Ever since I finished watching Orange Is the New Black a few days ago, I have a huge prison uniform-shaped hole in my heart. It reminds me of the time when we had to wait a year in between Harry Potter books; the utter despair upon finishing on a huge cliffhanger (remember when Dumbledore died?), knowing that you wouldn’t find out how the story continues for one long, seemingly never-ending year.
In order to prolong my time with the inmates of Litchfield, I took a closer look at their stories. Because the stories are what makes this show so utterly spellbinding! They show that these women aren’t inherently bad, or ruthless, or mean-spirited.
They are normal women like you and I, who made a mistake (or many mistakes, as the case may be). Most of them didn’t hit the jackpot when they were born: They had single parents with little time for them, or were born into poor neighbourhoods, or had parents who were criminals. Being disadvantaged from the moment you arrive on earth isn’t a good start in life.
Add the complications of wanting to be loved, seeking a community to belong to, or simply being young and clueless, and you may very well end up doing something that will land you in prison.
1. Suffering is a choice.
“Do you know the difference between pain and suffering? Pain is always there. But suffering is a choice.”
Did you get goosebumps when Pennsatucky said those words? I sure did. Who would have thought that judgmental, crazy-religious former crackhead Pennsatucky would become so wise?
Because that attitude towards life is truly insightful. She says it in response to Big Boo accusing her of not being revengeful enough towards her rapist Coates, one of the guards at Litchfield.
Pennsatucky came to realize that by holding on to her fear and hatred, the only person truly suffering was her. By letting go of the hatred, she reclaims her life and her happiness.
That way of dealing with pain is truly remarkable. And it’s a lesson to all of us: We can’t always control what happens to us. But we can control how we deal with it.
One of the most heart-breaking story lines of season 4 is that of Sophia stuck in the SHU.
She lands there at the end of season 3 “for her own protection” due to being attacked by several inmates, partly due to her being transgender, partly because of her feud with Gloria.
Throughout the season you can see her deteriorate more and more, leading her to first flooding her cell, than setting it on fire, until she tries to commit suicide by slitting her wrists.
When she finally gets out, shell-shocked and a shadow of her former self, Gloria helps her reclaim her old beauty salon, and brushes up her wig to help Sophia reclaim her former sense of self.
Lesson learned: Kindness and forgiveness will always win over hatred. #lovewins
3. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
“I think her mother was a drug addict, or something, you may as well be an alien.”
That’s how Soso describes her girlfriend Poussey to the Marta Stewart-esque new inmate Judy King. As it turns out, Poussey speaks three languages, was set to go to West Point, and had a mother who had a masters in art history, and a father who is a major in the army. She is more well-read than most of her inmates, highly intelligent, and has a kind and caring nature.
She is upset about her girlfriend’s assumptions, saying that “You spent time with me. Did you even listen when I talk? Like what the fuck about me, besides the colour of my skin, would indicate that I’m some indigent hood rat?”
What, indeed. Soso apologizes, and in the end they make up.
But it’s an important lesson to all of us: Don’t jump to conclusions. We are ALL guilty of that, because it seems to be human nature. (Or is it conditioning? I’m unclear about that.)
But we shouldn’t. Every person is much more than meets the eye, and keeping an open mind and heart is crucial.
4. Mother-daughter relationships are complicated.
Oh, Aleida. When it comes to mother-of-the-year-awards, she’s hardly be the first one that comes to mind. She has five kids from five different guys, often leaves her oldest daughter Daya in charge of the younger kids, and allows her latest boyfriend to set up a drug lab in her apartment. However, like everything in life, it’s complicated. She may be a less-than-perfect-mother, but she still cares about her children.
The relationship between mother and daughter has many highs and lows, but they do love each other.
I really love the portrayal of this mother-/daughter-relationship. Much too often in TV-land you see either highly unrealistic relationships à la Gilmore Girls (I love them, but come on), or they have no relationship at all. This one is real, flawed, complicated, and full of moments of “I HATE you”. However, they are not giving up, and watching Aleida and Daya trying to make it work is very rewarding for everybody who knows the difficulties of a strained relationship.
Lesson learned: Families are fucked. You are not alone.
5. Family comes in many forms.
Having said that, the good news is that we can choose our own family.
We all crave the stability and security that comes from having family. Knowing that you have someone on your side, even if you mess up, is incredibly comforting.
The families that have formed in Litchfield are tight-knit groups that support each other, share special treats, and look out for each other.
They celebrate the good times, and gather together in the hard ones.
Lesson learned: Family is more than being related by blood. You can love someone unconditionally, and have friends become your family.