I was pretty late to the Orange is the New Black Party. Not having Netflix meant I wasn’t able to watch the series when it was first released despite knowing lots of people who had fallen in love with it. When I finally did start watching it at the end of January, I watched the entire series over the space of about two weeks, and like everyone else, I was left wanting more (and am counting down the days until the 6th of June. So, left wanting more, I decided to read the memoir upon which the series was based.
It’s often hard to assess a book on its own merits if you are already familiar with an adaptation. There’s always the temptation to contrast and compare, and in such cases the discussion almost always ends up focusing more on the adaptation than on the original. This is something that Orange is the New Black is, I think, particularly susceptible to, given the vast differences between the source and the adaptation. Very little was preserved in translations. The forenames of the protagonist/author and her fiancé are the same, as are the general details of her crime, and every so often you come across a random snippet of dialogue, or the barebones of a character that featured in the show. If I’m honest, I’m happy that the adaptation is so loose. As compelling as the show is, and as imperfect as the prison system is, not just in the US, I’d have been very disappointed if the memoir was simply an exercise in exposing dirty laundry.
Instead, the focus of the memoir is very much what you would expect from a woman who has gone on to become a campaigner for judicial reform. While the TV series does highlight a lot of the flaws in the US justice system, I think it’s fair to say that this cause is the book’s raison d’être. This makes sense, given that Piper Kerman is now a campaigner for judicial reform in the USA, and I think it’s a credit to her that in drawing attention to the injustices and inequalities that exist in the system, she manages to tell her story in a compelling fashion, most notably through the people she portrays (generally anonymised, with the exception of her friends and family on the outside and Sister Ardeth Platte). While not every inmate receives a fully rounded background, she takes care to make them all human, just as the adaptation does. Though of course, they are real people, so there is much more weight to their experiences and Kerman is able to make everyone, even people mentioned only briefly, sympathetic. This does of course raise problems, most of the ‘characters’ are convicted criminals, for whatever crime, and while the prison in question is a relatively low security one for mostly non-violent offenders, the focusing on the positives in a person can often feel like whitewashing over the bad. Of course, as a convicted drug trafficker, she’s in no position to judge, and nor should she. However, at times she does seem to skirt around the topic a little too daintily.
One of the fictionalised Piper’s most prominent traits is her inability to get past her own upbringing. While she is much more accepting of her fellow inmates than most of her friends and family, her sheer lack of ability to see through her own white liberal guilt makes her particularly frustrating, despite her protagonist status. This comes across less prominently in the book, firstly because as a memoir, even if Kerman was as clueless as Chapman, her TV counterpart, it is less likely to be demonstrated in the text, secondly because there’s no need for her tactless personality to drive a plot. In fact, there are large portions of the book that focus with Kerman coming to terms with her own privilege. Serving a sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering committed during her youth, she explains that the “War on Drugs” was an abstract concept to her until she actually began serving her sentence. When brought face to face with people who don’t have the support network that she does, who don’t have a guarantee of a job created for them upon release, for whom life will always be tainted by their conviction for drug related offences, Kerman does address this often, particularly when any of her acquaintances’ sentences are up. You can’t blame her, she can’t save everyone, nor should she try, but there are times when references to her safety net feel a little overemphasised, and this does get a little grating.
It’s also easy to see Kerman as a white middle class saviour coming down to save those who have fallen outside the system like a latter-day missionary. She, after all, has the connections and the background to have her voice heard, and she does so by writing a book that could almost be categorised under the same sort of umbrella as the trend of mawkish biographies popularised by Dave Pelzer. However, her honesty, both towards her own crime and her prejudice, does make her efforts seem sincere, and anyway, she can hardly be condemned for societal inequalities.
Thus, the book is worth reading in its own right, as much as it is because of any relation to the series. Anyone who even takes a passing look at the facts can see that there are problems that need to be solved, but Kerman’s book puts a story to the data that is just as valuable. Not only that, but she does so in a sincere and valuable fashion that’s very easy to read and digest.