This past week, I traveled to my alma mater in Baltimore to attend the 24th Sister Cleophas Costello Lecture delivered by amazing author Piper Kerman. Kerman wrote the memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison that has now become a successful Netflix series, with two seasons so far. Two seasons that my roommate and I binge-watched in probably under two weeks. It was that good.
I don’t want to give too much away for those who haven’t read the book or seen the show, but basically Piper was convicted and found guilty of (10 years after she committed the crimes!) money laundering and transporting drug money. She spent a year at a women’s prison in Danbury, Connecticut and her book chronicles her experiences, revolving around her sometimes precarious interactions with the other prisoners. Despite the hardships she goes through and the longing she feels for her family, friends and now-husband Larry Smith, I think at the heart of the novel is hope. Piper makes it through the year and learns all of these lessons along the way.
I was really struck throughout the lecture on Piper’s passion for improving the prison system. She hopes to be an advocate for change and improvement for how inmates are treated; I loved when she said during her talk that “I want people in prison to be seen not for their worst days and mistakes, but for the good that they’re capable of.” No matter what they’ve done, Piper urges the audience to look at prisoners from now on with compassion.
Below are a couple more quotes that struck me throughout the lecture.
“I’d hoped that [for my book]…I’d get someone to pick up a book about prison who might not otherwise pick up a book about prison.”
“If you are locked up, the only legitimate form of escape is to escape through the world of a book.”
“You have to master the rules of the institution. The prison rules. You gotta learn ’em and you gotta learn ’em quick.”
“Everybody in prison gets a nickname. So one experimental hairdo and you can be stuck for the whole time you’re locked up.”
“Time is a beast when you’re locked up.”
“Prisoners who are able to maintain touch with their loved ones are more likely to have a successful return home.”
On the show:
What was important about producing the series was to create “a show that puts prisoners forward as protagonists.”
Piper also mentioned towards the end that her husband Larry and actor Jason Biggs, who plays Larry in the show, are good friends in real life; in fact, they have this funny interview together that I loved and definitely recommend reading. It’s so cool when a show or movie that stemmed from a book really resonates with the real people that inspired it. Also I’m trying to get in on that friendship.
Special thanks to Loyola for hosting this awesome event, the Greyhound Twitter for the great live-tweets and quotes (many of which I listed in here) and to Piper Kerman for the inspiring words.
UPDATE: So excited that Piper’s husband, writer Larry Smith, read and shared my post about Piper’s presentation at Loyola! Check out his latest project Six-Word Memoir if you haven’t heard of it already.