The REAL Piper of Orange is the New Black


Piper Kerman’s real life story of her incarceration at Danbury Women’s Correctional Center led to her documenting her experience in the book Orange Is The New Black. These true accounts of a privileged white woman serving time in a federal facility was too much for Netflix and Jenji Kohan to pass up. On her recent visit to Austin for the Council on At-Risk Youth (CARY) fundraiser, I sat down with the real Piper and discussed her experiences and how well we might really know her true story.

Lynn Yeldell & Piper Kerman

Lynn Yeldell & Piper Kerman

LY: I got to know you, I think like many of our readers, through the Netflix series of the same name and based on your book, Orange Is the New Black. I was just curious, do you think given that as our introduction to you that we have gotten to know you and your real story?

PK: (laughing) Oh No. No, I mean, the character Piper Chapman is that, she’s a character. The show is not a biopic by any stretch of the imagination. It is really brilliant adaptation that Jenji Kohan (producer of the show) has done. And I couldn’t be happier with the show. I think they’ve done a fabulous job but no one should imagine that every single thing they see on the screen is an accurate depiction of my own life. You know, obviously the grounding point for that character, sort of the offense and you know, obviously the demographics are the same and the first name is the same. I gave them permission to use my first name. But literally from the first episode, the show makes some really dramatic departures from the true story that’s told in the book.

LY: So, for our community, I think there are two questions that most of us are curious about. Is what is portrayed a true reflection of your relationships, first, with your girlfriend and then second, with your fiancé?

PK: Mmm. You know it’s not a true. Again, it’s not a biopic so the depiction of the relationship between Piper and Alex on the show is fictional. And anyone who’s read the book knows that in fact my path did cross with my ex-lover and that not only were we held, for a shorter period of time near the end of my incarceration, we were held in the same prison facility and in fact we shared a cell for a period of time and that is true and fascinating and something I’m grateful for on many levels, I talk about that quite a bit in the last chapter of the book, the last couple chapters of the book but we were not reunited in a physical sense. In other words, we did not rekindle our relationship. So that is a really big difference between the relationship between Piper and Alex and between the relationship between Piper and the woman who I call Nora in the book. So, that is a fact. And so of course, that fact, of course relates back to your question about the relationship between Piper and Larry on the show and my relationship with my now-husband, Larry.

Piper and Larry on the day of her release

Piper and Larry on the day of her release

So, you know, I think particularly for, I mean, a point of interest for folks who are a part of the LGBT community is, you know, this sort of “gay for the stay” question. You know, I went to Smith College and where they have “lesbian until graduation.” You know personally, I identified as a lesbian for most of my youth, you know, sort of came out the closet when I was either 18 or 19, how can I not remember that, it was a long time ago (laughs) and you know Larry is the only guy I’ve ever dated and I did ended up marrying him. So, I had relationships with many, many women before I met Nora and after I met Nora. So that is also a significant difference between the character that is portrayed in the show and my own life which is a little more nuanced with fact. But I think the show is great, and I think that relationship is fascinating. It’s sort of fascinating for me to watch because it is so different from my own life. So, just as a viewer (laughs) it’s sort of fascinating to watch unfold. I can tell you that season 2 will have some really fascinating twists and turns

LY: I can’t wait! I thought it was genius too that they leaked it via House of Cards. I think Netflix has a great way of generating the buzz for sure. So, do you retain, and just out of curiosity and being someone who is kind of nuance in relationships growing up as well. I very much understand that. Do you retain any identity with so much going on with marriage equality and so forth? What type of identity or relationship do you feel like you have now with the gay community?

L Style G Style & Piper Kerman

L Style G Style & Piper Kerman

PK: Well, you know, I’m bisexual so, I’m a part of the gay community (laughs).

LY: And it’s interesting to watch people as they go through their past. Some people, you know, almost gather that and build a larger persona and other people kind of flip switches. So, you know it’s your own personal path, but I always find it interesting when people say, “No, I still accept that and identify with that and who it’s made me to be,” or “that was just someone I used to be and I’m no longer that.”

PK: Yes, I hear that. You know, I’ve been married and it’ll be our 8th wedding anniversary this year and we’ll have been together for 18 years and it is a monogamous relationship so, you know, that doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t identify with the gay community and that marriage equality and all the other host of issues in terms of maintaining our access to civil rights and our respect in the community is not very important. You know, I live in New York City which is not necessarily the most important battle ground for equality for LGBTQ folks, but when I see and hear the things that are happening all over the country for folks, especially for folks in places like Alabama and a variety of other places in this country where the things that we sort of take for granted in places like New York and California are not necessarily the norm, in terms of equality, it’s very concerning.

LY: It’s interesting you say Alabama. That’s actually where my family is originally from and I went to the University of Alabama and the Human Rights Campaign has just announced its initiative called Project One America where they’re investing nearly $8.5 million over three years in just three states; Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama.

PK: Well, it’s a good reason. One of my favorite ex-girlfriends is my friend Lara Embry and she is from Birmingham, Alabama and she is very connected still to her community back there and the stories she tells me curls my hair.

LY: Yes, absolutely. So, going back to the Netflix series, the show does show a lot of homophobia. In your experience, when you were there, was that an accurate depiction?

