July 20, 1981 12:00 PM

It was a blackout cell…total darkness. I raised the cup [of water] carefully to my lips and tilted it back to drink. I felt the legs, the bodies of many insects run up my face, over my eyes and into my hair. I flung down the cup and brought my hands to my face…I heard someone screaming far a way and it was me. I fell against the wall and, as if it were a catapult, was hurled across the cell to the opposite wall…screaming. Insane.

The man who lived through such sadistic punishment 15 years ago in a Utah county jail is Rufus “Jack” Henry Abbott, now 37 and the author of a controversial memoir, In the Belly of the Beast (Random House, $11.95). It is a collection of letters he wrote in prison to Norman Mailer. Abbott, who at the age of 12 landed in the penal system for juvenile delinquency, has been free only five and a half months in the ensuing 25 years. He began corresponding with Mailer in 1977, offering to help the author understand the demonic netherworld behind bars. Mailer was in the middle of writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner’s Song, about Gary Gilmore and violence in America. As Abbott’s long, handwritten letters began to arrive (1,000 pages in all), Mailer was awed. “Abbott had his own voice. I had heard no other like it,” Mailer has explained. “We may have a new writer of the largest stature among us.”

Critics agree with Mailer that his protégé “is a natural writer.” But they also have ridiculed Mailer for his romantic view of criminals. (He once said of Charles Manson: “As an intellectual, he was brave.”) Mailer’s infatuation with “outlaw mystique,” notes one reviewer, “carried over to his praise of Jack Henry Abbott.” In fact, for years Abbott was one of the country’s most incorrigible inmates, and he has done time in most of America’s major federal pens.

By his own account, he survived a total of about 14 years in solitary confinement, during which time he educated himself by reading everything from Plato to Lenin. Abbott claims he endured brutal beatings and months of starvation diets that reduced him to eating protein-rich roaches. When recounting such ordeals, he is powerful. But elsewhere, the book is flawed by exaggerations and ideological ravings (Abbott is an armchair Communist).

For instance, Abbott writes that after being released from a juvenile penal institution, he was convicted at 18 of issuing a check with insufficient funds. But the case involved the theft and forgery of payroll checks. Strangely, Abbott also insists he is 6′ tall, when he is really about 5’7″. Mailer also reports that Abbott “has the high convict honor of being the only man to escape from max” in Utah State Penitentiary, where he is remembered by one prison official as “a feisty little s.o.b.” Actually, this was the second escape. In November 1968 nine other inmates had bolted to freedom; three years later Abbott and another prisoner crawled through the same air ducts. A few days afterward Abbott robbed a Denver bank of $5,330; six weeks later he was caught.

In truth, life has given Abbott few breaks. He was born to a Chinese mother on an Army base in Oscoda, Mich., where his Irish-American father was stationed. As a child, Jack drifted in and out of foster homes, never completing the sixth grade. At 12 he was sent to the Utah State Industrial School for Boys. “I stole and everything else,” he admits. It was the beginning of his living hell. “A boy in reform school,” says Abbott, “is punished for being a little boy…and is treated like a man. Can you imagine what that does to him?” Soon after, he started using heroin. Released at 18, he landed six months later in Utah State Penitentiary on the check charge.

“When I went to prison, I was a normal man,” he writes. “I became what a segment of society would call a homosexual.” There he also graduated to killer. In 1966 he fatally stabbed another inmate. During his trial Abbott threw a water pitcher at the judge and pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. “Abbott was crazy like a fox,” says one court official. Psychiatrists declared him mentally competent.

Mailer helped Abbott sell his book. To date Abbott has used most of his $12,500 advance, arranged by Mailer’s agent, to pay three lawyers. Aiding their cause were two New York editors who attested to Abbott’s ability to earn a living writing. Last month, after serving 14 years of a three-to-20-year sentence for the inmate killing, Abbott was released. He now works in Manhattan three days a week researching for Mailer.

“I really think Jack is doing well,” says Mailer. “Certainly by the measure of someone like Gary Gilmore he is immensely relaxed.” In the Big Apple less than a month, Abbott already has had to cope with the theft of his three-piece suit from the room where he lives. With the help of Random House editor Erroll McDonald, he daily grapples with the minutiae of life outside—how to order from a menu, how to walk through a subway turnstile, how to shop for clothes. Nonetheless, says Abbott’s other big brother, Norman, “I think Jack is enjoying his freedom.”

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