Of Mailer and Murder

by Theodore Dalrymple (Nov. 2006)

On a recent visit to New Zealand, I happened across a book that I had long intended to read, In the Belly of the Beast, by Jack Henry Abbott. (Before the advent of the Internet, which equalised world prices, New Zealand used to be the best place in the English-speaking world for second-hand books.)

The name probably faintly rings a bell. He was a career criminal, and had spent the vast majority of his life in penal institutions of one kind or another. At the time he first wrote to Norman Mailer, he was serving a sentence of up to nineteen years for having killed another inmate. Previously, he had broken out of jail and robbed a bank. For whatever reason, he was not a good man.
Mailer was much taken, however, by his literary ability, his prose style and his thoughts (among other things, he was a communist, and was of the opinion that the American penal system was far worse than that of the Soviet Union, even in the time of Stalin). Mailer supported Abbott’s appeal for parole, and Abbott was duly released. His book was published, he became for a short while the lion of the New York literary scene, a kind of interesting specimen (a petty criminal would have been of no interest, of course), until, a couple of days prior to the publication of the favourable review of his book in the New York Review of Books, he killed again, only six weeks after his release. His victim was a young man, an aspiring writer, who was working temporarily as a waiter, with whom Abbott had an impulsive quarrel. He stabbed him with a knife that he ‘happened’ to have on him. 
Abbott was on the run for a short while, but then returned to prison where, about twenty years later, he hanged himself. In his only other book, called My Return, he argued that he could not have intended to kill the young waiter, because he stabbed him only once, and a man like him would have stabbed him many times had he intended to kill him. This was not the argument of a good man.
In fact, there was a passage in his first book, In the Belly of the Beast, that might have alerted Mailer and others to his penchant for stabbing people. It describes how prisoners take revenge in prisons. It is worth quoting in full;
   Here is how it is: You are both alone in his cell. You’ve slipped
   out a knife (eight- to ten-inch blade, double-edged). You’re
   holding it beside your leg so he can’t see it. The enemy is
   smiling and chattering away about something. You see his eyes:
   Green-blue, liquid. He thinks you’re his fool: he trusts you. You
   see the spot. It’s a target between the second and third button on
   his shirt. As you calmly talk and smile, you move your left foot
   to the side to step across his right-side body length. A light
   pivot toward him with your right shoulder and the world turns
   upside down: you have sunk the knife to its hilt into the middle
   of his chest. Slowly he begins to struggle for his life. As he
   sinks, you will have to kill him fast or get caught. He will say
   “Why?” Or “No!” Nothing else. You can feel his life trembling
   through the knife in your hand. It almost overcomes you, the
   gentleness of the feeling at the center of a coarse act of murder.
   You’ve pumped the knife several times without even being aware
   of it. You go to the floor with him to finish him. It is like cutting
   hot butter, no resistance at all. They always whisper one thing at
   the end: “Please.” You get the odd impression that he is no
   imploring you not to harm him, but to do it right. If he says your
   name it softens your resolve. You go into a mechanical stupor of
   sorts. Things register in slow motion because all your senses are
   drawn to a new height. You leave him in the blood, staring with
   dead eyes. You strip in your cell and destroy your clothing,
   flushing it down the toilet. You throw the knife away. You jump
   under the showers. Your clarity returns.

