The Real Piper Of “Orange Is The New Black” Tells How Much Of The Show Is Real Life

August 12, 2013  |  

If you know like we know, Orange Is The New Black (OITNB) makes you want to cancel plans, turn off your cell phone, and immerse yourself in the life of Piper Chapman. Chapman, a typical college-educated White woman comes from a good family and has the privilege of starting her business with a Barney’s investment in sight. She also has an amazing boyfriend who completely adores her. Though her world may seem perfect, Chapman has a few dark secrets which landed her in a women’s prison.

A few weeks ago, we talked about how OITNB offers a fresh perspective on how we view women in television. The female characters in Orange Is The New Black feel real and offer in depth insight on the women behind the orange jumpsuits and prison numbers. For those who do not know, OITNB is based on the life of Piper Kerman. In 1993, Kerman, a Smith College graduate, was 24 years old when she traveled to Belgium. Unlike those who go to the country to try out  various types of Belgium waffles, beer and chocolate,  Kerman tried out her hand in the drug smuggling business. Kerman became involved in the business through her ex-girlfriend who was a part of what she described as a: “clique of impossibly stylish and cool lesbians in their mid-30s.”

Although Kerman knew her limit when indulging in shenanigans, her leaving the drug ring did not allow her to be exempt from a year behind bars. February 2004, five years after leaving the drug trade business, Kerman was named for being involved with the drug ring. In an interview with NPR and Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Kerman opened up about the structure of prison society,  prison reform and sharing a cell with her ex-girlfriend. Here are some excerpts:

On how much of the show actually happened

“The Netflix series is an adaptation, and there are tremendous liberties. What that means is that when you watch the show, you will see moments of my life leap off the screen, such as Larry Bloom’s proposal to Piper Chapman, [which] is not so very different from the way my husband, Larry Smith, proposed to me. There are moments in the very first episode, like when Piper Chapman insults Red, who runs the kitchen with an iron fist — that is actually very closely derived from what’s in the book and from my own life. But there are other parts of the show which are tremendous departures and pure fiction.”

On sharing a cell with the former girlfriend she had committed her crimes with

“Truth is much stranger than fiction when it comes to the criminal justice system.

“Actually being able to confront her brought me to the point of recognition that my situation was my own responsibility and my own fault. She offered me an ‘opportunity,’ but I chose to take it. She didn’t hold a gun to my head; she didn’t make me do anything. She asked me and I said yes. I think that if I had not been brought face-to-face with her I would never have gotten quite to the point of taking full responsibility for my actions.”

On how she dealt with her time in prison

“I put that entire experience — that crazy, crazy year of my life — kind of into a very tightly locked box and hid it away. And I did think about it, but I didn’t talk about it, and I tried to push it back into the quickly receding arms of time. But, you know, the consequences come back to us.”On the stretch of time between finding out she could go to prison and actually going there

“The interesting thing about my case, which is so different from the vast majority of folks who are working their way through the criminal justice system, is that I had this close to six-year delay between learning that I would go to prison and actually walking through prison gates. And that was a really difficult, difficult time. But it was a time to really ponder and really think about what I had done and those consequences that I was going to be facing. It was a time to ready myself, in a strange way, and so when I did walk through prison gates in 2004, I was really ready to get it over with.”

On learning the rules of prison

“When you get to prison, if you’ve never been locked up before, there’s this incredibly steep learning curve. First of all, you have to learn and understand all of the rules of the institution, all of the rules that are enforced by all of the guards and all of the wardens. Those include all the daily counts, when every single person within a unit is counted, and there’s a host of rules, both reasonable and unreasonable. And what’s confusing about that is that they’re selectively enforced and frequently broken by the prison staff themselves.

“The other set of rules that you have to learn very, very quickly are the unofficial rules, and those are the rules that the community of women, the society of prisoners, set for themselves. That could be anything from not taking someone’s habitual seat at the movie night — you don’t want to sit in the wrong place because you’ll be pretty quickly corrected on that — to not asking someone directly what their offense is, because that’s considered very, very rude. You have to figure all of those things out. What you really have to figure out is where you fit in in the social ecology of the prison.”


Listen to Piper Kerman’s full interview, here. What do you think about her story?

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