This was a good, fast read. I became immediately smitten with author Piper Kerman’s perspective as a young woman fresh out of college chasing adventure, only to suffer her mistakes ten years after the fact in federal prison.
I have seen the ads for the Netflix series and thought it looked interesting, but it was an excerpt from the book featured in an online pubication that really piqued my interest. The excerpt was very funny. I find it interesting what we take away from a piece of art, because the excerpt that stayed with me was not funny.
“As a child, a teen, a young adult, I developed a firm belief in my solitude, the not-novel concept that we are each alone in the world. Some parts self-reliance, some parts self-protection, this belief offers a binary perspective–powerhouse or victim, complete responsibility or total divorcement, all in or out the door. Carried to its extreme, the idea gives license to the belief that one’s own actions do not matter much; we traverse the world in our own bubbles, occasionally breaking through to one another, but largely and ultimately alone.
I would to have been ready-made for prison time then, as a familiar jailhouse trope says “you come in alone, you walk out alone,” and common counsel is to keep to oneself and mind your own business. But that’s not what I learned in prison. That’s not how I survived prison. What I discovered is that I am emphatically not alone. The people on the outside who wrote and visited every week and traveled long distances to come and tell me that I wasn’t forgotten, that I wasn’t alone, had a tremendous impact on my life.
However, most of all, I realized that I was not alone in the world because of the women I lived with for over a year, who gave me a dawning recognition of what I shared with them. We share overcrowded Dorms and lack of privacy. We shared eight numbers instead of names, prison khakis, cheap food and hygiene items. Most important, we shared a deep reserve of humor, creativity in adverse circumstances, and the will to protect and maintain our own humanity despite the prison system’s imperative to crush it. I don’t think any of us could have managed those survival techniques alone; I know I couldn’t–we needed each other.
Small kindnesses and pleasures shared were so important, whether given or received, regardless of what quarter they came from, that they brought home to me powerfully that I was not alone in this world, in this life. I shared the most basic operating system with people who ostensibly had little in common with me. I could connect–perhaps with anyone.
Now here, in my third prison, I perceived an odd truth that held for each: no one ran them. Of course, somewhere in those buildings, some person with a nameplate on their desk or door was called the warden and nominally ran the place, and below them in the food chain there were captains and lieutenants. But for all practical purposes, for the prisoners, the people who lived in those prisons day in and day out, the captain’s chair was vacant, and the wheel was spinning while the sails flapped. The institutions putzed along with the absolute minimum of staff presence, and the staff that were there interacting in any affirmative way with the people who filled those prisons. The leadership vacuum was total. No one who worked in “corrections” appeared to give any thought to the purpose of our being there, any more than a warehouse clerk would consider the meaning of a can of tomatoes, or try to help those tomatoes understand what the hell hey were doing on the shelf.
Great institutions have leaders who are proud of what they do, and who engage with everyone who makes up those institutions, so each person understands their role. But our jailers are generally granted near-total anonymity, like the cartoon executioner who wears a hood to conceal his identity. What is the point, what is the reason, to lock people away for years, when it seems to mean so very little, even to the jailers who hold the key? How can a prisoner understand their punishment to have been worthwhile to anyone, when it’s dealt in a way so offhand and indifferent?”
I don’t know what they’ll transform into the amusing anecdotes of the show’s film translation, but I found the read to be as complex and serious as Janet Fitch’s White Oleander minus Fitch’s sweeping poetic overtures. It’s thoughtful and deeply kind.
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