Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Care of the (Incarcerated) Self: Ethics and Parrhēsia in the Prison Writing of Jack Henry Abbott

“This article attempts to recover and highlight the rhetorical and ethical significance of Jack Henry Abbott’s recurrently maligned major literary publication, In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison , a book of writing that developed through the inmate’s correspondence with famed American author Norman Mailer. I argue that Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast demonstrates a model of Foucauldian parrhēsia , a speech act that involves the subject’s articulation of truth in relation to selfhood, an enunciation that simultaneously posits an ethical engagement with the sovereign. Directly revisiting In the Belly of the Beast , I propose that a profoundly different understanding of truth and subjectivity is necessary for thinking about the rhetorical and ethical work of prison writing.”

I write with my blood because I have nothing else .

—Jack Henry Abbott


While working on the manuscript of The Executioner’s Song , the 1979 Pulitzer Prize winning novel that portrays the famous death penalty case of Gary Gilmore, Norman Mailer received an unexpected letter sent from Utah State Prison. The letter was from Jack Henry Abbott, an inmate who claimed to know Gilmore. These two men were being housed at the same penitentiary. Abbott had read an article about Mailer’s interest in the death penalty case for a new book. He offered to detail his experience in America’s prison system so that Mailer might more accurately portray the systemic violence and injustice that inmates suffer under incarceration. “He wanted to warn me,” Mailer recalls, “that very few people knew much about violence in prisons. No author he had ever read on the subject seemed to have a clue. It was his belief that . . . [i]t probably took a decade behind bars for any real perception on the matter to permeate your psychology and your flesh” (ix). Describing himself to Mailer as “state-raised,” Abbott conveyed his experience as someone who had spent the majority of his life within penal institutions. The author and the inmate began a correspondence that would eventually generate thousands of pages of handwritten meditations on the horrors of the American federal prison system. Despite the media attention that developed from this unlikely correspondence and the tragic circumstances that unfolded from the encounter, scholars usually mention Abbott only as a footnote to The Executioner’s Song .

In this article, however, I attempt to recover and highlight the rhetorical and ethical significance of Abbott’s major literary publication, In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison , a book of writing that developed through the author’s correspondence with Mailer. I begin with an overview of Abbott’s complex and troubled life, his involvement with Mailer, and the media narrative that circulated and shifted through his brief release from prison to his reincarceration for murder. I do not intend to focus deeply on the political debates surrounding Abbott’s murder trial, as many scholars have already done this work. 1 I am less interested in what [End Page 23] others have to say about Abbott and more in what Abbott has to say of his own imprisonment and its effects on the dialectics and ethics of selfhood in relation to others. I draw from Lee Bernstein’s assessment of prison literature in the 1970s to contextualize the ethics of Abbott’s writing practice. Despite Abbott’s tragic and fatal actions, I contend that his writing might be redeemed as a model for an ethics of resistance and self-constitution. I provide a reappraisal of the rhetorical and ethical dimensions of In the Belly of the Beast , arguing that Abbott’s writing might be understood as a model for Foucauldian parrhēsia , a form of radical speech that declares truth to power. I suggest that Abbott’s writing conveys parrhēsiastic speech in its resistance to the sovereign’s obliteration of selfhood in circumstances of imprisonment. Directly revisiting In the Belly of the Beast , I propose that a profoundly different understanding of truth and subjectivity is necessary for thinking about the rhetorical and ethical work of prison writing.


Born in Oscada, Michigan, in 1944, Abbott never knew his father, and his impoverished mother was unable to care for him and his sister, Frances. As a result, he was shuffled through various foster homes until the age of nine when he began serving stints in juvenile detention centers. At sixteen, Abbott was sent to the Utah State Industrial School, a juvenile reform institution historically known for its overcrowding and inadequate facilities. In 1963, at the age of twenty-one, he was arrested for forgery over stolen checks and began serving a maximum five-year sentence at Utah State Prison. While serving this term, Abbott was given an additional sentence of twenty years for knifing a fellow inmate, James Christensen, who later died in the hospital. From this point onwards, Abbott was primarily housed in solitary confinement. In 1971, Abbott escaped from prison for six weeks only to be recaptured and given another nineteen years to serve for an armed robbery committed as a fugitive in Denver, Colorado. By 1978, at thirty-four years of age and after more than two decades spent in state penal institutions, Abbott felt that giving a narrative to his experience of imprisonment might be useful to one of America’s most celebrated literary elites. 2

