This weekend, I finished reading Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir of her 13 months spent in a minimum-security federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, in 2004 and 2005.
Her memoir is titled Orange Is the New Black and the Netflix show based on the book has been filling up my Facebook wall lately, as many of my friends are in love with the show.
I haven’t seen the TV show yet, but I’ve noticed that there are fans of the show who don’t even realize it’s based on this memoir, which makes me wonder how that could be.
The copy of the book I read uses a promo ad from the TV show for the book cover:
which is why it surprises me that so many people don’t know the TV show is based on a book.
On July 23, 2013, BuzzFeed Entertainment posted this handy article about the “6 Major Differences Between “Orange Is The New Black” The Book And TV Show” which makes it clear that the TV show increased the amount of lesbian activity among inmates, as well as exaggerating hostility levels, in order to add tension and conflict. The same is true for putting Ms. Kerman behind bars with her ex-lover, and having strained relations with her fiance (who, in the book, is clearly one of the most loving men to ever be alive on the planet).
It doesn’t surprise me at all that the TV script would look for every angle it could to invent outward conflict and drama–all writers know how engaging this is to an audience, which is why dystopian YA and true crime and thrillers attract so many viewers (and readers).
I do want to watch the TV show, though it worries me a little to hear that sex and violence are much more present and explicit on screen than anything Ms. Kerman experienced in real life.
Because the entire purpose of her memoir (second only to the purpose of every memoir– which is to share one individual’s story)– is that Ms. Kerman paints her fellow inmates in the most sympathetic light possible. The reader is meant to empathize with these criminals, and Ms. Kerman is extremely effective at achieving that aim. So that’s why I worry about seeing the TV show, though I’m sure the TV show is plenty funny, because there were so many places in the memoir where I just burst into laughter or found myself grinning with pleasure.
The book received critical reviews, most notably from Jessica Grose, writing for Slate, and from J. Courtney Sullivan, writing for the Chicago Tribune. I think their criticisms are fair, and I do think Ms. Kerman is at her best when she details specific moments in prison, including the dialogue of her fellow prisoners. The weakest parts of the book are definitely her moments of introspection, when I had the feeling at times that Ms. Kerman wrote certain paragraphs because of an editorial sense of duty, and not because her emotions drove her to write them. These are “the upbeat banalities about how very much she learned from her experience,” as Jessica Grose labeled them in her review.
But to cast off the entire memoir as a weak book for this reason is a shame. Yes, Ms. Kerman “paints nearly everyone pretty rosily and without much nuance,” but that is also the book’s power. She wants to create empathy for her fellow prisoners, and she achieves this goal to an amazing degree. This is the admirable strength of the book. Ms. Kerman wants the reader to share her frustration over current sentencing laws, the senselessness of much of our current criminal justice system, and the harm that long prison sentences for nonviolent crimes inflicts upon individuals, families, and communities.
Not that I wasn’t already aware that the United States is in desperate need of prison reform– but having a book that presents these prisoners (who are overwhelmingly from the poorest, most abusive backgrounds already) as normal people who are penalized with long sentences for miniscule drug offenses– well, I’m glad, really glad, that Ms. Kerman chose to focus upon the humanity, goodness, and charity she found all around her. That was a story that needed to be told, and Ms. Kerman did a great job telling it.
Did I ever feel sorry for Piper Kerman? Well, no, not really. Ms. Kerman has such a loving family, and so much incredible support all around her, that her 13 months in prison didn’t make me pity her at all, not even when she couldn’t be released to see her grandmother before she died. Maybe this reveals what a heartless wench I am, but I just feel like my own trials in life have been far worse than missing a funeral service for a loved one. What Ms. Kerman and I would consider “extreme hardships” in life differ so greatly, we are apples and oranges that way.
Did I feel sorry for the much less fortunate women all around Ms. Kerman in prison?
My heart ached for those women, so much. I wanted to take every one of them back in time, to a place where they could have parents who loved them, supported them, gave kind words to them, didn’t beat them or rape them, encouraged their learning, fed them healthy food, took them to parks and museums, assured them that they had a bright future ahead of them–
in short, I wanted to give every one of those women the kind of life Ms. Kerman grew up with. A childhood full of unconditional love, with parents who had the means to provide for a family.
But I don’t have the power to do that, and no matter what, the children born to Homes of Suck aren’t cut any slack in the real world. All of the “soft skills” people learn from healthy families, they are left to learn on their own (or never learn), and while there are a number of programs out there who help some of these people, the vast majority of them are left to fend for themselves. And these are the people, by and large, who we lock up in prison each year.
To me, the most moving lines of Orange Is the New Black began on p.247, when Ms. Kerman describes what happens after a woman named Pom-Pom was released from Danbury: “She had relatives who grudgingly agreed to let her live with them, though she also considered going straight to a homeless shelter. Now she was back on the outside and she had received a chilly reception. The apartment where she was living was in a neighborhood where gunfire was audible every day […] The cupboards had been completely bare, and she had taken the little money she had to stock the house with food, shampoo, and toilet paper. She was sleeping on the floor.”
On the outside, Pom-Pom had a birthday pass that none of her relatives took note of, and she had to beg for a Thanksgiving dinner.
Ms. Kerman is more scared for Pom-Pom outside of prison than locked up behind bars.
On p.249, Ms. Kerman writes, “I grieved angrily over the insanity of locking up children, and then returning them to neighborhoods that were more desperate and dangerous than jails.”
Me, too, Piper. Me, too.