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In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison

3.56  ·  Rating details ·  987 ratings  ·  86 reviews
This book collects Abbott's correspondence from prison with Norman Mailer, who provides an introduction. Abbott was a convict who had served the bulk of his life in various prisons across the country. The book is a lauded entry in the repertoire of prison literature. ...more
Paperback, 192 pages
Published January 2nd 1991 by Vintage (first published 1981)
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Average rating 3.56  · 
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Jon Nakapalau
Feb 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This was a hard book to read given how the story of JHA ended. Still one of the best books I have ever read on prison life and how individuals feel when they are 'digested' In The Belly of the Beast. ...more
Jan 11, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: memoir, nonfiction, 2013
In a journey that began with Killing for Sport Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, I spent some of last year indulging in true crime stories. One of the things that Pat Brown does in the book mentioned is make a clear distinction between Psychotics (who can be cured, or at least managed, with drugs) and Psychopaths ( who don't have underlying medical issues but are cold and calculating and have the makings of becoming serial killers if social conditions create them that way). Intrigued by one of ...more
My father rarely told the story, but he said he read The Bridge on the River Kwai during his stint in the Marine Corps, and upon reaching the climax of the book--which outraged him--he threw the novel overboard into the sea.

And while I didn't throw it into the sea, Jack Henry Abbott's In the Belly of the Beast is the only book I've ever thrown away with deliberate intent--I simply wanted to spare others from having to endure that shitty book--at least that particular shitty book.

It's one of a ge
stephanie roberts
Feb 14, 2013 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: non fiction readers, people that like crime novels
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Patrick Belair
Sep 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
This was a very interesting book written by a very troubled man, who spent the majority of his life behind bars.I feel that Mr Abbott was troubled most likely in his early life also! Many people have bad or troubled early years and don't resort to lives of crime or fighting authority.

I'm sure that the criminal justice system was a lot different in the 60's than today but the culture of us vs them still apply's today.I believe that even if one is in the joint a person can change if they want,even
Mar 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
I had never thought about prisons before, so the thoughts in this book were completely new. I was horrified. I guess it's good that despite the overload of human suffering I've read about, I am still always shocked at our ability to harm others and other people's ability to persevere...

I definitely recommend this to anyone who wants a different perspective on our society. I would wait to read about Jack Henry Abbott until AFTER you read his story.

A few notable passages (Abbott spent almost ALL o
Dec 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: the-stack
Psychopathic and narcissistic behaviors are defined as lacking empathy. No one chooses this state of emotional deprivation. Our error is that we believe those afflicted are unintelligent which simply is not so. Jack Abbott possessed a self taught intelligence but this in and of itself required self examination. One must first be able to ask the question, why. It seemed he had done the work and understood the why's better than most of us. How many of us can write with such honesty? What makes thi ...more
May 31, 2007 rated it it was amazing
A book you can never like, but have to respect. The best lesson in what it means to be human can come from such documents of inhumanity.
Feb 10, 2014 rated it it was ok
booo whoo. I'm in prison so im gonna whine about it. Don't do the crime if you can't do the time. A bunch of dribble. Gave me a headache and heartburn. ...more
Mar 03, 2013 rated it it was ok
I so wanted to like this book. I read an excerpt of it originally in an anthology of prison writing, and after reading the book in its entirety, I felt the excerpt pulled out the best parts of the book, about Abbott's childhood experiences in the Utah Industrial School for boys in Ogden. It is an interesting account of Abbott's experience in prison along with his philosophy. It provides a glimpse of the depravity of prison. However, Abbott has very carefully written a book without revealing much ...more
Aug 17, 2007 rated it it was ok
Shelves: overrated, biography
A lot of people on this site are probably too young to remember all the fuss over Jack Henry Abbott in the 80s. He was in prison (I forget what for initially), and started corresponding with Norman Mailer. He eventually became a protege of Mailer, who worked to get him paroled. I bet you can guess the rest: he did wind up getting paroled, whereupon he murdered a young man with whom he had had an argument in a restaurant. He then got sent back to prison, where he eventually died fairly recently.

Jan 31, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: prison-studies
I became quite irked about 50 pages in when it started to dawn on me this book was rally about Jack Henry Abbott boo hooing about his life in prison. After a while I just wanted to scream okay yes you're in prison and it sucks but come on! You are there because you committed a horrible crime! This wasn't a case of wrongful incarceration or an unjust sentence. What did he expect? I couldn't stand the sob story and felt like he was trying to exploit the reader's pity. ...more
Sep 01, 2007 rated it it was ok
Shelves: psychology, biography
The story of Jack Henry Abbott is interesting, however I found this book to be a self-absorbed pity fest. Granted he had a hard life, however he was given a second chance he probably did not deserve and proved that to be the case.

I will not be crying for him anytime soon and will not be reading this book again. Check it out from the library, don't buy it.
G.M. Lupo
Jun 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing
It's been a while since I read this, but I recall it being a compelling read. Abbott's description of a life behind bars is very gripping, and I found myself hanging on his every word. The notion of a prisoner with the soul of a poet isn't exactly a novel concept, but Abbott demonstrates that even someone with a history such as his has a story to tell. Be that as it may, he was still a man hardened by the system, as the murder he committed following his parole demonstrated. Being unable to adjus ...more
Feb 16, 2012 rated it it was ok
About 70% of the book - the parts where he actually writes about prison - is absolutely riveting. The remaining 30%, where he expounds on Marxism and a bunch of other stuff, is pretty annoying and basically drivel.