His writing instantly captured Mailer’s attention. “It was just remarkable,” recalls Mailer, “I don’t think two weeks went by before I was in the middle of a thoroughgoing correspondence. I felt the awe one knows before a phenomenon. Abbott had his own voice. I had heard no other like it. . . . He wrote like a devil. . . . Hell was now clear to behold. It was Maximum Security in a large penitentiary” (x). Despite a lack of formal education beyond the sixth grade and vehemently refusing to attend prison schools, Abbott taught himself to read and developed an impressive knowledge of literature, continental philosophy, and communist political theory. In the spring of 1980, Mailer brought Abbott’s letters to the attention [End Page 24] of Bob Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books , who serially published selections of the correspondence throughout that summer. With noticeable interest generated from the published letters, Abbott signed a book contract and received a $12,500 advance from Random House editor Erroll McDonald. Following written endorsements from Mailer, Silvers, and McDonald to the Utah Board of Pardons, Abbott was released on parole in June of 1981 after spending virtually his entire life under some form of state incarceration. The chairman of the Utah Board, Thomas R. Harrison, responded in an interview with the New York Times that the endorsements attested to Abbott’s “sensitivity, talent, goals and accomplishments” and that he and the board were convinced that the emerging writer “had a great deal going for him” and no longer posed a threat to society ( Farber ). That same month, Random House released In the Belly of the Beast , which collected and organized autobiographical, philosophical, and political fragments of Abbott’s letters to Mailer under different chapter headings on a variety of topics including general prison conditions, interpersonal relations between guards and inmates, institutionalization, solitary confinement, capital punishment, drugs, racism, corruption of the legal system, Marxism, foreign affairs, and the long term prisoner’s understanding of freedom.

With this major publication, Abbott became a literary darling and media celebrity overnight. Once paroled, he immediately began touring the media circuit with Mailer in New York, promoting the first printing of the prison letters. Abbott appeared on Good Morning America , gave interviews for People Magazine and the Soho News , and received several assignments from the New York Review of books and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution . He had his portrait made by well-known photographer and wife of Kurt Vonnegut, Jill Krementz. He also signed a contract with Scott Meredith, the prominent literary agent of J. G. Ballard, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick. Members of the New York literary community named Abbott the guest of honor at a celebratory dinner in Greenwich Village, toasting him with champagne. Concurrently, In the Belly of the Beast began to receive high praise from book reviewers and supporters of prison reform. “[W] e have before us,” writes Terrence Des Pres in a review for the New York Times , “the most intense, I might even say the most fiercely visionary book of its kind in the American repertoire of prison literature. In the Belly of the Beast is awesome, brilliant, perversely ingenious; its impact is indelible, and as an articulation of penal nightmare it is completely compelling” ( Des Pres ). In an essay about Abbott for the New York Review of Books , Michiko Kakutani notes that many reviewers also make controversial comparisons between In the Belly of the Beast and the writings of iconic political prisoners and foreign penitentiaries. For instance, Sue M. Halpern, a reviewer for Nation magazine, writes that Abbott’s book depicts “sophisticated tortures common to Soviet psychiatric prisons” and “leaves no doubt where our [End Page 25] gulag is” (21–23). In a similar vein, civil rights activist and political radical, Abbie Hoffman, draws comparisons between Abbott’s book and the dissident writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Jacobo Timerman in a review for Soho News ( Kakutani ). Abbott’s initial public image became that of the tragic victim of systemic injustice and state violence as reviewers and popular media stressed his upbringing in foster homes, his lack of education, and his torturous experience in solitary confinement. Initial media attention surrounding Abbott’s release and the publication of In the Belly of the Beast fulfilled the popular notion of the prison intellectual able to triumph over personal suffering and forge a path out of prison through writing.

