What's a Literary Genius Doing in a Place like That?

The ugly vagaries of life dealt Jack Henry’s hand from the bottom of the deck. He was born to an Irish-American soldier and a Chinese prostitute, and neither wanted him. For the first nine years of his life, he was thrown from one foster family to the next, and none of them wanted him either.

He was disciplined. He was punished. He was ignored. He was abandoned. He was never loved. But deep within the dark corner of a frayed and fragmented soul, there existed a wealth of extraordinary passion and enormous talent.

Jack Henry Abbott

Jack Henry was unschooled. He was unlearned. His mentors had been the boys of the streets, the men who used him, abused him, and threw him away like yesterday’s trash.

His home at the age of nine became a jail cell.

Cold.

And somber.

Jack Henry found himself being shoved in one juvenile detention center, then jerked out and herded into another. They didn’t want him either. They kept him. He was rebellious and violent. They had no other choice. But they didn’t want him.

And he stared at those who accused him, tried him, and convicted him with black, piercing eyes.

Cold.

And somber.

And deep within the dark corner of a frayed and fragmented soul, there existed a wealth of extraordinary passion and enormous talent.

Jack Henry hit the big time when he turned twenty-one years of age. He forged a check and won an all-expense-paid trip to the Utah prison.

He thought life had been hard in the past. Now he was trapped in the belly of the beast. It was, he figured, kill or be killed. He stabbed an inmate, stood back, and watched him die. No remorse. No regret. He was sentenced to another twenty-three years behind the walls. He escaped, knocked over a bank in Colorado, and collected nineteen more years of room and board.

Most of it was spent in solitary.

Cold.

And somber.

Jack Henry was left alone to sort through the torn pages of his own thoughts. Time simply stopped running and sat down beside him. He had no idea when it was day, no idea when it was night. It was always night.

The anger smoldered. Then it burned. But Jack Henry could not escape the extraordinary passion and enormous talent that dwelled in the dark corner of a frayed and fragmented past.

In 1977, he chanced to read that author Norman Mailer was writing a book about convicted killer Gary Gilmore who had shocked the penal system by choosing to be executed by a firing squad.

Hell, Jack Henry thought, he knew Gilmore. Hell, he thought, he was behind the same walls as Gilmore. Hell, he thought, Gilmore didn’t know anything about the decayed decadence of prison life. Sure, he had murdered a couple of guys. Sure, he was facing execution. But if the famous Norman Mailer wanted to know the truth about what poison was churning behind the walls when the lights went out and the guards turned their backs, he should listen to Jack Henry.

And that’s what he wrote Mailer. The letters kept coming. Mailer read them all. They touched him. They fascinated him. They condemned him. And he immediately recognized the extraordinary passion and enormous talent locked away within the dark corner of Jack Henry’s frayed and fragmented soul.

Norman Mailer collected the letters. He packaged them. And he released them in a book entitled In the Belly of the Beast. The book took New York literary circles by storm. The critics had discovered, behind the walls of a Utah Prison, a literary genius.

The book almost instantly became a best seller. Critics read: The only time they appear human is when you have a knife at their throats. The instant you remove it, they fall back into animality. Obscenity.  They were mesmerized by such passages as: Everyone in prison has an ideal of violence, murder. Beneath all relationships between prisoners is the ever-present fact of murder. It ultimately defines our relationship among ourselves.

Norman Mailer

And they marveled at the raw honesty of his words. Jack Henry was captivating.  He was called “a stunning writer and tenacious thinker,” a man who had “serious and well thought out views.” New York literary giants joined Norman Mailer in an all-out, no-holds-barred campaign to get Jack Henry set free from his dungeon. In their eyes, he was little more than a political prisoner locked away in an American gulag.

A doctor, however, testified that Jack Henry was a “potentially dangerous man with a hair-trigger temper.” And a prison official told the parole board, “I don’t see a changed man. His attitude, his demeanor indicated psychosis.”

It didn’t matter. No one listened. New York was talking the loudest, and Mailer was saying that Abbott’s talents were of such importance that it would be a crime to ignore it. “Culture,” he said, “is worth a little risk.”

