Well, it looks like we’ll have to find something else to do with our laptops while we watch the new season of Orange Is the New Black, because the popular hobby of deep-Googling “real Alex Vause” has been rendered obsolete. Yesterday, Vanity Fair published an interview with Piper Kerman’s former partner in crime, Catherine Cleary Wolters, who is working on a memoir titled Out of Orange. The differences between the show’s plot and Wolters’s account of the pair’s involvement in an international drug ring — the crime that resulted in Kerman’s 13-month stay in a women’s prison in Connecticut and Wolters’s six-year term in a California facility (the only prison time the two shared was during a five-week stay in a Chicago detention center) — are, for the most part, results of the fictionalization of Kerman’s memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, for its Jenji Kohan–helmed Netflix adaptation (another topic you may have Googled to death during a Season 1 binge-watch). Kerman offered a statement to Vanity Fair enforcing Wolters’s clarifications: There was no prison sex, unfortunately; Kerman was “an out lesbian” when she first met Wolters, and each implicated the other in their official statements before they were sentenced (much less dramatic than OItNB’s take, in which Piper suspects that “Alex” had named her as her accomplice).
Kerman and Wolters do disagree on one count, however: Despite acknowledging that their relationship was a “crazy mad love affair,” Wolters insists they were never girlfriends, rather “friends with benefits.” (Kerman responds, “If Cleary believes we were never girlfriends, that is startling news to me, though it’s certainly not the first time she has surprised me.”) It’s kind of a sick burn to deliver in this way, especially since watching each other’s cats, cooking prison nachos together, and “communicat[ing] effectively through a toilet” certainly sounds like a serious relationship to me (especially communicating effectively through a toilet, which is something most long-married couples still struggle with). Perhaps that’s a result of the fact that while Kerman served just more than a year of her 15-month sentence, Wolters estimates she’s spent the past two decades either in prison or on parole. Kerman not only suffered less for her role in the whole mess, she promptly capitalized on her story (her ex-friend-with-benefits gives her props for doing so: “that takes balls the size of Oklahoma”), while Wolters still struggles with reliving the experience, which she describes as her “nightmare, the one that wakes you gasping on your rubber legs that won’t run.” Not that it prevents her from watching; she’s human, and likes to see Laura Prepon get down with Taylor Schilling in a chapel as much as the rest of us do.
Wolters’s story may be even better than Kerman’s, especially considering her two prison wives, one of whom “looked just like Jennifer Lawrence” (get her agent on the line now): She has much more experience behind bars, and her sister Ellen Wolters, who was also involved in the crime and had a romantic relationship with the drug ring’s alleged kingpin, Buruji Kashamu, could provide a b-plot that would handily squash the one currently occupied by OItNB’s Larry (Jason Biggs, playing a highly fictionalized version of Kerman’s writer/editor husband Larry Smith). As a writer — in addition to her memoir-in-progress, Wolters says she has written three novels — it can’t be easy to watch your own story penned by someone else, and then sensationalized for TV on demand, though being played by Prepon must make it a little easier to swallow.
Wolters seems like a good sport, but while Kerman admits to resentment toward her ex for presenting her with the “seductive offers” that drew her into the heroin-smuggling business when she was 22 years old, it’s impossible to believe that Wolters doesn’t have some bones to pick with Kerman herself. That she chooses not to air them, and that the two remain civil — even if only in Vanity Fair–mediated correspondence — just reinforces OItNB’s theme of the vast gray territory of human nature and the exploration of good people (whatever that means) who screw up. In contrast to the ugliness that often follows telling other people’s stories — and here I’ll point you to the unreliable Liberace narrator Scott Thorson — that the two women agree on most of the details of the events that brought them together (and eventually estranged them from each other) speaks to an enduring respect: Kerman calls Wolters “a charismatic and funny person,” and wishes her “a very happy life moving forward.”
So our first glimpse of the real Alex Vause (who will appear in most of the second season) doesn’t necessarily match up with the “power-hungry girl” imagined by Prepon as the basis for her character; in fact, Wolters has been mum until now, though she could have easily piggybacked on OItNB’s success for her own gain. Power dynamics within relationships, even those that have run their course, are always expressed differently depending on who’s telling the story. To put it in friends-with-benefits terms, it’s complicated.