Wolters’ accessible and honest memoir opens the door and invites the reader in. Patrons won’t meet Alex Vause, the sultry, drug-trafficking queen of OITNB. Instead, they’ll meet Wolters-a woman with aspirations, whose missteps take her on unexpected journeys.”-Library Journal
Reading Out of Orange is a vicarious method of experiencing what life would be like to be good at being bad. It answers the hypothetical wondering of what it would be like to be the close friend of a smooth criminal. Out of Orange is honest and relatable. It is about the travels and times of a drug smuggler but it’s not so much about the crimes as it is about the people involved in them and more importantly, their various motives. Having not one but two, (possibly three if you count Larry Smith’s memoir My Life with Piper, which I have not read) memoirs telling the same story from different points of view, offers a well rounded perspective for those who are fans of the Netflix show Orange is the New Black, named after the memoir it is based on written by Piper Kerman. Read about her side of the coin in Peeling the Orange: Part I. Kerman is an Executive Producer on the hit streaming series that has been around since 2013 and raked in numerous awards along with four Emmys. She was well aware of each phase of the OITNB project. As for her ex, the other side of the coin, the one who introduced her to the world of crime; she found out the same way the rest of us did. The real Cleary Wolters or Nora Jansen as Piper calls her in her book, was introduced to her Hollywood persona when she saw a trailer on TV about women’s prison that featured Laura Prepon from That 70’s Show wearing her glasses.
Prior to approaching Netflix on a new project about a show in a female prison, Jenji Kohan, the creator of Weeds, first had to gain Piper’s trust before going to Lionsgate. With five seasons currently streaming and two more on the way, they obviously said yes. The real Alex Vause however, knew nothing about the project until previews for the show popped up in her living room along with everyone else’s in America. She was not contacted or notified because they did not use anything factual about her real life and they altered her image as well. Since she was not involved with the making of the show-so much so that she did not even know there was a show being made-was any of it real? What did she really go to prison for? What really happened to her parents? Did she really love Piper? Did they go to Bali? Did Piper love her? The answers to these and many other questions viewers have are both simple and complicated. The real story, told by the real woman in Out of Orange has more detail than one would expect, truth that people who have only watched the show could not ever guess. It was not as simple as drugs, Paris, Chicago and Piper but yes, all of those happenings did occur.
Her deal with Piper:
“I had worked extremely hard to maintain a sort of cold distance between us until we were home again, safe. If I was serious about offering her Philip’s role, and I was. I could not be her lover and partner in crime at the same time. Having a lover at all would make me horrible at my job. Having a lover involved in this same mess had already taught me a hard lesson. I didn’t need another Hester. In general, I thought it was a very good idea that I stay single until I got out of this business. The distance thing was easier to do with the others than with Piper but more important to do with her. There was a chemistry brewing that I had not anticipated. “ Out of Orange is a memoir that reads like a novel. The story of the real Vause is written sincerely, despite the continuous cycles of deceit that the plot surrounds. “Of all the things to be concerned with at that moment, I regretted that I had not showered and shaved my legs before coming to town. At least I could have put on some nicer clothes than my cutoff sweatpants and sweatshirt, maybe even a bra. But I hadn’t planned on getting arrested.” It’s funny what our minds go to in the midst of crisis isn’t it? I feel like this would be along my train of thought if I was being handcuffed, not my future or my family, instead I’d be thinking, what kind of socks am I wearing? Having the ability to write does not make someone a writer. It might be bougie for me to think this but there are obvious differences between someone who wrote a book verses