During last month’s visit to Netflix HQ, I had the pleasure of meeting Piper Kerman, author of the memoir Orange Is The New Black and inspiration behind the hit show of the same name. In the show, Piper is portrayed brilliantly by Taylor Schilling as being a loveable, but slightly-narcassitic-for-comedic-effect Millenial. Piper in real life, however, is genuine, warm, and very funny. But she’s not bothered about people getting the “Wrong” impression of her. “Watching Piper Chapman is like watching a character for me,” she says, “I don’t watch that and go, ‘Taylor’s getting me wrong!’”
And the show’s creative license hasn’t bothered her real-life husband, Larry Smith, either. “Larry loves the show, and he loves Jason [Biggs], and he has a great sense of humor. I would say the only scab there is, he’s like, ‘I’m a successful writer!’.” When Piper reads the scripts for the show and provides feedback, her sole focus is looking for anything she can contribute to make it a more realistic prison depiction; she’s not worried about it being “Her” story, but simply using the outline of her experiences as a vessel to tell the larger story of the female prison population as a whole.
Advocacy is at the heart of Piper’s passion for telling her story, and was her motivation to put such a personal experience out there, both through her memoir and the series. Her goal is that, by sharing her experiences, she can bring wider attention to the reality of the prison experience. One of the things that disturbed her the most was the disparity she observed between herself and other inmates.
“The one acceptable icebreaker in prison is not ‘Why are you here?’ it’s ‘How much time do you have?’. Some other women were doing short time, like me – a year, two years. But a lot of other women were doing much, much longer sentences – 56 months, 72 months, 5, 7, 10 years,” she says. “And as time went by and I came to know those women so well, because we were living in incredibly close quarters, it was impossible to draw the conclusion that those women had committed crimes that were so much worse than mine. And in fact, the only conclusion you could draw was that they had been treated very differently by the criminal justice system because of socioeconomic, and in some cases, class differences. And you don’t have to have the anecdote from me, because the data is all there. The Manhattan DA’s office invited an outside investigation of racial disparity in his office, which is actually a very admirable thing for him to do. And they found that across the board, when you made apples to apples comparisons, black people particularly – and also Latino people, but black people particularly – are more heavily charged and they get worse plea deals than white people. So, disparity in the criminal justice system is just a fact, and so the question is, what are we going to do about it?”
But while Piper is quick to point out the myriad disturbing issues with the US prison system, she doesn’t shirk responsibility for her past actions or shift blame. “Self exposure is very scary,” she told us. “It’s really scary to talk about your biggest mistakes and your biggest failures. But those are – I have no question about this – the most important ways that we learn as individuals, and also what we have to share with other people is not necessarily our success stories – it’s our failure stories.”
The regret and shame that she feels for her mistakes is palpable; and it’s a good reminder that things aren’t as cut and dried as we like to pretend they are. When most people think of prisoners, I think the first thing that pops to mind is the worst people imaginable: Murders, child abusers, and so on. But people like Piper are a reminder that prisons are not only for the most heinous, but also filled with “Everyday” people who have made bad judgement calls – like carrying a suitcase full of laundered money.
The suitcase of money was actually the topic of my question for Piper. While I was reading her book, I idly wondered about the legal issues that would arise when writing a memoir about real-life crimes committed – and since I had the rare opportunity to actually talk to the author, I could just ask her myself instead of never knowing! In the book, Piper talks about picking up wire transfers of money, an activity that she didn’t realize was illegal at the time. It wasn’t clear to me if she had been prosecuted for that as well or just the suitcase of money, and I wondered if writing something like that could be considered a confession. Piper confirmed that everything written about in the book had been included in the money laundering indictment, also noting that she consulted with her lawyer prior to publication.
“I did have my criminal defense layer also review not the entire manuscript, because Lord God, that would have been expensive, but I certainly picked and chose some portions of the book, particularly the front end of the book for him to read because I had some anxiety about that,” she said.
There were also legal issues surrounding defamation to consider: “If you’re saying that you’re telling a true story, the onus is on the writer to say, ‘The story I tell is true’.” Piper got a small number of questions from RandomHouse’s lawyer about her depictions of the prison staff, confirming that the racist, homophobic, misogynistic pig in the book was indeed a racist, homophobic, misogynistic pig in real life! “Of course, all memoirs are told from a perspective,” she notes. “So your perspective of events may differ from other people’s perspective of events, and that’s true, and a reality of life.”
Piper was so sweet and engaging – during our meet and greet, she told me that she loved my pink hair and always wanted to do hers blue! – and it was a real pleasure getting to speak with her. She took the lowest point in her life and managed to turn it into a positive force for advocacy, which is pretty incredible.
Do you watch Orange Is The New Black? Have you read the book?