By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For the Birmingham Times
Immersing yourself in the lives of fictional characters painted on the pages of a good book is a pastime for some. A popular pastime. A hobby. For Deborah Miller-Harris, it was survival. A South Titusville native, she found that reading and writing was an escape from her less than ideal childhood and that the arts and imagination numbed the pain.
Although Miller-Harris didn’t grow up in an environment that encouraged creativity and simulated fairy tales, she didn’t let that stop her from using her mind and the gifts God gave her.
“Everyone has a story to tell,” she says. “Whether it’s fiction or [autobiographical]we all have stories that can help someone.”
Miller-Harris, 67, is a licensed minister and counselor who has written sermons, motivational speeches, plays, songs, poems and more journals than she can count. But it wasn’t until 2018 that she achieved her life goal of becoming a published author with the completion of her first novel, Dance Partner for Deidre, based on fictional characters for readers aged 12+.
On March 25, the Titusville Branch Library hosted a book signing with Miller-Harris, who describes her novel as a story “about a close-knit community filled with pride and mystery.”
“It’s a coming-of-age, self-discovery love story about a young girl named Deidre and [her search for] Answers to the mystery of her mother, who died giving birth,” she said.
Miller-Harris found writing A Dance Partner for Deidre cathartic. Although her story is very different from the novel’s main character, Miller-Harris also longed for her mother.
“My mother was a functioning heroin addict,” said Miller-Harris, the eldest of eight siblings.
The responsibilities Miller-Harris had throughout her upbringing shaped her as a person.
“It was five [siblings] in my house,” she said. “I have three brothers and one sister from my mother, so that’s what I spent most of my childhood doing [and adolescence] be a mother … I also have two sisters and a brother from my father.”
When asked how she would describe her upbringing, Miller-Harris answered in one word: “complicated.”
“I was a child of a missed abortion. My mother tried to abort me but it didn’t work. Back [in the early 1950s]there were no abortion clinics, my mother said [did everything she could to miscarry]. … She was only 15 and she didn’t want me. I grew up with this feeling and was raised mainly by my grandmother and grandfather. We were all in the same house, though [my grandparents] adopted four of us,” Miller-Harris said.
“I was 9 years old when my [grandmother, who we called] Big Mama, deceased,” the author continued. “My world just collapsed. she was my heart I cried for days and then I had to take care of my siblings because my mother was going back and forth and so was my grandfather [the breadwinner].”
Miller-Harris recalled having several moments with her mother that were mentally and emotionally abusive, and her mother’s presence often increased her anxiety.
“I think she took her anger out on me,” Miller-Harris said. “She didn’t know how to deal with it [with my existence], and I would take the abuse because I wanted her love. One day I guess she came down [off her high] and she continued to boss me around. I guess I made an angry noise or something because she said to me, ‘As long as I live and breathe, you’ll serve me hand and foot.'”
“Letter to God”
As a coping mechanism, Miller-Harris began writing at age 6. “I used to write letters to God,” she said. “I was a kid, I didn’t understand my pain and I never thought I could tell anyone about it, so I always spoke to him.”
Then, when Miller-Harris was 12, a harrowing event happened: “I was raped by my neighbor,” she said.
“I was babysitting and he got home before his wife. … This man actually raped me while his children were in the next room. He’s still alive today,” Miller-Harris said.
As a student at Center Street Elementary School, the author was influenced by two of her favorite teachers and attended every available merit-based program.
“My teachers inspired me,” Miller-Harris said. “My music teacher, the late Mrs. [Harriett] Cantelow taught us all about the symphony and the arts. She broadened my horizons. And the late Mrs. Maxine McNair, [mother of Denise McNair, one of the four girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing], was my third grade teacher. She inspired me to write and read a lot.”
“I was an avid reader, and that fueled my creativity,” added Miller-Harris. “I love words and English. I loved being in spell bees. I loved studying. I used to study the dictionary.”
When Miller-Harris reached high school, she wanted to be a singer. She also took part in pageants and plays and was a dancer.
“I was interested in everything in music and art,” she said. “I wanted to be on Broadway. I wanted to be a star!”
Miller-Harris continued her art studies at John Herbert Phillips High School, now Phillips Academy. She wrote, acted and performed plays as part of a youth group at her church, In Spirit and In Truth Ministries, in Birmingham on Graymont Avenue. And she did all of this while still helping to raise her siblings.
become a wife at 16
Miller-Harris grew up quickly and “became a child bride by the age of 16,” she said.
Her husband was 10 years her senior and had a history of alcoholism.
“I was going into my senior year of high school and finishing my degree, but I was in an abusive marriage,” she said.
Shortly after high school, Miller-Harris gave birth to their first son, Christopher, now 49.
“I was completely devoted to my son and trying to give him a better life,” she said, adding that she began attending the Herzing Institute in Birmingham in 1973, a few months after Christopher’s birth.
When Miller-Harris was 21, her mother died of a heroin overdose, so Miller-Harris returned home to help raise her siblings. “I was devastated because I knew she was going to overdose in the bathroom. God had already shown me,” she said. “It changed my life because I had to move home with my son to help my grandfather raise my siblings.”
Miller-Harris eventually earned certification in keypunch and data entry, which led to a 41-year career as an executive assistant and medical secretary.
“I start now”
The South Titusville-based author, who also has another son, Gabrielle, 40, and a daughter, Jerijanneice, 38, has been married five times. With each marriage, Miller-Harris learned and grew as a person.
“I grew up with the first marriage. I was a child bride and starting to mature,” she said. “My second marriage was more of a friendship than a marriage. In the third marriage I liked his opinion; he was an intellectual, and that taught me how best to navigate the professional world. … My fourth marriage was the romantic marriage. We had romance and I learned how to do it [endure and] survive with him because of his 20 year crack addiction. [When my fourth husband] died, I was heartbroken.”
Her current marriage, too [David Harris]She has a crush on her childhood. “We met when we were 7 years old. He bought me small jewelry but he was too shy to give it to me so he put it in a paper bag and threw it on my porch,” she laughed. “I haven’t seen David for 50 years and we met again in 2014. He found me on Facebook and we got married the same year.”
Miller Harris said: “[I’ve done] liked many people in my life and it never got me anywhere. … It’s time for everything else to take a back seat. It’s time for me.” “I feel like I’m just getting started,” she continued. “I think my bigger work will be in my later years. I was determined to make it and not be what people thought I was. I was determined to do something with my life. I want to leave a footprint for my children, nine grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I want to leave a legacy they can be proud of.”