Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

To fulfill my summer reading bingo square entitled “a book made into a TV show,” I got an audio book of Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, read by Cassandra Campbell. I’ve seen a few seasons of the Netflix show but lost interest when I couldn’t keep all the characters straight over a year while waiting for the next season. Plus, it was drama, drama, drama. I taught college classes in prison, I’ve worked with volunteers on the last leg of their sentence, and I have an incarcerated pen pal. Everyone seems to agree: in prison, you try to keep your head down and mind your business — completely contrary to what Netflix feeds its viewers. And I do have a general concern about sensationalized prison shows that take viewers “inside.” I picked up Orange is the New Black in particular to get another perspective of an individual’s actual experience in the penal system, an area of reading important to me.

The memoir is nothing like the show. While you see plotting, scheming, and bullying on the show, you get hugs, foot rubs, and sharing snacks from the commissary when one prisoner is has no money in the memoir. If anything, Kerman’s thirteen-month prison stint felt like a college dormitory more than a prison. Sure, there are disrespectful guards — and it’s unforgivable that some guards squeeze the prisoners’ breasts during pat down — but Kerman’s experiences couldn’t be argued a fair representation of “real prison,” which even her fellow inmates who have done decades and were moved to the minimum security facility in their last year remind her.

I won’t say that Kerman’s white skin and blond hair was the focus of my experience, though many readers do. It’s obvious that she’s privileged, that the guards and administration treat her more kindly because she doesn’t look like a stereotype. I noticed, instead, the way she failed to understand trans women. Claiming Vanessa smelled like a man, and had arm pit hair like a man, and would use her “man voice” when she wanted attention delegitimizes Vanessa’s existence as a trans woman. Kerman compares Vanessa to “those of us born women.” I will make concessions for the time period. Incarcerated in 2004, and publishing Orange is the New Black in 2010, Kerman may not have known about acceptable language when writing about trans people. Still, it stands out in 2019.

In addition, Kerman was quite the fat shamer. Though she never guessed the weights of her thin prison mates, she never hesitated to take a stab at anyone who appeared over 200 lbs. One fat, middle-aged lesbian had many young, thin lovers, and Kerman said she tried to figure out why the thin lovers didn’t make fun of the fat woman behind her back — suggesting that it’s only natural to humiliate fat people. Perhaps it’s in her yuppie upbringing. Kerman’s friends and family congratulate her on her appearance during visitations when she immediately loses weight because the prison food is so poorly. But when her bunkies begin giving her snacks in thanks for times she fixes their appliances (Kerman is assigned to work in the electrical department), she reassures the readers that she did not get fat, because she ran at least miles each day.

The biggest flaw of the book is one that lulled me happily as a commuting audio book listener. In only two instances I can remember does Kerman reflect on her experiences, thinking about the bigger picture, choosing instead to tell, tell, tell what happened. This, and then this, and then this happened. And nothing much happens. This is the most mild prison you’ve ever heard of, likely because most women have two years or less to serve in a minimum security facility that has bunk beds instead of cells, no limits on how many books that can have, a hair salon run by inmates, etc. Sure, they gripe about the food, and some women use their headphones as speakers instead of putting them on their head. A few women are overzealous about religion, which irks Kerman. But no one goes to sleep next to a cellie staring at them in a wide-eyed, murderous sort of way and wakes in the middle of the night to that cellie trying to kill them with an oscillating fan. Being a shallow memoir made it easy to listen, drive, and focus.

While Kerman’s memoir made prison seem easy, if not boring, she represents women as caring friends, eager mothers, and helpful. The Netflix show makes inmates look the worst stereotype of catty women. Overall, it’s not a great read, Orange is the New Black. Here is a list of prison memoirs and books about prison you may wish to check out instead:

42 comments

  1. I realise how sensationalised the tv show is and yet, I’ve been regularly watching every season as it comes out. Even now, I’m patiently waiting for the last season to release so I can binge watch it.

    But I just can’t bring myself to read the book because of the fatphobia—it was once upon a time on my TBR but I removed it as soon as a friend mentioned the problems in passing. And to hear that it has transphobic language too? Yeah, no, I’m never reading this book.

    The show, despite its faults, tries to be as inclusive as possible. I’ll stick to those girls alone. ❤️

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  2. Memoirs that relay stories with no reflection feel like a frustratingly wasted opportunity. I’ve never felt compelled to watch the show, and now I know it’s probably best to swerve the book as well, especially given the uncomfortable treatment of trans and fat women.

