Book & Nail: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black is a disappointment post-viewing the Netflix Original Series based on the NYT best seller. The comparison is naught though. The memoir stands up as a shallow examination of the prison system all on its own.
Kerman, no doubt, has an interesting story to tell. Getting involved in the global drug trade right after graduation from Smith – she’s not the typical cellmate. Her elite background, and her attempted escape from it, promise an enticing journey down the rebellion rabbit hole. Sentenced a year in prison Kerman meets a variety of women with their own unique journey stories and through comradery manages to survive. By all narrative standards, the summation in and of itself promises a wild, eye-opening, ride through daily life, courts, incarceration, and liberation.
Unfortunately Kerman is repetitive, depicts her cellmates with little memorability, and maintains an impressively steady shallowness. She notes her the luck of her circumstances, having a loving family at home and prospects post-prison, over and over again. She does emphasize the truly horrid living conditions for the women she serves time with and how they all had different coping strategies. Kerman wonders if the punishment really is worth the crime. Most of the women she met were not the root of all evil and maybe the money spent keeping them at a distance from society isn’t really worth it. That being said, drug use and the market for drugs is always high and when a person knows how to work that system, it might be a challenge to find a way out of it.This is one of the best things Kerman gave readers – a launchpad for discussion on incarceration rates in the United States.
She notes statistical evidence repeatedly, but her writing lacked the true hallmark of a good memoir: a deep, unflinching exploration of self and what it means to be human. It feels surface level. It is facts, minor details and repetition. Kerman does not understand the life of the women who shared her cell, but it feels like she’s covering that fact up with statistics. Something like, “I can explain why every women is here because poverty, race, and the constant demand for drugs exists.” In an afterword Kerman writes that she sits on the board of the Women’s Prison Association. But I would have liked to see one of the women who spent 10, 15, 20 years in prison on that board. I would have liked to know that Kerman still kept up with the women she bonded with in between cinder block walls. I would have liked to see the women she knew in Technicolor, instead I got grey.
What other people had to say:
“Though by the tenets of the transgression memoir she must repent, in Kerman's case, the girl does not dig deep enough to come up with any genuine regret.” - Jessica Grose
“When one woman shares a commissary root beer float that Kerman has not yet been approved to buy for herself, you feel so vicariously grateful that she may as well have given Kerman a kidney.” - J. Courtney Sullivan
“Through these women, Kerman comes to understand the seriousness of her crime. Not because it was illegal, or because she is in prison, but because of the women she meets, many of whom suffer from addiction. ‘[F]or the first time I really understood how my choices made me complicit in their suffering. I was the accomplice to their addiction.’" - Diana Wagman
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