This favorable media attention would come to an abrupt end, however, when six weeks after his release, Abbott found himself the culprit of a tragic incident. On the early morning of July 18, 1981, Abbott and two friends entered the Binibon café in Lower Manhattan for a meal. Abbott and the night manager of the café, Richard Adan, entered into a disagreement, which escalated into an altercation. The two men moved their argument outside the café where Abbott stabbed Adan once through the heart, leaving him dead on the sidewalk. After the incident, Abbott fled New York City. He travelled through Philadelphia, Chicago, and New Orleans, working odd jobs until police apprehended him on September 24 for murder charges. Abbott’s trial became a highly publicized media spectacle and lasted through January 1982. In support of Abbott, several celebrities attended the trial, including Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Christopher Walken ( Loving 204 ). Later, Saturday Night Live mocked this celebrity affinity for prison writers in a skit, “Prose and Cons,” a relatively conservative taunt directed at liberal elites who would show sympathy for prisoners ( Bernstein 169 ). Abbott’s initial media image as redeemed prison prodigy was swiftly dashed, replaced with a common consensus that he was a con artist and dangerous criminal beyond any kind of rehabilitation. Newspaper commentators accused both literary elites and prison officials of failing to assess Abbott as a highly unstable individual who could never be reintegrated into society. During the trial, Abbott showed little remorse, claiming that his actions against Adan were in self-defense. He was, however, ultimately convicted of manslaughter, given a sentence of fifteen years to life, and sent back to prison. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mailer fell under a wealth of scrutiny following his comments during an interview that the murder of Adan was a “tragedy,” but that “[s]ometimes culture is worth the risk” ( Sullivan ). Abbott’s case provided a platform for reporters, politicians, and criminologists to debate the interconnections between art and absolution, prison and reform, and what author Tom Wolfe calls “radical chic” among cultural elites, the frivolous adoption and promotion of political causes in order to develop a fashionable or unconventional public persona ( Bernstein 163 ). The case also provided conservative politicians the justification to demand harsher penalties for repeat offenders and stronger restrictions regarding the parole of inmates. [End Page 26]

Abbott remained in the public eye for years following his return to prison. With the help of legal scholar Naomi Zack, he successfully published another collection of writings with Prometheus Books in 1987. This collection, My Return , includes a play, “The Death of a Tragedy,” which dramatizes Abbott’s experience on trial for Adan’s murder. Multiple theatre groups actually performed the play in New York City through the late 80s and early 90s; the most recently reported performance took place in 2004. 4 In the Belly of the Beast was also adapted for the cinema as the 1988 film, Ghosts . . . of the Civil Dead , co-written by and starring rock musician Nick Cave. Further, Adan’s widow brought Abbott back to media prominence with a wrongful death suit that was not resolved until 1990. After a bizarre nine-day trial where Abbott haphazardly represented himself in court, often lashing out at the jury and prosecutors, Ricci Adan was awarded $7.57 million in damages ( Sullivan ). Many years later in February 2002, Abbott, at 58 years old, hung himself with a bed sheet and shoelace in his cell at Wende Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Alden, New York. Media reports of the suicide focused less on the writer’s life and work and more on Ricci Adan’s trauma, suggesting that she may finally gain some peace or closure from Abbott’s death ( Chan ; Halbfinger ).