someone who writes books. Everyone who takes pictures is not necessarily a photographer. Published or not isn’t the deciding factor, it’s something in the style, the feel, the construction of the work. Personally, I believe it is the overall vibe. Vibes are what I trust most with life in general including my craft. Vibes are truth where no explanation is needed, when you know you know. Reading through Out of Orange, the writer vibe was formidable. I figured Wolters was an author long before she mentioned other projects she’s penned. Her skill with words is what elevated her memoir from good to great. Characters, plot, description, it’s all scribed in such a way that heightens the reader’s interest as the story goes on. Real writers are good at many things, one of them being pace. Cleary Wolters is a damn good writer and damn good writers get excited by damn good writing, especially writers who have also read Piper’s side of this crime ridden, drug filled sexcapade, writers who also happen to be obsessed with the show that is based on the author’s life. The layers in the real Vause’s backstory took me by surprise. Judging from her description, Wolters was also stunned by the way the show chose to portray the way she grew up. These next few things may be spoilers to those who have not seen the show. Turns out, she’s not an only child she has a sister and a brother and not one but two loving parents, her mother is not dead and her dad was not a washed up rockstar. Without giving anything good away, the family dynamics she came from makes what actually happened, more interesting than the fictional version. Getting to know ‘Alex Vause’ as a family member, a daughter and a sibling leaves a much different impression than the woman we see on OITNB standing firm in her independence. Her lack of familial presence shaped her character into a sturdy, decisive, determined individual. In short, hollowing out the hotter half of the tumultuous love triangle was good for TV because the less we know about a character often provokes continual curiosity. The writers then have the power to dispense whatever facts and anecdotes about this character, whenever and however they please. Since Orange is the New Black the memoir was not made into a movie but a multi-season series, there is much more space, time and gaps to fill in. Leaving Laura Prepon’s character a relatively blank slate was a smart move in terms of development. She could evolve into anyone at anytime the door is wide open, from what is predictable to the completely unforeseen. A curve ball with Vause’s character would be believable and accepted because the POV of OITNB is continually shifting, practically anything can happen in the background.
The show does not reveal in detail the people who raised Alex Vause nor what she did apart from her lucrative career as a Heroin importer. We have seen segments of her international travels and lofty vacation/business trips, like when she spent $20,000 on a trip to Bali just to impress Piper (the reality of which occurred before the two were together.) The information on her is nowhere near the depth OITNB reveals about Piper. Chapman’s 18-month sentence (15 reduced to 13 in real life) has been known since the pilot episode but the amount of time Alex was given remains a question mark. It’s hinted at throughout the seasons but not explicitly stated. We just know it’s a long sentence, much longer than Piper’s. In real life, Cleary Wolters got more than six years. Another surprising real life detail is that she was not the gold star lesbian Alex Vause is proud to be and Piper Kerman was not as straight as Piper Chapman can sometimes be. When they met, Wolters said Piper was a lesbian. The real Vause was almost always involved with someone both inside and outside of prison. The real Vause was a bit of a womanizer, or whatever the lesbian version of lady’s man is. She didn’t exactly carry herself with the bulletproof confidence Alex Vause saunters around with. However, she did absolutely know what and who she wanted and once decided, her determination to get it was unwavering. “While it’s not as easy to do as fictional fantasies about women and sex in prison suggest, (OITNB) it is possible to have a lover. The one thing you cannot do is determine when and how your relationship will end. It comes with an expiration date; someone gets to go home first.”
