Brain Food: Orange Is The New Black, My Year In A Women's Prison

Piper Kerman was fresh out of Smith College when her older girlfriend, Nora, involved her in her lucrative drug business. Nora worked for a West African drug kingpen and she orchestrated the smuggling of drugs into the country.

Piper, young, impressionable and totally unsure of what to do with her life, began following Nora to exotic locales like Bali and living in luxury, while Nora worked. Afraid of the ramifications of her actions, Kerman eventually cut all ties to Nora, met her husband Larry, and started a new life in New York City.

Ten years later, she was charged for her crime and spent 13 months in Danbury, a minimum security prison in Connecticut.

As you might imagine, Kerman was terrified of being locked up and of her fellow prisoners but despite the hardships of her stay (barely edible food, having to clean your cube with maxi pads, lack of rehabilitation opportunities of any kind, having to fly Con Air to testify against another man implicated in her drug ring) she eventually found value in the experience through her interactions with her fellow prisoners.

One of the best parts about this book is the cast of vibrant characters - Sister (a nun in for illegal activism work), Yoga Janet who serenely leads yoga sessions most days, Kerman's bunkie Natalie (who diligently works in the kitchen and never speaks of her life outside prison), Little Janet (a 20-year-old girl who had been arrested in the Caribbean as a drug mule) and of course, Pop.

Pop is a Russian immigrant who had married a gangster and spent most of her life before prison on the lam. Despite her former lax morality, Pop becomes one of Kerman's best friends and shows her how to live in prison sanely and with dignity:
She has lost everything, yet managed to take a dozen years in prison and hold it all together and make the best of it. Pop was cunning and exuberant. She as kind, but she could be ruthless. She knew how to work the system and also how not to let them break you. And they were always trying.
Prison taught Kerman that thriving (not just surviving) is an art. Whatever the crimes of her fellow prisoners, Kerman (and I too) was much taken with their acute instinct for survival and yet the often boundless generosity they showed to each other. Kerman's interaction with Carlotta is a very funny example of this (and also a great example of Kerman's dry wit). Carlotta proclaims she's getting married when she's out "so bitches can hate!":
I studied Carlotta, her pretty face bright and animated as she envisioned her future - one that included her man, some bitches, and a ring around her finger. I was fairly certain that she would get what she wanted. Among all the women at the Camp, she was one who could always figure out an angle...She was a smart cookie, with an unsentimental eye on the word. Rick, I concluded, was a lucky guy.
Carlotta may want bitches to hate, but ultimately what I noticed about the women at Danbury was their strong sense of sisterhood. And this is one of the great secrets of thriving, in Danbury or the world - you won't get there without the right people in your life.

Kerman was taught that stoicism is the best reaction to a difficult situation but prison showed her that what's really important is finding your tribe, being good to those people, finding whatever faith you can that helps you get by, and sticking by your own worth.
In prison, for the first time, I understood that faith could help people see beyond themselves, not into the abyss but into the street, into the mix, to offer what was bset about themselves to others...Rose, chatting in the midst of a pedicure one day, told me what she had learned from her faith; I thought later that hers were the most powerful words a person could utter: "I've got a lot to give."
And:
If there was one thing that I had learned in the Camp, it was that I was in fact good...I was eager to offer what I had, which was more than I had realized. Judging others held little appeal to me now, and when I did it, I regretted it. Best of all, I had found other women here in prison who could teach me how to be better. I t seemed to me that my total demonstrated failure at being a good girl was more than matched by the urgency of being a good person."
This book is so much more than a lurid prison memoir - it's a survival handbook and also an eye-opening (and empowering) account of women we might otherwise see as marginalized. I was very much moved by this book. It's safe to say it's the best I've read all year. I know I've glossed over the utter inefficiency of the prison system and its inability to prepare women for life beyond bars, but please check out the reviews below for further information. And please give this wonderful book a try.

Amy Reads
The Book Lady's Blog
Slate

Orange Is the New Black/ Piper Kerman /Spiegel and Grau / HC, 2010

4 comments:

Amy said...

Great review, I'm glad you found so much to like in this book! And thank you so much for the link to my review.

B.Kienapple said...

No probs Amy. I agree with you that it was very odd to hear how little rehabilitation went on in Danbury, even more so to hear that the prisoners were left almost completely alone by staff, except to be punished. When Kerman said that staff didn't seem to care how the prisoners' time was spent, even if there was a decade or more of it, and the futility she felt, that really stuck with me.

Ceri said...

Wow, this sounds incredible. B, I'm pretty sure you're responsible for my ever-expanding wishlist. It never ends. You read the coolest sounding books!

B.Kienapple said...

So do you Ceri! I humbly admit I haven't been reading your blog lately and need to dive back in - but in my defense I've been on a computer vacation of late. Thanks for the comments! I love 'em.

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