Read a F*cking Book: “Out of Orange” is the Real Life Alex Vause’s True Story

When Piper Kerman told her story in Orange in the New Blackshe also told the stories of the women who did time alongside her in Danbury, Connecticut as best she could. Her bestseller illuminated the challenges inmates face in prisons across the nation, as well as the specific struggles of the women who do time and then attempt to put their lives back together. But there’s one person’s experience we didn’t get any of: that of Catherine Cleary Wolters, the drug-smuggling lesbian in thick-rimmed glasses who named her as an accomplice in the case against an African drug lord and landed her there.

That’s where Out of Orange comes in.

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Wolters’ memoir begins in a hotel room in Paris, where her colleagues are swallowing heroin capsules and she’s psyching herself up to cross the border with a fake passport and three heroin-lined suit jackets. After completing the exhilarating and surprisingly simple task, she goes back to Northampton, moves in with and gets dumped by her ex, and meets a cute waitress named Piper Kerman.

The book follows Wolters as she tries, unsuccessfully, to exit the world of drug smuggling and minimize her role in the operation after her first operation, which she claims to have hoped was her one and only time crossing customs with contraband. But leaving a heroin smuggling ring is easier said than done, which Wolters learns by hiding out in hotel rooms and taking huge gambles with new recruits in an attempt to get out. At the same time, she develops a friendship with Kerman over the two cats she’s watching for Wolters for weeks at a time, and eventually the two queer ladies develop a strangely romantic platonic friendship before they become best friends and then start to sleep with each other.

Eventually, Wolters gets out, years after Kerman does the same. They don’t see each other for years, not even when the ring gets busted and Wolters gets brought in by the authorities. They don’t reunite until they’re on a ConAir tarmac in the freezing cold, Wolters two years into her sentence and Kerman just one. It’s the moment where the two women’s memoirs collide. They sit next to each other and hash it out. They spend time in the same facility in Oklahoma, scared shitless of the conditions and their fellow inmates. And then they get split up, with Wolters waiting in line once again to board a plane filled with felons and Kerman left behind to ponder her fate.

Wolters’ story, of course, diverges from Kerman’s. Kerman never saw herself as an accessory, whereas Wolters reveals that she had planned to prime Kerman to replace her in the ring. Wolters is always acutely aware that her past could land her in prison; Kerman claims to have been shocked as all hell when she was named in the case. Kerman relies on her fiancé to get through her sentence; Wolters gets dropped off at prison by a woman who loves her cats more than she ever loved her. From there, they each experience two sides of a very strange coin – two white women in trouble for drug crimes, one in a prison camp in Connecticut and the other in a full-force correctional facility in California.

The books vary, too, in their aim. Orange is the New Black tells the story of a prison full of women like and unlike its author, all of whom are struggling to survive, connect, and recover, through her eyes. A majority of her story is told from within prison walls, and while we’re inside we meet all of the characters who filled her time there with hardship, grace, and well-earned life lessons. Wolters’ story centers, instead, around her own rise and fall – how she got involved in smuggling drugs, how those operations were handled, and then, how she made it through prison and rebuilt her life. Her time spent in incarceration doesn’t even begin until more than halfway through the book, and in her retelling of it she is still the main character. Kerman’s story is about how one woman did time and recognized the flaws of the justice system; Wolters’ is about how one woman tempted the fates and survived.

Kerman supplied us with anecdotes about prison life, about the failures of the justice system in supporting women who had been incarcerated, about the rampant abuse of their bodies and minds by the system. Wolters, instead, tells a much more human story simply about her own journey. We see the love for Kerman that carried her through, as well as the truly complex maze of what could have been life-or-death decisions that she was navigating in an attempt to best protect and honor her. Above all, Out of Orange shows us how powerless Wolters, too, was to the system — both the prison-industrial complex and the drug ring that got her there.

Out of Orange is also undeniably queer, which drew me in. Wolters carries on relationships with women in prison, can’t stop talking about her cats, and writes candidly about struggling with her sexuality during and after she serves her time. (Guys, there is so much in here about the cats. Just so much. This book’s tagline could, and should, be: THE STORY OF THE REAL ALEX VAUSE AND THE FELINES SHE LOVED AND LOST.) In fact, Out of Orange is about someone so eerily similar to myself that it scared me. It’s about someone who smokes too many cigarettes when she gets stressed out, strives to be loved without being lost, gets stuck on matters of the heart, gets in over her head. Throughout the book, there’s a sense of responsibility from the narrator, who retells her story honestly at every cost to herself. There is no denial of guilt. There is just a sense of redemption, clarity, and remorse.

Wolters admittedly got in much deeper then Kerman, and perhaps for that reason there’s less of a desire to blame the system and more of a desire to blame herself, to center the load on her back and keep walking. Wolters, too, struggled to rebuild a life and get “off paper,” was faced with the insurmountable challenge of figuring things out post-prison and mid-forties.