PK: Oh my goodness, literally the second day of my incarceration I was sent off with all of the other new prisoners to do orientation that takes place which is an all day affair and you know, staffer after staffer just would say, “don’t be gay for the stay, don’t be gay for the stay.” So, control of, in this case, women’s sexuality is completely inherent in the experience of incarceration. It’s control of your life in every sense, but there is a relentless focus on sexuality and on control of sexuality, including and not limited to relationships between women. But that just is a big part of that hierarchy which governs the way the correctional institutions are run.

Piper Kerman & her Danbury souveniers

Piper Kerman & her Danbury souveniers

LY: I was hoping some of that was a little more fiction as well, but I was afraid that was going to be the answer.

PK: But of course, I do want to point out there are LGBTQ people who work in corrections as well so that’s sort of a funny, well funny may be the wrong word, but strange thing for them to experience I’m sure if you try to think about what is that experience is like for them because corrections and prisons affect everybody, not just the people who live in those facilities but also the people that work in those facilities. And so things like homophobia– there was a supervising correctional officer in Danbury who was a gay man, really kind and humane person and I always wondered what it was like for him to work in that context because it was so openly homophobic.

LY: It’s almost as that as being gay in Birmingham, Alabama, huh? I can’t even imagine. Given the opportunity, if you could wave your magic wand and kind of go back in time, would there be anything that you can go back and change?

PK: Oh, I mean if I could go back in time and change my actions then I would absolutely do it in a heartbeat. There are very important reasons for that. Obviously the experience of incarceration is a terrible one and a traumatic one, but regardless of any kind of penalties that I personally faced, I put my family through hell. My parents, my brother, my partner Larry, my friends, they do the time with you. But even more important than that, the very fundamental fact of the offense and so when I was 22 years old and out there thinking I was having some crazy adventure, I was really not thinking about the impact that my actions would have on others. Not only did I hurt those who were nearest and dearest to me, but of course, my actions furthered other people’s substance abuse and addition and that is not something to be taken lightly.

LY: That’s powerful.

PK: Yes, absolutely, if I could go back in time and not carry that bag of drug money, I would do it.

LY: And it’s interesting because of the impact on people and not because of exactly what you had to suffer which I know was not enjoyable at all either. So, is this your first time in Austin? Are there favorites that our readers should be interested in that you enjoy about our city?

PK: I have been to Austin before but it has actually been quite awhile. I realized as I was touching down so I was very excited. I’ve always enjoyed my time in Austin in the past and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be supporting the Council on At-Risk Youth, which is an amazing organization. Prevention is really the name of the game when it comes to public safety and when it comes to reducing the size of our enormous prison population. And so, the work they do is really, really important because obviously, everyone can see when we have a young person who’s on a bad path and we’re able to help them make changes, that not only is incredibly important for that individual but it yields using credible dividends for us as a community.

I will say, also, something that may be of interest to your folks; particularly given your publication is that the juvenile justice system has a very heavy impact on LGBTQ youth. There have been very limited studies on this. There is a really good study that has come out recently and there’s another one that is in progress with the National Council and Crime in Delinquency and disproportionality, LGBTQ youth are much more likely to be put into the juvenile justice system and that’s not because they commit more offenses than heterosexual youth. So they are disproportionally targeted by police and by juvenile justice systems and often for very low-level things like loitering and shoplifting. People think that kids get put into the juvenile justice system for terrible crimes but its very ordinary stuff, especially for low-income youth.  So, in other words, a kid from a wealthy family may get in trouble but the family will have ways of correcting them and getting the help they need that a low income family wont. So, low-income LGBT youth are more likely to be put in the system. And I was very interested to look at this study and girls are actually the most likely. So, LGBTQ girls are more likely to be put into the system than LGBTQ boys. When girls don’t conform to gender expectations, people come down hard on them in lots of ways.

Piper & Piper

Piper & Piper

LY: Now, the last question, and I know we’ve gotten sidetracked, but we always have the opportunity for someone in our community to be a part of the interview. So, we posted on Facebook, if you had the opportunity to speak to Piper Kerman, what would you ask and the question with the most likes gets the privilege of being included in the interview and one of our readers, Renee, asked, “Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, are there any stories that never made it to the book or the show that you’re dying to tell?”

PK: I really tried to be forthcoming in my book (laughs) I mean, of course, there are things that didn’t make the final edits just for space and time. I feel like the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction-ones are all there. Of course, I do work with the writers of the show to help them make sure the scripts are ironically realistic. You know, the show has been called the best show about prison ever made by the Washington Post, because it really is. Even though it has humor with serious themes, they take very serious trying to build a real world. So, people are sometimes skeptical about some of the things they see in the show. I always say, as long as they make that a really realistic world, they can put   pretty much the craziest story lines you can imagine in there because crazy, crazy stuff happen behind the walls of a prison or jail. Whether it’s Crazy Eyes peeing (laughs), I put it all in there. I try to put it all out there, let me put it that way.

LY: Well, thank you for your transparency and thank you for sharing your stories.  Enjoy your time in Austin!

PK: Fantastic! Nice talking with you, Lynn.