My husband and I are HUGE fans of the Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black, fascinated and amused by the show’s depiction of a middle-class WASP sentenced to a year in a women’s prison. So, I was thrilled to finally read the real-life memoir that the show is based on: Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman. The book is excellent, and it’s easy to see where the show got its perfect tone, with that same mix of heartfelt emotion, humor, and thoughtful social commentary (only the book does not include the graphic sex scenes!). I loved reading it.
The story is familiar to fans of the TV show. Piper, an upper middle-class white woman from Connecticut who went to Smith College, went through a brief reckless period after college. Drifting a bit and desperately wanting some adventure in her life, she connected with an older woman named Nora. Piper became romantically involved with Nora and followed her across the globe, from Bali to Europe and beyond, finally finding that adventure she craved. The only problem was that Nora was involved in a drug smuggling operation. Although she just went along with Nora for the fun and travel at first, eventually, Piper got involved by carrying a suitcase of drug money across international borders.
Fast-forward ten years. With both the lesbianism and the hunger for adventure out of her system, Piper settled down with a nice guy named Larry. They lived in New York, and Piper had a job she enjoyed as a TV producer. Life seemed perfect until the day two beefy men showed up at their apartment, explaining that they were from U.S. Customs and were there to arrest Piper. Someone in the drug organization had been arrested and had given up every name he could think of to try to get a reduced sentence. Piper, who left her brief foray into criminal activity behind ten years ago, got caught in that net. Thus began her long ordeal, first waiting years for her case to come to court and then being sentenced to 15 months in a federal women’s prison.
From there, Piper’s life became unrecognizable. She had to find her way through the world of prison life, which was alternatingly boring, humiliating, rewarding, and very often confusing. She had to comply with a dizzying array of arbitrary rules, learn to get along with women from all walks of life, and find ways to stay sane while incarcerated. You might think this would be a heartbreaking, horrifying story – and sometimes it is – but often it is heartwarming and surprisingly tender the way the women band together and take care of each other, creating gifts for each other from scrounged items in prison, making “recipes” using the microwave and very limited commissary goods (she includes the recipe for prison cheesecake!), and supporting each other.
The memoir is very much like the TV show adapted from it. Often there is serious, even disturbing, drama, but Piper has also suffused her story with humor. In addition, she wrote the book in large part to bring attention to the deplorable conditions in our prisons, the ways that women are mistreated, and especially, how prisons can set people back in life (especially those who didn’t have much to start with) rather than providing the rehabilitation they are supposed to. It is truly, unsettlingly eye-opening, and she gives a voice to millions of women who don’t have any.
Piper’s writing is compelling - those years at Smith paid off. She pulls you right into the story so that you get to know these women intimately and come to care about them. She finds the heart and soul at the center, as well as the humor, while also exposing the corruption and neglect of a broken system. You can see glimpses of the memoir in the TV show and see some of the people reflected in the show’s characters, though clearly, the show has taken on a life of its own. This was one of those books that I didn’t want to end, so I read every single word, including the acknowledgements, list of resources, interview with the author, and more. Thank goodness there is a new season of the TV show coming out in 2017!
295 pages, Spiegel and Grau Trade Paperbacks