(Audio)Book Talk: ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, by Piper Kerman


Audiobook read by Cassandra Campbell
Speigel & Grau (2011), trade paper (ISBN 1452657661 / 9780385523394)
Nonfiction: memoir, 352 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Tantor Audio, 2012) ISBN 9781452657660 / Audible ASIN B008AF2JDS)
Reason for reading: Personal

Orange Is the New Black is a book that’s been on my radar for a while, but I really hadn’t found a compelling reason to read it until it became the basis of the Netflix original TV series that people couldn’t stop talking about last summer. I still haven’t watched it, but all the conversation made me curious about exactly how this memoir of a privileged white woman’s imprisonment on a drug charge could be translated into episodic television, so I downloaded the audiobook–it seemed like a fitting way to compromise on formats.

Piper Kerman’s story is that of the one youthful mistake that comes back to haunt someone. Looking for a little life on the wild side after graduating from Smith College, she drifted into a relationship with a drug smuggler, and–just once–delivered a suitcase full of drug money for her. The thrill wore off quickly after that, and Kerman got on with her life…until five years later, when the drug ring was busted and hers was one of the names named to Federal prosecutors. Kerman was in a better position than many to challenge the charges of conspiracy and money-laundering and spent another five years doing just that, but her eventual plea bargain sent her to a Federal women’s prison camp in Danbury, Connecticut for fifteen months (she served thirteen). Although she wryly notes that living at a women’s college was surprisingly good preparation for living in a women’s prison, Kerman’s also very aware that while her background is quite different from that of many fellow residents at Danbury, most of them have ended up there thanks to one thing: Federal mandatory-minimum sentences for drug-related charges.

Kerman has a strong support system on “the outs”–parents, good friends, and her faithful fiance Larry–and a good job and home waiting for her, but for the most part, her experience in Danbury isn’t significantly different from any other inmate’s. Her own story, by default, intertwines with those of many of her fellow prisoners, and as she tells it, it becomes evident that she’s in a unique position to evaluate and articulate the failings of the system which makes them all unhappily equal. One reason I hadn’t been previously inclined to read Orange Is the New Black before this was that I had an impression of it as a “debutante goes to prison” story. That premise annoyed me, and I was happy to discover it was incorrect–the episodes of diva behavior depicted in this memoir rarely originate with its author.

It seems to me that the personalities she depicts are what most likely inspired the development of the TV series–and there are some pretty memorable characters here, without question–but the insights that Kerman develops through her experiences with these people are what make the book worthwhile reading. Thanks to those, she has been an activist for justice reform since her release from prison, and being associated with a successful television show is likely to help her gain attention for that cause.

The audio version of Orange Is the New Black is read by Cassandra Campbell. Campbell’s efforts to distinguish Kerman’s fellow inmates via voices and accents aren’t uniformly effective, but she “becomes” Piper so well that I think I’d be jarred by the sound of Kerman telling her own story. It’s a story I’m glad I finally decided to hear.

Rating: Book and Audio: 3.75 / 5

Book description, from the publisher’s website: 

With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.
Opening lines:
“International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly. I scurried from one to another, desperately trying to find my black suitcase. Because it was stuffed with drug money, I was more concerned than one might normally be about lost luggage.

“I was twenty-three in 1993 and probably looked like just another anxious young professional woman. My Doc Martens had been jettisoned in favor of beautiful handmade black suede heels. I wore black silk pants and a beige jacket, a typical jeune fille, not a bit counterculture, unless you spotted the tattoo on my neck. I had done exactly as I had been instructed, checking my bag in Chicago through Paris, where I had to switch planes to take a short flight to Brussels.

:When I arrived in Belgium, I looked for my black rollie at the baggage claim. It was nowhere to be seen. Fighting a rushing tide of panic, I asked in my mangled high school French what had become of my suitcase. ‘Bags don’t make it onto the right flight sometimes,’ said the big lug working in baggage handling. ‘Wait for the next shuttle from Paris—it’s probably on that plane.’

“Had my bag been detected? I knew that carrying more than $10,000 undeclared was illegal, let alone carrying it for a West African drug lord. Were the authorities closing in on me? Maybe I should try to get through customs and run? Or perhaps the bag really was just delayed, and I would be abandoning a large sum of money that belonged to someone who could probably have me killed with a simple phone call. I decided that the latter choice was slightly more terrifying. So I waited.”

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