Netflix’s hit series Orange is the New Black was inspired by Piper Kerman‘s memoir of the same name and, although the TV show has strayed far from the original story of Piper’s life, there’s been growing interest the relationship at the show’s center. Piper and Alex is based on the true story of Piper and Cleary Wolters (referred to as Nora in Piper’s memoir), and now, Cleary (aka “the real Alex Vause”) has published her own version in Out of Orange.
“The hardest part was being honest, because being honest meant I actually had to be honest with myself and to really get to the nitty gritty and the emotion of the story,” Cleary said. “So that it meant anything to anyone reading it, and I could actually convey the feelings of any given moment. I had to be completely and painfully honest.”
Out of Orange mostly details Cleary’s experiences in the drug smuggling trade, during which she met Piper while they were both living in Northhampton, Massachusetts. Cleary’s sister, Hester, became involved with a drug kingpin in Africa and found a group of mostly gay men to help distribute heroin in suitcases from Europe and Asia to the United States.
“When my sister got involved in it, she got involved in it because of her friendship with gay men,” Cleary said. “There were a—it’s is kind of sad—there were a group of men that were all HIV positive and were unable to afford medication. That is sort of the bridge to my group of friends.”
Cleary and her cohorts were paid handsomely for risking their safety, passing through customs with large amounts of heroin and cash before making deliveries in Chicago. While the money was worth it at first, Cleary soon grew tired of keeping up the farce of being an art critic who was constantly worried she’d be found out or disappoint her powerful boss. Piper was a waitress at a restaurant and bar Cleary frequented, and their friendship grew into Piper’s becoming Cleary’s cat sitter when she left town, into becoming an accomplice and, later, her lover.
But those who might expect Cleary to have anything negative to say about her ex will be disappointed. Cleary said that she and Piper are friendly, and that Piper has read the book but won’t say what she thinks.
“She won’t tell me,” Cleary said. “She has not drowned me in a toilet, and I therefore believe she must not hate it.”
Cleary describes young Piper as beautiful, enigmatic, and fun to be around. Even before they were dating, they would pretend to be a couple and often sleep in the same bed together. They had a shared intimacy based on the secrecy of their professions and experiences.
“I had an affection for her,” Cleary said, “but now I have huge respect for her as well.”
Cleary acknowledges that some people will want her to write a take-down of Piper or the show, but Cleary isn’t interested in anything but sharing her own story.
“We live in a reality TV society. They wanted Jerry Springer. But I’m sorry—we get along!” Cleary said. “I think that the larger number of readers that are actually going to buy a book and read it instead of seeing something on TV—I don’t think they’re looking for that. I think they’re surprised that’s not what they get. I’ve had the same reaction over and over again that they’re surprised it’s not a tell-all-your-side-of-the-story kind of thing. I guess I could see where someone might anticipate that but that’s not what I waned to write about.”
Writing about her relationship with Piper was easy compared to the more difficult parts of the memoir.
“Writing about my father’s death,” Cleary said. “Experiencing that—that’s like going through it all over again. I think I discovered I had some very deep-seeded emotional scars from that experience. I cried for days and days and days while I wrote that.”
Cleary said she wrote the book (which was originally twice as long as it is now) in four months and joked that she left “half of her life” on the cutting room floor.
“I have a brutal, brutal, brilliant editor,” she said. “She was absolutely incredible and I guess I make the same mistakes every first writer does, overwriting the story.” But most of what was cut she said was a lot of “cat stuff.”
“It would be me as the crazy cat lady had my editor not intervened!” Cleary said. But don’t worry–there’s still plenty about Edith and Dum-Dum, the loves of Cleary’s life.
It’s not until the end of the book that readers see Cleary in the orange jumpsuit. After waiting seven years to be prosecuted, Cleary ends up in prison where she had relationships with other inmates.
“The relationships I had in prison were amazing. I fell more in love with Tatiana than I’d ever been in love in my life. And I think it’s just because of the circumstance. You’re in such a dismal, horrific, drab world surrounded by people who—and I don’t mean inmates—staff, their job is to make sure that you’re miserable, so it probably makes the relationship and the girlfriend seem so much better than, in fact, she is,” Cleary said. “And you don’t really get the opportunity to test that out in reality. So who knows? Maybe it’s delusional but it sure was fun! I learned to speak Russian. You know I loved her!”
Another plus, Cleary said, is there’s no messy break-ups when your girlfriend is released
“I’m friends with my exes from the pokey because we didn’t have messy break-ups—they just got released. It’s actually one of the benefits and downfalls—sort of the double-edge sword of dating in prison,” she said. “You don’t ever have to have that pesky break-up. Every relationship has an expiration date.”
Cleary is a positive person, someone who says the biggest plus from all of her experiences is that she’s alive.
“That’s a major plus,” she said. But outside of survival, she said she’s happy that she was able to create good for herself after being incarcerated. She also praises the kinds of people she met while serving her sentence.
“I met so many different parts of our society, people that I would have never encountered. I really discovered there are some incredible, incredible human beings that you just don’t expect to find in certain places,” Cleary said. “And these incredible human beings have heart-wrenching stories. Women are just so strong.”
But Cleary’s time in prison is not reflected in Orange is the New Black.
“I’ve gotten way past the notion that it’s even based on my life,” Cleary said. “They’ve departed so from reality that it bears no resemblance, so I’m just another viewer and I absolutely love the show. I wish, when Alex comes back this season, I hope to see a little bit more from her. She’s a little bit flat. She needs a little more character. We need to know a little bit more about her than she was a failed drug smuggler and hot lesbian.”
Cleary said she’s felt a lot of pressure in writing a book that will appeal to a rampant fanbase, but she is hoping to find readers that could use a wake-up call like the one she received when she was arrested.
“I have a feeling that a few of the readers will pick it up and they will be people that, in some way, are at that particular point in their path, at that fork in the road, and I hope they can look at my ridiculous decisions and serious missteps and say ‘Wait a minute—I need to pay attention,'” Cleary said. “And perhaps not go down the slippery slope to hell that I did.”
Cleary hopes to get involved in prison reform, although she said she hasn’t found anyone with a good enough answer just yet. (“I just know the current solution is lousy and making the drug problem worse. I don’t want to be a downer but we’re tearing families up and putting half of our society in jail—it’s not a good idea.”) She said she has empathy for prison guards, even though they treated her like “a bag a flour, not a human being.”
“I wasn’t shy in prison because they do a good job of dehumanizing you; objecting you—you really are just being warehoused,” she said. “And they won’t even look you in the eye. I think they’re trained to do that. I really have a lot of empathy for the guards because I don’t know how they can do anything but that. There are so many people living out these disastrous lives, that if they were to start feeling empathy for their stories and the people behind the bags of flours they are guarding, I don’t see how they would keep anyone working in a prison. Who could do that?”
Now living with her mother in Cincinnati, Ohio and working at a software company, what Cleary hopes for from the publication of Out of Orange is that people understand prison gave her a new beginning.
“The one point that doesn’t really make it across is that when I was arrested, my life was saved,” she said. “That whole mindset that led up to so many missteps, that add up to what it added up to, it cured me. It was a clean slate.”
Out of Orange is available now.