November 2013: Orange Is the New Black
In an eye-opening memoir, Piper Kerman relates her fall from Smith College grad to convict, jailed some 10 years after the fact for smuggling drug money. Her account of the year-plus she spent in prison—and mostly of the friendships she forged while there—is the inspiration for the Netflix series of the same name. Real Simple’s staff health editor, Julia Edelstein, moderated the discussion of Orange Is the New Black.
Orange Is the New Black: Chapter 1 Through Chapter 6
How is everyone enjoying Orange Is the New Black? Six chapters in, I’m in agreement with many of the commenters on the last post: It is really hard to stop reading this book. But don’t worry: I managed to put it away so I wouldn’t accidentally drop any spoilers here.
I don’t know about all of you, but I came into this knowing essentially nothing about prisons in America. And while this memoir of one minimum-security women’s prison is by no means a comprehensive survey of all prisons, it has made me feel more informed about a whole stratum of society I’ve never really investigated. I had no idea that visiting hours were so long, or that prisoners could live in a dorm instead of cells. I didn’t know you couldn’t get a real piece of chicken, or that you had to clean with maxi pads. And, more significantly, I didn’t realize life in prison could be so free of conflict. The other prisoners don’t just seem civil; many of them strike me as extraordinarily kind and considerate, going out of their way to welcome a new inmate and make sure she’s comfortable. Who among us can say we’d spend our own limited funds on a stranger? Yet time and again, these prisoners use their canteen money on shower shoes and soap for one another. What are your first impressions of the other prisoners at the camp? Were you surprised that so many of them were not only nonviolent but also sensitive and generous?
While you’re pondering that, let’s backtrack a bit—to Piper’s life of crime. One thing Piper does incredibly well in this book: make it easy to put ourselves in her shoes. As she described the excruciating years she spent waiting for her sentence, I felt a knot in my stomach. As she hugged Larry good-bye, I thought of my own husband, and felt a little lump in my throat. And as she acclimated to the prison, I acclimated too. But I have to say I couldn’t really relate as Piper floundered after college and got involved in an international drug ring. To me, the business seemed obviously bad, and Piper seemed too smart to be naïve about it. Maybe that’s because her relationship with Nora didn’t come alive to me. Though she described Nora as having “wit and charm” in excess, I didn’t feel that their connection ever grew deep enough to merit Piper tagging along on all those trips. Did you find this part of the book less compelling and true than the rest? Could you put yourself in Piper’s shoes as she got lost and broke the law? (One theory I have on why this part of the book felt weak: Maybe Piper herself no longer relates to the person she was when she committed the crime, and so instead of writing that section like a memoir, she reported it, seeing her old self almost as a stranger.)
There are so many other fascinating moments to discuss—and I hope you’ll chime in with your favorites in the comments—but I wanted to wrap up by discussing Piper’s prison job. So far there have been two episodes that stuck with me. The first was when DeSimon drove Piper, Little Janet, and Levy outside of the prison grounds and left them standing on a suburban street. I could feel their exhilaration and their fear—the desperate desire to run away and the terror at getting in trouble for moving even a single step. It was in this moment that I think Piper realized how much she had changed, and how disconnected from the world she had—or soon would—become. Did you find this moment significant? What do you think Piper took away from it?
The other noteworthy event: when Piper found herself with an extra screwdriver. I thought it was really telling that she didn’t even consider telling her supervisor what happened. Did you think Piper did the right thing by throwing the screwdriver into the Dumpster? Is her mistrust of the other prisoners—and of DeSimon—warranted?
Answer my questions in the comments, or just share your overall thoughts on the book so far. Then meet me back here in a week, when we’ll have read through Chapter 12.
Orange Is the New Black: Chapter 7 Through Chapter 12
Welcome to week two of our discussion of Orange Is the New Black. Over the past seven days, my thoughts have often turned to the Danbury Women’s Prison, which happens to be in my home state. I’ll be eating my breakfast, or getting on the subway, and suddenly think, What’s going on there right now? How many of the prisoners Piper knew are still there? How must those women feel? Wondering: Did your mind turn to the prison as it exists today? I’m amazed at the way Piper makes the setting come alive. It’s so easy to picture it that I almost feel as if I’ve been there.
As many of you commented last week, the book reverses a lot of preconceived notions that many of us, myself included, had about criminals. Granted, Piper is not an unbiased source, but she has nonetheless convinced me that at least some of the women in prison are victims, and that some of the guards who watch over them, while perhaps law-abiding, lack the moral high ground.
But more than that, I’m caught up in Piper’s emotional journey: her coming to grips with her crime, adjusting to a completely foreign—and terrifying—way of life, and maintaining relationships with her loved ones. In Chapter 8, Piper talks about the tough emotional balancing act each prisoner must undertake to engage in prison life without getting too comfortable or forgetting about the real world. She writes: “This is one of the awful truths about incarceration, the fact that the horror and the struggle and the interest of your immediate life behind prison walls drives the ‘real world’ out of your head.” As a result of this, many prisoners are released with little clue as to how to survive outside the prison walls. I think Piper does a truly incredible job at maintaining a balance of inside and outside interests. What do you think? Do you imagine you could do the same, or would thinking about the world beyond the prison be too painful? As I read the book, I kept waiting for the prisoners to care about events happening outside. Yet the only news event that seemed to interest them was Martha Stewart’s trial, which in and of itself was prison-related.
