JACK HENRY ABBOTT was born the son of a prostitute, grew up in foster homes, was sent to juvenile detention centers, still later to reform school and still later to prison, where he killed a man.
By the age of 37, he had spent 20 years in prison, 14 of them in solitary confinement, had written a powerful -- and much praised and much discussed -- book and is, regrettably, on the lam again as this is written. He is being sought in connection with another murder in New York.
Abbott was the literary discovery of Norman Mailer. Abbott had read in prison that Mailer was working on a book about Gary Gilmore, the executed killer, and so they exchanged letters -- prisoner to great writer and great writer to prisoner. Abbott's letters were compelling, powerful, smart, moving, tough, unsentimental. Mailer was impressed. He worked for Abbott's parole; he arranged for his book on prison life to be published. It's called "In the Belly of the Beast."
Now Abbott is on the run again. He apparently got into an argument with the manager of an all-night restaurant about the use of a men's room. The manager said the restroom was for employees only. Abbott, who had been pushed around all his life, insisted on using it. The two men stepped outside to talk things over and the manager was found dead on the sidewalk. Abbott is being sought for questioning by New York police.
There is enough here to make Abbott the human encapsulation of an age-old debate between liberals and conservatives. He can prove anything you want. He can prove how the prison system turns people into animals or he could prove how the system keeps the animals off the streets. He can prove that the system, even the awful prison system, knows what it is doing, or he can prove just the opposite -- how it kept a man of talent and power locked up alone, writing words he had read in books but never heard spoken. Imagine the rage!
But whatever Abbott proves, he does not automatically prove that Mailer was wrong for taking an interest in a person and trying to salvage a life. He did not brutalize Abbott in jail and he did not parole him. The correctional system did that. The parole board did that. Lots of people get out of jail and some of them, maybe many of them, return to a life of crime. Some of them, in fact, kill. Jack Abbott, guilty or innocent, is nothing new under the sun.
Maybe Mailer and the other writers who were instrumental in springing Abbott can be faulted for a sort of arrogance, for thinking first that they really did know something the prison system did not, and second, for thinking that a truly talented writer could not also be a criminal. Lots of people, especially writers, subscribe to the belief that one person cannot both create and destroy, that a person has to be one thing or the other.
In this sense, there is nothing unique about the Abbott case. He represents a way of thinking in stereotypes, in thinking that criminality and criminals come packaged, that a person could not be both a criminal and writer, or a criminal and painter. The two are not supposed to come together and when they do, the destructive traits are ignored and the creative traits are proclaimed. It is as if one wipes out the other, as if it has to be one or the other but never both. In this way, the fragile stereotype is protected and in this way the writer remains venerated.
This is what happened with Caryl Chessman, who, as it happened, could write. He could also rape and for that he was sent to the California gas chamber. It is also what happened with the Black Panthers, who became the darlings of the leftist literati when they were able to summon up some slogans from Marx. And it is what happened with Ezra Pound, who would have suffered the fate of a common traitor had he driven a truck for a living and not written poems.
So there is some of that in the Abbott case -- that and a kind of romantic infatuation with violence that is sometimes called radical chic. But at bottom, is yet another attempt by some to blame people -- Mailer, writers, liberals, intellectuals -- for a failure of a system, for taking a kid and turning him into a killer in prison, and for leaving this man unprepared to deal with society. And now he is running, running, running alone -- back in solitary once again.