If you’ve read Orange is the New Black, you’ll want to read Out of Orange. It’s not so much a rebuttal as a complementary piece; hand-in-hand with Kerman’s own story, it completes the tale of how two women who had never met before became partners in crime and lovers in trouble. (Plus, now that you’ve powered through Season 3 you’ll need something to occupy your time, anyway.)


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Carmen is the Digital Editor at Ms. , Managing Editor at Argot, a Contributor at Everyday Feminism, and Co-Host of The Bossy Show. She previously served as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor, and Social Media Co-Director at Autostraddle. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 924 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. what if I haven’t read Kerman’s memoir? Because netflix Piper is SO awful, i never brought myself to read it, but this seems amazing! and i love readig about other people onsessing about their cats! adding this to my ever growig reading list!

    • Kerman is all in all less off putting than piper? or anyway has very little dialog. I haven’t read out of orange yet, but it sounds like what I wanted kermans actual book to be. Also, there’s no reason to read OITNB, from a continuity point of view if that’s what you’re worried about

    • In my opinion, the real life Piper is just as obnoxious. I could barely get through the memoir…it felt like she was trying to do a Girl, Interrupted, thing, but she just wasn’t good enough to pull it off. And, she spent too much time pleading her innocence. She talked about some of the horrible stuff that happened in prison, but she was still so incredibly blinded by her privilege that the way she framed some stuff and talked about fellow inmates was really just ignorant, and condescending/arrogant, and a little bitchy. Honestly, the show’s Piper is more likable to me…and that’s saying something, because she’s basically Jenny Schecter incarnate and I still hate Jenny Schecter with a burning passion deep within me.
      I don’t know. Just my opinion…

      • oh holy crap, if you are saying that the show’ version of Piper is more tolerable than the book version, which I will start reading in the next few days, well, I hope that there is enough in there about the characters I love: Red, Poussey, Black Cindy, Suzanne, Nicky, Morello, Flaca, Gloria, Maritza, Pennsatucky, Taystee and Norma to make it worthwhile. I have found Piper to be annoyingly ignorant about (and one ignorance compound each ignorance), her culpability for being in prison, a complete denial of her ownership of her behaviours leading to her being aware of where she in fact crossed lines that led to her committing crimes, it is like the boundaries for Piper understanding what is ok and what isn’t ok are so absent and juvenile. She really is ignorant, and a privileged entitled special white person. So I will persevere with Kerman’s memoir, if only for determining the line where fact and fiction intersect and part.

        • Sadly, most of the show’s characters are based on brief snippets from the memoir (I think because Kerman ostensibly wanted to protect their identities, she avoided giving too much detail, and as a manner of etiquette didn’t directly ask anyone why they were in prison). It’s worth a read, but the stories that make the show compelling are not really present. Kerman is much closer to recognizing her privilege than Chapman and, to me at least, much more willing to admit her faults and culpability in the crime.

          • Gigi I suspected that Kerman may have been protecting identities of her fellow inmates, which is why those characters I am more interested in won’t feature in her memoir.

        • Seriously?! You hate paper but love Red who starved piper out because she didn’t like her food, pennsatucky who tries to kill piper, Norma who killed her husband, Morello who stalked a guy and tried to blow up his girlfriend? It worries me when people see Piper(who is obviously very flawed) as a worse person than the likes of them. We obviously have very different morals but I think and hope people would generally agree those things are worse than any of Pipers crimes. Not to mention the rampant sexism, homophobia and racism from most characters that seems to be completely ignored and glossed over.

          • I wouldn’t go making any assumptions about my morals merely because I said I like certain characters which are different to those you may like.
            I can tell the difference, for the record, between varying degrees of crime, and a different crime’s impact on it’s victim. I was not making any moral/ethical judgement on the characters (unlike you) besides pointing Kerman’s tendancy to deny responsibility for her part of her crime, and how her denial and white privilege, is compoundingly annoying to me. And yes, I like characters with conviction and paradox irrespective of where they fall on your “moral compass”.

    • you could totes read this if you’ve never read kerman’s memoir! that being said, you should. it’s a good read, too! buy ’em both! spend the entire summer soaking up the oitnb goodness. i recommend it deeply.

    • I read Chapman’s book before the Netflix thing. Please don’t confuse the two! Chapman is still working for prison reform and Faux Piper is selling used panties and things I won’t spoil for those who watch and have not seen all of Season Four.
      Wolters’ book felt like, had Netflix not made a show? Well, it wouldn’t exist. Piper’s book made me want to help the women in my state. Workers…. not so much. But I do love cats, mine are pretty much the loves of my bizarrely not even a bit what I hoped it would be life, so maybe I’ll dig that.
      I don’t know, I am just sort of grossed out that instead of opening eyes to real things that need to change? There are Facebook contests to see who can wear orange in the most creative way, girls dressed like characters from the show on Halloween… maybe I’m not being very nice here, but I had so hoped at LEAST we could cause some change at the horrid women’s prison here in Oklahoma, but sadly, I haven’t. Maybe everyone is too busy looking for orange nail polish.

