Abbott Redux

One would have thought to have heard the last of Jack Henry Abbott. Back in the early 1980’s, you’ll remember, Jack Abbott was a literary cause celèbre: here was a great, lost writer, condemned to an unending and unfair prison term, but discovered and redeemed by Norman Mailer. True, Abbott had murdered a man in prison. But Mailer assured us of his wonderful talent; and anyway, the murder was attributable to the brutalization caused by the American prison system itself: Abbott’s letters, published as memoirs under Mailer’s guidance, bore the ideological title In the Belly of the Beast.

For a certain circle of East Coast literati, Abbott soon became an irresistible symbol of their own alienation from American bourgeois society and values; ensconced in their Central Park West apartments, they too suffered “In the Belly of the Beast.” So it wasn’t too long before the political pull of Mailer and others won Jack Abbott an early parole from prison, and entrance into a halfway house in New York City. The idea, presumably, was that in this gentler, more humane environment, Abbott’s literary genius would be freer to create. But he didn’t create. Instead, within a few weeks of his release to the halfway house, Abbott killed again. This time he knifed a waiter in a bar during an argument over the use of the bar’s toilet facilities. Abbott fled, but was eventually recaptured, tried, and sent back to prison; he was later seen on 60 Minutes, making racist remarks to Ed Bradley.

The symbol of alienation had turned out to be a very real, and a very dangerous, human being. But the only irreparable damage done was to Abbott’s victim, the waiter: Richard Adan, only 22 years old, and (it turns out) a promising playwright himself. It is Adan’s death which transforms what otherwise would be a delicious high comedy of American literary life into a bitter tragedy. Adan’s relatives were understandably outraged when they learned of the unusual sequence of events that had led to their son’s death at the hands of Jack Abbott—outraged at Abbott, at Mailer, at the penal system’s susceptibility to fashionable political pressure.

But what was truly shocking was Mailer’s attitude. Although Mailer had taken the precaution of hiring bodyguards to protect himself when he learned that Abbott had killed again and was on the loose, at the trial for Adan’s murder Mailer proclaimed that Abbott still deserved our deep understanding, that he should not be locked away forever, that genius ought to be allowed some privileges.

Incredibly, Mailer’s view on the matter seems to have prevailed—at least in Washington. Last June and July, a theatrical dramatization of Jack Abbott’s memoirs played—to rave reviews—at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the most prestigious and lavish setting possible. Entitled In the Belly of the Beast, the play focuses on Jack Abbott, portraying him in his own words. Predictably, the play (adapted and directed by Robert Falls of Chicago), takes as its theme the victimization of Jack Abbott by a heartless American society, particularly the American prison system. Abbott’s final words in the play are “Anger always burns inside me.” Abbott may be portrayed as menacing, but he is also portrayed sympathetically. And it is instructive here how much dramatic energy is spent on searching out the essential humanity within Jack Abbott (compared by one ecstatic reviewer to Sophocles’ Oedipus), while an eviscerated victim is presented only symbolically—by an old mattress with its stuffing spilling out.

In the Belly of the Beast has finished its run in Washington now, but the play undoubtedly will be appearing in other cities around the country—as soon, that is, as it returns from its London engagement. Meanwhile, certain writers have found Jack Abbott’s memoirs so attractive that there is actually a second theatrical version of In the Belly of the Beast currently making the rounds. This separate second version of Abbott’s memoirs originates in Los Angeles, but its basic theme is naturally the same: the plight of Jack Abbott. With Abbott back in intellectual fashion, perhaps we should begin to steel ourselves for a production of In the Belly of the Beast on PBS.

Now, it is possible that Jack Abbott really was brutalized by the American prison system (where conditions are horrible and getting worse all the time). But it is at least equally possible that Abbott was, from the beginning, simply a very clever and uncontrollable psychopath. We must wonder how he could possibly have felt “victimized” by Richard Adan or why he felt justified in killing him. We must wonder, too, how much Mailer understood Abbott and how much Abbott simply manipulated Mailer. Mailer vouched for Abbott’s talents as a writer, but nothing has appeared since Abbott’s memoirs (and rumor has it that Mailer had a very large hand in those). One thing is certain, however: Jack Abbott is a killer.

