Orange is the new black (non-fiction)
Piper Kerman’s life was comfortably suburban and solidly upper middle-class–she was a Smith graduate with all the door-openings and privilege that a Seven Sisters degree can convey. But Kerman also yearned for the adrenalin rush that came with living on the edge. And less than two years after graduation, the twenty-three-year-old found herself running drug money for a wealthy African drug lord. Aghast at how far her reckless abandon had taken her, relieved she had escaped undetected, and paranoid that just maybe she hadn’t, Kerman left that life behind, moving cross-country to San Francisco, a job in TV production, and supportive new friends. Ten years later, she got the proverbial knock on the door. Someone higher up on the drug smuggling chain had named names and charges had trickled down even to her.
And so began Piper Kerman’s years long navigation through our judicial system, eventually serving fifteen months in a minimum security prison in Danbury, Connecticut (the prison everyone assumed would house Martha Stewart). Kerman was a ‘self surrender’ on that February day, driven to Danbury by her fiance, and left as he walked back through the doors that locked behind him. Kerman’s first task was to learn the tedious and often arcane rules of prison, both spoken and unspoken: count five times a day, no physical contact between prisoners, only calls from your approved phone list (limited to 25 names), yes to crochet but no to knitting, never ask about another inmate’s crime. Prison staff ran from helpful and accommodating to confrontational and abusive–and the kitchen food was most often inedible.
But in the end, this was really a story about relationships. Kerman’s family, understandably shocked, were nothing if not supportive; friends kept up a steady stream of mail and books for mail call; her fiance (now husband) Larry Smith visited weekly, never wavering in his unconditional love. The women she shared her life with for those long months, however, were even more memorable. Annette and Nina and the group of Italians who took Kerman under their wing from her first day, sharing toiletries and shower shoes until she had an account in the prison store, and welcoming her into their Rummy games. Pop and Miss Natalie, older women who took care to bring her into their circle.And all those younger women, barely out of their teens–Jae and “Pennsatucky”–who looked to her for guidance.
I appreciated Kerman’s readiness to serve her sentence and refusal make excuses for herself. I loved the humility and acceptance she showed her fellow inmates, never thinking herself better or her crime any less than theirs. I applauded Kerman’s open acknowledgment that her life after prison (loving partner, awaiting job) would be everything theirs was not, giving her an advantage other inmates would never know. She suffered the loss of her grandmother while in prison and didn’t get the funeral furlough for which she applied–her darkest day.
Piper Kerman came out of the closed confines of prison a more open woman–and I never stopped asking myself how I would react, what I would do, how I would return home if I was in her steel-toed black work shoes.
Next up: I’ve got three books arriving tomorrow via Amazon–Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Stuffed: Adventures of a restaurant family (non-fiction), and This Old Dog (a guide for owners with elderly pets).I think I’m going to start with Miss Peregrine–it sounds both bizarre and magical and I’ve passed it over on my wishlist for over a year already. If I don’t read it soon, I just might chicken out.