It took watching—and loving—the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black to get me to read the book that it’s based on. I’d had many opportunities to check out Piper Kerman’s memoir of her year in federal prison since it first appeared in 2010. But it wasn’t until I spotted it in a used-book store a week after my 13-episodes-in-24-hours viewing marathon that a seemingly easy-to-pass-on work of nonfiction magically transformed into an irresistible way to spend more time with characters I had come to know and love.
It turned out to be exactly that—except that in the memoir, the wild, raging, colorful women I now know as Taystee, Crazy Eyes, Red, and Dayanara are pale ghosts of the characters that series creator Jenji Kohan turned them into. Having read the book, I’m now even more impressed with the series.
It’s not that the memoir is dull. It’s fascinating, for the most part—it just has a different agenda. As Jessica Grose pointed out in her Slate review of the book, it’s not a gritty look inside an American women’s prison; instead, it “belongs in a different category, the middle-class-transgression genre.” The book’s focus is on Kerman; specifically, how a nice, blonde, Seven Sisters graduate like her would up in prison, how she got along with the other inmates, and how she survived the ordeal. To her credit, she never fails to acknowledge her many privileges—not only her race and education, but her loving, supportive family; her smart, motivated lawyer; her journalist fiancé who can get articles about her time behind bars published in the New York Times.
Ultimately, though, the book feels like a well-written, readable stage in Kerman’s rehabilitation. She’s respectful of her fellow inmates, mad at a system that responds to America’s drug problem by locking people up, and keen to prove that she’s paid the price for a youthful misstep. (She served time for crimes committed nearly a decade earlier, when she was romantically involved with an international drug-runner.)
The series is a different animal. While Kerman changed her fellow inmates’ names, “and in some cases distinguishing characteristics,” in order “to afford them their privacy,” she otherwise, for the sake of her rehabilitation, had to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Kohan has no such requirement. Her job was to shape entertaining stories. She told HitFix’s Daniel Fienberg that she saw the book as “a launching point” and “a great vehicle for a lot of tales and a lot of agendas and interesting things.”
And boy did she ever succeed. A transgender inmate who in the book has few distinguishing characteristics other than her M-to-Fdom becomes Sophia Burset, a firefighter who steals to pay for his transformation; a loving husband whose wife has to teach the big, strong man she married how to select female attire appropriate for her age and body type; a parent desperate for a son’s love and happiness; and a selfish brat so desperate to change her body that she sacrifices her family. A quiet Caribbean bunkmate whose crime we never learn in the book becomes a stoic, unlucky-in-love Haitian den mother of young, undocumented immigrants who, we discover, once killed a man to protect one of her charges. A young Latina who barely merits a name in the book gets a heartbreaking backstory that involves a self-centered, neglectful mom; true love with a prison guard; and a jailhouse pregnancy.
Sometimes these dramatizations are a little too much—one of the annoying addicts-turned-Jesus-freaks that Piper dislikes in the book is saddled with an abortion-clinic backstory that defies belief (and, a colleague tells me, seems to owe a good deal to Citizen Ruth). But most of the time they’re just real enough. Tricia’s origin story—young girl flees abuse at home, ends up on the streets of New York, and keeps a list of all the things she’s stolen to survive—appears to borrow smartly from a great December 2012 New Yorker story by Rachel Aviv, which described how a 17-year-old homeless lesbian “kept a log of all the items she’d pocketed” in a journal stolen from Barnes & Noble.
Reading the book did make me feel bad about one aspect of the series, however. In the book, Piper’s fiancé, Larry, is a paragon of gallantry: supportive, sacrificing, and successful. In the Netflix version, he’s a kind-hearted loser, a wannabe writer who uses Piper’s predicament—and the real lives of the women she’s incarcerated with—for his own personal advancement. It seems rather hard on a guy who stood by the woman at the center of the story—but like the rest of the TV version, it’s dramatically credible. We all know that writers are an exploitative bunch—and seeing one sell out his loved ones makes for great television.
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