Let me start by saying that I love Netflix’s adaptation of Orange Is the New Black – I LOVE it. As such, I was totally onboard for more of my favorite thirty-something Brooklynite WASP Piper and her highs and lows (and woes) during a fifteen-month stint at a women’s correctional facility. The show has microcosmic drama – Cliques! Fiancés! Babies! – and macrocosmic sociopolitical commentary – Race! Class! Gender! Sexuality! Power! Authority! Each character is fully fleshed out and, even though we’re experiencing this probably off-limits (and potentially off-putting) world of women in prison, it doesn’t feel like Piper has to be there to hold our hand. Litchfield’s insular world and all its people are so real that we feel just as invested in Taystee’s heartbreaking struggle to find (and hold onto) a maternal figure as we do rooting for Piper to navigate the ups and downs of prison life – just like we root for Morello and her fiancé Christopher, Nicky to kick her drug addiction, Red to win back her kitchen, Daya and Bennett to somehow make it work…. Give me a name and I can tell you why I love their story – and I bet you it has nothing to do with Piper.
Yet Kerman’s memoir – the source material for the show – was just so meh in comparison. Yes, I know that being in prison for more than a year is practically a giveaway in terms of narrative drama and social, political, and economic commentary. Kerman lived through (and in) a broken prison system, meeting and giving voice to the countless disenfranchised and voiceless women stuck in jail for crimes often not worth their sentences and forever one step behind when they finally get out. But the way in which she told her story came off as lackluster and without focus. Our favorite characters are there, but they aren’t given enough of a role to really stand out. Instead of being the star of their own lives, they come off as footnotes in Piper’s. Kerman structured her book to follow a sequence of events, but there was no really story to follow. One paragraph here, another two pages there – just as we meet and get to know another woman, they’re gone from the story, used more as a segue to spout statistics than as a character in her own right.
And, yes, I know that my opinion probably seems ludicrous. Kerman is using her upper class white privilege to provide voice and agency to the millions of women who will never get to – and that’s a good thing. It’s an awesome thing. But from a narrative standpoint? In terms of character development and story arc? Kerman’s memoir falls short, and she barely gets me interested in her own story, let alone all the other stories she’s trying to tell. I recommend this book as both a case study in novel-to-series adaptations (oh the conversations we could have…) and as a window into what really happens to people in prison, but I hope you get more out of it than I did.
And then you better binge watch the series – BECAUSE IT’S SO GOOD.