’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.
Are you still in touch with women you met in prison?
Yes, I treasure those friendships.
Is it true that your former lover, the woman who got you involved in the crime that landed you in prison, was incarcerated with you?
Yes, but not the way it's depicted in the show. The trajectory of that relationship is different in the book. We were in the same facility for a period towards the end of my time. In fact, we shared the same cell. I was grateful [for it] because that strange twist in the universe made it possible for me to have a very important confrontation with my past, and take responsibility for my actions.
Have you seen her since your release?
No, I have not.
You had lesbian relationships before you went to prison. Did that make life easier for you there?
When I was at Smith College, I was very active in what was then called the Lesbian Bisexual Alliance. Living within that tight women's community at an elite college prepared me, perhaps shockingly, for living in a very different women's community, albeit an involuntary one, which is what you find behind the walls of a women's prison. I think the show implies that Piper had never had a female lover before, and that was not the case for me. It was not an aspect of life in prison that I found the least bit startling.
In the show, one of the raps on Piper is that, for her, having a lesbian relationship was just a girl's big adventure before settling down to a conventional life. Was this true for you?
No, I was a real live lesbian until I met Larry Smith and ended up marrying him, which was pretty much the last thing I expected. I considered myself to be a lesbian before I met him.
Do you ever feel like you're denying part of yourself?
I've been in a monogamous relationship with my husband for a long time now, but I agree with the idea that sexuality is a continuum. We have different parts of ourselves, but when you decide to be in a particular type of relationship, that's a definitive choice, and like all choices, you have to live with the consequences. When you're younger, you think you don't have to give up certain things, but you do.
Kerman will be in town this Saturday for the Litquake literary festival, participating in Loose Lips Sink Ships, an event where writers recite a six-word memoir, and have six minutes to explain its origins. It's part of Words on the Waves, a popular festival program that takes place on private houseboats in Sausalito. For more info, schedule and tix: www.litquake.org