Orange Is the New Black: How the Book Adds to the Show

Piper Kerman’s prison memoir adds a great deal to an appreciation of Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black. Here’s how…

Warning: contains spoilers for Orange Is The New Black seasons 1-3.

Orange Is the New Black season 3 dropped on Netflix last month, and after mainlining it over a single weekend, I later felt the need for more OINTB in my life. Reading Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Time in a Women’s Prison was one solution. The book the show is based on turns out to shed a light on some of its odder elements, and provides a couple of potential routes for season 4.

Taking it character by character, here’s what Kerman’s memoir adds to the show-watching experience…

Piper and Larry

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Piper Chapman is based on Piper Kerman, loosely in some aspects and closely in others. The real Piper served time in FCI Danbury (just over the border in Connecticut rather than the New York of the show’s Litchfield). Piper Kerman was named as a co-conspirator in a drug ring and served 13 months of a 15-month sentence from February 2004 to March 2005.

I’m not alone in finding Piper Chapman somewhat annoying. Given that she’s based on a real person who is lurking around in the credits, I figured this was an awkward, unfixable, holdover. But it turns out that the changes made to Piper for the show are largely responsible for her ability to vex.Kerman’s career – a jobbing editor and producer – is swapped out for a boutique soup company in the show. Kerman comes across as much more aware of her privilege in the memoir, and her situation is a fair bit shittier. Kerman had the additional indignity of half a decade between her trial in 1998 and her sentencing in 2003, years where she was being strung along and unable to make life plans.

Kerman’s husband, Larry Smith (see, there’s a difference right there, they never broke up), is an accomplished writer and editor, and has presumably never written a whiny piece about nearly wanking. Bloom is surprised to find out that Chapman used to date women. Smith knew Kerman when she identified as a lesbian. Both have had edges removed, to turn them into, if not exactly a normal everyday rich suburban TV couple, then certainly less sympathetic, more grating characters.

Red and Morello

In the book, we have a middle-aged Russian woman nicknamed Pop, who is head of the kitchen and dresses and acts somewhat distinctly. The core of the show character is there, but things are exaggerated for drama – Pop aspires to work in food service when she gets out rather than being a former cafe-runner, and although she is not happy when Piper insults the food, she never tries to starve her out. Later she’ll develop an almost-maternal relationship with Piper.The first prisoner that Piper meets is Minetta, a driver, who “wore make-up and little gold hoops in her ears, and she looked like she could be a nice Italian-American lady called Ro from New Jersey.” So, Morello. Except, she then vanishes.

A few pages later, we get Rosemarie, an eBay fraudster from near Boston, who is obsessed with weddings in general and her own in particular. A composite figure, or a mashup of Morello.In both cases something real has been used as a basis to extrapolate: There’s no sign that Rosemarie’s engagement is anything other than genuine – her fiancé visits her every week – and Pop doesn’t have a smuggling ring, or at least not one that’s mentioned. Smuggling, in the book, is generally done in small quantities and at more risk, by visitors carrying contraband either on or in their person. If Pop or Minetta or Rosemarie saw the show they’d recognise, immediately, that that was them.  And then they’d see the bits that had been added or merged. No wonder they’re keeping quiet, whoever they are.

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Healy and Caputo and Fig

Healy, Caputo and Fig appear only briefly in the book: as Mr. Butorsky, Mr. Toricella, and Warden Deboo, in scenes that are used as their introduction in the show (“you don’t have to have lesbian sex,” “it helps if you cry,” and “zero tolerance”). They remain background presences – Butorsky retires halfway through the book.  

Because she was the warden of a major federal correctional facility, Warden DeBoo would have been pretty much undisguisable, so her real name was used in the book. She, too, leaves during Piper’s sentence (to serve as Warden of Herlong, being a prison service lifer rather than the politico that the show presents Fig as).

Pornstache and Bennett and Daya

Surely Pornstache had to be made up, right? Sort of. There’s a warden in the book called “Gay Pornstar,” with a “bristling black crew cut and a scrub-brush mustache.” And he’s an asshole. He’s another member of staff that Piper outstays – this turnover of staff is a theme that the show mostly ignores in season 1 and 2 before going full-whack with the privatization in season 3.

