Poring over the origins of a Netflix hit

After binge-watching Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, arguably this summer’s most talked about television series, I decided to go to its source: Piper Kerman’s 2011 memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.

Memoirs are one of my favorite genres—perhaps it’s something voyeuristic in me, but I love examining people’s lives. I often find myself absorbed in a memoir—be it about an intellectual at the height of her career suffering the death of her husband, a man telling the story of his life with Asperger’s, a lesbian exploring her complex relationship with her gay father in comic-strips, a former Mennonite returning home or Dave Eggers chronicling his time parenting his orphaned younger brother under the backdrop of the Golden Gate.

Despite my extensive knowledge of the genre, Kerman’s premise was particularly intriguing, especially framed as a comparison to the dramatized series. For those of you who spent the summer at a camp in the deep woods, or are one of those cool kids without a Facebook, both the book and the series are focused on a woman spending a year in a prison for transporting drug money, a one-time crime she had committed ten years earlier.

I had a lot of questions: Who is the real Piper, the real Crazy Eyes, the real Pornstache? And more importantly, what is a women’s prison actually like? Does the book do justice to the true nature of the institution and all of the people in it, in perhaps a way the show does not?

Despite its popularity, many reviewers and bloggers criticized the Netflix series for its non-representative white, upper-middle class main character with a Smith degree who self-surrenders; its lack of emphasis on the rampant sexual abuse in prisons; for not focusing on imprisoned mothers, mourning their separation from their children; for misrepresenting prisoners’ living arrangements; and more.

The book follows the patterns of many contemporary memoirs. It is no surprise that Kerman cites Dave Eggers in her acknowledgments, and that her husband, Larry, is the founder of Smith magazine, most widely known for revolutionizing microfiction with its six word memoir contest.

This same type of conciseness is evident in Kerman’s work. The book consists of a series of short consecutive vignettes, beginning with the story of Kerman’s crime—like in the series, she gets sexually involved with an older woman who works for an international drug trafficking network.

In a sometimes overly neat succession, Kerman describes discovering ten years later that she has been convicted of a crime, and ultimately self-surrenders, arriving at the Federal Correction Institute in Danbury, C.T. in 2004. She then discusses her experience there, an unexpected trip on Con-Air, and a stint in Oklahoma. The book ends at her release.

Undoubtedly, some of the problematic elements of the series pop up in Kerman’s memoir—it is the tale of a privileged prisoner, who listens to college radio while running around the prison track, complains about the cafeteria’s iceberg lettuce and receives a consistent stream of visitors bearing books. But despite it being a narrative focused on an outlier, Kerman works hard to educate her audience about the realities of prison life.

These realities reveal the Netflix series’ exaggerations—although many of the TV show’s plot points are oriented in truth, they are consistently dramatized. For example, in the book although Kerman does criticize the food, she is not prevented from eating; although she does find herself with a contraband screwdriver, it is disposed of quickly; and although there are some lesbians and what she calls “gay for the stay” inmates, the majority of her discussion is not focused on the prisoners’ sexual escapades. (Incidentally—spoiler alert!—the character of Alex does not appear until the book’s last section.)

The focus of Kerman’s memoir is more on the day-to-day life the prisoners lead. Their interactions with each other, throwing parties and making cheesecake in the microwave, are juxtaposed with their interactions with the prison staff, who are sometimes, but rarely, kind. She retells her own dehumanizing experiences with the prison guards—one Disney-villain supervisor in particular—who speaks to the powerlessness of incarcerated women when it comes to protecting themselves from sexual abuse.

And following the form of the very in-vogue genre of literary nonfiction, she intersperses her narrative with small segments of factual information. For example, 80% of the women in prisons are mothers. Kerman illustrates this statistic by painting a picture of the short reunions families have during an annual field day at the Institute, only to be broken apart again after a few short hours.

Another striking statistic is that most of the women—most of the mothers, for that matter, in the federal prison system are non-violent drug offenders, like Kerman herself. Unlike Kerman, though, for most of her peers in prison, before they were behind bars, the narcotics trade was one that provided the most opportunity for employment.

Kerman acknowledges her own privilege, especially when she poignantly reflects on her interactions with women who suffered from withdrawal behind bars. She implicates herself in the drug trade, acknowledging that her actions ten years before made her, in a way, an accomplice to these women’s addictions.

So although Piper Kerman does not represent the “average prisoner,” and her prose can get repetitive, she does come to this and other effective conclusions about the American justice system. And if from her position of privilege she is getting members of the general public—citizens who aren’t implicated in the school to prison pipeline—to read her vignettes, she is doing an important service.

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