Books: Resister

3 minute read
J.D. Reed

IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST by Jack Henry Abbott

Random House; 166 pages; $11.95

Since the 19th century, literature has housed a number of professional resisters, from the cast of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed and Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener to Camus’s The Stranger. The letters of Convict Jack Abbott extend and ultimately strain that tradition. Part polemic, part existential survival manual, In the Belly of the Beast was culled from 1,000 pages of handwritten missives to Norman Mailer, then composing The Executioner’s Song. Its message is brief, but it echoes like a slammed door in the corridors of maximum security.

Abbott, 37, has impeccable credentials: since age twelve, when he was convicted of passing a bad check, he has been free for all of 9% months. He robbed a bank and by 21 had murdered a fellow inmate who tried to intimidate him. In the past quarter-century he has spent a total of more than 14 years in solitary confinement, a certified hard case.

Abbott’s agonies began before the prison reforms of the ’60s. Once he was chained to a floor naked for 13 days. Another time he was kept in darkness for a month. He was sometimes forced to eat insects to survive. Reform was even more horrifying. Heavy injections of Thorazine —chemical lobotomy—replaced the jackboot. Overcrowding forced Abbott into cells with ethnic militants, who derided his Chinese-Irish heritage. Homosexual punks and homicidal psychopaths were everywhere. “It is only a matter of time,” he notes, “if you love life too much or fear violence too much, before you become a thing, no longer a man … lending yourself to every conceivable low, evil, degrading act anyone tells you to do.” Or, like Abbott, you exert beastliness to preserve the soul. In the penitentiary world, he says, a man can “despair because he cannot bring himself to murder.”

Abbott’s tireless defiance is informed by a unique education. A sixth-grade dropout, he began reading seriously during some three years of solitary in a Utah prison. He consumed—but did not wholly digest—Hegel and Marx, Kierkegaard and Camus, mathematics and physics.

“Nine-tenths of my vocabulary I have never heard spoken,” he writes. Unsurprisingly, Abbott is ingenuous about a worldwide Marxist revolution and hysterically partisan about “pigs” (guards). Yet his letters belong with the best prison literature, not because of their accounts of atrocity, but for their disturbing picture of daily life behind bars.

As Mailer notes, Abbott’s trials are far from over. His gift for survival now faces its newest and hardest test. He has been paroled to freedom for the first time in 25 years. —By J.D. Reed

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