Piper also spends a lot of time talking about her visitors, and how much the time she spent with them meant to her. I was so moved when, in Chapter 7, she shared the tidbit about waving at Larry through the window after their visit had ended—how the sight of her behind the glass devastated him, but that he never let on. That small detail sheds light on the incredible strength of the families who support their loved ones while they serve time. I’d love to read a memoir by Larry, and to learn more about the emotions he went through during Piper’s imprisonment.
Without question, it’s clear that in these chapters, Piper grows braver. She stands up to a bully at the salad bar. She rises high above the treetops on an electrical lift. She rejects advances from a suitor—the fascinating Morena. Perhaps most amazingly, she asks to have her work assignment changed, and when refused, decides to report abuse by her supervisor. Were you surprised by the initiative Piper took in these situations? Would you have done the same? Although Piper consistently asserts that the prison is not therapeutic (and in the traditional sense, it clearly isn’t), I do think it’s a place that teaches her a lot and gives her the confidence to do, well, anything. And, as she states in Chapter 12, it is also where she understands the serious repercussions of her own crime. As she meets inmates who are addicts, she writes: “I had helped these terrible things happen.” Do you think Piper needed prison to come to this revelation, or do you agree, as Piper writes, that a lengthy term of community service would have been just as persuasive?
I can’t end this posting without bringing up my very favorite moment: when Miss Natalie found out she had passed her GED. Piper writes, “The release of so much collective happiness in that miserable place was almost too much for me. It was like hot and cold air colliding, creating a tornado right inside the hall.” I just loved that description—and it was a relief, as a reader, to finally read about something joyful and happy, to know that even in the darkest places, there’s still hope.
Share your thoughts on Chapters 7 through 12 below. I’ll see you in a week when we’ll talk about the ending. (Spoiler: She gets out!)
P.S.: I dare you all to serve prison cheesecake this Thanksgiving (or maybe just for a weeknight dessert!).
Orange Is the New Black: Chapter 13 Through Chapter 18
Well, we’ve come to the final page, and, wow, what an ending. That last line—“No one could stop me”—was just incredible, wasn’t it? A perfect way to capture Piper’s tenacity, as well as the definition of freedom itself. For the first time in over a year, Piper can do as she pleases without fear of repercussions, and her relief—and disbelief—is palpable.
Before I get into my thoughts on the last third of the book, I want to announce that Piper Kerman has agreed to answer questions from the book club! Please leave your queries in the comments of this post by Monday, December 2.
As for me, I’m dying to know:
1. What did you and Larry do as soon as you were reunited? How did you celebrate?
2. How long did it take for you to feel acclimated and back to your old life, post-prison?
3. What element of the American prison system do you think needs the most reform, and what can we (as in, regular citizens) do to help that cause?
Now back to our discussion.
The last third of the book offered a terrifying glimpse into another type of prison life—one devoid of community and rituals, warm food, and basic hygiene. The Chicago and Oklahoma facilities seemed, in a word, unlivable. I was especially horrified by the lack of clean underwear, and the fact that the prisoners were kept inside, with barely any opportunities to breathe fresh air. I can see how Piper began to doubt that she would get out. What about these facilities did you find most horrifying? Did seeing these prisons change your opinion on imprisonment in general?
In addition to revealing another realm of prison life, as well as an airline I hope none of us ever has to fly, the last chapters showed Piper coming face-to-face with Nora, and ultimately making peace with her. Did you expect a more dramatic and heated reunion between the two? I was impressed by Piper’s self-restraint, and realized that it was likely the prison experience that gave her the strength and ability to be so calm and so quiet, until she was ready to let bygones be bygones. I also wonder if Piper would have gotten as much out of prison on an emotional level had she and Nora not reunited. After all, it was only in connecting with her codefendant that Piper realized she could only blame herself for her actions. In fact, for the most part, all the experiences that helped Piper see her crimes for what they were—her own fault, and wrong—seem to occur out of happenstance, not out of any curricula or messages the prisons intended to instill. Do you think the prison system is set up to help prisoners gain a deeper understanding of their crimes, or does it only breed resentment of authority?
I really felt for Piper as she described missing her old bed, and friends, at Danbury, because as a reader, I missed them too. Moving Piper to Oklahoma, and then Chicago, seemed to me like adding a second sentence to Piper's imprisonment. (For the reader, it was like beginning a second book.) Next to the length of time, the adjustment seems to be the hardest part of prison. And Piper had to do it not once, but three times. Piper’s time in Oklahoma and Chicago also made clear how pivotal it is to have friends and family who live close enough to visit. It was no coincidence that as her visitors disappeared, her confidence and sense of well-being also began to crumble. Do you think it was fair that Piper was kept so far from her friends and family? Should she have been shipped back to Danbury right after her trial?
Share your thoughts on the conclusion of the book below, and don’t forget to leave a question for the author. Wishing you all a great Thanksgiving, and thanks for reading along!