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    • For me, it was easy to drive and listen to someone who’s constantly telling, so in that sense I “liked” it, but it did stand out to me that time was passing for Kerman the same way it did for me: uneventfully.

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  3. I’m in awe about that bit about the fat woman. So she…was surprised that this woman’s lovers weren’t scrambling to make fun of her behind her back for being fat? Why would she even think that would be something that happens? Although it sounds like a better treatment of the story with some more positive elements in the way she represents women than the show has, it doesn’t sound particularly worthwhile either, especially if she doesn’t bother to reflect on her experience in any way. Weird. I liked the first couple of seasons of the show but it became unwatchably awful at some point and I gave up on it.

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    • I saw the show all the way until that scene where they break out and play in the lake — and ends with the correctional officers hauling in more bunk beds and new inmates. I knew that would mean I’d have to learn loads of new people, but I was already exhausted by the way Kerman turned into a devious criminal in just a few months time.

      I’m actually not surprised by Kerman’s fatshaming. She comes from an upper middle class family and had loads of opportunities. If you’re not struggling to survive, it’s easy to turn your body into a struggle, shaping it through dieting and extreme exercise, and then criticize others for not having the same discipline.

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    • When Orange is the New Black appeared on Netflix, people went nuts. I’m sure you’ve noticed that true crime and the “inside look” into prisons are really popular right now, especially on Netflix. I think the problem is that the inmates know they’re on TV, meaning they’re behaving differently. Those shows are also edited to make them more compelling. I find it exploitative. I mean, a documentary about the human warehousing that is prison would be much more beneficial in informing the public about why we need prison reform.

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      • I actually can’t really read about true crime because I don’t like entertainment value coming from the actual pain of a real person. My family watched the movie (not documentary) of the Ted Bundy wife novel and the whole thing (movie and reactions to movie) horrified me. Murder mysteries and thrillers can be okay because I know it is fake. As for “reality” tv. Ugh. It absolutely infuriates me. A camera in front of a person changes everything. Having worked (tangentially) in film shows that. Plus editing is an art form and can be used to completely change a narrative. The non-fiction blogger, What’s Nonfiction?, has had some truly interesting posts lately discussing how narrators insert themselves into the non-fiction books they are writing and how frustrating that trend can be. Creative non-fiction mostly irks me. As for prison, well it shouldn’t be glorified because prison reform (and judicial reform) are many, many decades behind. Those systems are appalling for many reasons and should not be entertainment. That said, I am a small bit of a hypocrite because I like the prison scenes in the show arrested development. I don’t watch a lot of tv but that show entertains me because it is a character actor’s acting piece.
        x The Captain

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        • I just recently discovered the blog What’s Nonfiction? and am enjoying it. Her notes about how much the author inserts him or herself into the work of nonfiction is interesting. For me, if the person is doing research on an old topic, they should not be a presence at all in that book, such as The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum. However, if they are doing investigative journalism, I expect that they are going to pop up because the world they are doing is an ongoing story on a new topic, such as No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder.

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  4. Hmmm yes I can see why this would be so problematic to us modern-day readers. Do you think people believe Orange is the New Black the show is realistic? I sure hope not. Regardless, prison scares me, even the minimal kind. Like, even eating terrible food for a year sounds horribly depressing-it’s the fear that keeps me from doing anything bad, even speeding in my car LOL

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    • I can’t speak on whether the show is realistic or not, but I do know this: none of the drama in OITNB the show is in the book, but also I knew a man whose brother had been the head warden of all prisons in the state of Michigan said there is no harder prison to manage than a women’s prison. My mom is the secretary to a warden, and she said she’s heard similar things.

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  5. I don’t always get into the shows turned Netflix series or vice versa. There wasn’t anything about either one of these that seemed interesting to me, but I can understand how a show versus a book will often times be different. I guess the positive part is you can mark this off your book bingo and you’ve recommend some other books about imprisoned women that seem worth ones time (Assata)

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    • Assata’s story was WILD. She was wanted by the FBI, so she definitely didn’t go to a minimum security prison. HOWEVER, she also was charged or tried expeditiously, so you see the errors of the judicial system all over the place. I also want to read Angela Davis’s memoir — she was wanted by the FBI as well for similar alleged crimes.