Pornstache is replaced with a new correctional officer, “Mr. Maple,” who is an Afghanistan veteran, and not a terrible sadist. But Mr. Maple, although being the inmates’ favourite, doesn’t have a Daya-style plotline happen to him. The closest thing to this is Officer Scott, and the “thing” that he has with an inmate called Cormorant – they were spotted together a little too often, and Cormorant’s bunk-mate says love notes were involved. After Cormorant is placed in SHU, Scott quits the department outright. Reading the details of this – and particularly Pop’s anecdote about another, much worse, incident, makes me aghast at the show’s romanticisation of Daya/Bennett. Bennett’s not really any better than Pornstache: he just has a nicer smile.

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Yoga Jones and Sister Ingalls

Yoga Jones is called “Yoga Janet” in the book, to distinguish her from another Janet, which leaves a kind of nickname remnant in the show. She’s a close friend of Piper’s in prison, and they’re always hanging out together, but in the show Piper needs to have plots happening, and several episodes of Piper doing yoga peacefully probably wouldn’t have the marathoning potential of the series as it stands.

Sister Jane Ingalls is called Sister Ardeth Platte in the book, one of only a couple of prisoners not to be given a pseudonym.  She, with, two other nuns, broke into a missile silo in the Midwest in 2002, and poured blood everywhere to protest war, which makes her admirably hard core. She was released in December 2005, a few months before Piper.

Crazy Eyes and Claudette 

In her memoir, Piper complains about the lack of action at the camp. Or rather, notes specifically that she certainly never saw anything like that. Lots of situational homosexuality gets channelled into crushes rather than rutting. But one character does hit on Piper: Crazy Eyes. She’s the character who changed the most between the book and Netflix show: the book version is a Latina named Morena, who makes her passes in a rather more calculated way than the show’s brakeless Suzanne.

Crazy Eyes doesn’t piss on the floor in the book, but her courtship does annoy Miss Natalie (Miss Claudette’s equivalent), Piper’s roomie, enough to motivate a comment. Miss Natalie’s crime, like Claudette’s, is a mystery: she was in for eight years (but in reality, it’s probably less ‘thriller’ than stabbing an abusive customer of her human-trafficking ring). Piper helps her out not by reviewing her appeal letter (her sentence is nearly finished anyway), but by coaching her for her GED (a high school diploma equivalent), which will boost the amount she earns for prison work. Prison education is something the show removes, replacing it with a mostly unsupervised library that gets used as a hangout space rather than a plot motor. With the prison merger, we might get to see more work departments and possibly a semi-functioning education system transferred over.

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Taystee and Pennsatucky

Pennsatucky is a mother in the book. She’s a bit of a hick, with a similar uber-defensive personality to her show counterpart, but otherwise she’s had a fact-transplant. She’s not the only character to have had children removed in the adaption. 80% of women prisoners have children, the book points out; that’s certainly not true of the characters we know from the show. But some of this is the show removing redundancy: parenthood is shown in many diverse forms, more so than in the book. We have TV-Pennsatucky mourning her abortions in the first episode of season 3; we have Red and her relationship with adult children, we have Daya’s pregnancy (and her relationship with her own mother Aleida – another exaggeration, of a near-miss that Piper heard about); we have Ruiz giving birth in prison and then having contact broken in season 3; we have Taystee’s relationship with Vee. This is one theme that’s really not lacking.

Mother’s Day in the book was only three months into Piper’s sentence. The TV timeline is tricky to work out, but by Piper’s first Christmas it’s already episode 13, and Daya, who was part of the same branch of prisoners, has had a pregnancy of typical length. Basically: Piper’s ought to be getting out soon. But hopefully not before October, because there’s an entire Halloween episode described in the book that needs to happen.“Delicious [Taystee] was dressed as a pimp, clad in an all-white outfit she had put together somehow using her kitchen uniform and inside-out sweatpants. She had a ‘cigar’ and a cluster of hoes around her. This included a bunch of the Eminemlettes [Pennsatucky’s crowd] but also Fran, the motor-mouthed Italian grandma, at seventy-eight the oldest woman in the Camp.”We need to see this.