No doubt the first thing that struck Mailer about this passage was its quality as prose. It is very graphic. But the words, after all, are those of a murderer, and suggest more than a merely vivid imagination. It would have been as wise to take them literally as it proved to be foolish not to have taken the words of Mein Kampf literally. But Mailer lived in a world (that of radical politics protected by a bourgeois order) in which words never really meant what they said or said what they really meant, in which moral exhibitionism was the highest good and the sine qua non of the regard of one‘s peers. So safe were they in their literary enclave that reality didn’t matter much; what counted was the ability to use words in the approved fashion, and truth was nowhere.
Ten years later, Mailer indirectly recognised his mistake, saying that the Abbott episode was not one of which he was proud. But it seems that the disregard of reality that he displayed has now entered the New Zealand criminal justice system.
You probably think of New Zealand as an empty land of beautiful landscapes: and so it is. It is tolerably prosperous, it is egalitarian in ethos, it is uncrowded, even its fauna and flora are gentle. It has no native carnivores and no snakes. Its climate is temperate and in places among the most pleasant in the world. It should be peaceful.
And so it once was. In 1950, when it was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, it had almost no crime whatever, or at least an irreducible minimum of crime. Now it has one of the highest crime rates in the western world, including crimes of violence. It is very puzzling.
While I was in New Zealand, I learned of two cases that seemed emblematic of the Mailerian developments in the new Zealand criminal justice system. The first concerned a man with 102 convictions, many for violence including rape. (I should point out that 102 convictions means many more offences, since the conviction rate is never 100 per cent of the offending rate, and is sometimes only 5 or 10 per cent of it.)
This man nevertheless became eligible for parole. As conditions of parole, the board told him he must not drink, smoke cannabis or frequent certain places. The man told the board that he would abide by none of these conditions, but he was released on parole anyway. Within a short time, he had killed three people and so maimed a fourth that she will never recover.
The second case was of a man with many previous convictions, some for violence, who abducted and murdered a young woman aged 24. He was imprisoned and applied for bail. Three times he was turned down, but a fourth judge granted him bail. He was sent to live at a certain address, where he befriended his neighbours, who did not know that he was accused of murder. Eight months later, while babysitting their children, he killed one of them.
Perhaps the most extraordinary twist of this terrible tale is that the parents of the murdered child then had another baby, which the social services then removed from them on the grounds that they had previously entrusted a child to the care of a murderer and were therefore irresponsible parents. The state blames its citizens for the mistakes – if that is what they are – that it makes.
What lies behind this terrible, wilful incompetence? I suppose some people might say that anecdotes mean nothing; that it is statistics we have to look at, and the majority of people sent out on parole, or on bail for murder, do not kill again. The questions we should be asking are what proportion of people who say in advance that they have no intention of abiding by parole conditions go on to commit serious crimes if granted parole anyway, and what proportion of accused murderers granted bail kill again while on bail. In the light of these questions, the decisions taken in the two cases I have cited might appear slightly less absurd.
This is dust in our eyes, however. The presumption must be against someone who has been convicted of 102 previous offences, many of them violent, or someone who has been convicted of many previous offences and is suspected on the strongest possible grounds of having killed. It is morally frivolous to suggest otherwise.
In other words, the moral frivolity of the New Zealand criminal justice system could not have been more plainly demonstrated than in these two cases. (On the day before my departure from the country, a young man, also with a long record, who attacked an old woman in her eighties, and fractured her facial bones in two places, having first given her what he called ‘a king hit’ – that is to say a single punch that felled her – was sentences to a year’s imprisonment, which, with remission, will mean he will be at liberty in less than six months.) The question arises, Where does this moral frivolity come from?
The judges in New Zealand are not entirely to blame, since they have to sentence according to guidelines laid down for them. They cannot impose any sentence that they happen to think is just. But they do not protest against guidelines that are patently absurd. Nor was there any reason why the fourth judge should have granted bail in the first case I described. Therefore the judges cannot absolve themselves entirely of responsibility.
Lying behind the frivolity of the New Zealand criminal justice system (which also infects the British system) is a willingness to ignore, or an unwillingness to take seriously, the most obvious prognostic signs, or even to take considerations of justice into account. Just as Mailer failed completely to recognise the significance of the passage in Abbott’s book, which after all was composed of letters to himself, that I have quoted above, so the judges and others in New Zealand ignored the most obvious considerations in their dealings with the criminals before them. Their own reputation for generosity of spirit and lack of vengefulness was more important to them than protection of the public.
Lying in a layer of the mind yet deeper than this desire for approbation is the baleful influence of Rousseau’s idea that Man is or would be good but for the influence of society upon him. If this is the case, then the murderers in the cases I have cited were as much victims as their victims, and the society which has thus victimised them has no moral right to treat them harshly. Rather, it must reform, indeed perfect, itself. Until it does so, it ought to expect cases of the kind I have described.
This, of course, was precisely Abbott’s point in his letters to Mailer. He said that society had made him the way he was, and thus had no right to point the finger at him; throughout the book, he alluded in a moral fashion only to what had been done to him, never what he had done.
There is no doubt, of course, that most criminals come from a very bad background (though it does not follow, thank God, that everybody from a bad background is a criminal, else we should none of us be safe in our beds). Of course, where the bad background itself comes from is another question, and much disputed. I think in large part it comes from the intellectual and moral zeitgeist that intellectuals have created. But the undoubted fact cited above has confused us utterly, and caused us to confute two questions: first, how do we prevent people from becoming criminals in the first place, and second, how do we prevent those who have become recidivist criminals from committing further crimes? The two questions have different answers, and there is not a single answer to them both. When, however, we mistake the first question for the second, and the second for the first, we end up making Mailer’s, and the New Zealand criminal justice system’s, mistakes, over and over again.

One thing is evident, however: those who make the mistakes do not pay the price for them. They feel the warmth of generosity without feeling the cool current of responsibility. 

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