  2. I’m probably one of the few people that has read both memoirs but never watched the TV show. I enjoyed both memoirs, but I think I liked Cleary’s the most. Both were very eye opening about the prison system, something I knew very little about.

  3. I am way more excited for this than I was to read Kerman’s memoir, maybe because the latter was assigned for a college class, and maybe because I, too, love Northampton, thick glasses, and cats.

  4. Hated Piper’s memoir. HAAAATED. I found her so unlikeable. A living, breathing Jenny Schecter from my worst nightmares. And also I found her to be a mediocre writer. It felt like she was trying to be the next Susanna Kaysen, but without talent.
    So that being said, I’m a little hesitant to read this. I mean, it’s kind of frustrating that these are the memoirs about prison life that people are eating up. Kind of “woe is me” stories by rich white people who don’t know why they got in trouble for a highly illegal activity that they participated in for “adventure” or whatever. The stories that should be heard are those from women of color with few choices, some of whom (like Flaca in OINTB) didn’t even do anything illegal. The poor women. Women who experienced sexual assault while in prison. Women in detention centers. The women who start taking birth control before they cross the border because they know they’ll be raped in US detention centers. The mothers in prison. The women like Taystee whose life outside of prison is worse than in it. Etc.
    I’d also like world peace, which seems about as attainable as the above right now.

    • I read Chapman’s book before the Netflix thing. Please don’t confuse the two! Chapman is still working for prison reform and Faux Piper is selling used panties and things I won’t spoil for those who watch and have not seen all of Season Four.
      Wolters’ book felt like, had Netflix not made a show? Well, it wouldn’t exist. Piper’s book made me want to help the women in my state. Workers…. not so much. But I do love cats, mine are pretty much the loves of my bizarrely not even a bit what I hoped it would be life, so maybe I’ll dig that.
      I don’t know, I am just sort of grossed out that instead of opening eyes to real things that need to change? There are Facebook contests to see who can wear orange in the most creative way, girls dressed like characters from the show on Halloween… maybe I’m not being very nice here, but I had so hoped at LEAST we could cause some change at the horrid women’s prison here in Oklahoma, but sadly, I haven’t. Maybe everyone is too busy looking for orange nail polish.

      And…. if you are passed that poor people’s stories aren’t told? Why sit on your booty and whine? I am so over slactivism. If I want change, I have to create it. It’s my job, not “some rich white person’s”. My hope for all of this, the books, the show, is citizens becoming aware, and then doing something about it.

  5. If Kerman’s memoir was a documentary, Wolters’ feels like an action movie (at least so far). I bought it on my kindle immediately when this article popped up in my newsfeed and haven’t been able to put it down since.

    I didn’t think Kerman’s memoir was bad, but I am least willing to let her off the hook for the “what are you gonna do? They just did this all themselves” way she describes the racially segregated nature of the prison. I think she did a good job at acknowledging her own privilege within the legal system and pointing out that the reason her sentence was so much shorter than many of the other women was a direct result of her privilege.

    • “If Kerman’s memoir was a documentary, Wolters’ feels like an action movie.”

      i love this and it is so true! kerman’s memoir totally felt like it was written with the mission of exposing the system – which is great – but this book feels so much more personal and, in the process, is full of a lot more excitement and juicy stuff.

  6. Wow..I actually like Chapman. She is a different kind of fighter. She seems to never give up. I think it’s hilarious when white people judge how other white people can and cannot see, or understand white privilege. If you are raised in a certain world and you believe that world to be “how the world works” of course that’s the world you represent. The funny thing is we allow that…even make excuses for others..but the “white privilege” group we expect them to see the flaws, and feel absolutely guilty about those flaws. Get off the high horses folks. We all have terrible flaws. It makes us human. Jealousy of wealth…is also a flaw.

    • I’m not white, and I have a very intense familial racially-charged history with the prison system. I have a right to an opinion, and mine just happens to be that Piper Kerman is an obnoxious, rich as fuck white girl with a dull personality who did something stupid because she thought her poor little rich girl life was too boring, and then didn’t understand why she got in trouble for it and blamed literally everyone else for her problems (like Nora, aka Alex, aka Catherine). I thought her descriptions of fellow inmates in the book were ignorant and stereotypical and mean. Oh, and she’s pretty talentless, in terms of writing ability. And she’s making shitloads of money off of all of this. And getting lots of attention. Which really adds to my right to have an opinion of her and her book.
      At least TV Piper developed some edge and became a little more interesting as time went on.
      /endrant

    • You like the fictional character? Just making sure before I comment on the wrong person.
      I think, well hope actually, now that the show has been picked up for a sort of shocking three more seasons, that Piper Chapman is only halfway through her time at Litchfield. So she has time to change still. She learned some literally frickin’ painful lessons in S4, so who knows? If I were Piper KERMAN, I would hate for Chapman to not be profoundly changed, and for the better. (I guess she might get extra time added, since she has only like 6 months left on her original 15 month sentence?)
      The show can definitely survive without her, so I don’t know what the plan is. Quite a cliff hanger at the finale of S4.

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