Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman
My older teenager tells me the series of the same name is what ‘everyone’ is watching: “It’s the new favorite show,” she insists. So when I found the book (“there’s a book?” the daughter asks with surprise; there’s almost always a book first!) available to stick in my ears, I hit ‘play.’ [Be warned: Cassandra Campbell narrates yet again and her regional accents are just as grating as her attempts-to-be-international din.]
Piper Kerman‘s book is a bestselling memoir. In comparison to what gets labeled ‘young adult’ by publishers these days, Orange tends more toward tame rather than outrageous: if the book were transferred to celluloid as is – in spite of the depictions of drugs and sex – the result would probably get a PG-13 rating. Not so with the popular series; according to Common Sense Media, the Netflix adaptation scores a minimum 17 age rating according to both parents and kids. But from what I’ve been told by the screen-savvy daughter, the original ‘true’ story has morphed considerably in Hollywood’s less-than-faithful adaptation.
So here’s how the book goes. After graduating from Smith College, Kerman becomes recklessly involved with a woman whose glamorous lifestyle is dependent on international drug-running. Ten years later, Kerman is living in New York City, working in non-profit communications, engaged to a near-saintly fiancé (now husband) … and about to ‘voluntarily surrender’ herself to 15 months in a federal women’s prison in Danbury, Connecticut after pleading guilty to money-laundering. Her imprisonment is a life-altering experience (how could it not be?): she develops nurturing, supportive relationships with fellow inmates; she quickly learns the prison’s social and power structures; she has her big ‘aha’-moment of how her illegal actions actually ruined real people’s lives; she joins the chorus over the bad food, arbitrary rules, and lack of freedom; she runs countless miles on quarter-mile track; and she comes to the great realization that she has so many options when she gets out because she’s white, educated, and privileged (“‘What is the All-American Girl doing in a place like this?'” she hears with regularity).
As literature, Orange‘s shock factor makes it more of a page-turner than the actual writing; one more edit to further cull repeats and whining would have certainly made it a stronger book. But far more disturbing than any narrative shortcoming is the fact that because blonde, blue-eyed, self-described WASP Kerman was such a prison anomaly, she has, in effect, parlayed her illegal experiences into highly visible, critically lauded, certainly lucrative tender. Fame has taken her far from behind bars: all over print and virtual media, on the airwaves, live on countless stages, and of course to Hollywood. And given the huge success of her celluloid incarnation, Kerman’s spotlight isn’t fading anytime soon. To Netflix or not … that is the current question …