I’ve previously written about memoirs for TCJWW (with Like Water for Chocolate and the Call the Midwife series) so perhaps it won’t come as shocking that I was drawn to another female memoir—Piper Kerman’s best-selling Orange is the New Black. I was first drawn to the Netflix series of the same name and devoured both existing seasons. The show was engaging to me: I met stereotypes and caricatures and honest-to-goodness people in terms of the characters. Sure there were some really over-the-top aspects to the show but the comedic tone allowed for the suspension of disbelief that I was struggling with. Characters like Crazy Eyes are glued to my soul—I want so badly to know her whole story and to hug her, to let her know everything will be alright. I was hypnotized by Alex (who wasn’t?) and quite understood how Piper was sucked into a life of crime just to please this Sphinx-like woman. I could watch Red cook with the same enthusiasm as I watch Food Network and I’m wrapped around Laverne Cox’s performance of Burset just waiting to see the moment she scores herself an Emmy win (the nomination was nice but she really deserves the win). I picked up Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison: A Memoir for $7 at Target only a month after I had binge-watched the entire television series—I was impressed with my own good luck and the memoir took its place in the to-read line and waited for its turn.
Then I read it.
First off, fans of the show should be warned that the memoir holds almost no 1:1 similarities with the show and what few similarities there are could be generously described as “vague”. Pop might be Red, there is a trans-woman named Vanessa, and Larry is still a character….and that’s where it ends. The show’s vivid detail, tragi-comic tone, and detailed character profiles are apparently all inventions of the show and not particularly related to the memoir proper. Jenji Kohan wrote the Netflix original series based off of her fascination with Kerman’s novel, she also wrote the hit “Weeds”. Kohan as a female screenwriter could actually be given her own review for the masterful way she braids different and sometimes conflicting views of women into a cohesive representation. Sure, the show can be shocking but there is something so true about what truly shocks you in the show—and it isn’t the rampant lesbian action. But as these two versions are so distinct, I really don’t want to discuss the show further here as the memoir is truly in its own category.
Given that Kerman is selling a book on “revelations” and “fairness” in the justice system, I’d like to be both revealing and fair in my assessment of her. Kerman served 13 months on a 10 year old non-violent drug charge—this is established quickly in the memoir, the author bio, the website, the Wikipedia link and every interview she has ever done since she was released. She has since become a very public face for prison reform—she sits on the Women’s Prison Association board and spoke before a Senate Subcommittee only this year regarding the conditions specifically faced by women in the prison system. She is conscientiously using her name from the memoir and television series to shed light on prison reform.
I happen to have an odd connection with the exposure to women’s prison systems as The College of New Jersey (where I completed my undergrad and continue my graduate work) has a fairly unique option: you could teach in the women’s prison nearby. I didn’t take the course but had several friends who did with various experiences—some overwhelmingly positive and some more emotional and harder to categorize (perhaps shockingly, nobody ever said anything negative). Upon watching the show and getting my paws on the memoir I quickly reached out to a friend currently instructing at another NJ university who did this program and essentially, begged for someone to talk with about OITNB (the acronym the show is often known by). I was overwhelmed with glee when she had not only watched the show and read the memoir…but had taken the show to the prisoners. Now, to avoid talking too much about the show I will tempt you merely to consider the notion of what real female inmates think of Piper Chapman (Kerman’s stand-in on the show) and Kohan’s representation. When I talked to this same friend about the memoir, I was floored we both had the same reaction.
Both of us are feminist-centric academics, we both fully embrace the promotion of women’s media and we both cannot get behind Piper Kerman as a narrator.
Make no mistake, there are some truly wonderful things that Kerman is doing with her life post-release: she is truly standing up for prison reform that is desperately needed. Nonprofit work can be so difficult—it can be a series of giving and giving without any reasonable way to anticipate any form of “return” on your investment. And the stakes are higher with nonprofit work—you very often feel a deep emotional connection with what you are doing so the lack of progress and reward can be particularly upsetting. I don’t want to seem like I’m bashing Kerman as a person…but as a writer, a narrator, there are real problems with accepting her as a feminist.
Kerman is frequently asked why she wrote her memoir—this is usually the first question in any interview she gives and she has given a significant number. She usually responds the same, that her purpose is to reveal how the penal system really is because we have a country that has the largest prison population in the world, spends a huge amount of money on our prison system, and yet the system itself remains a mystery to us. These statistics are effective every time she uses them (and they are sprinkled throughout the memoir constantly) – I do wonder where the money goes in these systems if the prisoners have almost no books and their buildings are moldy. As a teacher I have similar thoughts about where money goes when my students have technology five to ten years behind the standard home…and are now going to be tested on the outdated computers. So really, Kerman appeals to the part of me that wants to know where the money goes—it must go somewhere, but where?
This is not a thread that Kerman pulls on—in life she focuses on positive reform not weeding out the mismanagement. However, the memoir focuses on only one thing: Piper.
