Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jack Abbott: From the Belly of the Beast

"A Skillful Extra Hand"

Sometime during the spring of 1980, Mailer decided that he would support the release of Abbott on parole. So taken was Mailer with Abbott's talents as a writer, the author also spoke with Random House Publishers in New York City about a possible book project based on Abbott's prolific body of correspondence. "Out of Abbott's letters," Mailer wrote in the introduction to In the Belly of the Beast, "came an intellectual, a radical, a potential leader, a man obsessed with a vision of more elevated human relations in a better world that revolution could forge." Random House agreed to publish a book composed of the letters between Abbott and Mailer.

In June 1980, a parole hearing was scheduled for Abbott at the Utah State Prison. If he behaved himself and did not engage in any violence, there was a possibility that he could be paroled. When Mailer heard the news, he immediately wrote the Utah parole board supporting his release back into society. According to the New York Times, Mailer said that Abbott had "the makings of a powerful and important American writer and I have encouraged him in that direction." He said that if the board would agree to release Abbott, "I would undertake to give him a job in my employ, working as a secretary in literary matters." Mailer went on to say that he "could truly use a skilled extra hand and would be willing to train him. It is my belief that after a few years of working with me, Abbott would be capable of making a living for himself."

Norman Mailer & wife
Norman Mailer & wife

Mailer also solicited the support of friends and business associates. Random House also wrote a letter encouraging Abbott's release. Of course, it would be a plus for the publishing house if Abbott could be paroled around the same time that the new book debuted. The title of the new book was In the Belly of the Beast and everyone, including Mailer and Random House had high expectations for its success. Still, the wisdom of paroling a violent man like Abbott was uncertain. "I am aware of the responsibility of what I propose," Mailer wrote to the Utah parole board, "and propose it in the belief that Abbott is in need of a special solution that can reach out to his special abilities."

But prison psychiatrists had strong reservations about his mental state. Abbott's long history of violence and rebellion did not indicate that he was ready for the free world. One report said, "Abbott is angry and hostile about his captivity." Another prison official opposed his release and said, "I thought ... that Mr. Abbott was a dangerous individual ... I didn't see a changed man. His attitude, his demeanor indicated psychosis." Abbott, however, said that he only had good intentions if he was released. "I'm not violent to where I'm going to go out and be a maniac, if that's what you mean," he told the parole board. After much discussion and several meetings by the board, they reached a decision in April 1981. Abbott would be released on a conditional parole in the employ of Norman Mailer.

Abbott arrived in New York City in June that same year and was welcomed at Kennedy airport by Mailer himself. He had never been in such a large city in his life. Abbott went with Mailer to his home in Cape Cod, Mass., where he was the author's houseguest for several days. Technically, Abbott was still under parole supervision. He was later assigned to live at a Salvation Army halfway house located at the Bowery and East Third Street. "He hated the halfway house," Mailer later testified in court, "instead of unwinding him, it was tightening him up. He had a dream about living in the country. We discussed his moving to a writer's colony in Maine after parole."

Nevertheless, Abbott soon became the toast of New York's elite literary circle. He appeared on the Today show and was interviewed by Rolling Stone. His story was in People magazine and for the first time, America learned the unusual story about the convicted-killer-turned-famous-author. The word on his new book, In the Belly of the Beast, was highly favorable and it was due to be reviewed by none other than the New York Times Book Review.

As unlikely as it seemed, the future for Jack Henry Abbott seemed bright.

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