Jack Henry Abbott - In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison

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In the belly of the beast

May 28, 2001 (Updated Mar 9, 2004)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Powerfully written real life tale.

Cons:Disturbing, paranoia

The Bottom Line: Great if you wan't to gain some insight into a disturbed psyche or if you wan't a view on prisons as percived by a prisoner


When Norman Mailer was working on his book The Executioner’s Song, a book about the murderer Gary Gilmore he suddenly recieved a letter from a man whose name was Jack Henry Abbott a man who had spent almost his entire adult life in prison.

Abbott claimed that since Mailer himself had never been in prison he could not understand what prison life was like and therefore offered to do everything he could to help him understand. Abbott therefore wrote mailer a series of letters describing his experience of life in an american maximum security prison.

What suprised Mailer was that not only did the letters convey a grim insight into prison life but they also managed to do so in a very poetic and beautifully written way. Appearantly Abbott had spent much of his time reading and had turned himself to a fairly competent writer. Mailer therefore released the letters in book format.

The book recieved a very mixed response. Some saw it as a beautifully written grim outlook on americas failed justice system while some saw it simply as the ravings of a psychotic trying to blame his own shortcommings on others.

what about me? I take the middle road. While Abbott is clearly a very disturbed man I can't really say i wouldn't be if I had the life he has had. And in these letters you find some truly powerful writing as Abbott tells his life tale.

One point Abbott stresses tremendously is the fact that before he was committed to prison he had never harmed anyone physically, he was initally incarcerated for check forgery and robbing a store. However during a prison fight he beat another inmate to death and his sentence was prolonged.

This is where the psychotic Abbott shines through as he refuses to take guilt for actions he's committed while in prison claiming that prison staff incite the prisoners against one another so that the prisoners will remain in prison.

While these kind of arguments wich are frequent come of as paranoid and twisted, his claims about prisons still can't be ignored. He writes that he is fully aware that he needs treatment to ever be able to live life outside prison. He also writes about the fact that in a maximum security prison no such attempts at rehabilitation is ever made.

Therefore he claims maximum security prisons are not meant to rehabilitate prisoners or even to make them remorseful of their crimes but are simply meant to store individuals considered dangerous to society for as long as possible, preferably for life.

While much of the letters are about his life in prison, about his time spent in solitary confinment, about prisoners relations between each other and between themselves and the prison staff, anger about these issues are still very much present on every page of this book.

Another element of these letters are Abbott's political views. During his time spent reading while in solitary confinment he became a devoted marxist. And he spends some time describing his idea of a perfect marxist society. I am not as interested in his poltical ideas as I am in his life's tale. And while he is certainly well versed in political theroy and philosophical arguments you still become painfully aware as you read his poltical arguments that he has no real understanding of society outside prison.

This is a fascinating book that you'll find impossible not to react to as you read it. Even if Abbott is a deranged psychotic, and even if much of what he tells of his life is geared towards placing guilt on everyone but himself it is still worth reading this book for the insights you gain into his psyche and for the fact that it is powerfully written. Abbott's rage over his life situation leaps at you from every page.

Even the release of this book had a tragic effect on Jack Henry Abbott's life. At first it was well recived and the outside world marveled at his degree of literary refinement and knowledge and he was percived almost as a noble savage or something. The fact that an entirely self-taught writer could emerge from such conditions fascinated critics and a campaign for Abbott's release started. Much thanks to Mailers good word Abbott was finally set free on probation. After only two weeks as a free man Abbott committed his first violent crime outside of prison as he stabbed a waiter in a restaurant after he had been informed that the restrooms where temporally unavailable.

Abbott was once again incarcerated and remains in prison to this day as far as I know. He admitted in his letters that he would be unable to live outside of prison whitout treatment and help and obviously he was not mistaken. I myself can't help wondering what would have happened if he had recived that treatment, the world might have had one more talented writer....


Recommend this product? Yes


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