There are so many moments where I am reminded of the book by Czech writer Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Reading that book was an epiphany to me. There is a story in the book, but for me that story is not the key to the book. The key lies in the writer’s detours into philosophy that are interwoven into the story. But one section, about the meaning of words, is what I frequently come back to and I always try to tell people about it. Basically, in the writers eloquent way, he tells us these two people don’t hear the same meaning when they hear the word parade. One is from a communist country where parades are forced events and she doesn’t like them. And the other recalls parades with nostalgia and celebrated social interaction that people enjoy similarly here in the US.
I know Orange Is The New Black is pretty popular, but I don’t think we watch it for the same reasons. I don’t think we feel the same way about it. Scratch that, I could be wrong and making the same assumption that you are making about me.
The other day my best friend, who has been cut off from wifi at home for years due to her location finally joined the rest of us by acquiring wifi and Netflix streaming. She sent me a text asking me if I watched OITNB. Um, hello, of course. Then she said that Piper reminded her of me. To which I was immediately offended. Me, like Piper? Whatever. And I told her I was nothing like her and that she (Piper) was so annoying. And then my friend said she liked Piper.
I was irritated about the comparison but I know my friend didn’t mean to make me upset. She probably has no idea why I would even be upset. Because I am aware of some similarities that Piper and I share. But most people who know me are completely unaware of some of our most important differences. Well one most important difference.
Ok, I will start with the obvious, we are both white. If you don’t watch the show, you should know that Piper is a white wasp-y character from a wealthy New York family. She went to prison for smuggling drugs, and those are not any things that we have in common, except for the white part. The other thing we have in common is a love of books. And seemingly liberal leanings. And we tell people what we think. Often. And we talk about life through idealistic terms, justice and fairness and what’s right or wrong. I get how she sees those similarities.
But we are so different. I will start with the obvious. I grew up extremely poor. Welfare, food stamps, section 8 housing, and all of that plus teen pregnancy. Most people know that about me. But because I talk like Piper, overly fond of words, opinionated and ready to discuss my beliefs as if anyone cares, I have had people assume I am like her. But the assumption is directly tied to being white. I get it too. I learned very early how to act like the person everyone wants you to be. Teachers, professors, bosses, even welfare eligibility workers. It worked most of the time for me too. I used it to my advantage. I remember when I finally was going to get my driver’s license, I named it. As I prepared to head out for my driving test, in my best friends car, I dressed in what I called my cute white girl look. I needed to do what I could to move forward in life. I worked very hard, and it wasn’t easy, but I know I used cute white girl whenever I could for that extra help. And that is what Piper and I have. But I seemed to be more aware of white privilege than Piper’s character is. Or maybe she is, she certainly uses when she can. Maybe I was just willing to name it.
But I don’t like her. I can’t relate to her. She doesn’t sense danger like I can because she has no experience with it. She has no fear of the prison system and no cynicism about the justice system like I do. Sure she may know statistics and cite the unjust demographics about the prison system, like a lot of people can list. I know those things too. But when she goes to prison, it’s like that book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. When I hear words like prison, inmate, correctional facility, or correctional officer, we do not register them the same. This may be true for you too. When you watch the show these words may be just a part of a story line and represent something foreign and only known through media depictions, but not actual experience.
Growing up, all of my mother’s friends (we’ll call them friends for simplicity but the relationship between those women was not one of friendship, more of convenience) had a husband in prison. And the other mothers where I lived who didn’t have a husband in prison, didn’t have a husband. I lived in a multiracial apartment complex of poor women on welfare and their poor kids. And my mother, she married a man in prison for murder. And therein lies the huge difference between Piper and I.
My childhood memories include my mother wearing sweatpants most every day except the day she went to visit him. That day she wore clothes she never wore, make up that she didn’t normally like, and feathered her hair. In fact, the only hairspray in the house was for that purpose. My childhood memories include answering the phone when it was the collect call from prison, hearing the periodic beep that indicated it was being recorded, receiving letters in the mail from prison, and sometimes riding in the car thirty minutes south to the correctional facility.
It smelled like cows there, I think they had a farm on the property. We always had to wait to go in from the visitor entrance. So we played on plastic chairs until they called us. My mother put her plastic clear purse filled with quarters for the vending machine in the little basket, while we all walked through the metal detectors and had our hands stamped. Then, when we were clear, the guard buzzed us through the heavy, automatic door and we headed up the ramp to the visiting room. My childhood memories are what most people watch the show to ogle but then return to their non-prison affected lives, forgetting about those kinds of people.
I almost didn’t want to watch OITNB when I heard about it. Some people said it was funny. I know, it’s just a show. But I couldn’t think of anything funny about those days and I didn’t know if I wanted to see what people laughed at. I had a coworker’s husband make a joke about children of inmates as job security for correctional officers once. I have taken care of jail patients and watch others treat them different. I know I look at men in uniforms entirely different than most people because of my experience. And if drive past a prison, which not to hard to do in California, I am physically aware of its imposing guard towers, razor wire and barred windows, if they have windows. I am not just talking about the system is bad and prisoners and their families are good. Don’t try to corner me into any discussion about it that isn’t nuanced and complex, because that’s what it is and that’s what my feelings are. I know there are a lot of conversations about the justice system right now, and the news is heartbreaking. But today I am just writing about the intersection of personal experience and media in my life. If this show had been a men’s prison, I might not have watched it.
But I did watch it. The first few episodes I watched with anxiety. An anxiety that has history that includes abuse by the system and the people they were responsible for. I noticed things that were too real or not real enough. But I did not relate to Piper. The other character’s stories interested me more. Cancer in prison interested me as a nurse and someone who knows medical care for inmates has its own injustices. Stories about Piper seemed ridiculous (getting furlough?), but the meth addicts and Taystee and Flores seemed more like people I grew up with. My favorite is when you get the backstory. Maybe the creators read The Unbearable Lightness of Being too.
You may watch the show and have similar memories. Or maybe you don’t. But if we meet up at a party, and you say OITNB, don’t be surprised if I don’t talk about it the same way you do. Don’t be surprised if it’s not just a show to me. And please don’t say Piper reminds you of me.