The Care of the (Incarcerated) Self and Jack Henry Abbott’s Parrhēsiastic Speech

Since the media frenzy surrounding Abbott’s case, popular authors, legal scholars, and criminologists continue to cite the incidents surrounding his release to advance a wide variety of arguments for policy changes and prison reform. With few notable exceptions, scholars of prison literature only refer to Abbott’s work as a footnote to their research on Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song . Jerome Loving’s recent 2017 monograph, Jack and Norman , provides a more detailed portrait of the relationship between Mailer and Abbott, but offers a disappointing account of In the Belly of the Beast , focusing once again on the controversy of the book’s publication more than its contents. Abbott’s murder of Richard Adan has foreclosed or diverted any complex discussion of In the Belly of the Beast or how it might lead to some better understanding of the ethics of inmate writing and writing as a form of resistance under incarceration. Drawing from Foucault’s approach to ethics as well as Judith Butler’s and Stuart J. Murray’s respective adaptations of this approach, I am suggesting that Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast demonstrates an instance of “ parrhēsia ,” a speech act that involves the subject’s articulation of truth in relation to selfhood, an enunciation that simultaneously posits an ethical engagement with the sovereign. Foucault contends that parrhēsia differs from rhetoric in that it does not necessarily rely upon rational persuasion or intent. Therefore, parrhēsia does not require the validation of institutional structures for its “truth-value,” but rather involves the care of the self, an ethical relationship [End Page 27] or practice between the self and itself that may open new forms of understanding and interpretation between the self and others. Parrhēsia is the truth of the self as communicated to the other. I contend that In the Belly of the Beast functions as an act of parrhēsia whereby Abbott is not only engaged in a practice of reconstituting his own subjectivity through truth telling, but also opens a space for readers to reevaluate understandings of individual subjectivity in relation to incarceration.

According to Michael Israel, writing for publication was not technically allowed in most American federal prisons until the early 1970s, a consequence of prison reforms enacted following the Attica riots (446–47). In the years following Attica and leading up to the publication of Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast , many prisoners sought to engage with social and political debates occurring outside the walls of the penitentiary through their literary efforts. “Abbott’s politics and literary talents,” writes Bernstein, “were representative of a period of tremendous upheaval in U.S. prisons” (168). Learning to read and write for many people under incarceration is not simply a form of individual educational development, but also a political and cultural act of resistance. Former chair of the PEN Prison Writing Program, Bell Gale Chevigny, writes that prisoners often feel the need to “set the record straight, to bear witness to prison experience, to protest some facet of the criminal justice system” (248). Although prisoners have benefitted from the rise of writing opportunities available in penal institutions since the 1970s, these prisoners and their public supporters have often found themselves the targets of criminal charges or state violence as strategic attempts to silence voices in opposition to the sovereign. In America is the Prison , Bernstein summarizes this dilemma:

One lesson of the 1970s is that writing and performing puts people at risk of increased trouble with the criminal justice system. Those who spoke out at Attica were targeted during the takeover; prosecutors attempted to introduce Angela Davis’s writings as evidence of her guilt of murder, conspiracy, and kidnapping; Amiri Baraka received an unusually long sentence for weapons possession after the judge read from his 1967 poem “Black People.” In less celebrated cases in recent years, prisoner efforts to contribute to U.S. politics, society, and culture are typically misrepresented in order to carry out punishment.


There is, then, always a certain amount of personal risk involved when a person voices subjective truth directed towards the sovereign. For instance, it is well documented that prosecutors read descriptions of prison violence from In the Belly of the Beast aloud to the courtroom as evidence of Abbott’s inclination for murder ( Montgomery ). Abbott’s writing was explicitly used against him during the trial, as it became a critical source for the prosecution’s arguments in establishing context of the defendant’s personal beliefs and motivations ( Bernstein 161 ). The court’s use of Abbott’s In the Belly of [End Page 28] the Beast demonstrates that the act of writing one’s experience under incarceration is a further risk to one’s well-being and one’s body.

