What’s a Nice Blonde Like Me Doing in Prison?

A review of Piper Kerman’s Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.

In her new memoir, Piper Kerman describes herself as a “nice blond lady.” She is a Smith graduate from a loving New England family. She is also an ex-con. She served 13 months in 2004 and 2005, mostly in a minimum-security federal prison in Danbury, Conn. Kerman is the last person you would expect to go to jail—we know this because she tells us repeatedly in Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. Her friends laugh because they don’t believe her when she says she’s about to go on trial for conspiracy charges stemming from drug trafficking and money laundering crimes she committed in her early 20s. When she finally lands in the clink, she observes her fellow prisoners with an anthropological distance because with her endless visitors, her loads of books, and her fancy education, she is a class apart.

The book jacket says that Kerman tells the story of “a place with its own codes of behavior and arbitrary hierarchies, where a practical joke is as common as an unprovoked fight.” But if you pick up Kerman’s book looking for a realistic peek inside an American prison, you will be disappointed. Orange Is the New Black belongs in a different category, the middle-class-transgression genre. This genre also includes books from “good girls” who become strippers, alcoholics, and dominatrixes. The tales of these well-educated women follow essentially the same narrative arc: Girl is bored, girl seeks titillating transgression, girl regrets, girl renounces prior misdeeds, girl lives happily ever after. The girl never serves out a life sentence carving deadly points on toothbrushes or ends up a strung-out old lady on a street corner.

Though by the tenets of the transgression memoir she must repent, in Kerman’s case, the girl does not dig deep enough to come up with any genuine regret. She writes, “[T]he women I met in Danbury helped me confront the things I had done wrong, as well as the wrong things that I had done.” This chest-beating rings false to the reader, because it’s clear that Kerman believes drug trafficking was merely a version of youthful rebellion, and her only true crime is pushing people away—what she refers to as her “I-am-an-island-fortress method of dealing” with problems. The suspicion that she doesn’t think her crime was so terrible is compounded by the cheeky “Free Piper” T-shirts sold on the Web site devoted to Kerman’s plight. Instead, what Kerman seems to be after is a tidy narrative, not too messy or gritty for daytime talk shows but just difficult enough to be inspiring–prison lite?

Kerman’s book starts out with her as a punchy postgrad with “a thirst for bohemian counterculture” stuck waitressing in her college town of Northampton, Mass. * She becomes enthralled with an older, raspy-voiced lesbian named Nora, and through her romance with Nora, she falls into an international drug-running ring helmed by a West African. She talks about lounging at Bali beach clubs, free spa treatments in many different countries, and skinny dipping in waterfalls. It all sounds like a pretty good time.

She moves on seamlessly to a straight life in San Francisco (straight in both senses of the word—she starts dating her future husband and quits the drug-trafficking business). The couple moves to New York. Everything is blissful until she is nabbed by federal agents for her earlier crimes. You get the sense that if Kerman weren’t forced to go to jail, she would have seen those heroin-running years as a great cocktail party story—at least that’s what her husband makes it seem like in his first of two New York Times “Modern Love” columns about the couple’s relationship. “Her life story has a real glamour,” he wrote.

Her portrayal of the prisoners perpetuates this notion of glamour. Kerman describes her fellow jail mates as saints who have been wrongly imprisoned because of unfairly stringent drug laws. Here we have Janet, who is “tall, fair and striking,” serving a two-year sentence for a pot charge. She was “a world traveler, a classic eco-peacenik intellectual, a fitness fanatic and yoga expert, and a devout Buddhist possessed of a wry sense of humor.” Kerman describes sweet old Italian mamas, actual nuns, lower-class white young white women Kerman calls “Eminemlettes” after the white rapper, and a smattering of Latina and black women. Kerman even describes one of the feistier prisoners thus: “Pennsatucky, like most of the Eminemlettes, always seemed to be looking for a fight. But she was like a lost girl.” These women throw Kerman a birthday party, give her pedicures, and help her run miles on the outdoor track. The only time Kerman nearly gets into a scrape is because another prisoner chastises her for picking all the spinach out of the salad bar.

She certainly does not encounter any of the problems faced by women profiled by Christina Rathbone in her 2005 book A World Apart: Women, Prison and Life Behind Bars. Take Charlene, the 19-year-old immigrant from St. Croix who was caught smuggling drugs from Jamaica. She was sentenced to 15 years and a day with no possibility for parole. Charlene also had a daughter in the year before she was sentenced who will grow up mostly without a mother. In one memorable exchange, Charlene tells Rathbone about her new roommate, a 300-pound prostitute with hygiene problems who stinks up their shared space.

Smelly hookers are not the stuff of “Modern Love” columns—this discrepancy was pointed out by readers of Kerman’s husband’s second essay in the New York Times, which ran on March 25. “Juxtapose [Ms. Kerman’s experience] against the majority of women serving sentences in prisons who are disproportionately African-American, Latina and noncitizens,” writes Brenda V. Smith, the director of the Program on Gender, Crime, Sex and Community at the American University Washington College of Law. “Their imprisonment is often framed as a casualty in the war on drugs, while Ms. Kerman’s involvement in an international drug ring was a brief period of recklessness.” Smith notes that Kerman gets a book deal “while the majority of women are ‘booked’ and forgotten.”

It is possible, of course, to write the middle-class-transgression memoir with somewhat more grit and honesty. Melissa Febos does not whitewash anything in Whip Smart. It’s not just that she writes about, say, giving a paying customer an enema in the dungeon where she works, spitting and slapping his face while he releases his bowels. It’s also that Febos also has the insight into her own behavior that Kerman lacks. Febos even admits that she misses the S&M world after she leaves it, misses feeling like “you own the world” while beating someone into submission. (Though she sure doesn’t miss the enemas.) Sure, she ends up with a mom-approved MFA and a steady relationship with a nice guy, but a girl like her was never going to be a dom for life.

A bit of this moral ambiguity would have helped Kerman’s memoir a whole lot. In the final few chapters, she has a great opportunity to explore potential feelings of conflict as she finds herself stuck in a less-cushy prison with her ex-girlfriend Nora while she is awaiting trial. Kerman suspects that Nora ratted on her—and that’s why she’s been locked up. These chapters are rushed, though. There is a glimpse of realness when Kerman admits that she “had overwhelming flashes of hostility” toward Nora, but ultimately she concludes: “Regardless of whether she was honest with me, I wanted to forgive her. … If I could forgive, it meant I was a strong, good person. … And it gave me the simple but powerful satisfaction of extending a kindness to another person in a tough spot.”

It’s a shame that she sticks with these upbeat banalities about how very much she learned from her experience. These platitudes might make the book more palatable to national magazines, but at the cost of any real revelations. Become a fan of DoubleX on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Correction, April 8, 2010: This article originally misspelled Northampton as North Hampton. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)