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I love Orange is the New Black. In fact, next to Rectify, it was my favorite new show of 2013. I also really appreciate what showrunner Jenji Kohan has done by using a pretty, blonde lead as an entry point into a series that’s really about these other characters that might not otherwise be featured players in a popular drama. Orange is the New Black may have begun as Piper Kerman’s story, but over the course of the first season, it became an ensemble show and going into the second season, the character based on Piper Kerman, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), will begin to blend even more into the cast.
Not to take anything away from Kerman’s story, but after reading numerous interviews, book chapters, and reviews of her memoir, I wouldn’t have liked a series that was actually based on Kerman’s bio and experiences in prison. Her memoir, Orange is the New Black, is more akin to Eat, Pray, Love, only instead of spending a year traveling, Kerman “found herself” in prison. There wasn’t a huge amount of drama or conflict. Kerman’s major complaint about prison were the unsanitary conditions and the terrible food, which is exactly the kind of thing that a self-described WASP might complain about. Kerman learned how to make cheesecake in a microwave in prison, and that’s the kind of story — which she was repeated in numerous interviews — that characterized her time in prison. I think Slate said it best in their review of what they called a “middle-class transgression” novel:
It’s a shame that she sticks with these upbeat banalities about how very much she learned from her experience. These platitudes might make the book more palatable to national magazines, but at the cost of any real revelations.
At the end of her stay in prison, Kerman had a job and a boyfriend waiting for her. She essentially picked back up right where she left off, leading a privileged lifestyle, though she at least came away from the experience with a better understanding of those who do not enjoy the privileges she has. That’s where Kohan’s fiction does a much better job of explaining the reality of these other characters’ situations: They are largely poor, many are victims of abuse, several returned to prison after their release, and I’m guessing that the unsanitary bathrooms did not weigh as heavily on them.
Before season two of Orange is the New Black begins and starts to pull the focus away from Piper Chapman, I wanted to research and explore just how differently the series is from reality, and what I found essentially is that besides the general premise — a well-to-do Smith graduate has to serve a year in prison for a crime she committed a decade before during a reckless period of her life — there’s not that much in common between reality and fiction. I mean, on the show, Piper walked into prison carrying a burrata sandwich; in reality, she was carrying a foie gras sandwich. That small detail is a microcosm of the differences between truth and fiction.
Here’s five key differences:
1. Piper and her Husband, Larry Smith, had a very strong relationship throughout her 11 month stay. — There wasn’t a lot of conflict between Piper and Larry during her stint. In fact, it was just the opposite. Larry visited her every single weekend while she was in a Danbury, Connecticut prison, driving in from New York City (even carpooling with the partner of another inmate from Brooklyn). According to Larry, those visits were the best part of his week. They also talked on the phone several times a week in 15 minute increments. There was never any thought given to the two breaking up while she was in prison, and unlike with her friend Polly and mother Carol, there was never much drama with their friends and family (most of whom thought that Larry was awesome for making the weekly treks). Larry Smith and Piper Kerman were married a year after she was released, and it was Larry — already a successful writer — who helped Kerman get the Orange Is The New Black book published.
2. Piper did not have sex with the real-life Alex Vause — The real-life Alex Vause was a woman named Catherine Cleary Wolters. They didn’t have sex together in prison. In fact, they were only together during five weeks of Kerman’s imprisonment, while they were in a Chicago prison testifying against a co-conspirator. It’s true that Piper did not speak to her at first, but the relationship between the two eventually warmed and they became friendly during their stay together.
Wolters was also not Kerman’s first or last lesbian relationship. Kerman was out when she met Wolters, and had more sexual relationships with women after (in fact, her husband Larry was the first “boyfriend” that Piper ever really had).
It is true, however, that Wolters did snitch on Kerman, but Kerman also snitched on Wolters. In fact, everyone in the case snitched on each other. Wolters, however, did considerably more time: She spent 20 years either in prison or on supervised parole.
3. Piper didn’t have any sexual encounters in prison — In reality, Piper Kerman didn’t even reveal to anyone that she’d been with women before because she didn’t want to create any illusions or expectations that might complicate her stay. However, the sexual harassment between guards are prisoners, according to Kerman’s observations, did run rampant, and she was often groped by guards. However, between the prisoners themselves there were some sexual relationships, but the predominant paradigm in prison was of the mother/daughter relationship.
4. There was very little violence — Contrary to some of the depictions on the show, this was a minimum security prison, and there was little to no violence between the inmates. In fact, Kerman herself didn’t experience any violent episodes. No other prisoner ever laid a hand on her. The other prisoners were cooperative and helpful from the very first day. The closest thing that Kerman ever got to a fight was when one of the other prisoners took issue with the fact that she picked all the spinach out of the salad bar.
5. The Other Orange Is The New Black characters are largely fictional — A few of the OITNB characters are inspired by women that Piper Kerman met — there was a prisoner named Pennsatucky who was “feisty,” and there was a nun who’d been imprisoned for peaceful protesting, and a mother and daughter were locked up together — but mostly, the characters are inspired by women Kerman met or observed in prison. Based on interviews, I also wouldn’t say that she forged particularly strong, life-long friendships with anyone. After all, she wasn’t allowed to associate with criminals after she was released from prison. That’s not to say she wasn’t friendly with them — they gave each other pedicures and gossipped and swapped books. But it’s not like she’s having dinner parties with any of them (in fact, Wolters — the woman Alex Vause was based upon — hasn’t directly spoken with Kerman since their stay in prison).
Sources: Vanity Fair, NYTimes, Truth-Out, NYMag, WBUR, NYTimes, NPR, Time, Marie Claire, Slate.