In this sense, I suggest that much prison writing might be understood as a form of declarative speech in opposition to the sovereign. Foucault outlines this form of radical speaking through the ethics of parrhēsia . In translation, parrhēsia simply means “free speech” or “candid speech.” Foucault describes the concept of parrhēsia as a main component of the Greek and Roman ethical notion of “care of the self,” a technique whereby the subject not only develops a careful relationship to the self, but also shapes his or her own existence in reflexive correlation to others in the world. In Fearless Speech , Foucault indicates that parrhēsia , as a form of truth telling, is incongruent with the modern Cartesian understanding of truth. Parrhēsia does not engage in evidential experience, the popular truths of the majority, or those truths that require institutional legitimization. Foucault claims that parrhēsia , “in this Greek sense, can no longer appear in our modern epistemological framework” (14). Murray, however, sees this remark as “a sort of Foucauldian challenge for us to imagine parrhēsia in forms of speech and styles of life that break out from under the heavy hand of modern epistemology” and argues that “this will require a momentary suspension of our insatiable will-to-knowledge” (“The Body” 63). In In the Belly of the Beast , Abbott similarly advocates for subjective knowledge or self-truth: “Whatever must be learned by rote is a prejudice ; it is not knowledge. Knowledge is something that has a subjective side, an intimate meaning as well as an outward meaning” (141). Parrhēsia emerges as a risky expression of speech that is different from what the majority believes, a commitment to a singular or unpopular truth in the face of danger or death, a speech that may anger the interlocutor as authority figure. In this sense, parrhēsia is especially relevant for the prisoner who lives in a perpetual state of sovereign exclusion. It is a speech activity that is always directed from “below” towards those who are “above.” It is a marginal speech that disrupts the status quo. In Giving an Account of Oneself , Butler describes parrhēsia as an ethical utterance whereby “one person’s discourse leads another person into self-reflection” and this form of discourse “arrives as an incitement, a form of seduction, an imposition or demand from outside to which one yields” (125). The self’s relation to the self through the expression of this dangerous speech is meant to encourage the other’s own self-recognition and responsibility towards the self, which, in turn, produces the opportunity for an ethical exchange between self and other. 3 Parrhēsia , however, does not simply imply the right to speak, but a particular relation between truth and the speaking subject. As Foucault designates, parrhēsia “is what allows some individuals . . . to tell [others] what they think, what they think is true, what they truly think is true . . . [and] function[s] as the free and, consequently, courageous activity of some who come forward, speak, and try to persuade and direct the others with all the attendant risks” ( The [End Page 29] Government 157–58). Prison writing might be understood through the ethical framework of parrhēsia as it frequently calls for the reader to observe material conditions of oppression through the subjectively expressed experience of suffering under incarceration.

Abbott is not interested in reciting truth in the sense of what is already commonly known or institutionally established. Echoing the Socratic form of parrhēsia , Abbott writes “that truth is painful . . . in some areas the test of a truth might very well be whether or not it causes pain to the knower” ( My Return 160). In this case, the knower becomes the reader of In the Belly of the Beast , the free citizen. Abbott also directly rejects institutional “truths” or rationalizations regarding his confinement. “I’m not going to go into lawyerlike details and comparisons,” he writes; “I’m not going to ‘argue my case’ by their rules” (108). Abbott fervently resists the notion that he is responsible for his own incarceration. “All our institutions, legal and administrative,” writes Israel, “are geared toward the goal of persuading the offender to admit his responsibility. The offender must admit that it was he who committed the crimes, that his role in each crime was knowing and willing, that he intends never to do it again and to live by society’s rules, and that the system is not to blame” (455). In opposition to this legal and administrative expectation, Abbott shifts responsibility towards the state and society’s failures:

I am not responsible for what the government—its system of justice, its prisons— has done to me. I did not do this to myself. . . . This I hold is the greater responsibility : I did not do this to myself. . . . I demand responsibility for myself. . . . To say that you are not responsible . . . for the circumstances that brought you to prison . . . to say . . . that in the face of your accusers, accusers who justify their mistreatment of you by those accusations, is to be really responsible for your words and deeds. Because every time you reject the accusations, you are held further responsible for things you are not responsible for.


Here, Abbott commits himself to a kind of ethical paradox of self-knowledge, denying responsibility only to be held further responsible as a responsibility to the self. He rearticulates his selfhood not through a displacement of responsibility onto the sovereign, but through a self-truth. “I know you aren’t mean enough,” writes Abbott, “to think I’m trying to shift the responsibility for my own ‘corrupt self.’ Indeed I am not. I have only tried to indicate the opposite: that I demand responsibility for myself” (17). This is perhaps the main paradoxical kernel of Abbott’s parrhēsiastic speech: his declaration of the other’s responsibility towards him in order to assume full responsibility for the self. Kimberly Drake argues that “the prison administration considers the most prominent aspects of the convict’s identity to be abject,” aims at “the destruction of those aspects . . . threaten[ing] his/her most basic sense of self,” and approaches “the concept [End Page 30] of rehabilitation, the re-formation of inmates’ identities to render them functional members of society, serv[ing] to make it a process of destruction that inmates must fight” (131–32). “I have never accepted that I did this to myself,” Abbott writes; “I have never been successfully indoctrinated with that belief” (17). He resists what he sees as the prison’s inculcation of responsibility or perhaps what Foucault would call the prison’s “administrative apparatus” as “a machine for altering minds” ( Discipline 125). Despite and because of the risk of further punishment, there is a certain experience of freedom in the articulation of the incarcerated self. “This sort of parrhēsiastic speech “produces a relation to oneself and a concomitant freedom for and of the subject” ( O’Sullivan 53 ). In this context, the rejection of institutional truths and sovereign values might be understood as protection against the obliteration of selfhood under incarceration.

