Some of you, quite a few possibly, may wonder why I am so obsessed with the Netflix TV series “Orange is the new black”. For those of you who don’t know; “Orange is the new black” is a series about various characters in a (fictitious) women’s prison in Litchfield, USA. The story is based around the character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) with a heavy emphasis on her off-on relationship with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) and some of the inmates of prison who become their close friends, Nicky, Lorna and Red.
The background story is that Piper and Alex were girlfriends some 10 years earlier. Piper a somewhat naive 20-something, and Alex a drug trafficker in her mid-twenties – travel the world, living the luxurious life drug money can bring – until Piper feels she is being exploited for Alex’s drug trafficking purposes. Piper leaves for home, leaving a devastated Alex, who just recently lost her mother, behind in a European city (Paris?). The drug organization is later taken down, Alex thrown in jail, still hurting from their break-up, naming Piper in the process to get a shorter sentence. When we first meet Piper she is about to serve a 15-month sentence for a drug-related crime (Alex, as it turns out, has about 4 years left on her sentence when we meet her in prison).
Too close to home - or homes
So why the obsession? One reason is that the casting of Taylor Schilling as “Piper” and Laura Prepon as “Alex” is nearly perfect. Their characters develop a fascinating, engaging, electrical relationship on screen – a relationship that is very difficult not to engage in. Through plot twists ranging from hellish conditions to periods of relative tranquility, Alex and Piper rekindle their on-off girlfriend relationship, and eventually it develops to the status of engaged (season 5) and “prison-married” (season 6).
The second reason is that the fate of the characters cut too close to home. I can relate to several of the characters and what brought them to prison. They bring to life my own adolescence. Yes, it was a long time ago. Which bears witness to old scars, and scabs, that still itch from time to time – even 40 years later. That was the depth of my traumatic adolescence. I will let you, the reader, see a bit of the narrowness by which I didn’t end up one of the (fictitious) characters in a prison drama.
Nicky Nichols (played by Natasha Lyonne) is in for drug-related crimes. We learn by flashbacks that her upper-class childhood was a very loveless one. The only person who showed any love towards young Nicky was the housemaid, who Nicky later relates to as “her real mom”. In prison, she refers to “Red” as “mom” in her constant search for a mother figure. What cut it too close to home, was the scene (S6E4) where young Nicky is having her Bat Mitzvah
Unfortunately by the time I was aware of what was happening, my father – who had three children from a previous marriage, and mother – who had “severe financial problems” were divorced. My father, or so I always felt, maybe did love me, but would possibly have loved me more if I had actually been part of the previous “gang of three”. He was essentially past parenthood age when I joined the world. As witness the post-divorce weekend arrangements, which weren’t as bad as young Nickys, where the father has to go to work every weekend he has custody, but were monotonous and more focused on what he liked to do. While on the other end, my mother had enough of her own problems (perceived financial and others) so the whole take on adolescence was
Nicky eventually rebelled, took to drugs and was caught in addiction – eventually leading to prison sentence(s). Me, on the other hand, didn’t take to drugs for some reason. Instead, I led a miserable life all through adolescence, rebelling in other ways, which no one ever took appropriate notice of. It was a different society back then – had it been today, shit would (hopefully) had happened. Which brings me to “too close to home, part two”.
Tricia Miller (played by Madeline Brewer) was abused by her step-father and took to the streets (and drugs, and shoplifting, and theft, and probably soliciting). Again, I’ve never done drugs – but otherwise, this is too close to home.
Many know I basically wasn’t in school for a year when 13. Not many know what I did instead, which was more or less living on the streets – with the important difference, that I did have an overnight shelter, called “home”. I also didn’t engage with criminal gangs or people. I did, however (and no-one knows this), plan and did live “properly” on the street for a couple of days, before deciding that it was too horrible, making me even more miserable – and I didn’t need that. Not everyone has that personal strength, however, witness all the “Tricia Millers” of the world. But then again, I didn’t run away from abusing parents, there is a difference in situations. If one is without close friends or other persons and “home” consists of hellish conditions, then you are more vulnerable. And less likely to return to safety.
