A Cell of One's Own


by Virginia Heffernan

Wondering what's ahead for Susan McDougal or the brothers Menendez? Breakout the literature of the convicted—but don't expect a mellow, merry reading experience. The Big House—surprise—is just not a funny place. Jack Henry Abbott a lifetime prisoner, puts it this way: "I keep waiting for the years to give me a sense of humor, but so far it has evaded me entirely." Reading some of the world's most wanted prison lit, I began to feel eerily like Jodie Fosterwhen she first visits Anthony Hopkins's prison cell in Silence of the Lambs. In her pressed starter suit, she's trying to stay professional, but he's getting into her brain.

Among the stripped, shorn, and locked-up are the innocent, the guilty, the artful, the dogmatic, the pleasant, the insane, the inane. Despite these differences, however, convicts confronted with the isolation and deprivation of prison life sometimes develop an intense responsiveness to their highly particular, highly regimented world—as well as to the broader, now more abstract world from which they've been banished. Occasionally, in the midst of fevered ideological reasoning or shrill protestations of innocence, prison prose seems to achieve a near-hallucinatory clarity. The writing of famous convicts like Jean Genet, George Jackson, and Jack Henry Abbott is disquietingly lucid—most lucid, maybe, when it's at its craziest. Lucid madness is compelling. When you pick up a series of letters, a memoir, or a rant written in prison, you find that you read compulsively, soberly, trying not to blink, as if a prisoner were staring at you between the bars of his cell, and you had nothing but your fading irony to protect you.

399 B.C. Athens. No doubt a beautiful day. Socrates, charged with heresy and corrupting the young, is designated as the original "menace to society." Jail and the much-publicized hemlock O.D. are close at hand. But first Socrates offers his Apology, his preprison speech, in which he praises his accusers for having given a riveting account of his crimes. By contrast, he admits, "I have not the slightest skill as a speaker," adding, "unless, of course, by a skillful speaker you mean one who speaks the truth."

This is no arbitrary ploy: convicts have a deep distrust of eloquence, as well as a pressing need for it. Along the way, after all, someone talked someone else into locking them up. Now they have to talk themselves free. Prisoners may not know the law; they may not even know the law's language ("I am a complete stranger to the language of this place," Socrates says), but they have one rhetorical asset—immediacy. They have an emergency-level stake in their own unminced words.

This immediacy serves various purposes. Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, a tawdry, conniving convict who sleeps with her brother, says she writes to give "Instruction, Caution, Warning and Improvement to every Reader." Most of the time, however, real-life convicts write in search of an appeal—legal or religious or ideological. They write, as Socrates does, to tell "the truth"—that cherished, fanatical story designed to convince the world that they deserve a realer life.

Prisoners write to tell you that prison is unbearable, full of what Jack London (arrested for vagrancy in 1894) called "things unbelievable and monstrous." They write to give themselves meager hope: In "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," Oscar Wilde ("indecent conduct," 1895) recalls looking "Upon that little tent of blue/Which prisoners call the sky." And they write, as Genet did, to preserve their internal liberty and to argue that, in the courtly words of Richard Lovelace ("treason", 1641), "Stone walls do not a prison make,/Nor iron bars a cage."

In Our Lady of the Flowers, Genet, in jail for theft and for being gay, drops the ruse that confessions of wickedness are "instructional" (cf. Cotton Mather, Oprah Winfrey). Infatuated with crime, Genet's hero wants a soul mate with "the sacred sign of the monster at the corner of his mouth." The novel revolves around sex dreams involving muscular felons and an obsession with the morbidly small physical details: cigarette ash, lice, formaldehyde and urine fumes. It's raunchy and disillusioned as only a Frenchie 1940s novel can be. For late-night reading, it's also filled with poignant exotic (R) scenes (the word "rammed" is a favorite).

I have to admit, though, that I soon missed the I-am-ze-outlaw voice when I got to Solzhenitsen and his noble days unbowed and unbroken in the Gulag. Yes, The Gulag Archipelago is inspiring and informative, but Solzhenitsen is so measured. He's really into sobriety. And the things he misses from life on the outside are so wholesome. "If only we could listen to the pure resounding of the cock crow in the unpolluted air! Or stroke the good, serious face of a horse!"— I started to crave Genet's porno-edit of those sentences.

Talk! In 1970, George Jackson, the Black Panther-era activist, published a series of letters called Soledad Brother that attracted widespread attention the next year when Jackson's murder in prison, along with the Attica Uprising, occasioned legislation meant to improve the treatment of prisoners (some of which was recently repealed). In the midst of fascinatingly ordinary details ("Dear Jon, Robert told me you were driving the new automobile to school...Do you use it at school at drive home too?"), Jackson works out a nervy, aggressive argument for the transformation of criminals into revolutionaries. His letters end with "Power to the People," and he uses that kick-ass early-1970s vocabulary ("neoslavery" "Amerikan," "Maothink") that rarely comes up in gala pop-culture retrospectives. No VH-1 Marcia Brady flashback here; it's bracing to see this period from the other side.

Jack Henry Abbott's 1981 book, In the Belly of the Beast, stands apart, though. Abbott is not primarily a novelist or a sexual radical or an ideologue; he is, first and above all, a prisoner. From the age of twelve to thirty-seven, he was in prison almost without cease; his letters to Norman Mailer, who was working on The Executioner's Song, are his first attempts to describe the process of living a whole life behind bars. While in jail, Abbott managed to give himself an extraordinary education, teaching himself Kant, Stendahl, and Marx (and, okay, also how to kill a fellow convict). His accounts of the visual deprivation of the strip-cell ("so fucked up even the sight of a piece of a colored cloth moved me to euphoria") and his efforts to dodge "lumbering, slobbering insanity" are so vivid that they seem to be the inventions of an alien nervous system. This is a potent fix of prison life.

Abbott summarily rejects the public fantasy that prisoners repent in prison. His Bible is most useful to him when he soaks it in toilet water, wraps it in a bedsheet, and bludgeons a guard he hates. Of course, knowing which savage tale to believe is impossible. Abbott's repeated accounts of the unrelenting sadism of the guards, for example—like many seductive, shadowy prison stories—have a drearily surreal sheen to them, like photographs sent back from another planet. For a view behind bars, however, stories are all we have. The drama of the trial, even before American courtrooms began admitting reporters and TV cameras, has always been well-documented and widely witnessed. Prison, by contrast, is silent, sealed-off, not camera-ready. Bite-out-of-crimers have long contended that crime has consequences, but verdicts have consequences, too: jailhouse writing reminds us that a prison sentence is more than what happens when an episode of Court TV ends.   </end>

Viginia Heffernan is a freelance writer. She lives in Brooklyn.