Despite employing the ideas of many philosophers, Abbott insists, “ I am not an intellectual, because my thoughts are primarily a predicate to action ” (21). In Forced Passages , Dylan Rodriguez criticizes the troubling notion of “prison writing” as a genre, as an academic fantasy, which seems to ignore that “the writer in prison is never simply free to write” (85). Like many prisoners, Abbott sees his writing not in the context of literature, but as a kind of rhetorical and ethical praxis, as a struggle in opposition to prison injustices, and as a form of “self-preservation” ( My Return 177). Prison writing as autobiography often communicates the self’s dynamic need for self-constitution. In Abbott’s case, the textual form of In the Belly of the Beast emerges from the practice of letter writing with Mailer. Letter writing is especially relevant for self-reflection and self-examination insofar as this involves a presentation of oneself as a reflection for oneself and the interlocutor. “In the case of the epistolary account of oneself,” writes Foucault, “it is a matter of bringing into congruence the gaze of the other and the gaze which one aims at oneself when one measures one’s everyday actions according to the rules of a technique of living” ( “Self Writing” 221 ). There is a process of inner-speech that must be expressed through a written address to the other. The gaze of the other allows for an externalization of self for the self as other, which is a necessary part of self-reflexivity. In other words, letter writing might be understood as a practice that may encourage the expression or creation of a record of a prisoner’s self-truth. Letter writing also maintains the prisoner’s sense of identity since one’s own subjectivity may only be confirmed through discourse with the other. “Prison is calculated to crush individuality,” writes Chevigny, “and writers inside learn they must speak for themselves. . . . Failure to record one’s experience is to lose it, to forfeit one’s reality as well as one’s freedom” (248). The other’s recognition of this writing becomes a precondition for the prisoner’s sense of self. Perhaps more directly than Chevigny, I might argue that the sovereign strips prisoners of rights and political significance, exposes them to cruel and unusual punishments, and reduces them to the [End Page 31] liminality of the contemporary extension of the civil death. 5 Abbott articulates this clearly: “The purpose is to ruin me, ruin me completely. The purpose is to mark me, to stamp across my face the mark of this beast they call prison” (37). His writing nevertheless resists prison’s annihilation of the self within the law, rearticulating the truth of vulnerable and unstable self-experience in such a way that will reassert his subjectivity and implicate the reader in an ethical exchange. At various moments throughout In the Belly of the Beast , Abbott clearly indicates the struggle to reassert some form of self-knowledge within an institution bent on destroying an ethics of self-hood as he states that prison “aims at taking things out of you by force,” following this with the assertion that “[n]o one has the right to take Jack Abbott away from Jack Abbott” (23). This awkward third person phrasing intentionally demonstrates a struggle to preserve a sense of selfhood under incarceration through writing, while also communicating a reflexivity of the self at odds with the sovereign.

