Tag Archives: career

Must Read: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

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“Ever since I saw the series of Orange is the New Black on Netflix before I went to rehab, I had recommended it to all the girls I had met that had been in jail. After hearing their experiences of being locked up in prison for months or years, I knew this was something they could relate to. I find that when we can relate to something, we feel less alone, less of a need to isolate. Things of our past no longer seem so daunting. Instead they appear as experiences that have only made us stronger. Piper might not have been a heroin addict but in her time spent behind bars, she met many and could sympathize with most every woman she that came into her life during her year sentence. I found this book to be heartbreaking yet hilarious. Opening my eyes to a rock bottom I hope to never hit! Below is a summary and make sure you watch the series too, you won’t be disappointed!” -Love and light, Robyn

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In 1998, Piper Kerman was working as a freelance producer in New York City and living a peaceful life with her magazine editor boyfriend, Larry. When two police officers arrived at their door one morning, Kerman assumed it must have something to do with the apartment building. In fact, they were there to arrest her on conspiracy drug charges related to her role in a heroin trafficking ring several years earlier.

At the time of her arrest, Kerman’s family, friends and boyfriend had no idea about her criminal past. Despite their assurances that a “nice blond lady” would never do time, Kerman ultimately served eleven months at the federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a memoir ensued. The result is a perceptive, if imperfect inside look at our criminal justice system and the women who cycle through it.

Kerman begins by describing how, in 1992, she found herself a recent Smith College graduate from a good Boston family “with a thirst for bohemian counterculture and no clear plan.” She stuck around her college town waiting tables and soon began dating an older woman named Nora, who revealed on their first date that she was part of an international heroin trafficking network. While this disclosure may have prompted a “Check, please!” from your average gal, a young Kerman found it “exciting beyond belief.”

She spent the next four months traveling the world on heroin-smuggling missions with Nora and her crew: Hanging out in Bali beach clubs, wandering through Paris, and transporting drug money (but never actual drugs), before realizing that she was getting in too deep and breaking all ties. When Kerman reflects on this time, she seems unwilling or unable to explore her motivations, and more often resorts to describing her lifestyle in list form. A typical recollection: “We worked, we threw parties, we went skinny-dipping or sledding, we fucked, sometimes we fell in love. We got tattoos.”

In contrast, her depiction of arriving at the prison in 2004—saying goodbye to Larry, surrendering all her possessions—is poignant and thoroughly-rendered. If the author seems hard to relate to in her wild-child days, empathy abounds as she skillfully describes her sense of terror upon losing all freedom.

Contrary to her fears, most of her fellow inmates approach her with warmth and concern. Descriptions of their small acts of kindness are remarkably touching. When one woman shares a commissary root beer float that Kerman has not yet been approved to buy for herself, you feel so vicariously grateful that she may as well have given Kerman a kidney.

The author is soon showing newbies the ropes, helping her fellow inmates with schoolwork, and lending them books. (Unlike most women at Danbury, she receives a steady stream of mail and reading material from family and friends.)

She learns that prison life is sometimes brutal (guards sexually abuse inmates with impunity), often humiliating (the women are subject to strip searches at any time), and generally tedious. Still, deep friendships spring up; surrogate mother-daughter relationships are cultivated. The inmates throw birthday parties, complete with inspired microwave creations. (Kerman’s specialty is prison cheesecake. She supplies the recipe, which calls for a whole container of coffee creamer and nearly an entire bottle of lemon juice.)

Kerman excels at chronicling the other women and their struggles, from teenagers doing time for drug-related crimes to a 69-year-old nun in jail for trespassing as part of a peaceful protest at a missile silo. In one haunting scene, inmates are briefly reunited with their children for a field day—the separation afterward is brutal, and Kerman weeps. At another point, Kerman grieves over the fact that some inmates are actually afraid to leave prison because their neighborhoods are “more desperate and dangerous than jails.”

She is less successful at talking about herself. Occasionally, she opens up, and these moments are powerful. But, a public relations executive by trade, Kerman is often frustratingly careful, polite. She paints nearly everyone pretty rosily and without much nuance.

Everyone, that is, except “The Fed.” Interwoven with the women’s stories are facts about the War on Drugs, with which Kerman makes no effort to hide her anger and bafflement. While acknowledging her privileged background, Kerman never fully dispels the reader’s discomfort when she more or less conflates her own case with those of the majority of the women around her. Drug use has wreaked havoc on so many of their lives, a fact that ultimately makes Kerman aware of “the people who suffered because of what people like me had done.”

Though certain aspects of her own story never quite seem resolved, her sympathetic portraits of these people stay with you long after the book is through.

Summary from Chicago Tribune by J. Courtney Sullivan

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Must Read: Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg

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“One of my friends from AA has read this book and often suggests it for recovering male addicts. Its a great book for newly recovering addicts that have once built themselves a productive life only to see it crashing down under the peak of their disease. He doesn’t sugar coat anything, many reviews speak of his brutal honesty and graphic descriptions… but something about that is incredibly refreshing in the world of addiction. Tell me for yourself what you thought of this book!” -Love, Robyn

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Successfully Surrendering It All to Crack

By Dwight Garner, June 15, 2010

There are two kinds of crack addicts, those who cook their own — a complicated business that involves cocaine, baking soda, water and a flame — and those who grab the stuff to go, in ready-made chunks called rocks. Most people go for the rocks. Even when it comes to killing yourself, slowly and gruesomely, who has time to cook anymore?

