The rave reviews for the Netflix series have been so persuasive, that I added the audiobook to my listening library. When our oldest daughter joined the chorus of those advocating for the series, I moved it up on my listening list.
What I have to say will not make me popular with fans of the series (which I have not yet watched). I did not much like Piper Kerman. She is a privileged white woman caught in a web of crime that she did not need to commit and in which she became involved because she was seduced by the luxury it brought. She made the right choice and left the life of crime when she realized her girlfriend would sell her out with little provocation, but her past catches up with her and after a torturous wait for trial, she lands in Danbury women’s prison. Piper does a wonderful job describing how her identity and privilege were stripped from her, how tribalism became a way to survive the early days of prison, how some of the guards went to great lengths to emphasize their power and the inmates’ weakness. The drop and squat routine on visitors’ days is horrifying to anyone who has lived in a culture of privacy.
As the book went on I found myself liking her less and less. She recognizes and names her privilege–many times. She repeatedly relates guards and others asking how a girl like her ended up in a place like that. This demonstrates the racism and classism of the system, but it also reminds the reader that Piper is not the kind of girl who belongs in prison. Her crime was old and minor. At one point she realizes that her role in the drug trade helped make possible the crimes of the women in much less privileged positions who are her sister inmates. She feels shame and guilt, but there is not much further discussion. She is enraged that the system does so little to prepare the other women for life on the outside, but offers no suggestions.
Why, I started to wonder, these brief nods to the problems of others and the reminders of her own status? Life in prison must have been awful? Why does it so often sound, in Piper’s words, like an extended girls’ camp with particularly obnoxious camp counselors? She may give the clue herself. Many of the women refuse visitors because they don’t want anyone to see them as inmates, to realize what their lives are really like. Piper’s portrayal of the social networks, the movie nights and prison recipes, mani/pedis and salon moments keep us from seeing her as an inmate and instead help us imagine an extension of her college experience, but with fewer choices on the salad bar and greater diversity in the dorm. So why write the memoir? To draw attention to the problems of the system? If so, why is this not a greater focus? I came to believe that Piper wrote the memoir to show that her life was not that bad, that her friends and family should not look at her and imagine prison rapes by guards and “dykish” (her word) inmates. Although a lesbian when she committed her crime, she wants to be clear that she was not “gay for the stay,” that she did not return to her former lifestyle, and that she did not let anyone inside know about her former sexual identity.
From what I understand, the series diverges quite wildly from the book, so I will give it a chance. I will try to overcome my irritation with pampered Piper and to focus on my appreciate for her courage and her positive attitude in the face of events that would have soured most of us, and by us I mean privileged white girls. Who have the voice and the means to tell our stories and an audience with the means to consume them.