’Orange is the New Black’ Author Appears at Litquake
Piper Kerman’s brush with the law and her candor about the price she paid for her youthful transgressions launched a successful literary debut that has brought her unexpected fame. But then again, nothing about the author’s adult life has gone quite as planned.
Shortly after graduating from Smith College, Kerman, who comes from a WASP East Coast family, fell for and in league with a glamorous woman who was a heroin dealer for a West African drug lord. After ending that relationship, she fled to San Francisco, where she met and married journalist Larry Smith, and lived for several years before moving to New York. Then her criminal past caught up with her.
Kerman’s memoir, "Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison," tells the story of her 13-month incarceration in a minimum security federal prison in Connecticut for the drug trafficking and money laundering offences she had committed a decade earlier. (Her high-rolling ex-lover turned her in.) The book, adapted for an engrossing series of the same name that aired on Netflix last summer, has already been renewed for a second season. Kerman, who’s now in her early 40s, is a vice president at a communications firm working with nonprofits, and serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association. Still, if there’s one concept that courses through Kerman’s conversation, it’s the notion of "consequences," something she learned about the hard way.
Sura Wood: How do you feel about the loss of privacy that has resulted from the publication of your memoir and the subsequent TV series?
Piper Kerman: Of course, writing a memoir requires an enormous amount of self-revelation. And to write a memoir that’s not about your biggest accomplishment, but your biggest mistake and moral lapse and the consequences, was definitely a little scary. But my feeling is that our prison and criminal justice systems are the place where many people are living out their struggles, and those folks are not necessarily who we imagine them to be. The women who I was incarcerated with do not fit the stereotypes of dangerous, hardened, career criminals. I believe that my personal story offers a more nuanced and multi-faceted idea about who is locked up in the biggest prison system in the world. So for that reason, I was motivated to push myself on the self-revelation front.
Has there been a downside to the recognition?
I committed the crime that landed me in prison 20 years ago, and I was released nine years ago. So, for me, the ground that’s covered in the book is old history. I don’t feel that opening up about that period of my life has had anything but great results.
Did you encounter homophobia in prison?
Homophobia in prison is present from day one, when you are repeatedly admonished, "Don’t be gay for the stay!" by correctional officers. Because sexual contact is strictly forbidden in prison, homosexuality and homophobia are heightened -- both more normative and more sanctioned. Gay sex is very top-of-mind for a lot of people in prison, whether they are having it or not.
What were the upsides and downsides of having sexual relationships during incarceration?
Human beings are fundamentally sexual and crave companionship, comfort and human contact. A relationship behind bars may provide all of these things, but it can also land you in solitary confinement. There may be possibilities for lesbian sex or relationships that some women would not typically encounter in their day-to-day lives on the outside. I was completely celibate during my 13 months in prison. Not easy!
Were you subjected to sexual abuse by guards?
Like almost all the women in the prison, I experienced groping during pat-downs, verbal abuse from my work supervisor, and so on. Fortunately, I didn’t experience what I’d describe as an assault. If you haven’t been incarcerated, it’s hard to fully imagine the complete loss of control and autonomy and freedom. It has certainly haunted me.