Jack Henry Abbot's In the Belly of the Beast is an unusual literary document. The book is comprised of letters sent originally to the novelist and chauvinist Norman Mailer, in an effort to give Mailer some corroborative detail for his non-fiction book about death-row inmate Gary Gilmore; Mailer, who described Abbott as a "phenomenon" for his articulate prose, then led a push to have Abbott paroled from prison. It is clear that Mailer hoped to do what Jean-Paul Sartre had done in France some four decades before, on behalf of the writer and convicted criminal Jean Genet: yet Mailer's attempt at a public role would backfire badly, when Abbott killed a restaurant worker in lower Manhattan on the day before the New York Times published its favorable review of In the Belly of the Beast. I would like to examine Abbott's work, and Mailer's advocacy of Abbott, to demonstrate that the latter was based on dubious premises, and that to some degree what is most important about Abbott's letters is the way in which they demonstrate the nature of the modern penitentiary as Erving Goffmann has described it -- the "totalizing" institution. But I think Mailer's misreading of Abbott -- or perhaps Abbott's willingness to play up to Mailer's prejudices -- instead nervously portrays the prison as the staging ground for an existential battle against being sexually penetrated by another male.
Abbott's letters provide a perfect illustration of Erving Goffman's characterization of the modern penitentiary as a "total institution." Goffman first outlined his thesis in a 1957 paper describing how the totality of life for the inmates in a modern prison is controlled by bureaucratic and impersonal processes -- a fact which manages to link the conditions described by Jack Henry Abbott to other total institutions ranging from the average U.S. urban department of motor vehicles to the "Dostoyevskian" Siberia (Goffman 1997, p.91). The refusal to allow the inmate, or subject of a total institution, to participate in matters which directly concern his person, welfare, or status certainly has a dehumanizing effect on the prisoner. It also puts the administrators in a position of special power and authority (all too easily abused) where the real persons are concerned. Abbott, who is naturally inclined to dramatize his situation in a literary fashion, finds it hard to avoid describing this power imbalance, and system of state-sponsored coercion, in terms that suggest rape. Certainly Abbott will describe his experience as being horrifyingly sexualized in several cases, as in this description of being placed into solitary confinement:
All through this thing I tried to keep my head by acting passive and smiling. I thought they were so afraid of me it made them animals, which was true, but I couldn't calm them. That was the time they threw me dace down in a dungeon cell. They stood on me while one unhandcuffed me. The pig who knocked my clothes off was the last to leave the cell. I heard them back out of the cell and I rolled over onto my side. I was hurting everywhere. Well, this pig, who had seemed the least emotional of them all, had his cock out and his face was wrinkled up in a grin and he kind of bounced up and down by bending his knees. He was pretending to jerk off. Then he zipped his fly and left the cell kind of chuckling. (Abbott 44)
Abbott describes himself as having been stripped naked, then subjected to this lewd sexualized mockery. But more importantly he is describing a power dynamic equivalent to that in rape, in which the sexual portion of the act is held at arm's length and enacted in a symbolic fashion. We respond to his account certainly because it seems perfectly evocative of what Goffman describes as the internal dynamic of the total institution, which entails the "imposition of degrading postures, stances, and deference patterns." (Goffman 1961, 36). What Norman Mailer clearly responds to most in Abbott's letters is the way in which Abbott writes to make it clear that, even if he adopts these "degrading postures" to survive, he can maintain a certain level of dignity through the written word.
However, when Abbott turns to the subject of homosexuality, his writing becomes far more anxious -- although it is an anxiety shared by Norman Mailer, so unlikely to register as problematic. I think this subject is particularly relevant because it was certainly central to the case of Jean Genet, especially in Sartre's analysis of him and his criminality -- to a certain degree, one suspects that Norman Mailer wished to see Jack Henry Abbott paroled from prison so that he could promote him as a heterosexual Jean Genet. But the difficulty is that Abbott sees homosexuality as something that is imposed upon the individual punitively by society:
The judge sentenced me to the main penitentiary for the express purpose of having me raped by prisoners and reduced to a homosexual -- this "version" being a punk. There was absolutely no other reason. At that time, there was not even a pretense of rehabilitation or a caseworker staff in prison. The prison was entirely presided over by old-school prison guards. There were no "rehabilitation" progams. I was even told by the pigs who transported me to prison that I was being sent there to be reduced to a punk, to be shorn of my manhood. They had felt I would be less arrogant once I had been turned into a cocksucker. If I was afraid, I was never aware of it. It is certain that I was consumed with rage, the anger of deep insult. I arrived in that emotional and mental condition. You could say I was paranoid: bloodthirsty to establish my place. (79)
It is here that the reader wonders if Jack Henry Abbott is playing up to his pen-pal, or if there was just a remarkable meeting of the minds that occurred. One way or the other, the panic about homosexuality is something that readers of Norman Mailer are familiar with: to a certain degree, Mailer notoriously described the coercive anal violation of a female character in two works published before his correspondence with Abbott began: the short story "The Time of Her Time" features a protagonist who calls his penis "the avenger" as he rapes a girl anally, while whispering in her ear "You dirty little Jew" (Advertisements 450). Meanwhile, the full-length novel An American Dream begins with Mailer's protagonist, Rojack, killing his wife then anally raping his German immigrant housemaid Ruta, "I had…pure prong of desire to bugger, there was canny hard-packed evil in that butt, that I kew" (American Dream 44). I beg the reader's indulgence for dragging some of the more sordid comments made by Mailer about sexual politics, but to a certain degree it is necessary: no less an eminence than Harold Bloom has noted that Mailer invests the act of sexual violation with a kind of religious significance. As Bloom writes: "Mailer had some earlier inclination toward regarding buggery as an antinomian act -- a transgression of all the rules of a deeply false order that would reveal a higher truth (see the buggering of Ruta, the German maid, in An American Dream and 'The Time of Her Time')…" which eventually would find "in the emphasis upon buggery a dialectic by which meaning is both de-created and restituted." (Bloom 38). To put it bluntly, Norman Mailer is fascinated with sodomy as the only thing that could be forced on one man by another man, this gives it an "existential" significance when forced upon a woman, and male self-definition relies on defending against it.
Of course what this does is to place a kind of horrifying emphasis on a masculine resistance to all coercion as though it were rape. It is astonishing to read Jack Henry Abbott's somewhat pretentious political musings on Communism (one wonders if Mailer encouraged this by slipping him a copy of Gramsci) sliding into a discussion of sexual politics. What is astonishing here is that, in the utopian visions of a convicted murderer, it is sexual irregularity that must be deemed "unnatural" for the fact that the "unnatural" capitalist hegemony in some way necessitates it:
This is why Castro allowed prostitutes to organize (unionize their forces) instead of "abolishing" prostitution in Havana. He never let it go away and hide. Sartre did not properly understand this. This is why Lenin's party abolished "laws" (man-made), making sodomy a crime when the Bolsheviks took state power in Russia through the October Revolution. No law of mankind is just that abolishes men. The "higher" laws are the material principles that govern the universe as well as the societies of men, in spite of men. There would not be prostitution and sodomy if it were not necessary, and nine-tenths of the felt need of men in a reactionary society are necessitated by unnatural conditions of social life.(Abbott 99)