It says something about the state of our national consciousness (and conscience) that this killer is once more permitted to tell his story, to strut across the national stage, to be the focus of sympathetic attention—even after he has killed again. This incident shows how powerful (and how persistent) are those cultural forces which seem bent on creating an American society intellectually and morally incapable of defending itself What satisfaction Jack Abbott must draw from knowing that his story is again being enacted before large, receptive audiences in the nation’s capital and elsewhere. As for the relatives of Richard Adan, one can only wonder how they feel now. But then, thugs are so much more intriguing than their victims.

Cheerleaders Deserve to Die

In June 1984, in the prosperous Bay Area suburb of Orinda, just across the hills from Berkeley, Bernadette Protti murdered Kirsten Costas. Despite Bernadette’s later confession, much about the murder remains obscure. Kirsten Costas was a cheerleader and a swimmer, popular with the most prominent students at Miramonte High. A new transfer from a parochial school, Bernadette Protti desperately wanted acceptance at Miramonte, and had, in fact, found it. She was a member of the same “in” service group as Kirsten, and though she was less well-off than many students at Miramonte, she was hardly poor, Kirsten Costas disliked her, however. On the night of June 27, after a confrontation in a church parking lot, Bernadette trailed Kirsten home and brutally knifed her to death on her front porch. Bernadette thereupon drove her gold Pinto back to her family’s house, washed the knife and put it away, and went with her mother to walk the family dog.

Over the next few days, as the Miramonte High community reeled over the news of Kirsten Costas’ murder, Bernadette Protti proved a tower of strength to her distraught friends: “We mustn’t let this get us down; we must go on.” The result was her election as secretary of the service organization to which she and Kirsten had belonged, which post she accepted with suitable modesty. In the months after the murder, boys also began calling Bernadette for the first time—and she started dating steadily. Police at first regarded Bernadette as a strong suspect, since a gold Pinto like Bernadette’s had been seen leaving the murder scene and since she knew Kirsten—but she passed a lie-detector test with flying colors.

In other words, Bernadette Protti made a rapid and successful adjustment to being a killer—if anything, she blossomed in the months following Kirsten Costas’ death. Evidently, Bernadette completely suppressed the emotional and physical reality of what she had done: “I was really good at blocking it out of my mind, and I still am.” Alternatively, she blamed Kirsten: “She never liked me. . . . I have a lot of inferiority feelings, and really bad feelings about myself, people sent out messages and stuff, and just all that stuff, and she just seemed to sort of represent it . . . she could be really mean to loners and geeks . . . I remember mean things about her, but I couldn’t ever think it was her fault. . . . I just got angry, I guess.”

In the end, the local police, completely baffled, had to call in the FBI. Six months after the murder, when she knew the Feds were closing in, Bernadette finally confessed.

As revealed in her actions and in the quotes from her confession, the personality of Bernadette Protti seems vaguely familiar. The total self-centeredness, the total self-pity, the refusal to believe in the reality of other people, the ability to kill because of some imagined slight, and then to forget about it (or blame the victim), the total lack of remorse—all this seems reminiscent of the very dangerous Jack Henry Abbott. Especially disturbing is the fact that Bernadette Protti was able to remove herself from reality far enough to pass a lie-detector test so successfully that she was dropped from the list of suspects in Kirsten Costas’ murder. Psychologists therefore could marshal reasons for suggesting that Bernadette Protti was a severely disturbed person. In fact, it is disconcerting—but all too predictable—that because of technicalities in California law, Bernadette Protti will be out on the streets again in three years, age 20. Let’s hope none of us meet her—or “offend” her in some way.

However, these all-too-obvious—if tragic—conclusions are not the ones you’ll find in Randall Sullivan’s account of the murder last July in Rolling Stone. Sullivan finds two culprits in the tragedy. The first and the most important: bourgeois American society, as exemplified in upper-class Orinda. Miramonte High is indicted as a highly competitive environment, where striving for excellence is the norm and is fostered by achievement-oriented, highly successful parents. Showered with the material rewards of their parents’ success—the best clothes, the best stereos, the most expensive sports cars, ski weekends, European vacations—the students at Miramonte naturally tend to be materialistic and to judge people by appearances. And, as is fitting in a high school which sends its graduates on to the Ivy League or Stanford, preppie is in, punk is out. Sullivan argues that it was this living hell, this amplified version of bourgeois materialism and competitiveness, which produced Kirsten Costas’ murder. He quotes approvingly the words of one critic of Orinda society: “The attitudes of the parents in this community are being visited on the children.”

