BookBin2013: Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

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Earlier this year, I found myself under a barrage of questioning from friends, both nerdy and non, all asking me the same thing: “Are you watching that new Netflix show, Orange Is the New Black?” It was weird and somewhat unnerving that people from all angles of my existence were asking about this show and showing utter shock when I responded no.

I hardly watch any television anymore. I mean, sure, I still watch CSI…because Jorja Fox and Elisabeth Shue. Otherwise, I typically tend to shy away from getting into TV shows. They just seem to constantly disappoint me. I’m far too critical for my own good sometimes. Also, why on earth would I want to watch a show about an upwardly mobile, city-dwelling Whiter-than-Casper yuppie who is suddenly faced with serving time in a federal prison for a crime she committed almost a decade prior? Sounded like a recipe in cliches and stereotypes that I didn’t think sounded interesting at all.

However, this constant questioning and surprise over my lack of participation caused enough curiosity that I finally looked up this Netflix show, just to figure out why everyone was asking me about it. And the obvious answer was?

Galina “Red” Reznikov. Known in my world as Captain Kathryn Janeway.

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Oh, yes. This was something I needed to watch.

I typically don’t like things that pique the interest of the Hype Machine (which this show obviously was doing), but I put those reservations on the back burner because of my lifelong devotion to Kate Mulgrew. For the most part, I’m incredibly glad that I did. First, the expected nitpick from me: The show was created by Jenji Kohan, who created the Mary-Louise Parker-helmed Showtime series Weeds. Minus the first season, I hated that show. It took turns so dark and twisted, I finally gave up watching, for fear of ODing on Dramamine just to keep up. Kohan’s MO seems to be giving you characters that you love, instantly like, or even love to loathe…and then making them thoroughly hate-worthy in the least enjoyable ways.

I really hope she doesn’t do that with the characters of OITNB, although the first season ended in such a way that I’m beginning to wonder. Truthfully, though, the primary character, Piper Chapman, is probably the least likeable character of the whole cast. No, the strength of this show lies within the capable hands of one of the most amazing ensemble casts I have ever witnessed in any series. I’ve made note of this before, but it bears repeating that it’s a shame that many of these incredibly talented actresses couldn’t finally catch the break they deserved until being cast as prisoners. Yay for diversity…behind bars.

Seriously, though, the women on this show are amazing: In addition to Mulgrew and Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, there’s Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Samira Wiley, Dascha Polanco, Taryn Manning, Michelle Hurst, Natasha Lyonne, Yael Stone, Selenis Leyva, Constance Shulman…they are all so amazing in their roles. You’d think with a show with so many “moving pieces” as this one, it would be easy to overlook characters or forget certain ones in between appearances. Not so with this cast. Each of these actresses brings something so delightful to her character that you remember her, no matter how often or infrequently she appears.

But what does all this have to do with a book review? Glad you asked. After watching the first season and hitting a raging case of withdrawal upon finishing, I put myself on the library wait list for the book on which this series is based. There actually is a Piper, although her real name is Piper Kerman:

With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money 10 years before. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to 15 months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear ‘down the rabbit hole’ of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.

As is usually the case, reading the book was a completely different experience from watching the cinematic take on the source material. As much as I really did enjoy the first season of the show, I found the book to be far more satisfying and far more meaningful than the show. The first major difference is the fact that Piper Kerman is actually a likeable person (or at least really skilled at selling herself as likeable). Kohan decided to make Kerman’s series counterpart one of the most irritatingly predictable and subsequently boring/annoying characters possible (I assume this was the great red herring of the series: Tell the brass that it’s about a White woman’s wacky adventures in prison to get the greenlight and then use the series as a means to showcase some truly talented Black, Hispanic, and Latina actresses; good on ya for that, but did you have to make Chapman such an irritating little princess?).

Piper Kerman is in actuality quite decent and down-to-earth; another person who made really bad decisions when she was younger and who now must pay for those decisions. She becomes, literally and figuratively, another number in the books. This memoir is full of observations on so many aspects of the American penal system that need serious reform. Our prisons are filled with people who simply should not be incarcerated, punished for crimes that shouldn’t be crimes (let me bend your ear sometime on my thoughts about the legalization and regulation of drugs and how this would solve so many problems).

The book also is full of stories about wonderful women Kerman encountered (it was such a joy to stumble across people Kerman mentions throughout this book and realize that there really was a Taystee or a Sophia or a Pennsatucky!) who, while walking their own path and dealing with their own pain, still reach out and extend kindness and support. The book is amazing. Even if you don’t want to watch the show, I would highly recommend giving Kerman’s memoir a chance. It does drag on a bit toward the end, and it ends in a surprisingly abrupt way; otherwise, however, it’s definitely worth the read.

Oh, and for the record, Kate Mulgrew’s character is frightening as hell. And wonderful. And I can’t wait to see more. And I will never accept an English muffin from her. EVER.

Final Verdict: I’ve added this book to my wish list. It’s a quick, interesting read, and I can use it as a reference to identify new characters in the second season of the show.