Before Piper Kerman began her 15-month sentence for money laundering, she set up a website called The Pipe Bomb. In the FAQ portion of this very mid-'00s website, Kerman answers all pressing questions like, “Piper...federal prison? What’happen?” and “But I thought nice blonde ladies with loving families, Seven Sisters degrees and no priors always got off?” with the kind of witty self-awareness that one day would render her memoir a bestseller.
In 2013, Kerman’s 2010 memoir Orange Is the New Black was adapted into long-running Netflix show, which concluded on Friday after seven seasons. Taylor Schilling played Piper Chapman, the TV version of Kerman. The similarities are undeniable: Both Pipers are upper middle class white women whose past relationship with a woman in an international drug ring comes back to haunt them. Both are engaged to a guy named Larry when it does.
Oddly, both Pipers reconnect with their ex-lover behind bars. Kerman roomed with Catherine Cleary Wolters, the former heroin dealer whom she dated at 24. "Actually being able to confront her brought me to the point of recognition that my situation was my own responsibility and my own fault,” Kerman told Terry Gross on Fresh Air of the experience.
That’s where the similarities of the two Pipers end. Unlike Chapman, Kerman does not reignite her relationship with her ex. Her husband, Larry, does not end up with her best friend, Polly. And she definitely doesn’t start an underwear-export business.
“The show is not a biopic,” Kerman stresses to the New York Times. While she and Piper Chapman share demographic backgrounds (and hair color), Kerman is assuredly not Chapman.
Kerman and Chapman’s diverging paths are especially evident in the finale of Orange Is the New Black. After 13 months spent in three different facilities, Kerman was released from an Illinois prison. She was picked up by her husband, Larry, and went on to write a memoir to answer all of the questions her friends were asking about her life in prison – and to address misconceptions.
“People were very curious. I had never written anything before. But all this crazy shit happens in prisons, and nobody knows about it. People think prison is either this rehabilitative place or this super-violent nightmare. They have no idea the largest growing segment of prisoners are women who have committed incredibly low-level, nonviolent crimes for which they are serving long sentences,” Kerman said in SF Gate.
Chapman, on the other hand, struggles to adjust to post-prison life. She’s far away from her wife, alienated by her family, and burdened financially. Judy King (Blair Brown), the celebrity chef who went to Litchfield for insider trading, writes the bestseller. “[Piper's] experience was not the same as mine. My return to the community was easier,” Kerman told The New York Times.
Kerman left prison, but she didn’t leave it behind. She still works as an advocate for women in prison and newly released inmates. She serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association, and works with nonprofits, philanthropies, and organizations involved with women's prisons. She's also testified before the Senate and spoken at the White House on the topic of re-entry — which is what makes Piper Chapman's own struggles with re-entry so resonant.
In 2015, Kerman and Smith relocated to Columbus, Ohio with their son. She teaches writing in two state prisons. Now that's what we call "coming full circle."