Of my friends who like Orange is the New Black (and really, you might not be my friend anymore if you don’t like the show), there seems to be one consensus: none of us really like Piper Chapman. Minor problem considering she is, after all, the character at the center of the Netflix dramedy that takes us inside a minimum security federal women’s prison. Not only does Chapman seem very self-involved, her story-line simply doesn’t take hold of one or stir empathy or make one curse the gods the way those of her fellow inmates do. But then I met the real Piper Chapman, err, Piper Kerman, the woman who wrote the memoir on which the show is based. Okay, well I didn’t really “meet” her as much as she was a guest on Forum and I was able to listen to her answer questions and tell her real story for an hour and wow, she impresses. So as a way to absolve my judgmental-ness towards Piper Chapman, here are reasons to like the real Piper, Piper Kerman.
1. She Knows It’s Not About Her:
“My belief, when I started to write the book, which I did after I came home from prison was that by telling my own story, I would possibly be able to get folks to come and read a prison book who might otherwise not pick one up. And if they did that, they would meet, in the course of reading that book, an amazing, fascinating group of woman,” said Kerman.
“What is wonderful to me about the creative choices that [show creator Jenji Kohan] made during the show is that she took that even further. She didn’t choose to focus on a single protagonist but rather she recognized that every single person in a prison or jail is the protagonist of their own story, even though from the outside we don’t always think of people who have been locked up in that way.”
2. She Gets that “Entertainment Reality” Really Isn’t
During the interview, Kerman made it clear that she supported Kohan using her as a “Trojan horse” and the “glam factor” to get a network to sign onto Orange is the New Black. Kerman went on to say, “That may be a sad comment about the entertainment industry and what it takes to get a really interesting show made. I am really proud of what she’s done with the show. I think she’s done a really great job within the parameters of our entertainment reality. I do think media justice is really important. I think the question of who gets to make media and who gets to decide what stories are told is incredibly, incredibly important. I don’t discount that at all.”
3. She Owns Her Sh*%
Kerman described seeing her former lover in prison (yes, it’s true!) as a “very, very intense kind of confrontation but that one I am grateful for because it actually allowed me to get to a place where I relinquished all blame that I might have assigned to her. I took full responsibility for myself.” But perhaps even more revealing that Kerman very much lives with her choices as her own was her answer when asked — if given the success of her book and her work with prison advocacy, would she deliver drug money and experience her time in prison again?
“The experience of incarceration is a horrific one,” said Kerman. “And regardless of whatever penalty I have paid on a personal level, the impact it had on my family and my loved ones is not something I can ever really sleep at night over.”
Kerman went on to connect her actions to the drug addiction of others: “In the course of my incarceration and my friendships with many women whose lives had been ravaged by drug addiction and drug abuse, I recognized my own culpability. Any contribution that I made, that my actions made to other people’s addiction is something I deeply, deeply regret.”
4. She Loves Sophia Burset Just as Much as We Do
Kerman wrote about “Vanessa,” a transgender woman she shared a cell with, in her memoir and is “thrilled” that Kohan included a similar character in the show.
“In Sophia Burset she has just busted open so many fascinating questions about gender and identity and also about the way that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are treated by the correctional system, which is kind of horrifying.”
5. She Sees the Big Picture and Wants to Change It
When asked to compare attending a women’s college (Smith) with serving time in a women’s prison, Kerman responded in part with this:
“I often reflect upon the fact that we build some institutions for certain people and other institutions for others…. that’s a really intentional social choice, to build one type of institution versus another. And as we see state governments and governments in general spend more and more money on prisons and less and less money on schools, the chickens come home to roost.”
Want to hear her whole Forum interview? You should want to. Listen here.