piper kerman

The Real Alex Vause Speaks Out: Cleary Wolters Goes Humble In New Memoir ‘Out of Orange’

out of orange

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

Who was Piper Kerman’s girlfriend?

Since reviewing Piper Kerman’s memoir, I’ve gotten questions about this aspect of the memoir that inspired the Netflix hit series quite a bit. Just who was Piper Kerman’s girlfriend, that heroin-smuggling femme fatale?

laura prepon

Laura Prepon as Alex Vause (via)

In the series, Kerman’s girlfriend Alex Vause is played by the saucy, sexy Laura Prepon. But even Prepon hasn’t met the inspiration for her character. She explained the mystery in an interview with Vulture.com:

You didn’t get to meet Alex before or during season one. Is she still MIA?
She is MIA, girl. I do not know where she is. And it’s kind of like … we don’t talk about the real Alex — I don’t know. I did want to meet her, but they were like, “That’s not possible.” So I don’t know where the hell she is.

Were you given any reason why it wasn’t possible?
I wasn’t, actually. Honestly, even though we’re based on the real people, the thing about our show is they really let us do our vision of these women. I know that I look nothing like the real Alex, whereas Taylor, you can see the resemblance between her and the real Piper. But also with Taylor, Jenji was like, “We’re doing your version of Piper. Don’t worry about trying to be Piper Kerman.”

I guess I’m asking less because I want to know how you used the real Alex as inspiration, and more because I feel this need to know where she is. We get the satisfaction of knowing where Piper is now, but not Alex.
I understand, totally. Trust me! But, yeah, that’s just not possible. [Laughs.

Where do you imagine her today? In the scene where Alex and Piper are talking about whether or not you could have a future together, Alex says something like, “I’m good at moving large amounts of heroin.” Is that what she’s doing?
Honestly, whatever she’s doing, she’s definitely in a position of power. Because Alex is a power-hungry girl. She’s all about survival; she loves that whole [drug] world because she was in control of it. Wherever she can be, she wants to be in a position of power — and that’s also her relationship with Piper. We always talked [on set] about how I’m the spider and Piper’s the fly. Like when we were doing the strip scene and I was on the bed and she was dancing for me, we talked a lot about that scene and the director was like, “Listen, you do not go to her — she always comes to you.” But then Alex falls in love with this girl, and Piper really does a number on her, and Alex doesn’t know how to deal with it.

It is important to note that on this part of Kerman’s story, the series has already strayed from the book. Strayed extremely far! In the memoir, Kerman explains that she was kept in the same prison with her ex for only a brief time period after being transferred back to Chicago, as they were both needed to testify at a co-defendants trial.

So what is up with the “real” Alex?

In April, Vanity Fair journalist Sue Carswell tracked down the woman who features so pivotally in Kerman’s story, through newpaper articles about the case. Catherine Cleary Wolters, Kerman’s ex-girlfriend from her memoir, agreed to tell her story to Vanity Fair. Wolters is writing a memoir of her own, cleverly titled Out of Orange.

cleary wolters

Catherine Cleary Wolters, Piper Kerman’s
romantic interest from her memoir. (via)

Although the show’s writers takes huge liberties with Kerman’s original memoir, jailing the two characters together for an extended period of time (which allows them ample opportunity for hook-ups, break-ups, and other such drama), Cleary Wolters also seems to recount the details of their actual love affair differently than they were explained by Kerman in her memoir. In the Vanity Fair piece, she says:

“When we were traveling together I started developing a crush on her. And eventually that turned into a crazy mad love affair,” Wolters says. “But that was after she had already done the deed that made her complicit.”

“We weren’t girlfriends,” Wolters adds for good measure. “We were friends with benefits . . . I was not the older sexy, glamorous lesbian who snatched her from her pristine Smith College cradle.”

For having her private life thrust into the spotlight, Cleary Wolters has flown amazingly under the radar and I can see her memoir being a huge blockbuster, rising up out of nowhere with what sounds to be a much more interesting personal story than Kerman herself.

Amazingly, Cleary Wolters also is an author with three unpublished novels, the Vanity Fair article said. I couldn’t find anymore information online about these books, but if there was ever a time people would be interested in reading them, it certainly seems like that time is now.

