Interview with Deborah Jiang Stein, author of “Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus: Inside the World of a Woman Born in Prison”

by Caren on December 26, 2012

deborah-jiang-steinEach week, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you. 

Deborah Jiang Stein, author of Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus: Inside the World of a Woman Born in Prison, is a public speaker,  writer, and founder of The unPrison Project ( a 501(c)3 nonprofit that advocates for and works with women and girls in prisons across the country. You can reach her on Facebook or follow her on twitter: @deborahdash.

Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it? 

Third grade. I know this because my dad had a Sabbatical from his university teaching job when I was 8 and I spent my 3rd grade in an overseas school in Rome where we lived for a year. We then traveled around vineyards in France. I remember tasting wine with my parents’ encouragement, maybe just in sips then. They wanted my brother and I to develop the taste for fine wine.

And did I ever. Only by college I was downing not the fine French wines I’d grown used to at home, but Mad Dog, or Mickey’s Big Mouth, or Thunderbird. Whatever the boys could get. I was 17 in college and didn’t have the fake ID to get into a liquor store.

How did/does your family treat drinking? 

In my family growing up, my parents held the French approach about wine, more like a ritual and romance in The Art of Wine. My dad had an extensive wine cellar and wine was part of every meal. Well, not breakfast. Not until I got out on my own.

My parents were academics and had dinner galas and cocktail parties where my brother and I would mingle with their poet and artist friends. I remember people asking my dad for dry vermouth or Campari on the rocks, and their ice clinking in the glasses. Let me say this — they drank in that refined way that can still be called lively, um, alcohol high.

How do you approach alcohol in your every day life?

tutuI don’t drink now, have been clean for years.

If you have kids, how is the subject of drinking handled? Do you drink in front of them? With them?

My 17 year old daughter is in the culture of high school where dope and drinking are common. For a few years I’ve asked her what she wants to try and have suggested she could do this at home. She hasn’t had the interest. I know she doesn’t like the taste. So far she doesn’t have a desire to get drunk.

My 12-year-old, we have yet to see where she goes with drinking or not.

My kids are growing up seeing me not drink so who knows in what direction they’ll go. I hope they don’t learn the way I did, drinking through years that you can’t remember. Like where I lived, or even what city.

Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?

Yikes, how much room, how much time do we have? From college on, alcohol was not a beverage for me. It was anesthesia, a patch, medicine, healing, freedom. And then near death.

What’s your drink of choice? Why?

Water. When I closed my drinking career, my choice was scotch. Johnny Walker Red. I already mentioned my fine tastes in college. Right after I graduated high school, I drank White Russians in Seattle hotel bars. Later, it was tequila straight up in Mexico and San Diego, the kind with a worm at the bottom of the bottle. I associate my drinking with cities, depends where I was running from the law. You get the picture.

Has drinking ever affected—either negatively or positively—a relationship of yours?

When I drank, It affected every relationship because my true one and only relationship was with alcohol, and drugs. But this isn’t The Drug Diaries.

Has culture or religion influenced your drinking? 

No. Other than I grew up in a family where drinking wine was treated as an act of fine culture.  My use and abuse of alcohol grew into an act of unrefined behavior, and eventually got me into a ton of trouble. I’m thrilled these days to remember everything I do and never leave a social event with any regret about who, what, why, or how I behaved. I actually have more fun now than before, and most people think I’m beyond playful. So who needs drinking?



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