Piper serves a 15 month (reduced to 13 months with good time) sentence for a nonviolent drug charge that happened more than ten years prior to her sentencing. She spent six years waiting to be sentenced to prison and two years after release on probation—and she constantly reminds us that the shame of this was that she was a nonviolent offender with no priors. Harmless, nonviolent offender, a dumb kid, really—someone who made a mistake without fully thinking through the consequences and really regretted it—someone who realized she was in a bad life and changed her ways! And a nonviolent offender.
My problem with Kerman isn’t that she wants to see a change in the sentencing of nonviolent drug offenders—that change is good. Her way of selling it to me in the memoir didn’t work. Kerman is different than many of the women she is around in prison because she is white, upper-middle-class, well-educated and has a solid support system— and she wanted us to feel her connection to the other prisoners, usually the black lower class prisoners, because they were all “nonviolent drug offenders”. Kerman’s message was supposed to be that they the nonviolent offenders were being given a prison sentence that didn’t match their crime….but it reads a lot like she the nonviolent offender was given a sentence that didn’t match that mistake she made ten years ago and was really sorry about.
It isn’t uncommon for memoir-style narratives to communicate revolutionary or rebellious anthems—that a “diary” writing was how some women could smuggle information out of an oppressive regime and disseminate their circumstances (I’m thinking specifically of many Latin American women writers who were placed under much more restrictive conditions in their everyday lives than Kerman was in prison). Memoir can be a platform for change because it straddles a really interesting line—it can be truly capital “N” Nonfiction but it can also weave in fictional elements that despite not happening represent a “truth” of the situation. For example, when Kerman tells us the story of Vanessa she is giving us second-hand information and we have no way of knowing how accurate it is because while Kerman hearing the story is first-hand the story isn’t…and can never be. Kerman isn’t Vanessa so Vanessa’s story can’t be Kerman’s—but does that change how effective and true it is to hear about the particular struggles of a trans-female prisoner? No. So if it can’t be accurate anyway, why not include more details that might further support your point of view? This can be done well or poorly (some of you may remember the heartburn accuracy issues gave me in Call the Midwives) but is nonetheless a risk worth taking for those whose own narratives might not be as compelling as the narratives of other characters. Piper was, for me, a very vanilla character, WASP-y and predictable and boring—I wanted to hear more about Vanessa (who some women still referred to as “he” or “it”) or Pop (why were you sentenced for such a long time Pop? Where is your husband, what happened?) or Miss Natalie (how can you be so calm? What were the other prisons you were in like? What stories do you have?).
I didn’t really get to hear much about Vanessa or Pop or Natalie….I got to hear a lot about Piper. How Piper likes to run, how she likes or doesn’t like her work assignments, how Piper learned the social ropes of prison, how Piper was a nonviolent drug offender who laundered drug money for her girlfriend ten years ago and hadn’t done anything wrong since and she was super-duper sorry. And how nonviolent drug offenders shouldn’t be hit with sentences, certainly not the length of sentences most of them received, and how she wanted be to out of prison.
Piper is dormed in B-Dorms or “The Ghetto” and as a blond-haired-blue-eyed-upper-middle-class white woman stands out like a sore thumb against the wide variety of black women (the dorms are racially segregated into White, Black and Hispanic so it is a puzzle how Piper ended up in “The Ghetto”). Some of Piper’s “Ghetto” bunkies are completely uneducated and clash with Piper’s reading of Gravity’s Rainbow, some have over-exuberant personalities that clash strongly with Piper’s stoicism, some come from broken homes that clash with Piper’s regular mail and visits from her wide net of social supporters (which included a webpage a friend set up called www.thepipebomb.com ). The point is the clash—I was constantly aware of how atypical Piper was as a prisoner, so her attempts to sell me a “genuine” prison experience felt desperate.
Let’s talk about www.thepipebomb.com — on the front page of this website is the address at prison where Piper could be reached, a rules-list about what could and could not be sent, and a link to her Amazon Wish List for anyone who wanted to send her books (these include an illustrated William Blake edition, a Nigella Lawson cookbook, two Virginia Woolf novels, the Ethics of Aristotle, and a slew of books on how the war on drugs failed America and overloaded the prison system unnecessarily). An Amazon Wishlist that, by the way, was essentially bought out for Piper by her numerous well-wishers (family, friends, and complete strangers that just liked or found thepipebomb.com). The maker of the website even sold “Free Piper” t-shirts and gave all the profits to FAMM—Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an organization that opposes federally sanctioned minimum sentences (which was the reason Piper served time). This just flies in the face of the circumstances Piper’s inmates found themselves in—some with no visits, some who were functionally illiterate, some who had children who were dependent on them on the outside and didn’t have the luxury of being the adult-child cared for by a small army of wealthy, well-connected adults who have the financial means and time to even make something like www.thepipebomb.com . Piper’s intent was to show how women were cared for in prison—but Piper was cared for so well and so infrequently gave me anything troubling about other prisoners that I forgot she was in prison. Piper repeatedly told us that her visits were what got her through prison—her visits from her copious friends and family, those who were concerned and sympathetic and ready to welcome her back as soon as she was released. Hell, one friend even created a job for her so she would have one—and held it for her for the duration of her sentence. Piper even told us about how she ran, did yoga, lost a ton of weight, and never looked better (and younger!) than she did in prison—something I find hard to identify with when I as a non-felon can’t find 20 minutes in my day for yoga. It’s not that her intention is to alienate us—she wants to educate us— but there is an arrogant WASP-y quality to her story-telling that simply turns me off. When she talks about how unfair the prison system is I don’t for one minute believe that she is talking about anyone but herself— she tells me she is concerned for her fellow female inmates but the percentage of time she spends talking about herself compared to them is laughably distinct. We spent infinitely more time reading about Piper’s jogging and her problems with the electric instructor than we hear about other prisoners.
