After watching and loving Orange Is the New Black, my favorite new television series of 2013 (broadcast directly on Netflix), I decided to read the memoir upon which it was based.
The book is very different from the television series both in content and style. The series is at times comedic, leading it to win awards, including a WGA (Writers Guild of America) award in the episodic comedy category. Personally, I view it more as a drama with comedic moments.
In comparison, nobody would view the memoir as a comedy – it is not only more serious than the TV series, it is also more educational, but, thankfully, stopping well short of being preachy. The last 20 or so pages of the book are about resources available for female prisoners, prison reform efforts. This section makes total sense, since the book often notes injustices of which the general public is unaware and how faulty are the many stereotypes of prison and prisoners.
Speaking of stereotypes, much is made both in the book and the series of how Piper does not fit the stereotype of a female prison inmate. She’s a white, college educated women in jail for smuggling money derived from drug sales — crimes that took place more than 10 years ago. More than once in the book someone asks her, “What are you doing here?” She replies both to them and to us.
In prison, she explains, both in the book and series, people often band together by race. Piper, though, opts to make friends of all races. This, on the show, provides a diverse set of characters, some factual and some, I assume, fictional.
In the book, she describes some of the people she met in prison, some easily familiar to those who watched the series and others barely so.
There’s an irony afoot here. If you look to the show’s source material (the book) to learn more about characters you meet on the show, you will most often be quite disappointed. Yet almost every episode of the show provides flashbacks that let you know how the characters’ lives were before they were sent to prison, and their crimes. For some viewers, that is one of their favorite parts.
In the memoir, Piper chronicles her adjustment to life in prison, a life where prisoners sleep on, not in, their beds, where visiting days are incredibly emotionally exhausting for both the prisoner and the visitor.
But Piper, we are reminded often in her memoir, is not only different because of her race. She also has a support network – and even a website devoted to her – where people write her, send her books, visit her, etc. After release she was able to use the contents of those letters to write her book. She shared those books she received with other prisoners who apparently prefer her books to those in the prison library.
Another important difference between Piper and the average prisoner is that she has a job lined up for her upon release. Knowing her future was more secure helped her ease her mind especially when watching fellow prisoners struggle when adjusting to life outside prison, let alone finding employers who will hire an ex-convict. Is it any wonder that some of these prisoners come back to the life with which they are familiar?
While Piper breaks stereotypes this book – and the TV series – is about much more than that. It is about the rich diversity of people in prison. It is about the funny moments, the humbling moments, the mistakes, the tragedies and everything in between.
Orange was watched by many as binge-watching. Since all episodes were released at the same time, there was no need to wait a week to watch the next episode. This challenged the usual rules and expectations of a new series and how and when people will watch it.
Similarly, the series – and the memoir – are also a departure from normal TV programming itself. I encourage you, if you have not watched this series, to check it out. And if you want to learn more about Piper herself be sure to read her book as well.