As someone who seeks to be steeped in story full of character as a means of strengthening my ever-evolving creative muscles, the only thing better than finding inspiration is discovering that the story I had the pleasure of stumbling upon, the one that is simmering in reliability and boiling with empathy, is actually true. I knew slivers of truth about my most recent fixation on the women’s prison dramedy series through interviews with the cast, the show’s creator and star of Orange is the New Black, Taylor Schilling, along side the real life Piper who authored the memoir which was the springboard for the biggest hit on Netflix to date. In real life, Piper Kerman picked Larry, the real Larry, not loser Larry from the show, Larry Smith, the talented writer who came up with the six-word memoir and wrote his own memoir; My Life with Piper. When I get ahold of something I enjoy, I feel compelled dig as deep as possible, until I’ve completely dissected its every atom. First, I watched the show, quickly and obsessively, what does Netflix expect me to do when the episodes just keep rolling? Second, I read the truth, the real story in Orange is the New Black by the real Piper, Piper Kerman. Kerman was not the only one who got locked up. A barrage of people were involved in the drug activity that led to Piper’s prison sentence, one person in particular. Fans of the show know her as Alex Vause the sultry, badass, vixen played by Laura Prepon. Just like I wanted to know the real Piper, I had to find out about the real Alex Vause. She almost entirely stayed out of the bright orange light cast by the Netflix show upon it’s unveiling in 2013, her ambiguity only manifesting more intrigue. Third, I read her book, Out of Orange by Cleary Wolters. The other half of the story, written invitingly, candidly and hilariously.
Kerman’s side of the coin is more self-focused than situational but not annoyingly so. Thankfully, for the sake of humanity, Piper in real life is not nearly as presumptuous or narcissistic as the show’s Piper Chapman. It’s pretty clear why the show decided to inflate Piper’s character, in the name of drama, it’s entertaining to watch the one you love to hate. ‘Crazy concentrations of people inspire crazy behavior.” Kerman wrote in her book, which serves as a perfect summary of season one in the female focused prison drama/comedy. “Prison is so much about the people who are missing from your life and who fill your imagination.” Among greater societal impacts, creator Jenji Kohan, the writers and crew of Orange have successfully ignited white-hot fandom for the ladies of the fictional penitentiary, Litchfield. It’s hard to choose a favorite in a cast that is drowning in talent, though if I had to choose-gun to my head-my favorite character on the show would be Galina Reznikov or Red as she known by everyone in the prison. She has been there long enough to make it her home and now takes it upon herself to care for others who are less familiar with prison life. In the book she’s known as Pop, how thrilling it is to know that there is a real Red out there somewhere. The fact verses fiction differences are surprisingly minor; her name obviously, her husband, who is not locked up in the show but is in prison in real life. Also, she is portrayed as the dominant one in their marriage, in reality however, she seems to have married her male counterpart. Kerman described my favorite lady like this: “Pop had lived a crazy life on the outside, arriving in the country from Russia at the age of three. She was married out of her parents’ house at eighteen, to a Russian gangster…She had lost everything, yet managed to take a dozen years in prison and hold it together and make the best of it. Pop was exuberant. She was kind, but she could be ruthless. She knew how to work the system and also how not to let them break you.” In OITNB the memoir, it’s revealed that Pennsatucky is from Pennsylvania, thus solving the mystery of the character played by Taryn Manning, which is not directly addressed in the show. Kerman also wrote a hilarious description of a clean-shaven guard that, if I had to guess represents the character Luscheck. When Kerman’s visitation list rapidly doubled the number of months that made up her year-and-change sentence, she observed; “No prison rule was ever set in stone.”
