Best-selling author Piper Kerman inspires Salem State University students to stay their course and make it colorful.
Piper kerman knows a thing or two about making mistakes.
The Swampscott native and author of the best-selling memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, spent almost a year in jail for her single foray into criminal behavior—sneaking a duffel bag of drug money across a European border when she was a young woman fresh out of Smith College.
With that experience under her belt, there’s nobody better than Kerman—a regal blonde who doesn’t look all that different from Taylor Schilling, the actress who plays Kerman on the Netflix adaptation of her book—to speak to a room full of impressionable college freshmen.
It’s a beautiful September day when Kerman heads to Salem State University to discuss her journey with the class. This is her second time gracing the campus— the first was as a high school student attempting to boost her SAT scores in math.
“I was a terrible, terrible math student,” says Kerman. “Really, a disaster.”
Always a success in English and social studies, Kerman was drawn to all things creative, in and out of the class – room. At Smith College, she majored in theatre while pursuing a passion for adventure during her free time. Remembering her four years of collegiate study, Kerman tells the students that making mistakes is unavoidable.
“You are going to gain so much knowledge during your time here and hopefully acquire some wisdom,” she predicts. “You are also going to make mistakes— probably lots and lots of them. That’s usually how wisdom is acquired. I am here to tell you that mistakes are OK. You [don’t] learn and mature emotionally without making a lot of them. As long as you strive to take positive risks [versus the kind I took] and always take responsibility for your mistakes, you will be OK.
“As a young woman in my 20s, I thought my actions we re pretty insignificant,” Kerman continues. “You will live with the choices you make, the fruits of your labor, and the consequences of your actions . Your choices make a big impact on other people—your parents, your friends, [all kinds of people]. You are in the right place to meet the right people t o help you find your way in the world.”
Looking for a life of adventure, her personal path included some initial diversions. Upon graduating, she fell for an enigmatic older woman who was involved with an international drug cartel. It was that mystery and intrigue that hooked the 20-something-year-old Kerman. In her book, she describes her younger self as “a well-educated young lady from Boston with a thirst for bohemian counterculture and no clear plan. But I had no idea what to do with all my pent-up longing for adventure, or how to make my eagerness to take risks productive. No scientific or analytical bent was strident in my thinking— what I valued was artistry and effort and emotion.”
Emotionally driven, Kerman enjoyed the benefits of her love affair. Enthralled by exotic travel and exciting experiences, she generally managed to distance herself from the dangerous aspects of her girlfriend’s career, until she didn’t. It was for that single infraction of smuggling money that she found herself in a women’s prison almost a decade later, when she had long since moved on from postgraduate bacchanalia and had become a working professional living in New York with her now-husband, Larry Smith. But like an impressionable young person entering college, Kerman found her immersion into prison life to be a lesson in human interaction.
“Even in a terrible place like prison, we have a mutual stake in one another’s stories,” she says. “I met women in prison whose friendships transformed me. Letters from my old college friends were lifelines to the outside world; knowing there were people on the outside who were pulling for me helped me feel some comfort that I would return home safely one day. But it was the friendships I formed with other prisoners of every age, race, and walk of life that helped me successfully navigate that difficult time. You can never have too many true friends. And you can never imagine some of the ways you will have to rely on each other.” Kerman asks the students to turn to a person next to them and introduce themselves.
“There’s [a] group of life-changing [people] sitting all around you,” she says. “They will be your greatest influences for the next few years. The coolest person in the class may be hiding in plain sight. One thing I learned, which [turned out to be] invaluable when I found myself behind prison walls, is that the common ground we find together is much more important than the distinctions that separate us.”
The relationships Kerman formed during her sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, have stood the test of time. She’s still in touch with a few of her former fellow inmates and relishes the opportunity tocommunicate with women who are living through experiences similar to those she had as a prisoner.
“I have been invited to talk to women who are currently incarcerated, and that’s a really powerful experience for me,” she says. “Going back in there and seeing women who are in the midst of that struggle [makes me] really grateful.”
Kerman has also spoken on behalf of imprisoned women who don’t have any other advocates. She speaks passionately in opposition of the Bureau of Prisons’ attempt to transform the Danbury correctional facility into a men’s prison, an endeavor that would mean transferring over 1,000 incarcerated women to different facilities all over the country, thus pulling them farther away from the legions of children who travel, sometimes hundreds of miles, every weekend to visit their imprisoned mothers.
“[I want to do] anything I can to help make the system better,” says Kerman. “The best thing is for these stories and issues to be much more broadly thought about, talked about, and understood.” As for her own future, Piper doesn’t count on penning another book. The possibility exists, though she says it wouldn’t be a memoir. Teaching is an attractive idea As the child of two teachers, she refers to the profession as “probably the single most valuable thing you can do in the world.”
Though her memoir has maintained a spot on The New York Times Best Sellers list, and the Netflix series adaptation, also titled Orange Is the New Black , has reached critical and commercial acclaim, Kerman says her life hasn’t changed all that much; she’s still happily married and has a young son.
As she looks out onto the sea of young people cloaked in bright orange clothing stitched with Salem State’s insignia, Kerman encourages them to take chances and pursue opportunities that frighten them. “Try [to do] at least one thing you think you really can’t do. Do something that really scares you [while] here in this community. Take a really big, positive risk before you graduate. And while I am thrilled to see so much orange, stay out of prison,” she says, “unless you go there to volunteer.”