By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For The Birmingham Times
Delving into the lives of fictional characters painted across the pages of a good book is leisure for some. A favorite pastime. A hobby. For Deborah Miller-Harris, it was survival. The South Titusville native found that reading and writing were an escape from her less-than-ideal childhood and that the arts and her imagination numbed the pain.
While Miller-Harris didn’t grow up in an environment that fostered creativity and simulated fairy tales, she wouldn’t let that stop her from using her mind and the gifts God gave her.
“Everyone has a story to tell,” she said. “Whether it’s fiction or [autobiographical], we all have stories that can help someone.”
Miller-Harris, 67, is a licensed minister and spiritual counselor, who has penned sermons, motivational speeches, plays, songs, poems, and more diaries than she can count. But it wasn’t until 2018 that she would achieve her lifelong goal of becoming a published author with the completion of her first novel, “Dance Partner for Deidre,” which is based on fictional characters for readers 12 and up.
On March 25, the Titusville Branch Library hosted a book signing featuring Miller-Harris, who describes her novel as a story “about a close-knit community full of pride and secrets.”
“It is a coming-of-age, self-discovery love story about a young girl named Deidre and [her search for] answers to the mystery about her mother who died giving birth to her,” she said.
Miller-Harris is just one of numerous Titusville natives giving back in her own way. Others include Birmingham civic leader Odessa Woolfolk; Mary K. Bush, an international finance expert and former head of the Federal Home Loan Bank System; African American architect Wallace Rayfield, who designed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham; and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Miller-Harris found that penning “A Dance Partner for Deidre” was cathartic. Although her story is vastly different from the novel’s main character, Miller-Harris, too, longed for her mother.
“My mother was a functioning heroin addict,” said Miller-Harris, who is the eldest of eight siblings.
The responsibilities Miller-Harris had throughout her upbringing shaped her as a person.
“There were five [siblings] in my home,” she said. “I have three brothers and one sister by my mother, so I spent most of my childhood [and adolescence] being a mother. … I also have two sisters and a brother by my dad.”
Asked how she would describe her upbringing, Miller-Harris replied with one word: “complicated.”
“I was a child of missed abortion. My mother tried to abort me, but it didn’t work. Back [in the early 1950s], there were no abortion clinics, so my mother [did everything she could to miscarry]. … She was only 15, and she didn’t want me. I grew up feeling that and was primarily raised by my grandmother and grandfather. We were all in the same house, but [my grandparents] adopted four of us,” said Miller-Harris.
“I was 9 years old when my [grandmother, who we called] Big Mama, passed away,” the author continued. “My world just collapsed. She was my heart. I cried for days, and then I had to step up and take care of my siblings because my mother was in and out, and my grandfather was [the breadwinner].”
Miller-Harris recalled that she had several moments with her mother that were mentally and emotionally abusive, and that her mother’s presence would often add to her anguish.
“I think she took her anger out on me,” Miller-Harris said. “She didn’t know how to deal [with my existence], and I would take the abuse because I wanted her love. One day, I guess she was coming down [off her high] and she kept on ordering me around. I guess I made an exasperated sound or something because she told me, ‘As long as I live and breathe, you’ll wait on me hand and foot.’”
“Letter to God”
As a coping mechanism, Miller-Harris started writing at the age of 6. “I used to write letters to God,” she said. “I was a child, I didn’t understand my pain, and I never thought I could tell anybody about it, so I used to talk to Him.”
Then, when Miller-Harris was 12, a harrowing event occurred: “I was raped by my neighbor,” she said.
“I was babysitting, and he came home before the 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 participated in any performance-based program available.
“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 got my creative juices going,” Miller-Harris added. “I love words and English. I loved being in spelling bees. I loved to learn. I used to study the dictionary.”
By the time Miller-Harris reached high school, she wanted to be a singer. She also participated in pageants and plays and was a dancer.
“I was interested in everything in music and the arts,” she said. “I wanted to be on Broadway. I wanted to be a star!”
At John Herbert Phillips High School, now Phillips Academy, Miller-Harris continued her study of the arts. She also wrote, performed, and executed 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.
Becoming a Wife at 16
Miller-Harris grew up quickly, becoming “a child bride at the age of 16,” she said.
Her husband was 10 years her senior and was dealing with alcoholism.
“I was going into my senior year of high school, and I completed my studies, but I was in an abusive marriage,” she said.
Shortly after graduating from high school, Miller-Harris bore her first son, Christopher, now 49.
“My whole self was devoted to my son and trying to make a better life for him,” she said, adding that she started attending Birmingham’s Herzing Institute in 1973, a few months after Christopher was born.
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 back home with my son to help my grandfather finish raising my siblings.”
Miller-Harris eventually earned a certification in keypunch and data entry, which led to a 41-year career as an executive assistant and medical secretary.
“Just Getting Started”
The South Titusville 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 I started to mature,” she said. “My second marriage was more of a friendship than a marriage. In the third marriage, I liked his mind; he was an intellectual, and it taught me how to best navigate myself in the professional world. … My fourth marriage was the romantic marriage. We had romance, and I learned how to [endure and] survive with him because of his 20-year crack addiction. [When my fourth husband] died, I was heartbroken.”
Her current marriage, to [David Harris], is to her childhood crush. “We met when we were 7 years old. He would buy me little jewelry, but he was too shy to give it to me, so he would put it in a paper bag and throw it on my porch,” she laughed. “I didn’t see David for 50 years, and we reconnected in 2014. He found me on Facebook, and we married the same year.”
Miller-Harris said, “[I’ve done] a lot of people-pleasing 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 greater work will be in my later years. I was determined to make it and not be what people thought I would be. I was determined to do something with my life. I want to leave a footprint for my children, nine grandchildren, and great-grandchild. I want to leave a legacy for them to feel proud of.”