A quote from Kerman representing the repetitious cycle of having hope and then losing it, one the writers of the show seem to live by is; “so much concentrated happiness in such a sad place.” Illustrated in the bittersweet Mother’s Day episode. Orange is an easy show to criticize because it pushes the limits in more than one category; I myself was once more of a critic than a fan. The criticisms previously voiced on Mindless Peace were when the show had just put out two seasons. In its Genesis I believe the main focus of the show was to make a statement, to leave an impression, so that viewers would come back and see the real message of substance beneath the shock value. Orange has evolved for the better but what the show has done brilliantly from the start, better than anything else currently out there, is raise concerns of social justice in a savagely inspiring fashion. The show has such heart and the actors and actresses bring these criminals, these ne’er-do-wells and these convicts alive in a way that makes the viewer see them as someone they know and maybe even someone they love. When the heart is involved, things change. Orange gets to the heart of things by taking heart in both the beautiful and the dreadful. In its early seasons, the show is lighthearted and comical, elements that remain in the more recent seasons but the focus shifts a few shades darker, reminding us that it is a show about prison and prison is not a fun place to be. Leaving is not an option until release, no matter how dire the situation. Something Piper Kerman found out the hard way when her grandmother was ill and she wanted to get furlough to see her. “Pop sat me down for a talk. “Look honey, you’re eating yourself up. I am gonna tell you, when my father was dying, I was out of my head, so I know how you feel. But listen to me: these bastards-as far as they’re concerned, you got nothing coming to you. You think if you were getting furlough, you wouldn’t know it by now? Sweetie, you need to call your grandma on the phone, you need to write her, you need to think about her a lot. But you cannot let these fuckers make you bitter. You’re not a bitter person, Piper; it’s not in your nature. Don’t let them do it to you. Come here honey.” Pop hugged me hard, squishing me to her big scented “jewels.” I knew she was right. I felt a tiny bit better.” It is because of these pep talks stuffed with tough love that I adore Pop’s character Red played by Kate Mulgrew, the most.
The book features a recipe for prison cheesecake and instructions on how to build a makeshift lighter. On the show they use a battery and a gum wrapper but in reality, a few more items are required to light a fire. Specifically: a scrap of tinsel, two AA batteries, bits of copper wire and black electrical tape. Something else that was interesting on an eerie level was her presidential prediction, Kerman declared that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would not only run for President but he would win:
“I am confident that someday in the future The Rock, who was once a professional wrestler, will run for President of the United States, and I think he will win. I have seen it with my own eyes the power of The Rock. The Rock is a uniter, not a divider. When the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) showed Walking Tall, the turnout for every screening all weekend long was unprecedented. The Rock has an effect on women that transcends race, age, cultural background-even social class, the most impenetrable barrier in America. Black, white, Spanish, old, young, and all women are hot for The Rock. Even the lesbians agreed that he was mighty easy on the eyes.” The book came out in 2010 and there was talk of him running in the most recent election but he did not. We will see if Piper predicted correctly come the 2020 election. The author of the memoir that started it all does a fantastic job of explaining her story and the inter-workings of a federal prison camp, the levels of infractions or ‘shots’ against an inmate, ranging from 100-300, 100 being the most serious. Not to mention, the little things she learned from the ladies she was locked up with along the way, like flexing your wrists when being cuffed allows for more room and doubling up on socks means the shackles won’t make your ankles bleed. Piper Kerman is both cultured and educated, providing the reader with thorough details. She discusses the friends she made and the familial type atmosphere that forms from being locked together for years. She describes the young ones and the old ones and how, no matter who the person was, she had something to offer. Some women made their home in prison like Pop, others were just so used to the system that the amount of time they had didn’t matter much, like Jae. “She didn’t look like disaster had struck, but Jae was so used to disaster that you couldn’t always tell.”
