Apr 13, 2010

"Orange is the New Black"

A new memoir,"Orange is the New Black," by Piper Kerman, a Smith graduate, and self described "nice blonde lady," is receiving quite a lot of media buzz. Ms. Piper spent thirteen months in a minimum security federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut on conspiracy charges of drug trafficking and money laundering. The publication of her story is being met with mixed reviews.

One scathing review, written in Slate Magazine by Jessica Grose warns,"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 [and] alcoholics...The tales of these well-educated women follow essentially the same narrative arc: Girl is bored, girl seeks titilating transgression, girl regrets, girl renounces prior misdeeds, girl lives happily ever after. The girl never serves out a life sentence...You get the sense that if Kerman weren't forced to go to jail, she sould have seen those heroin running years as a great cocktail party story."

Some of Ms. Grose's criticism, that the book belittles the experience of most women in prison, is highlighted in Ms. Kerman's interview on NPR. Instead of using the interview to draw attention to the reality of prison life, the interviewer asks Ms. Kerman about the female inmates' focus on food and her mastery of the "prison cheesecake" recipe, which is included below the interview on NPR's site. (For a more thoughful -if you ignore the title-interview with Ms. Piper, which addresses the racial inequities of the justice system and considers how Ms. Kerman's privilege impacted her representation and experience, click here.)

A more positive review of the book was published on AlterNet, calling the book a "serious, poignant narrative about the failings of the U.S. prison system and its effects on the people who are are housed in it..." This description of the narrative seems to be in line with Ms. Kerman's proferred intent in writing the book, "It wasn't even so much my own story," she said in New York Magazine, but the people I met along the way who would probably never have this opportunity [to write a book.]. Kerman said her "main worry is that the oddity of her situation will overrun the message that "the prison system is just so much about wasted time and wasted opportunities."

Kerman says that she hopes this book "will attract readers who have never given serious thought to the prison system in this country." Ms. Piper now sits on the board of the Women's Prison Association, a service and advocacy organization committed to helping women with criminal justice histories realize new possibilities for themselves and their families.