Reflecting on Orange is the New Black, and the real-life Piper Kerman

Orange is the New Black real life Piper Kerman

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[This piece contains spoilers!]

It’s been several days since the release of the final season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, and after finishing the series (very late, I know) I looked into the real Piper Kerman story and could not get over what actually happened to her – that she married and remains with Larry Smith since 2006. Of course, I knew the on-screen Piper Kerman was a real person, and that her story would be more dramatized for – your favorite and mine – the unquenchable thirst of binge-watch culture. But I found it so beyond fascinating that these characters were and are real people to Piper and all the others that we came to love so much.

The real Piper Kerman watched the visual appropriations of her ‘what ifs’ play out before her very eyes, able to lift her real-life characters off the page yet position them in the alternate ways of how her actual reality played out. In the show, Piper’s husband Larry cheats on her with her best friend while she’s imprisoned, and the two end up married and expecting their second child when Piper gets out. All those possibilities of how things could have ended up actually provide a complex and very real story that must exorcise some form of satisfaction at least to imagine if those highly emotional situations ever turned in the opposite direction.

But in her alternate reality, Kerman is able to ask – what if she had pursued her other love, fellow money launderer and drug trafficker Catherine Cleary Wolters (Nora Jansen in the book, Alex Vause in the Netflix series) and was never together again with Larry? What if Larry cheated on her with her best friend – and then left Piper for her? Now that reality exists too, encapsulated in a cringeworthy yet bittersweet encounter at Piper and Larry’s old sushi joint where Larry orders off the menu what he would have ordered for he and Piper all those years ago.

The encounter feels naively hopeful, but what could very well have been true for the real Kerman is obvious: that Piper felt so removed from the life she once had with Larry, and Larry to the one he had with the old Piper, that the differences would ultimately be irreconcilable. The Larry in the series remains relatively untouched by the sprawling experiential damage of prison, except for the fact that his otherwise perfect life (and wife) had been shattered by the very realization that it was over.

And, crazily enough, the ‘real-life’ Alex Vause, Catherine Cleary Wolters, denies any of the story that Kerman portrays of their relationship, from the sexual encounters to even any conversation in the five-week period that she and Kerman were actually in the same prison facility. Obviously, that did not ever really happen. But obvious too is that the story Kerman writes is not her own anymore. Once adapted to the screen, Kerman saw herself – but a different version of herself, under the butterfly effect of other varieties of what could have happened.

What Kerman and the team at Netflix have expertly extrapolated from the heavily-criticized ‘watered-down’ prison experience a crucial level to be discussed: the interrelation of the corrupt incarceration system as well as the cycle of poverty, and the ever-timely immigration raids and detainment center stories. By using the basis of her own experience, Kerman allowed something many of us would never be brave enough to give – her true story to be manipulated, constructed, deconstructed, and hypothesized, all under her real name and her real story. In reality, Kerman must understand that Piper, though the main character, is an observer in everything, a well-off white woman imprisoned for financial white-collar crimes. Yet Piper is also the window into that very real and very clandestine underbelly of American socio political ties to the incarceration system and the oppression of what eventually every character on the series desires – an education. Ultimately, the real Piper Kerman spent one year in prison, and her sketches of the people around her throughout that time inspired the dynamic stories of our beloved Red, Daya, Nicky, Gloria, Suzanne, Doggett, and so many others.

Orange is the New Black season 7

But what’s also alarmingly clear is how appropriable these structures are to many of the invisible prison societies that exist all around us. There are many Reds. There are many Glorias. There are many Karlas, who do their best to provide their own legal counsel simply for dreaded deportation to occur anyway, finding any way to contact her children, already in the foster system for months, to tell them that everything she did was for them and that she would always, always love them and fight to come find them. When her story ends, she is attempting to return illegally to the United States, but suffers a broken ankle and is left in the apparent depths of a rugged Mexican terrain. Red, who is so mentally exhausted from her time in solitary confinement that it eventually causes early onset Alzheimer’s from the delirium, is one of many whose emotional and psychological wellbeing goes unchecked in favor of punishments arguably deemed cruel and unusual in their own rights, as well as the lack of appropriate healthcare in prisons (see also: Sophia’s struggle to receive her hormone medication).

And Daya, whose only joy after her years in prison – aside from heartbreaking familial problems with her mother, a very obvious and horribly commonplace sexual encounter with a guard, and the detachment she feels after giving away the child she bears by him – is smuggling, selling, and using drugs. In one of the last episodes, her mother tells her she is unrecognizable to the girl who would ‘draw and talk about weird shit,’ and it’s true – gone (for a while now) was the character who entered the prison all those seasons ago, dissolved by her own resignation to a life like this. And there are the Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jeffersons, who come so close – so close – to ending it all, or succeeding anyway, because death was preferable to being wrongfully, eternally imprisoned. These stories are dramatic, dynamic, theatrical; but they are real. For that very obvious realization on the part of Kerman and Netflix that this story had the opportunity to say something – I applaud the show and its creators.

Piper’s story ends well – though she and Alex do agree to break up, she still visits her and the connection is still there. But characters like Lorna, who still clearly struggle with accepting their realities, are confined to these existences for life. Piper was one of the lucky ones. But there were victims indeed – Poussey Washington, killed in a prison riot in a manner disturbingly like that of Eric Gardner; Tiffany Doggett, subjected to smuggled drugs in a moment of self-doubt and accidentally overdosing without ever believing she was intelligent; Cindy Hayes, tricked into testifying against Taystee and ultimately losing her best friend; Dayanara Diaz, hardened by prison; Maria Ruiz and Gloria Mendoza, mothers trying to maintain relationships with their children outside – it’s all real. And at the end of the day, what these women and all those trapped in the system feel is some instinct of survival, whether that is making survival easy in some way or by finding something that is worth continuing the fight. But both ends of the road are dead ends – because both are laden with the lasting damage of incarceration even beyond the cell, with many released considering how to somehow get back inside, where the controlled, mundane, cyclical environment felt less scary than a world that was doing their best to get them back inside anyway. And when the emotions are so heightened as this is a truly life-or-death environment, those familial bonds are bound to form, and that family is organic and true.

I loved the show at first and admittedly experienced a lull around the second and third seasons, but rarely at the end of a show’s air do I feel actually grateful to have watched the show all the way through, and I sincerely appreciate the obvious outpouring of creative genius behind-the-scenes, in creator and showrunner Jenji Kohan as much as the industry-shaking talent that was impeccably cast to carry deep, thoughtful, flawed and beautiful characters.

The last reality that OITNB leaves us with is the realization that there will be no other stories for most of the women we see especially in this last season who will always be without the knowledge, guidance, and justice that they rightfully reserve, and that prison is not a moral system – it is a business structure. But those sparkling personalities from within that cause a flame, whether in offering GED certification classes to so much as humanizing the inmates beyond any favor or smuggling relationship, stoke that unrelenting hope that there is some good amongst all the pain and heartache that expands in ripples throughout families and their histories. Orange is the New Black let us into that world, but only just. The rest is up to us.

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