Cleary Wolters finished watching TV with her declining mother. After tucking mom into bed, she went back to the television. Remote in hand, she watched a woman in an orange jumpsuit step out of a van with a familiar pinstripe pillow. She heard the phrases “lesbian lover” and “drug smuggling” as she watched a montage of prison life. Then she saw Donna from That 70’s Show wearing her own trademark glasses, and she realized she was watching a trailer for her own life. Made into a television show! Can you even imagine?
That story, of how Cleary Wolters, AKA the real Alex Vause, found out about the show, is told in the prologue of her new memoir Out of Orange. I found it to be the most interesting one in the book. To have your life’s illegal choices made into a hit television show without your consultation, seems bookworthy in itself. In relating her story, Wolters seems determined to keep events rooted in her downfall, in the unglamorous truth behind her life as a drug smuggler. I give her props for refusing to hype up her time in the drug trade, but this translates to a memoir unpeppered with Hollywood-style action or Kerman’s own meditations on the inequalities of the justice system.
Wolters loses enchantment with smuggling early on in the story, but fears the powerful African drug boss Alaji so much that she finds herself recruiting others to smuggle drugs to avoid the risky job herself. Wolters experience of smuggling is often one of waiting around for a call in a foreign country, watching money spent at hotels burn through previous earnings, hoping to recoup costs on the next run. It sounds unbelievable stressful, and although there are some glimpses of the high life, with wads of cash thrown around a room or champagne drunk in a warm ocean, the majority of the story documents the struggle of Wolters and her sidekicks as they try to stay above water.
Throughout the memoir juicier stuff is (intentionally?) glossed over–the level of partying among the group (Wolters mentions popping pain pills, but doesn’t expand on the habit), time spent at Alaji’s compound in Africa early on, her motivations for drug smuggling, her feelings for Kerman throughout their time together. She spends quite a bit of time on details difficult to care about without a bigger picture–different cats and their Wolters-caused plights, morning damage control of forgotten drunk fights from the night before, hotel amenities and airport surroundings and where to plot down next. Is all this important? Of course. Does it relate to any larger message on Wolters as a person, justice, drug use in America, being in a relationship with Piper Kerman, or Orange is the New Black? No.
So, what’s the deal with Piper? If you are Orange in the New Black obsessed, read the book. It gives more background on how exactly Piper (real last name Kerman) met Wolters, and ended up being recruited by Wolters. First for watching her cats while she traveled the world, and eventually for traveling with her. Although this is Wolters story, her love affair with Kerman comes on slow and strange, and much more about it is revealed here than in Kerman’s own memoir. Which makes me wonder–will Kerman write another, more personal memoir now, as her first was so focused on the injustices of the prison system?
If you don’t want to read the book, here’s the breakdown: Kerman and Wolters meet at a restaurant where Kerman waitresses. When Kerman comes over to Wolters’s house with a group of people, Wolters is impressed by Piper’s handling of her freaked out cats, who are scared after a move. The kitties love Kerman. Really, Kerman’s downfall could be blamed on her cat whisperer tendencies here. There’s a heavy love of kitties throughout Out of Orange: prison cats, San Francisco cats, cats recruiting Kerman to the darkside. Although the attraction between the cats and Kerman is instant, the attraction between Wolters and Kerman isn’t. Wolters gets the pretty blondie’s phone number, but nothing happens that night.
When Wolters needs someone to watch her kitties and house sit for her during her next smuggling trip, who does she think of but cat whisperer Kerman! She meets Kerman and lays it all down–the drug smuggling, the need for a cat sitter. Thus begins an odd sort of relationship, where Kerman stocks Wolters’s home with healthy foods and tends to her cats, sleeps nude in a guest bedroom, but they remain just friends. There is one scene in the memoir where Wolters gets home from a trip abroad and tries to wake up a sleeping Kerman, throwing money around. I believe this is in the TV show, right? So yes, that happened.
Eventually, Kerman becomes more involved with Wolters, and travels with her. Kerman dresses like a sexy businesswoman, sleeps nude, and spends way more of Wolters money than Wolters secretly desires. Internally, Wolters is losing control of everything. They pose as a couple, although their relationship is a strange business/friendship deal full of power issues. Kerman is the hot one, Wolters is the one with the drug money. Wolters is hoping to groom Kerman for her role in the smuggling operation, but Kerman doesn’t even know this. Kerman clearly likes the attention and the life of luxury, but the luxury part can’t hold out much longer. They never seem to get the payoff they’re hoping for. Finally, they have a threesome with sidekick Phillip, which opens the doorway for the Wolters and Kerman relationship.
Their breakup is as sudden as their hookup. At a hotel in Brussels, Kerman tells Wolters she “can’t do this anymore.” Wolters understands and lets her leave.
When Wolters is arrested, she does ask for protection for a list of people including Kerman. She is terrified that Alaji will kill them all, if he finds out that she has been arrested. As Alaji was involved romantically with Wolters’s sister, she immediately thinks her sister is in danger. Eventually, Wolters claims, what she said didn’t matter as they all pled guilty to conspiracy.
Amazingly, “Alaji,” who is really Prince Buruji Kashamu (is it okay to say this?) has won a senate seat in Nigeria. I wonder what he thinks of the show. Or when we’ll get his memoir…
Out of Orange on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org