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  6. This is a great review! Bummer the book isn’t more worthwhile. I do have a copy out from the library that I’m still planning to give a try in the next week or so, but this review is a good reminder to keep my expectations in check. The show has definitely been up and down for me, but I mostly enjoy following it. I did know that the book is pretty different, so I’ll mainly be reading out of an interest in comparing the two. Lots of telling without much reflecting and an uneventful story does make me glad I didn’t end up buying a copy though!

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    • I also wonder how it will read differently on page instead of as an audio book. The voice actor drove me a bit bonkers when she said SHU as an initialism instead of an acronym, and her voices for Latina and African American women felt stereotypical (unless Kerman wrote them with dialect).

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      • 😂 I can see how the SHU pronunciation would be a bother! That would definitely annoy me too, especially after hearing it pronounced as an acronym all through the show. And I’ll keep an eye out for dialect in the writing, that would be interesting to compare.
        I hope at the very least that it will be an easy reading experience the same way that it was an easy listening experience for you!

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  7. Interesting! I’ve enjoyed the show and always wondered if the book was worth reading, but I think I’ll pass on the book. I understand your problem with all of the different characters – I can’t ever remember anyone’s name on the show! I usually can only remember Piper cuz she’s the main character, but I don’t particularly care for her character on the show, so reading the book is probably not for me.
    While the show has had some excellent episodes, I haven’t enjoyed it as much the past couple of seasons. I’ll watch the upcoming season for closure, but I doubt it’ll be a show that I re-watch in the future. Maybe the first two seasons, but that’s about it.

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    • I think it was season three in which Piper started that dirty panties business that confused me. I mean, her sentence is 15 months (13 with good behavior) and she somehow turned into a criminal in a minimum security prison. She even got that Australian women in trouble and got a prison tattoo. It started to feel silly to me.

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  8. It’s great that you were able to share those more valuable books as having the experience you do, we can trust those are good … and this not so good. Always useful when choosing books.

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    • I haven’t read all of them — just the ones with the link to a review — but they are books on my radar, ones that I am going to read, so they may interest others as well. I have not read, but will soon, Prison Baby. I did a feature on that author and the work she does for children born in prisons and mothers who are incarcerated.

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  9. I tried watching the show but disliked the main character and just couldn’t get into it generally. It sounds like a lot of what I didn’t like about her is present in the book too.

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    • What is it that you don’t like about Piper? One thing that struck me that I didn’t mention in the review is that Kerman was upset when she was moved to a different prison that had cells (she was being transported to serve as a witness in a trial), upset because she didn’t have access to hair conditioner and tweezers for her eyebrows. I mean, seriously, waaaaat.

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      • It’s been a while so I don’t exactly remember. I just have a general recollection of her as being whiny and not seeming to accept responsibility for her own role in ending up in prison. Mostly, I think I found I didn’t care enough about her to continue watching.

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        • She seems to think that the real issues is that the woman she was dating got a reduced sentence by naming everyone involved in her part of the drug ring. Kerman is so mad that someone ratted on her, and does not accept that she belongs in prison because she broke the law. That bothered me loads.

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  10. I have wanted to read this book for some time now, thanks for the review! Probably there was something about the title which made me think like this book would portray if not a harrowing experience inside a prison then immense difficulties and the like.

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  11. I watched approximately 30 seconds of Orange is the New Black before deciding that it was too racy for me, so I have never bothered to pick the book up. I really enjoyed your review, and I also agree that media like this can sensationalise or romanticise the experiences of incarcerated people. Thanks for your list of alternative recommendations – I will look into them.

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  12. I think about prison a lot. I really hope they let me read books and do courses otherwise you could go mad with boredom. I totally understand why some prisoners focus on their bodies, at least it gives them a purpose. Years ago when I was a depot manager one of my drivers got 18 months after a fatal accident, it would be so easy to make a mistake driving and kill someone.

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  13. “The memoir is nothing like the show. While you see plotting, scheming, and bullying on the show, you get hugs, foot rubs, and sharing snacks from the commissary when one prisoner is has no money in the memoir.”

    Very interesting! It sounds like the TV show really amps up the drama for entertainment purposes. Like I mentioned in the other post, OITNB was not the show for me. It sounds like the book is rather lack luster as well.

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