Anyone with even a fleeting relationship with the Internet lately has heard the rumblings over the new Netflix show taking TV by storm. Not only is Orange Is The New Black our current favorite obsession, but it's a fascinating character study with a cast of seriously awesome ladies. If you've been eschewing pop culture news for beach reads and other diversions, it's easy to watch OITNB without even realizing it's a very true, and very fascinating, story. If you've ever wondered how the writers come up with this stuff, it's because they had some pretty amazing real-life source material to work with. So, in the interest of spending even more time with our favorite felon, we're bringing you the true story behind the phenomenon, so you can separate fact from (fascinating) fiction. If you're hoping to dive into the story beyond its admittedly addictive entertainment value, Piper Kerman's actual memoir definitely provides a more nuanced and realistic description. On the other hand, what it's missing is some of the more generous, almost first-person, narration that puts the other characters in the spotlight — it is, obviously, even more filtered through a privileged, white lens than the show.
Piper Kerman (the real-life protagonist) comes from a background much like her silver screen alter ego. After graduating from Smith College, she found herself hanging around the college town of Northampton, MA, waiting tables at a local restaurant and indulging in many of the activities delayed adolescents enjoy (ahem, we'll just call it sex, drugs, and rock-n'-roll).
That's where she met Nora Jansen (you guessed it, the real-life Alex Vause), who turned out to be more than just a pretty face — she was an up-and-coming drug dealer on an international scale, who would eventually name Piper in her trial years after they broke up. To a 22-year-old in love and lust, the allure of big money and big parties proved too much to overcome, and Piper soon found herself jetting off to Bali as business boomed. But their life together wasn't as exciting as it may sound. In her memoir, Kerman writes that the pair "lived a life of relentless tension, yet it was also often crushingly boring. I had little to do, other than keep Nora company while she dealt with her “mules.” …I was scared and miserable, retreating into almost constant silence, as we all moved from Belgium to Switzerland." Eventually, she found herself at the Brussels airport with a suitcase full of drug money (yep, pretty much exactly how it happened on TV), and it wasn't long after that she broke up with Nora, and flew back to California to start a life that she thought would be untainted by her past. That was, presumably, why she decided to keep her relationship with Nora and her involvement in her business a secret from most acquaintances, including her boyfriend Larry Smith (ding, ding, ding...that's Jason Biggs to you TV fans). After several years of innocent fun, she followed her new love to the Big Apple, settled in a West Village apartment, and the rest, they say, is history...or, television.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
As the story goes, Piper was home-free for a while. But the law eventually caught up with Nora and several of her cohorts, and ended up with Piper cutting a deal for 15 months in federal lockup. It's an experience that, she said in an interview for The Frisky, she thinks about "every day. I don’t know if you could live in that world and have that kind of experience and not think about it every day. It’s an immersive situation. You are literally placed in another world. Even the most minor, everyday things might remind me of prison — food, or getting on the subway, or fixing the electricity in my apartment — those very mundane things can trigger all sorts of thoughts and memories."
Many of the details of Piper's prison life and the friends she made there are based in reality. For example, she really did insult Red's cooking right in front of her (in Kerman's book, Red goes by "Pop"...not sure which we like better), though the results of that misstep were not nearly as grave as the show depicts. The book is actually dedicated to Pop (as well as Larry, and Kerman's parents), and the two eventually formed a close relationship. However, Piper and Nora (Alex) weren't locked up at Litchfield (or Danbury, in real life) together and overall, the book is a lot lighter on lesbian relationships and sex than the show. Of course, it is television, so we expect them to dramatize things a bit and ramp up the characters' sex drives, but Kerman specifically wrote, reflecting on Valentine's day, that there was little to none of Mr. Healy's dreaded "lesbian activity": "My first holiday in prison. Upon arrival in Danbury, I was struck by the fact that there did not seem to be any lesbian activity…A lot of the romantic relationships I observed were more like schoolgirl crushes, and it was rare for a couple to last more than a month or two."
But she did work in electrical, and the supervisor was a pretty despicable character, using sexually vulgar language that Kerman complained about to his boss on several occasions. Crazy Eyes, Yoga Jones (Janet in the book), and Pensatucky are all real — as is Larry's Modern Love column, which you can read here. In the absence of Alex, Larry and Piper's relationship in real life was never under as much pressure, but you can see that Larry struggled quite a bit while his girl was away. Though, we'll never know if he's actually guilty of that most awful betrayal, watching Mad Men without Piper when she specifically asked him to wait (ugh).
One of the most intriguing, and sometimes problematic, aspects of this show is its handling of racial tensions. Whether or not you agree with how these complex issues are presented, it appears that it does mirror fairly closely what Piper actually experienced. While she says most of the inmates were very friendly to her on arrival, and that she was blown away by the kindness of strangers, Kerman definitely experienced the same strict racial codes of the prison social structure. Morello, on the show, said "it's not racist, it's a tribal thing;" Kerman herself wrote that "the racialism was unabashed." The various cell blocks were, indeed, referred to as "the suburbs," "the ghetto," and "Spanish Harlem." As for the overall breakdown, according to her estimates, "about half were Latino (Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian), about 24 percent white, 24 percent African-American and Jamaican, and then a very random smattering: one Indian, a couple of Middle Eastern women, a couple of Native Americans, one tiny Chinese woman in her sixties. I always wondered how it felt to be there if you lacked a tribe. It was all so very West Side Story — stick to your own kind, Maria!"
While we don't yet know her fate on the show, the real-life Piper eventually made it through her sentence and back to the Big Apple with two years of probation. Because that carefully-supervised period includes a rule that former inmates cannot come in contact with anyone with a criminal record, it made it hard for Piper to keep up many of her friendships from prison. But she's careful to acknowledge her privilege: "I can’t overemphasize that reentry was much easier for me than for almost all prisoners. The people in prison are generally the people from our poorest and most vulnerable communities in the first place, and right now, the way the prison system functions, it’s sort of like a funnel that pushes people down and makes their options for a law-abiding life harder and harder. Unfortunately, it has sort of the opposite effect that people expect prison to have."
Forever changed by their experience, for better or worse, Larry and Piper dove head first into righting the wrongs they both witnessed at the jail. Today, both are fervent believers in prison reform and fixing the criminal justice system, and assist newly-released inmates through the Women's Prison Association. To outsiders, they both are back to "normal," (ambiguous as that is) with successful careers — and, now, a successful show. But that doesn't mean Piper waltzed away from the experience with nothing more than a bestseller; in fact, in almost all the interview she's done since her release, she makes a point to bring up some of the various injustices and flaws she noticed first-hand in her own experience. "People in prison have committed crimes and caused suffering in many, many cases, and that’s important," she explains. "But the way the system operates currently is that it reinforces that as opposed to correcting it. I think that’s incredibly important to think about, because we have a prison system that costs $60 billion a year and it’s not really doing what it’s supposed to do."