Before her infamous romance with Piper, she dated a woman who spoke French fluently, someone that played the strings of Wolters’ heart like a harp. The real woman behind the glasses did not exclusively sleep with women. She was also involved with her male partner in crime, who I am guessing would be Fahri, played by Sabastian LaCause, appearing in multiple episodes throughout the seasons. Cleary Wolters was not so, in the words of Alex Vause:
Most of the drug trafficking Wolters and her entourage oversaw was from Paris to Chicago. “Nous avons une problème. Je ne peux pas trouver mes amis.” Reading that line made me so happy that I actually understood it without translation. In English it means; I cannot find my friends. She and Philip traveled to Europe regularly in those days, immediately and accidentally discovering how to adjust to the time zone changeover. “Philip and I had devised a jet-lag cure our first morning in Paris, back in the spring on our first trip abroad together. We both drank scotch.” Eventually the business got to be too much for Piper who fled back to the states. The two former partners in love and crime would not cross paths again for a long time. The show does this very different than what happened in reality. Piper Kerman’s memoir ends where season two of the shows starts. Piper and Cleary really were locked up together for in real life, for a few weeks from Oklahoma to the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Chicago. Having lived near the famous city my whole life I saw The Congress Hotel and the prison with new eyes. Most of us would not be thrilled to see our exes, particularly not in prison. Piper’s attitude has always proved to be exceptional. Wolters commented on her air of superiority with a statement that echoes how Vause reacted to Chapman’s attitude in season one. Wolters wrote; “I’m not a mean asshole, but her fucking bullshit was needlessly cruel.” Say what you will about the choice of words but I for one am a fan of those who tell it like it is. Piper may have been angry to see the real Alex again, just as her character was at first in the show but the author of Out of Orange was much more curious than hostile. “One benefit of having such a rich life was that when I dreamed, I had a lot of material to work with. It would be kind of weird to have a dream about the Piper I used to know while sitting next to the ice princess she had become. I was amusing the hell out of myself.” Confidence and quick wit are Cleary Wolters’ strong suits, qualities Laura Prepon demonstrates expertly through Alex Vause. A sense of humor has to be one of the best survival tools to endure a place as bleak as prison. In regards to the atmosphere on the inside Cleary said; “…just like anyplace else, there were normal people, nice people and complete assholes.” Although she is out now, having completed both her bachelors and masters and is caring for her family while working a great job, there are things about the justice system that are hard to forget. “Drug sentences were so arbitrary. Some women almost got no time for doing much worse, others got more time for doing less. Elaine’s sentence (a fellow inmate in year sixteen of her twenty year sentence) made me feel very blessed.”
I would give both memoirs a solid five stars but since each of the books is written in such a different style, the POV on life in women’s prison that I am partial to, is Out of Orange by Cleary Wolters. The story is fluid, descriptive and relatable. It is a true story that reads like a novel. A story that’s as thrilling as it is heartbreaking to have walked into. A story about real people that the reader develops genuine concern for. The process of smuggling drugs was incredibly interesting to read but how the author feels about what it ended up costing her to be so good at being bad makes for the most impactful, reflective takeaway. “My whole life wasn’t wasted. Maybe I could write a book about the whole ordeal and save someone foolish from making my mistakes.” This was followed by an apology to those effected by her business in the drug trade. Witnessing the legitimate, uncoerced remorse of others really makes a person stop and think about the moves they are making in life. Cleary wasn’t being a gangster with an ‘a’ at the end or a drug queen standing on a mountain of cash, she was contributing to the addictions and destruction of human beings, wrongs will chase you until they are made right. Fans of Netflix’s OITNB and Piper’s current crusade to improve prison conditions and policies, are ecstatic that Wolters finally wrote the book, her book. It took some time for her to be done with the system in order to publish her truth and make it available but audiences are so glad Out of Orange is finally out in the open. “We were never real criminals, whatever that is, just young and stupid.” How do they feel now, about their characters on OITNB? Piper and Cleary seem to be gratefully taking the exposure in stride. Thankful for the awareness the pop culture phenomenon brings to the US justice system. Wolters in particular, gave credit where credit is due: “I would like to thank Jenji Kohan and Laura Prepon for creating Alex Vause and making me tall.”
Where Piper’s account has given us a voyeuristic look at prison life that allows us as a nation to congratulate ourselves on being so well adjusted and normal compared to the people whose lives we can’t stop watching. Wolters’ book sounds much more authentic, insightful and heartbreaking.-Tattle
Sources; Tattle, Library Journal, Out of Orange, Cleary Wolters. Pages: 119, 126, 152, 177, 196, 226, 231, 239, 242, 243, 259, 262, 275, 289, 295, 299, 304. Not all used.