Norman Mailer, Prisons and Me

I first read, In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Abbott when I was spending a year as a reporter inside a maximum security penitentiary doing research for my book, The Hot House: Life Inside Leaven worth Prison. If you are not familiar with the Beast book or Abbott’s story, here’s a brief review. 
The son of an Irish-American solider and Chinese prostitute, Abbott had spent nearly all of his life in jails and prisons. In 1977, he learned that Normal Mailer was writing a book about Gary Gilmore, the first prisoner to be executed in 1977 after our nation re-started the death penalty ending its short constitutional hiatus.
Mailer’s book about Gilmore, The Executioner’s Song, won the Pulitzer Prize and helped revive his career.
Abbott had done time in Utah with Gilmore and he told Mailer that stories about Gilmore were being highly embellished. The convict and the famed author began corresponding and Mailer soon became enamored with the hardened criminal and his descriptions of prison life. Mailer not only helped Abbott find a publisher for his letters but also helped him win a parole. 
What happened next is legendary in literary and prison circles. For a brief period Abbott was the toast of the New York literary world. Actress Susan Sarandon reportedly named one of her son’s after him. But only a few weeks into his freedom, Abbott got into an argument with the son of a restaurant owner about using the staff-only commode. He stabbed the man to death. He was caught and returned to prison. In 2002, Abbott committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell.
Norman Mailer felt as if he had been conned by Abbott, saying in an interview that his relationship with the convict was “another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in’.”
When The Hot House was about to be published, my editor suggested that I write a personal letter to Mailer and ask him for a “blurb” for the book’s cover. The editor gave me Mailer’s home address and I explained in my letter how I had spent a year in prison with veteran convicts, much like Abbott and Gilmore.
On my own, I also wrote Jack Abbott.
Mailer never replied and I later learned that he disliked getting letters from unknown authors seeking endorsements.
But Abbott wrote back and told me that he was impressed with my manuscript. When I mentioned that Abbott was willing to endorse my book, my publisher said no. The publisher did not want a blurb from a sensational murderer.
I was not exaggerating when I told Mailer that I knew a lot of convicts who were really not much different from Abbott and Gilmore. All of them had done serious time and they could easily match the tales that Abbott described in his book.
While I found In the Belly of the Beast intriguing, Abbott is not my favorite ex-con writer nor do I believe he was the most talented.
For me, the best at capturing prison life was Edward Bunker, who not only wrote a series of tremendous books, but also a movie screenplay — Runaway Train — that captures the convict mentality better than most movies I have seen. His books, No Beast So Fierce and Animal Factory, are as good as you will get in describing prison life unless you want to go behind bars, which I don’t recommend. Unfortunately, Hollywood did a lousy job when it attempted to turn them into movies. 
In addition to writing, Bunker also was an actor. One of his best roles was playing Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. He died in 2005 and was also an admirer of The Hot House.
I was thinking about Norman Mailer this week because a new book has been published entitled A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir. The author is Norris Church Mailer, who was Mailer’s sixth wife and mother of his eighth and ninth children.
The book got a favorable review in The Washington Post and also is being credited with revealing what has to be a classic Mailer story.
Norris Church was a young and popular teacher in an Arkansas college when the famed literary lion rolled through town on a book tour. She apparently ended up in his bed that night and their liaison eventually led to a proposal and marriage in 1980.
A former model and much younger than her groom, Norris knew that she had just married an infamous womanizer and she was determined to put an end to his philandering.
Despite her efforts, Mailer did not remain faithful  even after he passed the seventy year-old mark, according to his wife’s memoir.
She was heartbroken and frankly bewildered, especially when she discovered that some of his illicit escapades were with women his age or older, including one who wore “a gray wig, was about five feet tall, and must have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds or more,” the book says.
When his wife confronted him and asked why he had cheated on her — especially with someone who was not nearly as attractive as her — Mailer explained that “sometimes he needed to be the good-looking one.”
Even in adultery, he had a way with words.
NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania will be conducting its 10th Annual Education Conference this Friday and Saturday (April 23/24) in Pittsburgh at the Airport Marriott. NAMI Executive Director Michael Fitzpatrick will give Friday’s keynote, opening the conference, which is entitled The Power To Ignite Change: A Personal Call to Action.  I will be attending on Saturday to participate in a panel that will discuss the Minds on the Edge broadcast. Another panelist who appeared on the Fred Friendly Seminars’ production, Dr. Fred Frese, will also be on the panel. On Saturday afternoon, I will give a speech as a workshop. If you are going to be in the area, please come by and say hello. Southwestern PA NAMI Associate Director Debbie Ference has done a fabulous job organizing this conference and Alllegeny County Pa., is nationally known for the model programs that it has put into place to help prisoners with mental disorders successfully transition back into the community.
About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.