Abbott’s parrhēsiastic speech frequently provokes readers through this kind of unpredictable shift between first, second, and third person, commonly exchanging pronouns in such a way that it becomes difficult to discern who is meant in reference to the “I” or “you.” The employment of second-person narration suggests Abbott’s own alienation from the events described, simultaneously placing the reader in the more immediate and unsettling position of the prisoner. After all, “[ p ] arrhēsia ,” writes Margaret McLaren, “is the practice of the self that constitutes the self with the help of at least one other, the listener, in a political context” (154). The listener, here, is the reader who, while reading, will be engaged in a kind of inner speech. In the Belly of the Beast situates the reader in many unbearable, humiliating, and torturous circumstances through the imposition of a “you”:

It is a big square concrete box. . . . [I]n the center of the floor, there is a hole . . . . The stench is ever-present. . . . There is nothing but the smell . . . and the glare of light—out of reach—which is never extinguished. The light is present even when you close your eyes. It penetrates your eyelids and enters your visual sensations . . . so that you cannot rest your eyes. It throbs always in your mind. . . . [Y]ou are given nothing to wear. . . . There is the smell of unwashed feet and nervous sweat of bodies foreign to yours, so closing your eyes gives no relief. If you are in that cell for weeks that add up to months, you do not ignore all this and life ‘with it’; you enter it and become a part of it.


This rhetorical strategy becomes more and more unsettling through Abbott’s expression of his own vulnerable and affective body. In the first sentences of the book, Abbott writes, “I’ve wanted somehow to convey to you the sensations—the atmospheric pressure. . . . That part of me which . . . lives in and moves through my passions and my emotions” (3). For Abbott, the torture of prison erodes the body to bare life: “[M]y very flesh [End Page 32] has been made to suffer sensations and longing I never had before. I have been chopped to pieces by a life of deprivation of sensations; by beatings so frequent I am now a piece of meat and bone; by lies and [institutionally administered] drugs that attack my nervous system. I have had my mind turned into steel by the endless smelter of time in confinement” (37). Abbott’s disclosure of his fleshy vulnerability constantly articulates the bodily pain that must be endured in prison through detailed descriptions of the violence and psychological torture carried out by guards and inmates. “There is an immediacy to truth,” writes Murray, “that is expressed and felt through a bodily knowledge” (“Post-Textual” 112). Abbott’s writing not only communicates the immediacy of the body, but demands recognition from the reader in his recurring shift to the second person while describing horrific experiences of claustrophobia, sensory deprivation, disorientation, and torture of solitary confinement:

The air in your cell vanishes. You are smothering. Your eyes bulge out; you clutch your throat; you scream like a banshee. Your arms flail the air in your cell. You reel about the cell, falling. Then you suffer cramps. The walls press you from all directions with an invisible force. You struggle to push it back. The oxygen makes you giddy with anxiety. You become hollow and empty. There is a vacuum in the pit of your stomach. You retch. You are dying. Dying a hard death. . . . The faces of the guards, angry, are at the gate of your cell. The gate slides open. The guards attack you . . . the guards come into your cell and beat you to the floor. . . . Your ankles are handcuffed and so are your hands. The [bed] sheet runs through them and you are left hanging from a spit by your feet and your hands. Your back is suspended several inches above the floor. You are smothering. You are being crushed to death. They leave you like that all night.


Abbott’s embodiment of parrhēsiastic speech, his expression of prison’s torturous environment through an articulation of self-experience and self-knowledge, frequently implicates the reader in his pain and vulnerability. This description of his own horrific experiences through the reader as “you” collapses certain boundaries between self and other. 6

