Jack Abbott: From the Belly of the Beast
To say that Jack Abbott had a tough life would be a grand understatement. He was born on an U.S. Army base in Michigan on January 21, 1944. His father was a G.I. and his mother was Chinese, also alleged to be a prostitute. Abbott developed behavioral problems by the time he was nine and he reached only as far as the sixth grade. He was shipped off to a series of foster homes where his rebellious attitude grew worse. By 12, he had been incarcerated in two juvenile detention centers and by age 16, he was in a long-term reform school, the Utah State Industrial School for Boys. According to Abbott, his mistreatment by guards at the school scarred him for life.
"Locked in our cells, we could not see each other," he wrote in Belly of the Beast, "and if we were caught shouting cell to cell, we were beaten. We tapped out our messages, but if they heard our taps, we were beaten, the entire row of cells, one child at a time." With the exception of a single 60-day period when he enjoyed a temporary parole, Abbott remained in the Utah School for Boys until he turned 18. "I served so long because I could not adjust to the institution and tried to escape over twenty times," he wrote, "I had been there for the juvenile 'crime' of 'failure to adjust to foster homes.'"
In 1963, he was finally released from the school and returned to a society that was, at least to him, strange and hostile. "I cannot imagine how I can be happy in American society," Abbott wrote years later, "after all this society has done, I am naturally resentful." Within months after his release, Abbott was in trouble again. He stole some checks from a shoe store and cashed them. He was quickly caught and later convicted of forgery. He received a five-year maximum sentence and was sent to the Utah State Penitentiary in Draper, Utah, some 20 miles south of Salt Lake City. In 1965, he stabbed and killed a fellow inmate. He was sentenced to three to 20 years.
On March 13, 1971, Abbott escaped from prison and made his way to Colorado. In Denver, he held up a downtown bank and made off with thousands in cash. Six weeks later, Abbott was captured and returned to prison. This time he received a 19-year sentence in a federal prison. Rebellious, combative, impossible to control, Abbott was written up on disciplinary charges many times for drunkenness, assault and destruction of property. He once wrote that his "prison record has in it more violence reported by guards than that of any of the 25,000 federal prisoners behind bars today." He tattooed the name J-A-C-K on the back of the fingers of his left hand. He spent years in solitary confinement where he suffered unbearable psychological torture. "You sit in solitary confinement stewing in nothingness," he once wrote to Mailer, "not merely your own nothingness but the nothingness of the world. The lethargy of months that add up to years in a cell, alone, entwines itself about every "physical" activity of the living body and strangles it slowly to death."
It was Abbott's good fortune, however, that the federal prison had a library. He began to read everything he could get his hands on, especially the works of the classic philosophers, Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Friedrich Engels and Thomas Hobbes. He read books by Karl Marx, Stalin, Mao and other revolutionaries, though at first he had difficulty with the language he read in their works. "Nine-tenths of my vocabulary, I have never heard spoken," he once said. Abbott became a passionate Marxist, wrought by a searing anger at a system for which he blamed all that went wrong in his life. But more than anything else, Abbott wanted freedom. "I have been desperate to escape for so many years now, it is routine for me to try to escape," he later wrote, "How I wish this would end! How I wish I could walk free in the world, could find my life again and see and do things other people do."
In 1977, he read in Time magazine that Norman Mailer was preparing a book on the Gary Gilmore case. Abbott wrote to Mailer offering his expertise as a federal inmate. It was the one subject area he could claim to be an expert. By then, Abbott was 33 years old and had spent almost his entire adult life behind bars.