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Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2002 / 4 Adar 5762

Philip Terzian

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The beast in the belly -- IF Jack Henry Abbott did nothing else in his life, he put an end to the budding romance between public intellectuals and murderers.

Mr. Abbott, who hanged himself this week in a New York prison, was languishing in a Utah penitentiary in the late 1970s - convicted of passing bad checks and killing a fellow inmate - when he began sending letters to Norman Mailer. Abbott was shrewd to choose Mailer, whose lifelong fascination with violence, tortured masculinity and the underside of American life, guaranteed a favorable response. Mailer was enthralled by Abbott's vivid descriptions of prison life - "As good as any convict's prose ... since Eldridge Cleaver" - and in due course their correspondence, (ital) In the Belly of the Beast, (unital) was published by Random House in 1981.

Jack Henry Abbott's vulgar, overwrought, self-infatuated style might not be to everyone's taste (mine, for instance) but his book was received with tumultuous applause. It was serialized in the New York Review of Books and reprinted in Europe. Reviewers compared him favorably with a host of writers behind bars - Jean Genet, the Marquis de Sade, etc. - and hailed the arrival of an American master. "[In the Belly of the Beast] is awesome, brilliant, perversely ingenuous," wrote Terrence Des Pres in The New York Times. "Its impact is indelible, and as an articulation of penal nightmare it is completely compelling."

In the midst of all this rapture Mr. Abbott was paroled from his Utah prison and transported to Manhattan, where he planned to settle in to the literary life. He was interviewed with due deference on ABC's "Good Morning America," profiled in People magazine, and was guest of honor at a glittering testimonial dinner. Two weeks later, while dining with two female admirers in an East Village restaurant, he became enraged when his waiter, an aspiring actor named Richard Adan, wouldn't let Abbott use the employees' bathroom, and stabbed him to death.

To his credit, Norman Mailer later said that he felt "a very large responsibility" for Mr. Adan's murder, and admitted that he "never thought Abbott was close to killing, and that's why I have to sit in judgment on myself. I just was not sensitive to the fact." It's never too late to learn. At the time, however, Mailer's emotions were decidedly mixed. Along with his wife Norris Church, and the actors Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken, he was a daily attendant at Abbott's 1982 trial murder, furnishing moral support. Shortly thereafter Miss Sarandon gave birth to a son by the actor Tim Robbins; they named him Jack Henry.

While Mailer, Sarandon, Robbins and company are all firmly on the political Left - and more likely, one would guess, to champion society's outcasts - it is worth mentioning that the Right is equally capable of bad judgment. In the 1960s a New Jersey murderer named Edgar Smith began exchanging letters with William F. Buckley Jr., who came to champion Smith's innocence and persuaded the venerable house of Alfred A. Knopf to publish (ital) their (unital) correspondence, (ital) Brief Against Death (unital) (1968). Needless to say, shortly after Smith was paroled in 1971, and made the obligatory appearance on Buckley's TV program, "Firing Line" (PBS), he was arrested for yet another violent crime and confessed that he was guilty of the earlier murder as well.

A decade later Mailer repeated Buckley's mistake. Since then, it is no surprise that public intellectuals have been notably shy about befriending saintly denizens of death row. The principal exception to this rule, the Philadelphia cop killer Mumia Abu Jamal, must content himself with adoring celebrities - Whoopi Goldberg, Mike Farrell, Julian Bond, Ed Asner, Harry Belafonte - rather than people who think for a living.

In a sense, of course, Norman Mailer and Whoopi Goldberg have something in common: They require a human to exemplify the horrors of prison life. There is no question that prison is a brutal place, and that brutality is meted out in equal measure to rapists and murderers and to people who have grown marijuana in their cellar or run afoul of the IRS. There is plenty to debate in America about the nature of judicial punishment, and about the value of imprisonment for various crimes.

But our horror of violent crime seems to pull us in different directions. We are insistent that murderers either be put to death or imprisoned for life, but we cannot escape a certain fascination with them, either. William F. Buckley Jr. and Norman Mailer learned the truth about their proteges inconveniently late; no doubt, Ed Asner and Whoopi Goldberg will be similarly disillusioned with their friend Mumia. The instructive irony is that, as terrible as imprisonment and capital punishment may be, some people truly deserve it.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal