like poison trapped in the pus of a balloon-sized blister.
My life-long battle begins when I force my brain to divorce from reality. It's the only way to metabolize what I've just learned. I was born in prison.