Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

Orange is the New Black is much more interesting as a TV show. The real memoir, written by one Piper Kerman–Piper Chapman in the show–has one of the most privileged, boring experiences in prison.

Thankfully, for her, Kerman doesn’t get locked up in SHU (solitary confinement). She doesn’t get into any real trouble. Most of the novel is written about her one-sided, white perception of prison first in Danbury, and then two other prisons.

I get that prison is scary. I get that it’s an unfair system. But I do find it a little bothersome that Kerman gets to write a book about her experiences–her routine, how kind people are to her, etc.–when a lot of the time people don’t just write books once they re-enter society. She has many things going for her: a college education, people who care about her on the outside, her white skin, her low sentence…

It’s hard to take everything that Kerman says at face value. While I didn’t mind her narrative, I don’t want to fully put stock it in because of her status.

The thing that makes this memoir uncomfortable is the basic fact that it’s told only from the perspective of a young (see 35 years old), white, and middle class woman who only goes to prison for a year on account of committing a drug charge ten years ago in the 90s. Kerman focuses entirely on whatever she happens to be thinking or feeling at any given time, even during heartfelt moments–like during this scene on Mother’s Day:

I had a lovely visit with my mother that Mother’s Day–although the visiting room was deranged. I had never seen it so crowded with large family groups. A lot of women in Danbury had families who lacked the resources to come and visit often, even though many of them lived in New York City. Tired grandmas and aunties, taking care of their daughter’s or sister’s children during their prison stays, had a ver hard time marshaling toddlers and teenagers on the buses, trains, and taxis necessary to get to Danbury–the trip could take four hours each way from the city and cost money. But Mother’s Day was special, and children of every age swarmed the place, and a cacophony of conversations flowed in many languages and accents. In the midst of all of it was my mother, smiling happily when she spotted me walking into the madness. (p. 134-1350)

What bothers me about this passage, of which I’m cherry-picking, is how self-focused Kerman is during such a touching moment for the other prisoners. She tries to grasp what is going on around her, but she then pulls the attention back to herself. This happens repeatedly throughout her memoir: Kerman will observe something that’s happened to someone else, and then she’ll yank the narrative back to her personal thoughts and feelings. I understand that this is her story to tell, but it feels insensitive and jarring.

The reason I love the TV show version of Orange is the New Black is simple. It allows for other perspectives, and not just Piper Chapman’s. While the show does start out from her point of view–mostly to draw people in, and get the overall feel for the show–we get to see more varied perspectives, most importantly from women who aren’t always white and aren’t always coming from middle class backgrounds.

Having read the memoir, I realize now that a lot of the first and second season is chock full of information and plot details from the book. Still, I didn’t hate Orange, I just didn’t fully trust its narrative structure.

I like reading memoirs. It just gets a little tricky when you’re coming from a singular perspective, focusing on something as life-altering as prison, and only use occasional facts and figures to add some padding.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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