Patricia E. O’Connor notes that this shift in pronouns is a common characteristic of prison literature: “[S]peakers sometimes break from ‘I’ to ‘you,’ using a ‘you’ that brings about a sense of shared agency or experience while still indexing the speaker” (75). She argues that in this narrative practice, the prison writer “claims a position like that of others—not the isolation of one man telling his unique adventure. As incongruous as it may seem, this incarcerated man is like others—he positions himself as like ‘you’. . . . Implied also is the reciprocal: you are like me” (84). In this sense, the prison writer as parrhēsiastes can invoke a responsibility from the sovereign. “The parrhēsiastes ,” argues Gerard Hauser, can manifest as “a potent metonym [where] the prisoner’s body becomes the discursive [End Page 33] field that stands for what happens to the body politic as a whole” (120). Abbott clearly expresses this sentiment, collapsing the distance between himself and the free reader: “We are only a few steps removed from society. After us, comes you” (21). His consistent employment of the second person address encourages not only a sense of immediacy and proximity for readers, but also the threatening recognition of reversal. This rhetorical move allows the reader an opportunity to consider his or her own vulnerability through identification with Abbott. In this sense, In the Belly of the Beast might, in Butler’s words, function as “a point of departure for a new understanding [or] consideration for the vulnerability of others,” an encounter that might allow readers “to critically evaluate and oppose the conditions under which certain human lives are more vulnerable than others, and thus certain human lives are more grievable than others” ( Precarious 30 ). To be clear, Butler does not mean that there are no differences between how groups of people might experience vulnerability, but rather that “lives are by definition precarious: they can be expunged at will or by accident; their persistence is in no sense guaranteed” ( Frames 25 ). Of course, human vulnerability is not equally distributed across populations, but In the Belly of the Beast ’s ethical expression of parrhēsia calls for a reevaluation of the political processes that shape our recognition or repression of shared precariousness. Abbott encourages readers to recognize a shared and fleshy precarity with prisoners. Despite never actually being able to know what Abbott’s suffering felt like, this kind of identification, Butler argues, “means that one has the chance to reflect upon injury, to find out mechanisms of its distribution, to find out who else suffers from permeable borders, unexpected violence, dispossession, and fear, and in what ways” ( Precarious Life xii ). Parrhēsia demands recognition from the interlocutor. It is a call to be seen and heard. “I just would like an apology of some sort,” writes Abbott, “[a] little consideration . . . [j]ust a small recognition by society of the injustice that had been done to me, not to mention others like me” (165). What has been lost in the focus on Abbott’s legal case over his written work is an exemplary model for parrhēsia , an ethical demand to be heard, one that demonstrates new potentialities for speaking and being, gesturing towards the urgent need for a contemporary revolution of the prison system and a radically different understanding of truth and self-hood under incarceration.

Chris Vanderwees
University of Western Ontario


2. See Chan ; Freedman ; Farber .

3. Foucault’s outline of parrhēsia specifies that the speaking subject have exemplary moral character, but this morality is not necessarily based in terms of what is right and wrong in an institutional sense. Rather, the morality of parrhēsia stems from the expression of the truth of oneself to the other even though it may result in harsh retaliation. Parrhēsia occurs when the speaker foregoes a safe life for a life of risk. This is the primary moral duty of the parrhēsiastes . Abbott’s criminal status or immoral actions certainly raise questions around the requisite morality of the parrhēsiastes , but I do not believe this precludes him from a personal understanding of morality or of an ability to know or speak truth. In fact, Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast frequently calls into question the institutional parameters of morality that determine his incarceration. Perhaps Abbott demonstrates how parrhēsia may undermine notions of institutional morality through the expression of self-truth and self-conviction under incarceration. “I cannot imagine,” writes Abbott, “anyone with more moral stamina…than I myself have” (23). In the Belly of the Beast demonstrates a split between what might be defined institutionally as an immoral action (i.e. murder) and the individual’s moral duty of the speech act, the expression of a self-truth towards an other ( parrhēsia ).

5. Gabriel J. Chin insists that there is a clear continuity between the social death of the slave and the civil death of the felon in the contemporary era of mass incarceration. “A person convicted of a crime, whether misdemeanor or felony,” writes Chin, “may be subject to disenfranchisement (or deportation if a noncitizen), criminal registration and community notification requirements, and the ineligibility to live, work, or be present in a particular location. Some are not allowed to live outside of civil confinement at all. In addition, the person may be subject to occupational debarment or ineligibility to establish or maintain family relations. While the entire array of collateral consequences may not apply to any given person, the State is always able to add new disabilities or to extend existing limitations” (1790). Near the end of In the Belly of the Beast, Abbott also mentions the civil death as very much alive in new (unofficial) forms throughout the American prison system: “American legal scholars scoff at this today and call it a thing of the past. If they would take their faces out of their books and look a moment beyond official courtroom ‘facts’ and events, they will find civil death is very much in effect in every American prison” (114).

6. In Lacanian terms, I might suggest that Abbott’s writing hits upon the truth through an attempt to describe the traumatic real of prison, which is not reality, but the pain and emotion of the body that can never be fully captured in discourse.

Works Cited

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