Based on a True Story

May 31, 2015 No Comments »
Based on a True Story

By T. R. Robertson

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison is Piper Kerman’s best-selling book about her 13-month incarceration in a federal prison. 

The details of Kerman’s story ring true to me. I’ve never spent a day locked up in a prison, but as a volunteer chaplain in a women’s prison during the past 10 years, I’ve learned a lot about the realities of incarceration. The book built on the things I already knew and deepened my understanding of the daily lives of the women I counsel and teach. 

Truth as a Gateway Drug

As I read the book, I also understood that my personal experience in the prison was affecting my understanding of Kerman’s story. I processed the details about her life as an inmate in a federal prison in Connecticut through the filter of my experiences as a religious volunteer in a state prison in Missouri.

This is natural when anyone reads a book. It didn’t take long for me, as a writer, to learn that my readers don’t always take away from my writing exactly what I thought I was putting into it. In the act of writing nonfiction, an author has already filtered the truth through his or her unique perspective. Presenting the facts without interpretation is an ideal seldom achieved completely. 

Kerman admits that she didn’t write a fully detailed description of what life is like in every prison for every prisoner. She told the truth, but it was truth through the eyes of her personal experience as a privileged, middle-class woman who unexpectedly found herself in prison. Kerman’s point of view affects how readers process her story, in part because of where they line up with her socioeconomic background.

When the rights of the book were sold to create a Netflix TV series, yet another layer of interpretation was introduced to the truth. The producer of the highly successful series, Jenji Kohan, confessed as much in an interview with in July 2013:

“You know, the book was really a launching point for us. We stuck to the book a little bit in the beginning, both for our creative process and Piper Kerman’s comfort, and the fact that the book is relatively conflict-free, we took off from there and it became its own animal. . . . You took the blonde, blue-eyed girl-next-door and you put her into this world and, you know, you’re not gonna go into a network and say, ‘I want to talk about black women and Latina women and old women in prison.’ You need a guide. You need a way in. She was our gateway drug.” 

Kohan’s body of work paints a picture of a filmmaker who returns repeatedly to certain themes in her work, including plenty of sex, drugs, hostility toward religion, feminism, and a sense of humor that goes far beyond pushing the envelope. 

When student volunteers from the Mizzou Christian Campus House accompany us to the prison, I recommend that they read the book Orange Is the New Black to get some understanding of life inside a women’s prison. I also advise them to not expect as accurate a portrayal of prison life in the Netflix series. There is truth in the series, but it’s often obscured by the show runner’s own point of view.


This isn’t unusual in the world of modern visual media.

When a movie features the tagline, “based on a true story,” audiences assume they’re getting the truth, but most often they’re getting a version of the truth. Millions of moviegoers carry with them an understanding of historical events based in large part on the adaptations made by the filmmakers of movies—consider JFK (Oliver Stone’s point of view of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories), The Social Network (the sort of true story of the development of Facebook), and Pearl Harbor (historical events forced to fit around love stories).

The news media itself is no less involved in presenting a point of view version of truth. I’ve been looking for a truly unbiased, “just the facts” news source for some time with little success. I find much more truthiness, a term invented by comedian Stephen Colbert to describe things that only seem like the truth. 

At least the producers of nonfiction entertainment admit to their biases. The news media seldom admit they’re providing all the news that fits their point of view.

Don Draper, the fictional ad man from the AMC TV series Mad Men, said, “Change is neither good nor bad; it simply is.” We might quibble over the details, but his point is relevant: the media world has changed, whether we like it or not. 

Christians can complain about the way things have changed or we can give in and let it change us. Better yet, we can change our approach without changing our values.

Value the Truth in the Content You Take In

Skepticism has always been part of the healthy Christian’s skill set. Call it discernment or being “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), but it’s always appropriate to assume the need to sort the wheat from the chaff.

One key to discernment is to carefully choose the content sources you patronize. Many providers have become skilled at presenting their point of view as though it were the bare truth.

By the same token, discernment is also best served if you’re honest with yourself about your own point of view. Can you set aside the filtered glasses you’re used to wearing and evaluate the media you consume with a critical eye for the truth? Keeping your focus on your God-given mission is essential to maintaining your sensitivity to truth, but make sure you haven’t allowed your own personal agenda to obscure the truth. 

Value the Truth in the Content You Put Out

Those religion-tinted glasses you’re wearing may also be coloring your message. Once again, being brutally honest about your own preconceptions will help keep you honest in the things you say.

Given the predominance of truthiness in the public square, disciples of God’s truth cannot afford to be seen as yet another source of mushy truth. We’re lying to ourselves if we think either seekers or skeptics will be attracted to the one true God if they see us as yet another group using the truth as a gateway drug to serve our purposes.

Whether you’re preaching, teaching, writing, or having a conversation with your neighbor or coworker, speak the truth. 

Champion the Truth

To be known as people of the truth in a point-of-view-centric world, Christians need to be ruthless champions of truth, wherever it is found:

• If someone who shares your faith-based point of view is peddling a manipulated version of the truth on some topic, don’t defend them or turn a blind eye just because they’re “on your side.” 

• When you’re engaged in debate with nonbelievers, demonstrate your allegiance to the truth by intentionally looking for opportunities to acknowledge the truths in their argument.

• Let the truth of your words be judged without being muddied by distractions. Avoid wrapping everything you say in religious terminology or political rhetoric. On the other hand, don’t try to hide your point of view in the hope of being accepted. Always be up front about your personal preconceptions.

When you watch media or converse with others, always champion the truth. 

T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.


SIDEBAR: 2014 at the Movies

• In 2014, 25 percent of adults saw The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1, the year’s most attended movie; and 21 percent saw Guardians of the Galaxy, the #2 movie.

• American Sniper, the most watched Academy Award Best Picture nominee, attracted 14 percent of adults. 

• Practicing Christians were not more likely than the general population to see the Bible-based movies Noah (10 percent of practicing Christians; 11 percent of all adults) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (6 percent of practicing Christians; 7 percent of all adults).

• The most likely groups to see two or more movies in the theater were: Millennials, those with an annual income over $50,000, people who’ve never been married, Hispanics, and residents of the Western U.S. 

• When watching movies at home, Millennials favored DVD, Blu-ray, or streaming movies (averaging 10 movies during the year) to cable, broadcast, or satellite TV (3 movies). Elders were just the opposite, seeing only 3 movies on DVD, Blu-ray, or streaming and 10 on cable, broadcast, or satellite TV.

Statistics from Barna Group.

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