The New York literary giants prevailed, and Jack Henry became the toast of the Big Apple. He appeared on “Good Morning America.” He was interviewed by People Magazine. He was offered assignments from The New York Review and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The discovery of a bold new literary talent was celebrated at a luncheon hosted by Norman Mailer and Random House.

Jack Henry Abbott had climbed to the top of the world. He was a writer of rare talent. He was brutally honest in his writing because he had faced and endured a lifetime of brutality. Publishers were clamoring for the rights to his next book.

Six week after walking from behind the walls of a Utah Prison as a free man, six weeks after becoming New York’s hottest new writing sensation, Jack Henry stabbed a young actor to death.

No reason, not to a sane man anyway. It’s just that the actor made him mad.

He had to die.

The next morning, The New York Times referred to In The Belly of the Beast as “awesome, brilliant, perversely ingenuous.” Jack Henry didn’t read the review. He was on the run. He made it as far as Morgan City, Louisiana, before he ran out of room to run.  The walls were waiting for him.

The New York literary giants celebrated alone that night. They talked of books. They talked about themselves. No one mentioned Jack Henry Abbott.

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  • “No one mentioned Jack Henry Abbott.”
    Wow. And I always thought there was no such thing as bad publicity.

  • What a story. Great stuff, Caleb.

  • Did Norman Mailer and the other elite of society learn anything? Did they feel any sense of responsibility? That’s the “rest of the story” that I would like to hear…

  • Maryann

    I remember this whole saga. I was absolutely amazed when Henry was released and was not surprised at all that he ended up killing again. Mailer and some of the literary world in NY were so naive to think a man with that much anger would not act on it. Or maybe they didn’t think at all. Yes, Henry had an incredible talent, but he also carried in incredible burden that made him one of the beasts he wrote about.

  • Christina Carson

    To me, there is nothing sadder than a human life destroyed. It takes me to a line in “Dying to Know:” “I must believe we can survive our parents and the bizarre tangle of needs they sought us out to meet, little children at the mercy of adults’ deep hungers and fears.” We humans need to want do better, not just wish it. And by the way, Caleb, this is a beautiful sentence: “Time simply stopped running and sat down beside him.”

    Well done.

  • Ragavacharyar

    What makes you think that his mother didn’t want him. Jack was in foster care because his mom didn’t want to put him up for adoption. She also visited him with regularity when he was alive. Jack was removed from one of his foster homes because it was a polygamous one, and the patriarch got in trouble for it and the children were removed. Jack was also cared for a time by sculptor Avard Fairbanks. Apparently Jack liked staying with both fairbanks and the polygamist. Where are you drawing these facts from

    • If my facts were wrong, I sincerely appreciate your correcting them.

      • Ragavacharyar

        No problem. I read both the Abbott books and found the story disturbing and captivating at the same time. I felt I was looking for some answer to his sociopathy. I wondered what drove him to the life he eventually led. So many violent sociopaths have crappy childhoods. So I was digging in on Abbott’s background. His parents were married and continued to be for several years. I have wondered where the press got the idea that jack’s mom was a whore. Apparently henry abbott, jack’s dad was a violent alcoholic that led to the pair splitting up in the years after the end of the War. Jack was not put up for adoption because his mom did not want to give him up. So I figure there must have been some love there. Jack wrote in his second book that he was not abused in foster care, though a French reporter from Le Monde got the detail that jack was thrown down the stairs at age 8 or 9, suggesting abuse. I appreciate your take on Abbott. Many other accounts only rejoice at his ultimate death and fail to consider the tragedy of human being who slipped through society’s cracks.

        • Great insight into Abbott’s life. What troubles me is that so many others slip through society’s cracks and suffer so much pain and so many demons because of their past. If we only knew how to help them and, more importantly, provide help in time. Often we don’t even know they exist until it’s too late.

  • Ragavacharyar

    When she was alive I meant to say. His mom died a tragic death when she fell out of a third story farmhouse window trying to prop it open on a hot july evening in 1964. The farmhouse still stands in the Liberty Wells neighborhood of SLC.

    • A tragic end to a tragic life. There is always more to the story than finds its way in print. Often we only deal with the facts we are given. So often, there’s no one around to tell us the story behind the story. I am glad that you did.

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