Sophia Burset

Sophia Bursett is based on the book character Vanessa Robinson, a trans woman who Kerman describes as a very glam figure. By Piper’s account, Vanessa has Sophia’s confidence and pride in her body (think of their meet-not-so-cute in the toilet) and she, although not staffing the salon, is certainly admired by many women in the prison for her sense of style. But this is shown with problematic language in the memoir. Actually, no mincing: it’s horrifying, Kerman drops in offensive words, albeit in scare quotes, and goes out of her way to emphasise Vanessa’s physical differences. But despite the massive flaws in this depiction, there’s a sense of authenticity to Vanessa that Sophia lacks.

The problem I had with Sophia is that the flashbacks to her secretly cross-dressing under her firefighter clothes never really rang true, as there was no through line from that (and Sophia’s wife giving her fashion tips) to the diva she is in prison. It wasn’t until I read the book that it clicked. The real Vanessa was involved in the queer scene for much of her life: she openly planned to wear a dress to prom, for heaven’s sake.Sophia is also a composite, of Vanessa, with a stock trans backstory – you know, the one where someone suppresses themselves enough to try and live a “normal” life, perhaps with a manly job or a wife and child. And it doesn’t make much sense for where she ended up.   I’m sure it’s possible to go from where Sophia was to where she is, it’s just, the show doesn’t seem to realise how unusual and interesting that must be. Perhaps it’s time for another set of Sophia flashbacks in season 4.

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Alex Vause’s analogue in the book is called Nora (itself a pseudonym – although the real person’s name is out there). She is serving her time not at Danbury/Litchfield, but Dublin, a federal prison on the East Bay in California.  Piper and Nora do meet, at the segment adapted into the first few episodes of season 2, when they are transported to Chicago to testify in Kubra’s trial (the stakes are upped by changing this from a lieutenant to the man himself).

In interviews Piper and Nora are both very clear on the point that they did not have sex in prison. Originally Piper won’t speak to Nora, who did snitch her out, but they eventually reconcile. Subsequently, a small argument has been conducted in the media about this: Nora defends herself by pointing out they both took pleas, so everyone snitched on everyone else, but Piper quite sensibly, if slightly bitterly, points out that Nora named her first.After the trial, Nora is then shipped back to Dublin, and Piper is released to the wild without going back to Danbury/Litchfield, in a dramatically unsatisfying way.

A frequent probation condition is not being able to make contact with your prison buddies, so it was probably emotionally unsatisfying, too, although Kerman doesn’t really go into it that deeply.The Piper/Alex material, especially in the first couple of seasons, is very isolated from the rest of the show, which is an ensemble centring around Piper – Alex rarely has scenes with anyone else, and this probably shows why – it’s a structural holdover from the source material.

Martha Stewart

The appearance of obvious Martha Stewart expy Judy King in the TV show seemed like the greatest white shark jump of them all. But the dates check out: Stewart was sentenced while Piper was in prison and there was some possibility that she would end up at Danbury. She wasn’t, apparently not because Danbury was claiming to be full (as the book says), but because Danbury (her first choice) is just too easily accessible to the press (that’s fair, it’s only a short drive from New York City.) She ended up at Alderson in West Virginia, instead.

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Judy King self-surrenders at Litchfield in the last episode. It’s taken that set-up and made a near-miss a hit, again. They could do anything with her. She could be Piper’s replacement when Piper leaves. She could be a villain. She could speak out against the new and overcrowded conditions.Orange Is the New Black became a hit memoir for a reason: it sketches prison life with vividity. Orange Is the New Black the series also became a hit for a reason: it turned those sketches into a great ensemble comedy with a healthy dose of satire. Bring on season 4.Read more about Orange Is the New Black on Den Of Geek, here.