Jack Abbott (author)
|Born||Jack Henry Abbott
January 21, 1944
Oscoda, Michigan, United States
|Died||February 10, 2002
Wende Correctional Facility,
Alden, New York, United States
Jack Henry Abbott (January 21, 1944 – February 10, 2002) was an American criminal and author. He was released from prison in 1981, while serving sentences for forgery, manslaughter and bank robbery, after gaining praise for his writing and being lauded by a number of high-profile literary critics, including author Norman Mailer. Six weeks after his release, however, he fatally stabbed a man during an altercation, was convicted of manslaughter and returned to prison, where he committed suicide in 2002.
Abbott was born at Camp Skeel in Oscoda, Michigan, to an Irish-American soldier and a Chinese prostitute. According to his book, In the Belly of the Beast (1981), he claimed to have been in and out of foster care from the moment of his birth until the age of nine, at which point he started "serving long stints in juvenile detention quarters". As a child, Abbott was in trouble with teachers and later with the law, and by the age of 16 was sent to a long-term reform institution, the Utah State Industrial School. According to Abbott, his mistreatment by the school guards left him scarred for life. He also became a chronic bedwetter.
Prison and release
In 1965, aged 21, Abbott was serving a sentence for forgery in a Utah prison when he stabbed another inmate to death. He was given a sentence of three to 23 years for this offense, and in 1971 his sentence was increased by 19 years after he escaped and committed a bank robbery in Colorado. Behind bars, he was rebellious and spent much time in solitary confinement.
In 1977, he read that author Norman Mailer was writing about convicted killer Gary Gilmore. Abbott wrote to Mailer, alleging that Gilmore was largely embellishing his experiences, and offered to write about his time behind bars in order to provide a more factual depiction of life in prison. Mailer agreed and helped to publish In the Belly of the Beast, a book on life in the prison system consisting of Abbott's letters to Mailer.
Mailer supported Abbott's attempts to gain parole. Abbott was released on parole in June 1981, despite the misgivings of prison officials, one of whom questioned Abbott's mental state and whether he was rehabilitated, saying, "I thought ... that Mr. Abbott was a dangerous individual ... I didn't see a changed man. His attitude, his demeanor indicated psychosis." After leaving prison, Abbott went to New York City and was the star of the literary scene there for a short time.
Manslaughter and return to prison
At around 5 a.m. on July 18, 1981, six weeks after being paroled from prison, Abbott and two women, Veronique de St. Andre and Susan Roxas, went to a small cafe called the Binibon, located at 79 Second Avenue in Manhattan. Richard Adan, a 22-year-old actor and playwright, was there working as a waiter in his father-in-law's restaurant. Abbott got up from his table and asked Adan to direct him to the toilet. Adan explained that the toilet could be reached only through the kitchen, and because the restaurant did not have accident insurance for customers, only employees could use the bathroom. Abbott argued with him. They took their dispute outside, where Abbott stabbed Adan to death.
The very next day, unaware of Abbott's crime, the New York Times ran a positive review of In the Belly of the Beast.
After some time on the run, Abbott was recognized by a business owner and held until the police arrived to arrest him in Morgan City, Louisiana, while he was working in an oilfield. He was charged with Adan's murder and represented by high-profile defense attorney Ivan Fisher. At his trial in January 1982, Abbott gained the support of such celebrities as writer Jerzy Kosinski and actress Susan Sarandon. He was convicted of manslaughter but acquitted on murder, and sentenced to 15 years to life.
Apart from the advance fee of $12,500, Abbott did not receive any revenue from In the Belly of the Beast, because Adan's widow successfully sued him for $7.5 million in damages, which meant she would receive all the money from the book's sales.
Mailer was criticized for his role in getting Abbott released and was accused of being so blinded by Abbott's evident writing talent that he did not take into account the man's violent nature. In a 1992 interview in The Buffalo News, Mailer said that his involvement with Abbott was "another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in." Kosinski admitted that their advocacy of Abbott was, in essence, a "fraud."
Later years and death
Abbot's second book, My Return (1987), was not as popular as In the Belly of the Beast.
In 2001, he appeared before the parole board, but his application was denied because of his failure to express remorse, his lengthy criminal record, and disciplinary problems in prison. Abbott's distrust of the prison system and his refusal to express remorse for many of his actions stemmed from his belief that much of what he did was in response to a dehumanizing system.
On February 10, 2002, Jack Abbott hanged himself in his prison cell using a makeshift noose constructed from his bedsheets and shoelaces. He left a suicide note, the contents of which have not been made public.
Abbott claimed that his incarceration from the ages of 12 to 18 was the result of "not adjusting well to foster homes", and his indeterminate sentence of up to five years for "issuing a check for insufficient funds" when he was 18 was another example of a system that criminalizes and harshly punishes those it deems unfit for society.
In both his books, Abbott argues that society must reckon with its treatment of prisoners and that the prison system is fundamentally flawed, in that it treats prisoners like sub-human creatures. In Belly of the Beast he explains the helplessness that prisoners feel while at the mercy of a prison system that is seemingly never held accountable for its actions. He also hints at the subtle yet devastating effect prisons have on all society. Abbott states:
"We have no legal rights as prisoners, only as citizens. The only 'rights' we have are those left to their 'discretion.' So we assert our rights the only way we can. It is a compromise, and in the end I greatly fear we as prisoners will lose—but the loss will be society's loss. We are only a few steps removed from society. After us, comes you."
In popular culture
- In 1983, the Trinity Rep Theatre in Providence, Rhode Island produced In the Belly of the Beast. It was directed by Adrian Hall and starred Richard Jenkins as Abbott.
- The Australian film Ghosts... of the Civil Dead (1988) was inspired by Abbott's life.
- The American metal band Anthrax released the Grammy nominated, hit album Persistence Of Time (1990), which includes a song called "In The Belly Of The Beast".
- Portions of In the Belly of the Beast were used in the film Shambondama Elegy (1999), also known as Tokyo Elegy, by Ian Kerkhof.
- In 2004, a New York theater company ran a play, named In the Belly of the Beast Revisited, based on Abbot's first book.
- In 2009, the play Binibon by Elliott Sharp and Jack Womack was presented in New York at The Kitchen. It is based on the events surrounding the 1981 killing of Richard Adan at the Binibon cafe.
- The Law & Order season 13 episode, "Genius", is based on Abbott's case.
- Abbott, Jack Henry (1981). In the Belly of the Beast. Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-73237-3.
- Mark Gado. "Jack Abbott: From the Belly of the Beast". truTV. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- Gado, Mark. "Jack Abbott, murder made into literary celebrity". Crime Library. Retrieved 2007-11-15.
- "Mailer and the Murderer". The New York Times. November 12, 2007.
- Wolffs, Claudia (August 3, 1981). "In the Belly of the Beast". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2007-11-15.
We pretended he had always been a writer. It was a fraud. It was like the '60s, when we embraced the Black Panthers in that moment of radical chic without understanding their experience.
- "Jack Henry Abbott, parole hearing, June 6, 2001, New York State Parole Commission.". Retrieved 2007-11-15.
- "Adrian Hall's Adaptations of In the Belly of the Beast" (PDF). nobleworld.biz.
- Summer, Elyse. "In the Belly of the Beast, Revisited, a CurtainUp review". www.curtainup.com. Retrieved 2009-09-08.
- Fuchs, Christian  (2002). Bad Blood. Creation Books.
- Jack Unterweger
- Jean Genet, ex-convict and novelist, whose works address prison life (among other topics)
- Seth Morgan, ex-convict and novelist, whose book addresses prison life and San Francisco's criminal counterculture
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