Explaining the murder of Kirsten Costas via pop sociology and using the crime as an occasion for sermonizing against bourgeois culture is about what we have come to expect from Rolling Stone. But Miramonte High, frankly, doesn’t sound all that different in its social and sexual tensions, and cliquishness, from the California high school I attended—a high school which was noticeably less bourgeois than Miramonte. I suspect that these things are probably inherent in any school environment crammed with hormone-driven, anxious adolescents (even, one dares to suggest, “socialist” ones). If Sullivan’s social analysis were correct, and Bernadette Protti’s murder of Kirsten Costas is to be blamed on the vicious competitiveness and materialism of the surrounding society, the reader could only wonder why the Miramonte campus does not look like California’s version of Beirut. But in fact this was the first murder in Orinda (population 17,000) in seven years.

The second villain indicted by Randall Sullivan turns out to be Kirsten Costas herself Given that the killer has told her side of the story in great (if incoherent) detail, while her victim must remain silent, it is perhaps inevitable that a writer in search of a story would adopt the killer’s point of view. Even more than the producers of In the Belly of the Beast, Sullivan has surrendered to this murderous illogic. Kirsten Costas, we are told, was nasty, competitive, gossipy, shallow, obsessed with material goods, appearance, “popularity.” Every kind of criticism dredged up against her is accepted at face value. Even if all the unflattering details were accurate (which we may surely doubt), the picture that emerges is really that of a rather ordinary, insecure teenager: very few 15-year-olds remind us of Albert Schweitzer. And the hard fact remains that Kirsten Costas never killed anyone. Kirsten’s parents, having suffered through her murder, now must see her memory trashed in a national magazine.

Sullivan’s harsh treatment of Kirsten is all the more striking in view of his descriptions of her killer, which verge on panegyric: Bernadette Protti was sweet, strong, intelligent, very sensitive to the pain of others(!), a beloved babysitter—”‘and she was a really good writer, too,’ Kris Johnson said.” No wonder, then, that Sullivan presents the brutal slaying of Kirsten Costas at the hands of Bernadette Protti as a tragedy for Bernadette Protti. (Indeed, in view of her supposed writing talent, perhaps Sullivan ought to put Bernadette in touch with Norman Mailer: she seems to meet his basic qualifications for genius.)

The intended impact of Sullivan’s article can be seen in the majority of the responses it elicited last September in the “Letters” column of Rolling Stone. “When I began reading, I felt great sympathy for Kirsten Costas, and thought what a monster Bernadette Protti must be. By the end of the article, however, I felt compassion for Bernadette. I am in no way condoning what Bernadette did. . . . ” “I would like to commend Randall Sullivan on his article . . . which provided considerable insight into the pressures that exist in our upper-middle-class suburban communities. . . . ” And the most fatuous: “I’m glad the law will give Bernadette Protti a second chance. I pray she’ll discover that, as time goes on, life gets better.”

It was left to a schoolmate of Kirsten’s to restore some semblance of moral balance. “The reader is led to believe that society ‘made’ Bernadette do what she did. We are led to believe, if only for a moment, that Kirsten deserved what she got, because you portrayed her as being a white suburban snob. I think your article skimped on one very important point . . . a normal person does not stab a fellow classmate to death because of highschool pressures and low self-esteem. The murder was an unfair tragedy for Kirsten Costas, not Bernadette Protti.”

Out of the mouths of children. Unfortunately, feature articles in Rolling Stone—and acclaimed productions at the Kennedy Center—exert far more influence in defining the moral and intellectual moods of our national leadership than does Kirsten’s teenage defender. As long as influential thinkers allow their misguided romanticism to blur the dividing line between good and evil—or permit pop sociology to deny the importance of individual responsibility—for so long will the advance of barbarism continue.