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October 16, 1981 - Image 6

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1981-10-16

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A terrifying look into the Beast

months in the early '60s, and you have
the sum of Jack Henry Abbott's life out
of prison since his childhood.
Last year, while serving a term for the
1965 murder of a fellow inmate, Abbott
wrote a series of letters to author Nor-
man Mailer detailing the unseen
violence and injustice of American
prisons. At the time, Mailer was
working on The Executioner's Song, a
description of the life of convicted mur-

In the Belly of the Beast
By Jack Henry Abbott
Random House; 166 pages; $11.95

derer Gary Gilmore, who was executed
at his own request.
In the Belly of the Beast, the edited
compilation of these personal accounts
(with the introduction by Mailer),
brings before the public dark and im-
passioned testimony on a controversial
and uncomfortable subject.
The book consists of a series of letter
excerpts, arranged according to selec-
ted topics. The first six chapters deal
primarily with Abbott's actual prison
experiences, while the last six concen-
trate on his political convictions.
It is his vivid and penetrating
descriptions-of the barbarity of prison
punishment or the tense convict-guard
"non-relations" that Abbott excels. His
ability to shock and reveal instinctive
truisms carries the reader into strange,
unknown places.

We see the nightmare world of the
"blackout cell," a room of absolute
darkness where the prisoner is brought
and put on a diet of a bowl of broth and a
hard biscuit a day. Without revealing
specifics-names, places, dates-Ab-
bott recreates in his prose an utterly
real environment of terror, pain, and
The novelty of Abbott's perspectve
makes his words live. Here is a man
who spent fourteen of his prison years
in solitary confinement because he
refused to conform, to sublimate his
personal will to the forces which op-
pressed him.
The "hole," as Abbott calls it, brings
self-discipline to a crucial test.
Some-the strong-resist and rebel,
even to the point of refusing the meager
food offered them, preferring to eat
cockroaches picked off the stone floor.
Any act of defiance, even a certain
"look" or way of walking, brings the
convict this sentence: an almost in-
finite time alone, spent dwelling not on
his transgressions, but on his basic, all-
consuming hatred of his jailers, the
Abbott's instinctive reactions against
the prison system prove an important
base for the ideological preferences he
details in the book's later chapters.
Seeing and feeling the constant op-
pression around him fired his belief in
the value and necessity of Marxism.
And without his Marxist tendencies,
Abbott's powerful descriptions of
prison brutality and suffering would
become merely an adventure story, a
lone man's heroic perseverance

through peril, with no logical
progression or goal.
It is in the political discussioris
however, that In the Belly of the Beast'
becomes hard to swallow. In leapiig
from a convict's objections about con-
ditions to blanket denunciations against
democracy in favor of communism,
Abbott often oversteps his reade''s
credulity. It is one thing to say, "This is
how things are in prison." It is another
to claim, "This is how things should lie
in society." We trust Abbott's account
of convict life partly because we have
few other examples of writing from his
perspective. But his opinions on the
"free" world, formed on the basis of ex-
tensive reading as well as prison ex-
perience, prove easily disputable.
Nevertheless, Abbott's observations
are at all times thought-provoking.
Even through the limitations imposed by
using excerpts of his letters, Abbott
maintains a high level of tension,
clarity, and brutal honesty. The stub-
born persistence which carried him.
thorugh acts of violence (his own and
those of others) and imposed starvation
and solitude pervades all of In tlhe
The determination to preserve
dignity and exert will accompanied
Jack Abbott into freedom. The quarrel
which ended in Richard Adan's death
allegedly began with Adan's refusal to
let Abbott use the employee's bathroom
in the restaurant where Adan worked.
At the time of his arrest for Adan's
stabbing, Abbott was working ona
new novel about a convict's return to

'Vaults of Memory

(Continued from Page 5)-
The problem with the photography is
that it isolates the images too much.
One photograph (No. 17) shows the
ragged walls incised by gaping tombs
and black shadows. This is a thought-
provoking image; there should be more
architectural photographs such as this,
capturing the spirit of the chambers.
Instead, there are many stills of
single images from the walls. And
while these wallpaintings are very in-
teresting in context, when taken out of
their surroundings, too much of their
primitiveness comes out and they lack
Thus aesthetically the exhibit can be
uninteresting, suffering from comparison
with the genuine artifacts displayed at
the Kelsey Museum. It is true that Bret-
tman created the exhibit to tell the
viewer something about the history
and the problems of the catacombs, not

to replace the real thing. Yet perhaps
she would have been more successful if
the photographs were better represen-
tations of the catacombs themselves.
The Kelsey Musum of Archeology
received this exhibit intact, but
curators there chose not to set up the
exhibit in a room by itself. Instead, they
intermingled many artifacts from the
museum's collection that are unconnec-
ted with the exhibit's theme. And since
the exhibit is entirely photographic, the
Kelsey's fragments, from real tombs
and like objects, are a positive reinfor-
cement. This arrangement of some of
the museum's collection with the
exhibit was done by Prof. Elaine Gaz-
One photograph dating from about
1866 is an especially good addition to the
exhibit. Entitled "Man Contemplating
a Skull From the Catacombs of
Oomatilla," it shows a man seated

alone in a chamber of the catacombs,
holding a single human skull in his han-
ds. The wonderfully Hamlet-like image
helps to supply some of the personal.
drama that the other photographs lack
Due to the rather dispassionate:
nature of the photography, "Vaults of
Memory" does not immerse the viewer'
in the mystery of the Italian Catacom-
bs. But it does whet the appetite for
The exhibit continues at the Kelsey
Museum until December 15.

(Continued from Page 5)

the hype the film has received. It had
the potential to take the corruption
story we've heard before and go a step
further with it. Lumet seems to have
tried to do that, tried to emphasize the
theme of guilt, but the attempts flounder
in scenes that are too long and, in many
cases, far more boring than they ought
to be.

- t h. village Apothecary
i ndays and holidaysr 1112 South University 663-55.33

"A gorgeous filmof glowing "Absorbing, moving, deeply felt.
scenes. Transcends the ordinary." Brilliantly photographed. The
-Gene Shalit, NBC-TV "Today Show" battle sequences' rank with
"Could well be the movie of the those in Kubrick's 'Paths of
year. As colorful as 'Raiders of Glory'." -Jack Kroll, Newswee


the LostArk;Exciting, involving
and splendidly acted"
-Dave Sterritt, Christian Science Monitor
"It is beautifully made and
should be waltzing with Oscar
next spring! -Liz Smith, Syndicated Columnist

"Sweeping. Uncommon beauty,
warmth and emotional power."
-Janet Maslin, New York Times
"The best picture of the year.
A must see. -Marilyn Beck, Syndicated Columnist

"Ambitious. Sweeping. A singu-
larly intelligent entertainment. "Can take its place with pride
A milestone in the career of the next to another World War I
talented Peter Weir." classic, 'All Quiet On The West-
-Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times ern Front'. Poignant, vividly told'
-Edwin Miller, Seventeen



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