The last couple of blog entries have been about books and youth offenders and books in prison. They brought to mind, a prison memoir I read three years ago, Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman. It has been made into a very popular Netflix series. I haven’t watched the series because I found the book mediocre at best. Could this be a case of the adaptation actually being better than the book?
Piper Kerman served a sentence in a federal prison for a drug trafficking charge. This memoir focuses on her 13-month incarceration.
This book is neither a compelling nor a harrowing read. Piper’s situation is less than ideal, but she is never in any real danger. Reading her account became tedious because there is no real tension. From the beginning, she is told, “’No one’s going to mess with you unless you let them. Now, women, they don’t fight much. They talk, they gossip, they spread rumors’” (39). Her life is boring and being strip-searched would certainly be humiliating, but her overall experience does not seem to have been especially difficult. She jogs and does yoga so that “every visitor who came to see me said with astonishment, ‘You look fantastic’” (126). She even picks up carpentry and electrical skills. She seems to fit in easily; everyone welcomes her and accepts her and likes her. The only violence she encounters is an argument over salad bar ingredients!
Piper mentions many of her fellow inmates, but they are barely differentiated, much less developed. It is very difficult to remember who is who; no one takes on any importance except in relation to Piper. Piper herself is shallow, focusing unnecessarily on people’s physical appearances: “Finally, a considerably less pleasant-looking woman entered the lobby. She had a dreadful scar down the side of her face and neck” (33) and “She was wearing a dowdy pantsuit and hideous costume jewelry” (55) and “A grizzled, steel-haired Irish woman with enormous breasts” (86) and “Caucasian girls from the wrong side of the tracks with big mouths and big attitudes, who weren’t taking shit from anyone (except the men in their lives). They had thinly plucked eyebrows, corn-rowed hair, hip-hop vocabularies, and baby daddies, and they thought Paris Hilton was the ne plus ultra of feminine beauty” (137). There always seems to be a judgmental tone to her voice so I found her difficult to like, especially since she does not hesitate to use her good looks to get what she wants: “my blond hair and blue eyes stood me in good stead, just as they had with Butorsky” (112).
Certainly, it is difficult to have any emotional connection with Piper. She keeps repeating how she is so different from everyone else because of her level of education, her socioeconomic status, and the never-faltering support of all family and friends: “I am fairly certain that I was the first Seven Sisters grad to eat duck liver chased with a Diet Coke in the lobby of a federal penitentiary” (33) and “Many times I fielded the sly question, ‘What is the All-American Girl doing in a place like this?’” (138).
For someone with a university education, Piper seems unintelligent. After graduating, she allows herself to be drawn into the world of drug trafficking, claiming she had “a thirst for Bohemian counter-culture . . . [and] a pent-up longing for adventure” (5). Her great epiphany while in prison is that her actions affected other people, but it occurs only after she has been in prison for over five months: “I finally understood the true consequences of my own actions. I had helped these terrible things happen. . . . Yet for the first time I really understood how my choices made me complicit in their suffering. I was the accomplice to their addiction” (180). She had never thought of people actually using the drugs she and her Bohemian friends brought into the country?! Does this strike only me as self-centred? Considering her focus on self, it is not surprising that she obsesses about the canvas slippers she is initially given to wear (36, 41, 47, 53, 54).
There is a fairy tale quality to Piper’s story which does not ring true. All of her friends are unfailingly supportive. When first told of her conviction, “Reactions were pretty consistent – our friends would laugh uproariously, then have to be persuaded of the truth, then be horrified and worried for me” (27). “Their collective response was . . . kindness and concern” (28) and she receives “an avalanche of letters” (69), more than all but one other prisoner, and so many books that she feels “embarrassed and . . . nervous” (78). There is no mention of anyone rejecting her or suggesting she was stupid to have done what she did. Everyone justifies her actions by saying, “’You were young!’” (27). She was 24!
The book could use some editing. Needless repetition is common. How many times does the reader need to be told, “It was amazing how many uses sanitary napkins had – they were our primary cleaning tool” (72) and “I had learned . . . how to clean house using maxipads” (150)? And some episodes just jar. For instance, Piper never mentions hating the woman who introduced her to drug running; she admits only to having “had occasional thoughts of Nora” (266). Then when she sees her, she feels “coiled, stymied rage” (273)? Piper is angry with the repercussions of the government’s war on drugs, and much of what she says gives one pause; however, some of her statements left me puzzled: “According to the CDC, cigarettes kill over 435,000 people a year in the United States. Most of us in Danbury were locked up for trading in illegal drugs. The annual death toll of illegal drug addicts, according to the same government study? Seventeen thousand. Heroin or coffin nails, you be the judge” (194). She is arguing that heroin use is better than cigarette smoking?
This memoir is a straightforward account of a woman’s year in prison. It provides no great revelations. My relief upon finishing the book may not have been as great as Piper’s relief at being released, but I did feel somewhat like I had completed a sentence.