Orange is the New Black Critique – Memoir and Netflix Series
Orange is the New Black is the memoir of Piper Kerman, a woman who, at 34, is jailed for a crime she committed ten years earlier. At that time, Piper was in a relationship with Nora, an older woman and drug dealer for an international cartel. Aware of this information, Piper nevertheless agrees to transport money for her girlfriend. When the story takes place, though Piper has a new life, a legitimate job and a fiancée, she must surrender herself to the department of corrections to carry out her sentence.
I found Orange is the New Black, the memoir a day or so after binge-watching Orange is the New Black the Netflix series. Though memoirs aren’t my reading thing, the online reviews were good and the preview was interesting and easy to read, and so I bought it. The memoir turned out to be a quick read, taking me less than a week to complete. Piper’s narrative voice keeps the story moving and the reader turning pages. While I don’t regret reading it, I do regret not reading it before seeing the series.
Memoirs sell for a reason – they help people experience aspects of life they wouldn’t ordinarily get to experience, sleeping with the rich and famous, for example, or living through a long past moment in history. They detail lives out of the ordinary, and are usually didactic or uplifting in nature. Piper’s story is both. Throughout the story, she gets on her soapbox to tell the reader sad statistics about the number of women who are denied some sort of treatment for ailments while incarcerated, or the proportion of those requesting early release or furlough compared to those who actually get it. Her story is uplifting because she learns to accept the responsibility in her situation and makes peace with Nora and gets out and lives her life, able to put her experience behind her. In the memoir, Piper elevates herself above the rest of the prison population in her narrative, but she is easily able to make friends and fit in, unlike the Piper of the series.
It took me one and a half episodes of Orange is the New Black to decide I wanted to see more. Part of the allure of the series is the way Piper is played as a fish-out-of-water. She wants to fit in, she desperately tries to fit in, but nearly always fails. Though she enters the system thinking she’s different from the other women there, she soon learns she is exactly the same, a point driven home by the last scene of episode 12 of the season. The series is equally horrifying and funny, albeit ironically so. Though Piper tries to mind her own business and quietly serve her sentence, she is dealt random acts of craziness in each episode that she’s forced to deal with, experiencing varying degrees of success. To add to the stress on the inside, she quickly becomes at odds with Larry, her fiancée, on the outside, which impacts the way she reacts to the randomness of events she experiences on a daily basis.
Her rekindling of the relationship she has with Nora on the inside is exaggerated in the series, and characters from the memoir are either similarly exaggerated or made composite for the series (Crazy Eyes, for example, is a composite of 2 or 3 characters alluded to in the memoir). The one thing that attracted me to the series is conspicuously absent from the memoir and that is the way the series gives the backstories of the other prisoners. I found I liked the inmates better when I understood their motivations inside and how, like Piper, they too are fighting to maintain a semblance of normalcy in their lives.
I understand that, while based on a memoir, much of the series is fiction and fictional characters are constructs (see my earlier post) and so the parts that I liked so much are made up to serve that exact purpose. Disregarding the fact that I don’t usually read memoirs, I much preferred the series to the memoir. While the memoir is a good, fast, interesting read, the series fills in the blanks of the story, blanks that, admittedly, Kerman could not know for fact.
Read the memoir first, then go to Netflix to see the fictionalized version. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by both.
About the Author
Elise Abram, English teacher and former archaeologist, has been writing for as long as she can remember, but it wasn’t until she was asked to teach Writer’s Craft in 2001 that she began to write seriously. Her first novel, THE GUARDIAN was partially published as a Twitter novel a few summers back (and may be accessed at @RKLOGYprof). Nearly ten years after its inception Abram decided it was time to stop shopping around with traditional publication houses and publish PHASE SHIFT on her own.
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