The first 90 pages are best read while listening to The Stooges.
Dec 02, 2009 rated it it was ok
Career criminal describes life behind bars in letters to Norman Mailer. Mailer gets him paroled. Within days he's back in for murder. If not for this back story, no one would read this. ...more
Jin-Ah Kim
Dec 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
My father suffers from Schizophrenia and to this day, Jack Henry Abbott's description of akathisia or 'restlessness', is by far the most poetic and traumatic description I've ever read to describe the condition:

"...[It comes] from so deep inside you, you cannot locate the source of the pain … The muscles of your jawbone go berserk, so that you bite the inside of your mouth and your jaw locks and the pain throbs. … Your spinal column stiffens so that you can hardly move your head or your neck and
Daniel Hood
Oct 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Horrifying, intelligent & tragically fascinating
Jun 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mark Stevens
Oct 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
It’s impossible to read In the Belly of the Beast and not wonder how it would have been received had it been published now, in the year of the pandemic and civil rights upheavals and sharply divided political clashes over race, power, and wealth.

The New York Times Book Review called In the Belly of the Beast “fiercely visionary” when it came out, in 1981. Yes. And then some.

The backstory is legendary, but just in case—the book is based on letters Jack Henry Abbott wrote to Norman Mailer from pr
Mar 08, 2008 rated it it was amazing
It's very unfortunate that this book is so indelibly connected with the events that it set in motion, because it's brilliant and painfully honest in its positions. And although it's impossible not to wince when the author discusses his violent tendencies or how he would function in the outside world, for me they don't seem to affect the book's essential value. I don't see this as the sort of book where one tries to determine if the author's conclusions are right, but instead just to understand t ...more
Chris Kelly
Jul 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
I believe many of the other reviews missed the point of the book and that is likely due to the context of its publication. Looking at the text itself, as I did this summer, I was able to glean the author's message without the hype from 'Executioner's Calling.' Abbot describes in detail many terrible realities about the US prison system, but I did not get the sense that he was trying evoke pity from the reader. The question is never does any man deserve justice, the point is to obliterate the mis ...more
Sep 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
When In the Belly of the Beast was written, Jack Abbott had spent most of his life in the criminal justice system, first as a juvenile then as an adult. His well written autobiographical work tells many harrowing tales and how Abbott's life was destroyed. Very good book.

Seems important to note that Abbott's version of affairs is likely very self serving and incomplete.

In 1981, author Norman Mailer got Abbott out of prison mainly on the strength of Abbott's wonderful book. Shortly after his rel
Jan 31, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I forgot I never posted this book on here. I've read this through a couple times and often pick through it over certain topics. While the narrative is not entirely cogent (he goes off the rails a little when talking about Marx and Lenin), it is a piercing view inside the world of the maximum security prison system, especially pre Civil Rights Movement. For example, his discussion of the use of phenothiazine drugs in the penal system is staggering. Likewise his discussion of prison politics.

If th
Laura Cesaretti
Apr 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The most intense, honest, and pure analysis of our society. A must read to never forget the truth.
Jason Morrison
Mar 20, 2018 rated it did not like it
I first heard about this book while reading "The Unknown Darkness: Profiling the Predators Among Us" by Gregg McCrary.

Since starting to read more this past October, I have been lucky in reading books that I have really enjoyed, until this one. This was such a difficult read for me, probably because of the ramblings of someone who has spent their life incarcerated.

Abbott, who admits to spending nearly his entire life behind bars, sent a series of letters to Norman Mailer who compiled this book. W
Stephen Durrant
Nov 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Abbott's portrayal of the fear and violence of prison life has become something of a classic of prison literature. He is one of those rather amazing autodidacts who used his time in confinement to read compulsively and seriously. The result was a surprisingly broad knowledge of philosophy and literature and a brilliant style of writing. Abbott converted to Marxism and saw revolution as the only way injustices embedded in society, and particularly in American penitentiaries, could ever be correct ...more
Joshua Wroath
Jun 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Nearly 40 years after it's publication, ITBOTB leaves you with some sobering thoughts.
The criminal justice system (spoken by Abbott exclusively on the US system) is something to feel deeply ashamed, horrified and conflicted on. His accounts of life during the mid part of the 20th century are at times truly harrowing accounts.
Abbott's ideas and philosophies, as Mailer and his peers found, are astonishing to comprehend from a man eaten up and spat out so many times by the prison system. His artic
Tyler Monsein
Nov 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Abbott consistently attacks the French existentialist (and generally poetic) idea of the world, in its absurdity, being like a prison (and therefore the prison as a pure revelation of the world's absurdity) -- no, he says, it's a fucking man-made hell and it should not exist. Prison is not a metaphor. We could get rid of them if we wanted to, but we don't. There is no philosophy about life in prison that neatly corresponds to the outside world. So refreshing to read. And his wonderfully simple t ...more
Lynne Lillard
Nov 27, 2018 rated it did not like it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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Jack Henry Abbott was an American criminal and author. He was released from prison in 1981 after gaining praise for his writing and being lauded by a number of high-profile literary critics, including author Norman Mailer. Six weeks after his release, however, he fatally knifed a man during an altercation, was convicted of manslaughter and returned to prison, where he committed suicide in 2002.


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