Still, I can identify, in my own small way, with “Trish”. It’s a cold, hungry, vulnerable, and miserable kind of life.
We don’t know what Jennifer Digori (played by Olivia Luccardi) is in for. She obviously has had a very troubled upbringing, and can’t read – and is racist. (I, on the other hand, absorbed books, and am very far from racist.) We do learn, however, that Jennifer “cut herself in pretty patterns” which brings it all too close to home. I suppose wielding a razor is a more effective attention-grabbing scheme (if that is what you want) than wielding a blunt hammer.
I can confidently say, however, that trying to break your arms with a hammer hurts like fuck. And that if you do, you shouldn’t go back to the 70s to do it, because back then, no one thought it remarkable that a 14-year old came to school with multiple bruises and cracks. Several times a quarter. That attention-grabbing scheme failed miserably, but … as I said … too close to home.
Well, dear reader, who has managed to endure the text thus far. You know a bit of Piper’s history now, and I can recognize myself in parts of it. In season 3-4 we see another side of the Piper character which brings her even deeper into misery (with the rock bottom in S4E8 (possibly toped, not by her doing, in S5E10) when she becomes manically fixated by her in-prison business scheme, sacrificing friends in general and Alex in particular, in the process. An apt exchange describes the situation, even though it actually refers to someone else in that case.
Piper: “We’ve all been there” (talking about herself)
Oh yes, I have been there. I too can have this totally one track obsessive trait – and it almost destroyed my life at one point. Although in general in my case, it is not as serious, ruthless and morally objectional as portrayed in the series (where Piper wakes up to the ruins of her relationships to her friends and more importantly to Alex).
My mother once had an astrological reading done for me, I was 20-something at the time, and one of the points I actually remember from it was that the astrologist was convinced that I could make a very successful criminal (probably using the trait as a lever). And indeed, to focus solely on a given path, however objectional to the exclusion of everything and everyone else, can probably do wonders to your career, but everything else may suffer in the process. Which in the case of Piper Chapman, but not yours truly, comes back and bites you in the rear end. Again – luck, or I’d be in there with the rest of them.
CO Fischer - some kind of conclusion
The guard (or correctional officer) Fischer (played by Lauren Lapkus) meets Piper when she is doing maintenance, and they start talking. Fischer admits during that conversation, that it could have been her in there, instead of Piper. She just was lucky when she “made bad choices”. I guess that I am CO Fischer. I was lucky when I made bad choices in adolescence. In fact, I basically wasn’t in school for over a year, and no one reacted in a manner that made any difference. During that time, I partly lived on the streets, I stole stuff, shoplifted, frauded myself to money, and engaged in self-mutilation. And no one acted in a meaningful manner. Not parents, no one in school, no social services – no one. I could very well have been Nicky Nichols or Tricia Miller. But I never ever did drugs. I never, ever, slid down into that final stage – because finally, after hitting my rock bottom, I decided, all by my lonesome, that I was better than that. I owed it to myself to give myself a chance of getting back in life – even though I had ruined so many of the possibilities in the process (skipping school for over a year doesn’t do wonders for your status in the eyes of narrow-minded teachers, or to your grades). Eventually, I sorted myself out – no thanks to anyone but myself – and actually did become an archaeologist, my childhood dream career. And now I’m in IT, working as a consultant for a large multi-national, in a large telecom.
Not everyone is lucky, not everyone has the inner strength to sort themselves out. We need to be there for them. We can’t leave and/or look another way, just because it is convenient. That someone at one point “lost their humanity”, doesn’t mean that the lucky ones on the outside have the right to lose theirs. Neither does it give them rights to devise revenge schemes, at the expense of the less lucky bastards filling the prisons today, by concocting draconian solutions like modern day penal-colonies or real-life social experiments based on “Lord of the flies” (yes, I’m looking at you Denmark). Just recently I read suggestions that – in effect – would introduce severe (and pointless) financial restrictions on socialy vulnerable people.
We don’t need more conservative/ultra-conservative punitive measures towards unlucky and/or unfortunate people. We need to be there for those wishing to restart their lives.