In his memoir, “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man,” Bill Clegg describes the few times he tried to prepare his own crack. “I wasted the coke, burned my hands, and ended up with a wet glob that was barely smokable,” he writes. He’s not quite Woody Allen, sneezing into the cocaine in “Annie Hall.” But he’s not far off.

Whatever black comedy there is in Mr. Clegg’s book dwindles pretty quickly. “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man” is a mesmerizing bummer; reading it is like letting the needle down on a Nick Drake album. He tells his story in short, atmospheric paragraphs, each separated by white space, each its own strobe-lighted snapshot of decadent poetic memory. It’s an earnest style that mostly works. This is a short book that pulls you in and spits you back out before you have time to tire of it.

Mr. Clegg is a literary agent in New York City, but don’t come to his book sniffing for publishing gossip. There are no party scenes with Sonny Mehta. Ann Godoff does not leap naked into a swimming pool. The discreet Mr. Clegg doesn’t even mention the names of the writers he represents or, frankly, many books at all. If he’s well read, that’s among the few secrets he’s keeping to himself.

What this book does have — grim scenes in a crack house and behind a 7-Eleven in Newark aside — is an elite, stylized Manhattan milieu. There are meals at La Grenouille and drinks at the Bemelmans Bar. Among the boutique hotels Mr. Clegg holes up in to get high or have sex with anonymous men are the SoHo Grand and the Hotel Gansevoort. There are trips to Paris and London. This isn’t flea-bitten Bukowski territory.

Adding to the book’s sexpot glamour is Mr. Clegg himself, who in his dust jacket photograph, and especially in two recent full-page photos in New York magazine, seems as clear-eyed and clean-cut as a J. Crew catalog model. Glancing at a faded pile of recent addiction memoirs, here’s a salient truth: No one wants to read one of these things by a grizzled or potato-shaped or even middle-aged writer. We want our addiction memoirists to nearly die young and definitely stay pretty. Maybe that’s why, in bulk, these books aren’t better.

“Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man” is the story of how Mr. Clegg lost it all — his clients, his apartment, his loyal boyfriend, his sanity — one crack hit at a time. It’s a story that ranges over several years but finds its dramatic center of gravity during one especially dark two-month binge, during which Mr. Clegg manages to fritter away some $70,000 on crack and Ketel One vodka and on the elegant hotel rooms he often shares with greasy characters, including male hookers. He picks up a cabdriver by asking, “Do you party?”

This story is told in the present tense, alongside flashbacks to Mr. Clegg’s childhood in Connecticut. His father was a pilot for TWA, and not a warm and fuzzy guy; his mother wasn’t much more approachable. He doesn’t really blame them for his addiction, however, nor for his dramatic inability, as a boy, to urinate without first spending hours alone in the bathroom performing a desperate kind of rain dance.

What drove Mr. Clegg to crack? Mostly, it seems, it was a common-enough big city and publishing world malady: the towering inferiority complex. This memoir is laced with lines like, “This is a place for a sleeker, smarter, better-educated, and altogether finer grade of person.” And: “I am not nearly as bright or well read or business savvy or connected as I think people imagine me to be.”

Before insecurity could fully take root, however, there were other addict-in-training milestones. Sneaking Scotch, as a teenager, from his dad’s liquor cabinet. Snorting a line of crystal meth at 15 — his first illegal drug — off a box of mozzarella sticks with a grocery store co-worker named Max. Smoking pot daily, bales of it, in college.

Mr. Clegg was introduced to crack by an older married man from his hometown, a respected lawyer who also seduced him sexually. Here is Mr. Clegg on that first taste of crack: “It is the warmest, most tender caress he has ever felt and then, as it recedes, the coldest hand.”

Among the reasons to stick with “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man” is the lightly narcotized sensorium of Mr. Clegg’s prose. He nails the “weary authority” of the Empire State Building, with its “shoulders of colored light.” He describes swaying in time, while high, with another addict, the pair of them “like two underwater weeds bending to the same current.” He can write.

Stick with it, too, for its second half, which is thick with jittery drug-induced paranoia. (Mr. Clegg begins to think cabs and helicopters are following him, as well as guys in — the horror — cheap off-the-rack suits.) Along the way you’ll learn some things. Who knew that crack use made your contact lenses dry out, so that they pop right off your eyes?

At one point, Mr. Clegg hops into a cab and orders it to race away from his family, who’ve gathered to stage an intervention. As he roars off, he thinks to himself, “Like so many other moments, this one feels lifted from an after-school special or ‘Bright Lights, Big City.’ ”

Actually, his memoir doesn’t read much like either one of those things. But the first sentence of “Bright Lights, Big City” certainly captures the mood Mr. Clegg works to set: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time in the morning.”