Who is The Real Piper Chapman?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Orange Is The New Black" by Piper Kerman. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Who is the real Piper Chapman? Is the Netflix character based on a real person?

Piper Chapman’s real name is similar to her TV counterpart. The real Piper Chapman is actually named Piper Kerman. Kerman is the author of the groundbreaking memoir about her time in women’s prison, Orange Is the New Black.

Read more about the Piper Kerman, the real Piper Chapman in Orange Is the New Black.

Piper Kerman: The Real Piper Chapman

Piper Chapman’s real name is is Piper Kerman. Orange Is the New Black is Piper Kerman’s memoir of her year at a federal women’s prison. Piper was a well-educated white woman from an upper-middle-class, liberal New England family. Growing up in these circumstances, there seemed to be little doubt that Piper would go to a good college, graduate, and start a successful career as a white-collar professional. With her social and financial privileges, as well as her obvious intelligence and solid work ethic, this kind of life was certainly open to Piper. But Piper was to take a different path, one that her experiences and background could never have prepared her for. Piper Kerman is the real Piper Chapman, and wrote the memoir that was eventually turned into a TV show.

Life With Nora

Piper Kerman, the real Piper Chapman, graduated from Smith College in the early 1990s. Not wanting to settle down right away and start a career, she instead went looking for adventure and new opportunities for self-exploration. She moved to the nearby town of Northampton, Massachusetts, where she began a bohemian chic life alongside a clique of other 20-something college graduates. She worked at a brewery and enjoyed casual sexual encounters with her peers. During this time, she also explored another dimension of her sexuality, having relationships with women as well as men.

It was during this period of Piper’s life that she met a mysterious, but intriguing woman named Nora Jansen. While Nora was not conventionally attractive, she had an allure that mesmerized Piper. Piper quickly learned that Nora was a far-from-conventional person with a far-from-conventional job—Nora, in fact, was a drug dealer, working for an international heroin smuggling ring headed by a West African drug lord. 

For Piper, who was desperately looking for adventure and unique life experiences, Nora was a window into a thrilling and high-stakes world. Piper fell under Nora’s sway and began a torrid love affair with her. As the months went on, Piper became more and more involved with Nora’s smuggling operation, as did many of her Northampton friends.

Nora provided Piper with the adventure that Piper craved. On a whim, she moved with Nora to San Francisco, where they began a life defined by travel to distant and exotic locations, where Nora would meet her contacts in the drug ring. Piper was engaged as a courier in this operation, transporting bags of drug money through international airports. She was fascinated and thrilled by the adventure and risk of it all, and she relished the opportunity to see the world. The real Piper Champan’s story is similar to her TV counterpart.

Getting in Over Her Head

Later in life, Piper would look back on these experiences and reflect upon how insulated she was from the real-world consequences of her criminal behavior. Drug abuse was something that destroyed lives, tore families apart, and was a main driver of the ever-escalating costs of mass incarceration, particularly in the United States. As a willing and eager participant in a heroin smuggling ring, Piper was directly contributing to this social destruction, but she was blithely unaware of the consequences of her actions at the time. To her, it barely even registered that she was committing crimes at all.

Still, Piper Kerman, the real Piper Chapman, had growing apprehensions. On one trip, Piper journeyed with Nora to Indonesia. They stayed in a luxury hotel and enjoyed the height of comfort and splendor, but Piper was taken aback by the wildness of the country. Her mind boggled at seeing the stark contrast between the dire third-world poverty and the decadent excesses of unrestrained, unregulated, and illicit capitalism practiced by the endless parade of oil tycoons, arms dealers, and drug kingpins.

Piper began to feel that she was on a truly dangerous and reckless path and had gotten herself in far over her head. In particular, she began to have her doubts about Nora. During the Indonesia trip, Piper and Nora journeyed to Krakatoa, where they spent the day in a pool that lay atop a 35-foot waterfall. Nora dared Piper to jump over the waterfall into the river below. Reluctantly (and after pressure from Nora), Piper made the terrifying plunge. Nora followed after, but told Piper she was using her as a guinea pig—she only jumped after seeing that Piper had done so with dying or suffering gruesome injury. This set off an alarm in Piper’s mind that Nora was dangerous and untrustworthy.

She knew that Nora was exploiting her, using her as a courier to help herself make money. Clearly, Nora was willing to put Piper at great legal and physical risk for her own benefit. After one final trip during which Nora asked her to smuggle actual heroin (instead of money) through the airport in Zurich, Piper decided enough was enough. She ended her relationship with Nora and cut ties with her. She closed this exciting, but frightening chapter of her life—or so she thought. The real Piper Chapman, Piper Kerman, believed that part of her life was over until it came back to haunt her, just like her TV counterpart.

Piper Chapman’s real name is Piper Kerman, and her memoir discussed her life in a women’s prison. The book was groundbreaking in many ways and explored social issues.

Who is The Real Piper Chapman?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Piper Kerman's "Orange Is The New Black" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Orange Is The New Black summary:

  • The real, more nuanced story behind the hit TV show
  • How upper-class Piper Kerman landed in prison on drug charges
  • The key lessons Kerman learned about society and herself

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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