You can also read the full article by Sue Carswell, The Real Alex of Orange Is the New Black Speaks for the First Time: “I Was Not Piper’s First, and I Certainly Did Not Seduce Her,” on VanityFair.com.

Review – Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman

orange is the new black book cover

Yes, Orange Is the New Black was a memoir before it was a hit series on Netflix. For those of you resisting the future of television: What happens when a nice girl gets locked-up? Orange Is the New Black: My Year In a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman tells us, as she recounts her journey through the American prison system.

The Smith-educated, upper-middle class, white, blonde Kerman had a happy life in New York, working as a freelance producer and living with her magazine editor boyfriend, when two Federal Customs Agents showed up at her door and changed her life forever.

Her past, long-forgotten, caught up with her in the form of a federal indictment. As she explains in the memoir, the mild-mannered Kerman sought adventure post-college, eventually falling in with a heroin-smuggling, bulldog-faced, world-traveling lesbian from the Midwest (this is why memoir works–you seriously can’t make this stuff up). Although Kerman and her smuggling girlfriend traveled to exotic locales and had some really good times, they also casually laundered cash like no big deal and eventually, Kerman smuggled cash herself. Thus, customs agents at the door, and federal prison time. And then, a memoir and streaming television series.

FCI Danbury, where Kerman does her time.

FCI Danbury, where Kerman does her time.

Despite its flippant title, Kerman tells us in her memoir that orange is decisively not the new black, for herself or anyone else who gets stuck in the American justice system. The book comments as much on the prison system as it does on Kerman’s struggles within that system. Kerman seems aware, as a writer, of the risks she takes as a wealthy white women writing about jail time: too much complaining about the facilities could come off as a woman spoiled and not willing to do the time for her crime; too much exposé on her bunkmates could read as exploitative of women not wanting or able, for their own reasons, to tell their stories at a public level. Kerman seems to walk a fine line both in prison and in her writing, acknowledging her place of privilege without discounting her own experience.

Orange Is the New Black is carried by Kerman’s charm, and the memoir owes much of its fun vibe to her easy banter with fellow inmates, combined with self-deprecating stories revealing both humor, insecurities, and a hugely inept prison system. In prison, she seems to get along with most and form touching bonds with many, and she identifies with the other prisoners despite prison guard’s efforts to separate her from her fellows.

Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman on Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black"

Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman
on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”

“So, is it like the show?” This is what people ask when I tell them I’m reading Orange Is the New Black, if they aren’t surprised to learn the hit Netflix series is based on an actual memoir.  The series stars the saucy and endlessly watchable Taylor Schilling, star of cancelled NBC medical drama Mercy, as Piper Chapman, whose character is based on the real Piper Kerman.

The memoir and the TV show have similarities, but they aren’t so similar that reading the memoir after watching the show will create a sort of discordant echo that creates confusion. Remember, though, that the memoir is exclusively Kerman’s story. It contains not only humorous snippets from her time inside, but also facts and experiences about our prison system any reader can easily get upset about. After reading Orange Is the New Black, I understand how Kerman is now active in organizations for reform in the prison system. I see how she must fight against what she experienced and saw others experience.

The Netflix series, while staying true to Kerman’s basic storyline, belongs to the women in prison other than the Kerman/Chapman character. The show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, called Kerman’s character her “trojan horse” in an NPR interview:

You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.

So read the book understanding Kerman isn’t able to give background or history on her fellow inmates, as that isn’t her story to tell and that was the choice of the Netflix show’s creator, Kohan.

Some surprising elements of the show, which actually happened (spoiler alerts!): Kerman does end up in the same federal prison as her ex-girlfriend, the heroin-smuggling lady who partially was responsible for Kerman getting into the whole mess. They do work things out, but they don’t sleep together. Kerman does offend Pop, the actual strong-willed woman who runs the kitchen by insulting her cooking.  Kerman does end up working in electrical where she trains herself by reading a huge manual, and yes, there is a pacifist nun in federal prison along with Kerman.

Orange Is the New Black on Amazon.com – Kindle edition is $5.99 right now!/Indiebound.org

Piper Kerman’s website

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