We get second-hand snippets about people like Pop, Natalie and Pom-Pom—people who have it much worse than Piper. These are people on decades long trips – many for nonviolent drug crimes similar to Piper. Some of them are addicts, some have taken the fall for someone else, and all of them have run the risk of coming back to prison, a risk that is never really relevant to Piper’s life. Pom-Pom notably is the daughter of a convict who also went to Danbury and winds up back in the bad part of Trenton, a second away from being in a homeless shelter (again, as we hear she had lived in them before her arrest). Natalie was in prison for so long that she remembered a world without the Internet, cell phones, wi-fi….she was a nervous wreck about how she would adapt. Apart from one letter Pom-Pom sends Piper, we get no follow up on these characters. They are important to Piper’s life in prison but seemingly have no part in her post-prison life except as anecdotes she cites when on a soapbox. I was dying for closure on Pensatucky, Vanessa, Jae (and her cousin Slice) and even some follow-up on Nora and Hester, the women who landed Piper in prison. But there is nothing. And I even read a version of the book complete with an afterword by Piper and an interview that she gave Smith Magazine (what is Smith Magazine you ask? The magazine her husband owns) and there is no mention of Piper’s fellows outside the prison— just that the world is full of injustice; the prison system is outdated, poorly run, and the laws that put people in prison are not just. Which I can support—those are all relevant points—but narratively where is the engagement? Piper sold me a story about “real” prison life….and I got her prison life, which I gather is much better than that of many other inmates, inmates which play supporting roles to her headlining diva performance. If memoir is a genre stuck between fiction and nonfiction, Piper could have exercised a little creativity here—the addition of these other women to Piper’s story was completely necessary to give it depth, empathy and direction. The lack of elaboration of these women creates a painful reminder of just how much detail I got about Piper—details that were pedestrian, boring, and detached from her purpose.
There’s an old saying that says you can’t appreciate a person until you walk a mile in their shoes—Piper gave me 13 months of walking with her and I just don’t see the person she told me I would see. I expected someone full of sympathy, really engaged with her fellow inmates, who would have deep and probing stories that she “smuggled” out of prison the way others smuggle in contraband. However, she only ever told me about how sympathetic and understanding she was—I only got to see her having the type of prison experience she attacked one inmate (a “crybaby” called Levy) for talking about: the Club Fed experience. Piper, by the accounts of this book, had an almost cult-like following that sent her regular mail, visited her, and sent her a library’s worth of books (it’s no exaggeration! She called herself the prison library); she got to do yoga, run on a track, and get transferred from electric work to construction. She had a commissary fund that would never run out, expensive lawyers who did their best for her case, and was generally treated well by all the prisoners and prison guards….. but I’m still meant to think that this is the system in drastic need of immediate reform for unnecessary incarceration. And really, she comes off as thinking that the system needs reforming because she was incarcerated.
The real flesh-and-blood Piper who wants improvement for a broken system I can get behind (in fact, read a great, informative interview where she is colossally more likeable here: http://www.truth-out.org/archive/item/88817:orange-is-the-new-black-a-year-in-a-womens-prison) —but this memoir was a sad attempt at selling her point. Rather than selling me “system in need of improvement” she sold me “Piper”—and they aren’t the same thing. I came away from Orange is the New Black wanting to watch the show, forget the memoir, and read Larry’s book Six Word Memoirs because it seems like a more enriching option. Piper, unsurprisingly, is also published in Six-Word Memoirs, and the six word version is better than the 299 page memoir— simply, “In and out of hot water”.
Next time, Pipes, make sure the water is hot.
Piper Kerman was born to a wealthy Boston family in 1968 and attended Smith College. She went to prison for 13 months for money-laundering and drug trafficking and spent that time at FCI Danbury in Connecticut. She published Orange is the New Black in 2010 and it has since inspired the Netflix series of the same name (now on its third season). Kerman married Larry Smith in 2006 and continues to be active with the Women’s Prison Association, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and other prison nonprofit organizations.