On the morning after his release from prison on charges of forgery, manslaughter and bank robbery, Jack Abbott appeared as a guest on Good Morning America, joined by his much-publicized sponsor, author Norman Mailer. Guest host John Forsythe thrust a host of predictable questions at Abbott, whose prison essays, "In the Belly of the Beast," had achieved critical accolades. Mailer fielded most of the questions put to Abbott, who sat there sweating, unable to conceal his great discomfort.
Later that morning, I called Abbott's publisher (Random House) and suggested to the book's publicist that Jack might need some time to learn how to live in the outside world before he faced more cameras - something I knew about as the founder of The Fortune Society. As revealed in his book, Abbott was a "systems baby," reared from childhood in punishment institutions with years in solitary confinement. I extended an invitation to Abbott to stop in at Fortune where he would meet dozens of men for whom re-entry was a challenge that they faced together.
The publicist called the next day repeating Abbott's response, "I'm a loner, I don't need a program." I responded, "Of course he's a loner out here. He has spent a lifetime in cages. But he doesn't need Good Morning America either."
Mailer, like William Buckley before him, was the self-proclaimed "savior" of a "tough ex-con," the ultimate achievement in literary machismo. Before Mailer discovered Abbott, Buckley sponsored the prison release of former New Jersey death row writer, Edgar Smith. After the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, Smith was returned to general population at the state prison in Rahway. I became acquainted with Edgar, who was in a class I was teaching at that prison. Two other published "prison writers" (Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and Tommy Trantino) were also in the class which explored the outside world to which they aspired.
I had watched with horror when Buckley held a press conference with Edgar upon his release. It was featured on almost every news program. The next morning, I received a call from Edgar who had been holed up in a suite at the exclusive St. Regis Hotel, paid for by Buckley and Edgar's publishers. He, too, had a best seller, "Brief Against Death." He told me that he was up all night at the hotel, terrified and alienated. It was an overdose of culture shock.
I guided him to The Fortune Society, instructing him how to hail a cab. I would be on the street to meet him. He let out an audible sigh when he came upstairs to Fortune and met a group of men and women. He instantly recognized the trauma of transition, a first step of re-entry. In a few moments there was laughter as each person shared his awkward state as he hit the city streets.
Those memories hovered over me as I approached Jerome Loving's new book, "Jack and Norman," (St. Martins. February 21, 2017), a collection of essays linking the two writers. Abbott had been corresponding with Mailer as the latter researched his next book, "The Executioner's Song," a brilliant dissection of inmate Gary Gilmore - the first person executed after the Supreme Court re-validated the death penalty.
Abbott's background, as revealed to Mailer in his letters from prison, was a carbon copy of Gilmore's. Abbott became an insightful reference for Mailer, who revealed a fascination with the posturing and threat of violence assumed by men like Abbott and Gilmore.
Buckley and Mailer apparently gravitated to men who, with backgrounds like Abbott and Gilmore, failed to challenge their demons and perpetuated the mythology of the bad seed.
Sadly, Loving's view of "prison reform" or "re-entry" is shaped by well-publicized convict-authors and ignores the daily grind of people and organizations, outside the spotlight, who work tirelessly to help men and women who are determined to reclaim their lives.
Buckley and Mailer saw the drama of the prison experience, involved themselves in the Svengali fashion, and then walked away when the magic literary wand wasn't sufficient.
Loving clearly recognizes Abbott in literary terms. Of him, Loving says, "Jack knew little about life outside prison. He was at his literary worst when writing fiction about life in the outside world." What he fails to note is that Jack could live comfortably in prison, but was at his worst in life on the outside.
Abbott chose not to sit in a group with men and women like himself. He chose not to hear their fear of subway crowds, of being paralyzed in stores and restaurants because they no longer knew how to make decisions for themselves. Significantly, he did not learn how to have a relationship with someone who had not shared these fears.
In prison, you don't confront your fears except with a fist or a shiv. Men like Abbott and Gilmore didn't learn how to respond to a slight or push. Abbott knifed a young waiter, Richard Adan, in the East Village in a dispute over nothing shortly after his release from prison. In prison, nothing can cause a lot of trouble.
In the autobiographical play, "The Castle," actor-former prisoner Casimiro Torres tells the audience, "Every time I went to jail, I adapted to it. I thought that's where I belong. That's what I deserve. Not the last arrest. For the first time, I smelled the vomit and piss... I always knew there was something else. I just didn't know where to find it."
Buckley and Mailer were playing at saving lives. Jack Abbott was created and destroyed by the system. Edgar Smith is back in state prison. What Mailer and Buckley didn't understand is that prison does not prepare anyone to come home and that this is a problem that TV interviews or convict book signing can't fix.
Loving misses this component of the story.
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