What's a Literary Genius Doing in a Place like That?
April 20, 2012
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.