In terms of faith, Christianity gets a raw deal when it comes to representation in the media. TV Christianity tends to be overly saturated in judgment and disturbingly scarce on empathy. What’s typically shown is actions and words of fire, brimstone and not much else. If this were the case with the believers I have met, I would happily become a Buddhist. While every belief has its extremes, it’s important to note that this is not the case for the majority. When Christians aren’t portrayed harshly in the media, they’re just odd. The not-so-malicious Christian characters feel robotic, monotone and bland. Hollywood could use some help when it comes to writing relatable followers of Christ, fortunately for them, I know that faith first-hand, I write and I am available. Orange is the New Black is no exception to the false portrayal, at least in the beginning, for the entirety of season one the resident bible-banger who was also a meth head drove me insane. All truth and no love is not the best tactic, real love includes both. After a brutal finale to the show’s début season, the writers softened her sharp edges to an impressive smoothness, so much so that now, Litchfield’s resident Jesus freak is someone you cannot help but root for. Making a villain into a hero, realistically and authentically, is writing that amazes me. I would kill to develop the skill of constructing a character so detestable and then seamlessly transforming them into a crowd favorite, that right there is award-winning writing. In Chapter 15, Piper wrote her thoughts on faith: “I wasn’t inclined to formal prayer, but I was less skeptical about faith than I had been when I entered prison.” She talks about a brown-eyed, wavy-haired woman from the Dominican Republic, who was graceful and lovely and had a sincere passion for God. “She glowed while she talked calmly and quietly about God and how much His love had given her. I was startled to feel so moved by what Gisela had to say, and I listened quietly.” Beliefs that were not much different from the holy rollers at the camp but having them presented in love made all the difference because that is what authentic faith in Jesus is, a love story. Authentic faith in Christ evokes a peaceful sense of wonder in others. “She was talking about an unshakable faith that gave her real strength and that she had carried for a long time.”
Perhaps the most prominant difference between the book and the show is the presence of Piper’s drug-smuggling ex-girlfriend. In the book, they do unexpectedly cross paths after their crimes and during punishment. In the show though, they are together for better or for worse from the time Piper arrives. I figured the odds of them being incarcerated together was strictly a made-for-TV move but there are real life family members who end up in the same prison at the same time, so being cuffed to someone you know, so to speak, isn’t unheard of. In fact, when these two did meet again in real life, they saw several familiar faces from their smuggling days. In the book, Piper describes their unforseen reunion after spending a decade sepetated as one of “companionable antagonism.” It is the truth that Piper blamed her ex for her sentence, same as her character. However, the reality of the deceitful duo was not as baneful as Taylor Schilling and Laura Prepon show it through their characters, Piper Chapman and Alex Vause. Yes, they really were a couple and there was much conflict and maybe even love between them but they weren’t so, to quote the show, “doomed to be together.”
The most recently released, season 5 which is now streaming, the theme of which being unity as well as formidable opposition is echoed when Kerman wrote; “Incredible things can happen behind prison walls because people are so remarkably resilient; we can survive almost anything, one of the reasons harsh punishment alone doesn’t bear fruit. In order for prisons to truly serve the public, the people who run them would do well to aspire to the words of Thomas Mott Osborne, the storied warden of New York’s Sing Sing prison in the early part of the twentieth century, who vowed, “We will turn this prison from a scrap heap into a repair shop.” The justice system of America is a boat with several holes but it can be fixed, with a little hope and a lot of prayer, we need to care. It all starts with the heart. The US imprisons more people than any other country and being locked in a box is not a solution. Still, there must be consequences to actions. Though that doesn’t mean individuals cannot improve, learn, grow and change in the midst of paying their debt. “What is the point, what is the reason, to lock people away for years, when it seems to mean so very little, even to the jailers who hold the key? How can a prisoner understand their punishment to have been worthwhile to anyone, when it’s dealt with in a way so offhand and indifferent?”
Those of us who have watched the show have certainly had enough of Piper Chapman at one point or another. Thankfully, the real Piper is nothing like that, she’s pretty much the woman we wish Chapman would grow up to be. Having been out of prison for a while now, advocates for the rights of those who are still doing time and aims to achieve necessary improvements in the prison systems of America. What about the real Vause? Or Nora as she is called in Piper’s book. There must be something she has to stay about the controversy/hysteria/awareness that Orange is the New Black provoked. The real Vause tells of her travails involving Chicago, Paris, Piper and prison in a way that does not disappoint in her memoir Out of Orange. Part II of this dual book review, the true story that keeps getting better, is coming soon.