RARA-AVIS: Jack Henry Abbott dies

From: Rene Ribic ( rribic@optusnet.com.au)
Date: 22 Feb 2002

I thought it may be of interest to some list members that Jack Henry Abbott, author of "In the Belly of the Beast" died a couple of days ago.For those who don't know who Abbott was, he was a long time criminal
& recidivist prisoner who sent a series of letters to Norman Mailer after Mailer had published "The Executioner's Song". These letters were a combination of autobiographical stuff about his life in prison & his confrontations with prison authorities, & political rants that were a self-educated man's combination of Nietzsche & Marx. These letters so impressed Mailer that he had them edited & published as "In the Belly of the Beast". He also proceeded to agitate for Abbott's release & the efforts of Mailer & other literary types, IIRC, eventually succeeded in having Abbott released. Two weeks later, Abbott got into a minor argument with a waiter in a restaurant & stabbed him to death. When this happened, Mailer figuratively threw his hands in the air, saying, in effect, "We was wrong. The guy's an animal.Lock him up & throw away the key". The sad irony here is the fact that anybody who read the book & was awake at the time would not have been surprised. The book says, over & over, that prisons train men to become the very animals that society fears. To survive in prison & keep your self-respect, & more importantly, perhaps, from the point of view of survival, the respect of other inmates, you have to be more brutal than the other brutes. A man is systematically brutalised by the prison & it's guards, by the other inmates for many years. Then he is released & expected to adjust overnight to civilised life. As I remember the book, Abbott as good as warned the reader that he was no longer fit to live in the civilised,
(more or less) world that most of us live in. Regardless of your views on prison, etc, I think that Abbott's book is one of the most significant works of prison literature available. Abbott's writings were a major influence on the Australian prison flick,
"Ghosts of the Civil Dead", which I would recommend despite over-acting from Nick Cave, whose role is a fairly small one. (Cave also wrote a song about Abbott, "Jack's Shadow"). I'm not sure about this but I felt that a character in the prison escape flick "Runaway Train" (co-scripted by Edward Bunker, IIRC) may have been based on Abbott. The news about Abbott's death said he had committed suicide in his cell by hanging himself. There's nothing unusual about prisoners committing suicide. On the other hand, it's also a method that has been used by crooked jail warders (certainly in this country - there was one very suspicious instance only a couple of years ago, ruled as suicide) to murder troublesome inmates so there will probably be a question mark over his death that may never be resolved, particularly now that Abbott has lost his erstwhile friends & allies in the literary set & in effect probably nobody cares any more.


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