"If You Love ‘Orange Is The New Black,’ You Have To Read ‘Random Family’"
This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with Kerman’s memoir, if you go into Orange Is The New Black with reasonable expectations. As June Thomas wrote in her comparison of the book and the show on Slate, “The book feels like a well-written, readable stage in Kerman’s rehabilitation. She’s respectful of her fellow inmates, mad at a system that responds to America’s drug problem by locking people up, and keen to prove that she’s paid the price for a youthful misstep.” That careful approach to the women who were incarcerated with her is appropriate, and representative of an admirable impulse not to use other women’s life stories for Kerman’s own gain. That’s especially important considering Kerman already has considerable advantages over her fellow inmates, including an outside support system to support her on her release, the opportunity to return to work without her felony record locking her out of most jobs, and the ability to profit by selling her own story precisely because the story of a white woman in prison for drug-related crimes seems idiosyncratic, rather than in keeping with the overincarceration of people of color on similar offenses. But it also means the story has a certain blandness to it, stripped of the details that Kerman is uncomfortable profitting from.
That’s a danger of memoir that doesn’t exist in reportage, and it’s one of the many reasons that Random Family, which LeBlanc published in 2003 after a decade of reporting and research, is a much more engaging book. Random Family grew out of LeBlanc’s coverage of the trial of drug dealer George Rivera, during which she became more interested in the women who were showing up to provide support to the defendants, including a woman named Jessica Santos, who was one of Rivera’s girlfriends. Santos’ brother Cesar was dating a girl named Coco. Jessica and Coco became the two main characters in the reporting project that would eventually become Random Family. And Jessica ends up incarcerated in the federal prison in Danbury, the same place Piper Kerman did her time.
The time LeBlanc spent with both women and their extended families, including their children, their mothers, the men that both they and their mothers dated, and friends like a woman named Milagros, who helped raise Jessica’s children during her time in prison, after she was incarcerated on conspiracy charges despite her extremely minor role in Rivera’s drug operation, allowed her to paint an extraordinary detailed portrait of their lives. And because, as LeBlanc puts it in her author’s note to the book, “Most of the spoken words quoted here were uttered in my presence…In those cases where someone is said to have ‘thought’ or ‘believed’ something, those thoughts and beliefs were described and recounted to me by that person,” she’s not a white woman speaking for the women of Puerto Rican origin whose lives she’s chronicling: she’s relaying their thoughts for them.
I realize that’s a lot of disclaimer to get through before I get to the point, which is that Random Family is an extraordinarily gripping and well-written story about how two people, Jessica and Cesar, both ended up doing long prison terms, and how their incarcerations affected the people in their lives, including Coco, who raised two of her children with Cesar alone, and Milagros, who assumed responsibility for Jessica’s children. If you were hungry for more than the short flashbacks that sketch in the inmates lives prior to prison on Orange Is The New Black, you’ll get them here.
There are epic love stories, even if they don’t look or progress the way we’ve expected these narratives to go. LeBlanc captures Coco’s first glimpse of Cesar, when they were young teenagers. “He covered a mole on his substantial forehead with the band of his baseball hat, which he always turned to the back. He was self-conscious about his ears. He thought they were too small and that they stuck out. Coco only knew what she saw–an agile boy with full lips, serious brown eyes, and a flat nose, who knew how to dress. Cesar’s sneakers were scuffless. His clothes were pressed and clean.” It’s a small glimpse from which an entire family grows. And deep attachments can have mercenary roots. “Jessica had agreed to meet this George under one condition. ‘If he’s ugly, bring me home at ten,’ she said. The evening of January 23, 1988, Lourdes sat by the window gazing down over Tremont. ‘George pulled up in a car that was like the ocean,’ Lourdes said. He saluted her through the sunroof of a charcoal-gray Mercedes-Benz 190. Jessica took one look at him and rescinded her curfew. He was so handsome that she was willing to surrender the next day or two.”
Random Family also offers up clearer explanations of how drug laws penalize even minor participants, especially women who date drug dealers (much as Daya and her mother do on Orange Is The New Black). When Jessica relays a brief message to one of George Rivera’s suppliers, LeBlanc tells us that “Conspiracy law cast a wide net: technically, a coconspirator could be held liable for the cumulative amount of drugs that passed through a criminal enterprise. Harsh drug laws determined prison sentences by drug weight; unfortunately for Jessica, George was about to make the biggest deal of his life.”
And the book is a remarkable portrait of how prison socializes inmates, and the challenges of maintaining a relationship with someone who is incarcerated. Some aspects of Jessica’s life remain the same, including her volatile romances and her need for attention. But prison produces different responses to the same actions. In the real world, medical needs like recovery from a beating, or the aftermath of a pregnancy, made Jessica the center of attention, giving her the care she rarely got in day-to-day life. In jail, her medical needs are ignored in a way that ends up forming the basis for a human rights complaint against Danbury. While Jessica and her brother were both regularly rewarded for their willingness to fight, or to be sexually or physically aggressive with other people (what LeBlanc describes as a wide-ranging understanding of “badness”) in the free world, both siblings first approach prison like their old neighborhood in the Bronx. In Cesar’s case, that means getting sent to a more secure facility for possession of a shank, and in Jessica’s, it means acting out to be sent to a prison unit with a lower standard of behavior. Ultimately, though, they both decide to play by the rules. Jessica enters a sentence-reduction program at the behest of a girlfriend, and acquires an obsession with cleaning that she carries into the free world. When Cesar, through a lot of hard work, wins himself a spot in a less restrictive facility, he’s uncomfortable with the freedom he’s been granted: “At first, medium-security status unnerved him. He’d wait by his cell for a guard to escort him to the package room until the guard said, ‘What are you waiting for?’”
The new rules of relationship pose challenges, too. Jessica has a love affair with a guard, by whom she becomes pregnant–their story seem like a direct and detailed precedent for Daya’s story in Orange Is The New Black, and with any luck, should provide Kohan some inspiration for the upcoming season. Cesar can be merciless critic of Coco’s efforts to parent his children–a complication Larry and Piper don’t exactly face in Orange Is The New Black– and stay sexually faithful to him (even as he has multiple relationships and children with other women). During one visit, Coco notices that Cesar “hadn’t teased Coco or complimented her dressy outfit. He’d said nothing about the tattoo, or the special Weeboks Nautica wore. When he had been in Harlem Valley and Mercedes had worn the cheaper, no-name brand called skippies, he’d removed them and tossed them across the visiting room.” Separated by jail, though, they find their own ways towards adulthood. Prison actually offers more opportunities for education and self-improvement to Cesar than Coco has on the outside, though she finds her own solutions.
Random Family has a narrower focus on a few characters than Orange Is The New Black does, and a more expansive time-frame and area of focus, criss-crossing New York State from the Bronx to Troy, and over to Connecticut, where Jessica serves her time in prison. And it’s less funny than Orange Is The New Black, in part because its characters are so often exhausted by their responsibilities and entanglements. But it’s one of the best, most emotionally gripping books I’ve read–I’ve revisited it at least once a year since I first encountered it in college. And if what you love about Orange Is The New Black is less Piper than the remarkable women around her, Random Family is a wonderful way to burn down some of the time until next summer.