CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
The Murderer Who Broke Norman Mailer’s Heart
A new book explores the relationship between convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott and his literary mentor.
When I first entered the netherworld of corruption and violence in 1993 for a first-time, nonviolent LSD conspiracy, the first two books I read when I hit prison were Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast. I was already a big fan of Mailer from reading The Naked and The Dead in my teens, but as a skinny, 22-year-old, white kid from the suburbs, with multiple decades to serve, I decided that reading Abbott’s book was paramount to my survival.
Being completely ignorant on prison life, besides what I’d seen in the movies, I knew that getting up to speed was crucial to my well being. Abbott’s book became a kind of prison Cliff's Notes for me. A guide on how to act, what to say, and how to conduct myself in any given situation on the inside.
During the writing of the The Executioners Song —a book about condemned killer Gary Gilmore, Mailer took Abbott—a New York state prisoner and self proclaimed “state raised convict” who’d served much of his life in prison for manslaughter, bank robbery and forgery charges—under his wing and groomed him as a writer. With Mailer’s guidance and support, Abbott not only became a prison celebrity, but was released in 1981 on parole, despite being prone to violence and having spent years of his sentence in solitary confinement.
Tragically, Abbott committed another murder within six weeks of his release. Mailer was devastated that his protege had reverted to form and ruined his promise of becoming New York City’s next literary darling.
As an aspiring prison author the relationship between Mailer and Abbott intrigued me, as did the fact that I saw my literary pursuits as a route to recognition in the world. A way to redeem myself and make a future for myself so to speak. In a new book, Jack and Norman: A State Raised Convict and the Legacy of Norman Mailer’s The Executioners Song, out Feb 21, Jerome Loving tackles the story of the master, his apprentice, and the terrible conclusion to their story. The Daily Beast chatted with him about what drew him to write the book, how prison dehumanizes people, and how artistic talent shouldn’t trump personal conduct.
Why do you think that Abbott became such a literary sensation? Is it because America loves its Criminal celebrities or some other reason?
The narrative in In the Belly of the Beast is quite compelling, expressing that same voice of pain and pathos that Mailer first read in Jack’s letters. The attraction to the criminal also comes from our natural curiosity about the incarcerated, underscored by the comforting fact that we are not among them.
What made you want to write a book about Norman Mailer’s relationship and even mentorship of New York prisoner Jack Henry Abbott?
My interest in the subject began with Abbott, not Mailer, even though I’d read The Executioner’s Song when it came out in 1979. I didn’t read Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast until almost ten years after it came out in 1981. I first read the book while teaching a humanities course at Fresno State. The student who gave an oral report on the book confided to the class that he had spent five years in the same California prison as Charles Manson. He wouldn’t tell the class what he had been convicted of, but I suspected it was a drug conviction. Shortly before Mailer’s death in 2007, the famous author’s papers were sold to the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin.
Remembering his connection with Abbott, I wondered whether the vast collection of papers included anything from Abbott. I was pleasantly surprised to find a cache of around fifty letters to Mailer from Abbott written before and after he killed Richard Adan in the summer of 1981. This material formed the heart of my story. His unpublished letters tell one of the saddest and yet remarkable accounts of a life I have ever read.In one long letter (a few went on for 30 or 40 handwritten pages), he told Mailer how he had tried to keep a record of his prison life in letters to his distracted half sister, only to discover one day that over the previous ten or fifteen years they had “gone out with the trash.”
How does Abbott’s book, on what he went through in the dehumanizing industrial prison complex, relate to what is going on today in our nation concerning mass incarceration?
It may show that early and long incarceration irreparably damages a person. Probably the worst use of prison is reform school, or whatever they’re calling it these days. In Jack Abbott’s case, his anger—which grew exponentially over the years of his incarceration—turned into what I call “prison paranoia.” I learned from Abbott that prisoners are generally polite to one another because they are so close-quartered that even an assumed slight could result in bodily injury or death. When Abbott went from essentially solitary to the city in 1981, he was disturbed at how impolite New Yorkers could be on the street. He was easily threatened and soon took to wearing a concealed dagger, which he ultimately used to kill a waiter who had refused him the right of a restroom in an all-night restaurant.
How did Mailer feel when he went out on a limb to help get Abbott out and set him up with a literary career and then Abbott fucked it all up?
He was devastated, deeply disappointed and saddened that it had led to the death of an innocent person. Yet, as I said, he still maintained his faith that literary talent trumped personal behavior and sought to get Jack a shorter sentence.
Does this example show that literary or artistic talent shouldn't trump personal conduct? Why or why not?
Yes, I’m afraid it does in Jack’s case. There is a long history to this question. Was it right, for example, for American authors to honor the poet Ezra Pound, an anti-Semite who was accused of broadcasting for the fascists during World War II? The question of the morality of the death penalty aside, should California in 1960 have executed Caryl Chessman, who as a condemned man became a best-selling author? Abbott might possibly have made it if he had gone to the right halfway house instead of the one in the then crime-ridden Lower East Side.
In the Belly of the Beast was published in 1981 and we are still dealing with a lot of the problems with the corrections industry that he outlined in his book. Why has the shady and dehumanizing world of prison been allowed to keep operating as it has been?
That question may be beyond whatever expertise I have here. In my book, I quote from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a classic about the utopia the Puritans envisioned in the New World: “In the chapter entitled ‘The Prison Door,’ he wrote, ‘The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than any thing else in the new world. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era.’ This historical novel is full of the same irony that haunts the American penal system, whose prisons are still called ‘penitentiaries.’”
In other words, it’s not “taxes and death,” but human misbehavior and death that we as a society can’t get away from. I happen to live in a state (Texas) where the prisons are gulags. Fewer than a quarter of its prisons are even air-conditioned. In a recent court case, a prisoner is reported to have died of temperatures approaching 150 degrees. Prisons are a relatively new phenomenon, existing only since 1800. Before that the punishments were stocks, maiming, torture and death. The first American prison, as I say in chapter 3 of my book, took the word “penitent” literally and limited its sentences to two years. During that time the prisoner saw nobody but guards and was expected to become “sorry” for his crime.
Before their deaths, Abbott in 2002 and Mailer in 2007, how did the two noted authors spend their last days and how did their relationship and all that transpired affect them for the remainder of their lives?
Abbott served his full fifteen years in New York state prisons, after first serving his federal term of five years for violating his parole. He came up for state parole every two years, I believe, but he was never very convincing in demonstrating his remorse over killing Adan, maintaining to the end that it had been an “accident.” He died not long after the last time he was turned down by the parole board in the Wende Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York. Authorities there at the time said there had been a suicide note, but it was not made public. My written request to see such a note was never answered.
He and Mailer stopped corresponding with each other in the mid-1980s. Mailer went on with his literary life, writing seven or more books. One of them was Oswald’s Tale in 1995, which- even though the book had mediocre sales- provides a fascinating look at another killer, the assassin of President Kennedy. The fact that Mailer suggested at the close of that book that Lee Harvey Oswald’s life was a “tragedy” in the same sense of the convicted killer in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy suggested to me that he still maintained an interest in the social outlier, a figure described in his famous essay, “The White Negro,” in 1957. But he may have meant it in the broader sense of determinism—that Oswald, like Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths and Jack Henry Abbott, was the victim of his youthful environment, if not also his heredity.