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Letter From An Occupant

This is a letter by Jack Abott written to Norman Mailer from a federal penitentiary in the 1980s. I came across it in my readings for class and it really struck me because it was written so beautifully and because of the real saddness I felt from it. It’s a bit long but it’s an interesting read. This was taken from “Is There a History of Sexuality?” by David Halperin.


It really was years, many years before I began to actually realize that the women in my life–the prostitutes as well as the soft, pretty girls who giggles and teased me so much, my several wives and those of my friends–it was years before I realized that they were not women, but men; years before I assimilated the notion that this was unnatural.

I still only knew this intellectually, for the most part–but for the small part that remains to my ken, I know it is like a hammer blow to my temple and the shame I feel is profound. Not because of the thing itself, the sexual love I have enjoyed with these women (some so devoted it aches to recall it), but because of the shame–and anger–that the world could so intimately betray me; so profoundly touch and move me–and then laugh at me and accuse my soul of sickness, when that sickness has rescued me from mental derangement and despairs so black as to cast this night that surrounds us in prison into day.

I do not mean to say I never knew the physical difference–no one but an imbecile could make such a claim. I took it, without reflection or the slightest doubt, that this was a natural sex that emerged within the society of men, with attributes that naturally complemented masculine attributes. I thought it was a natural phenomenon in the society of women as well.

The attributes were feminine and so there seemed no gross misrepresentation of facts to call them (among us men) “women.” Many of my “women” had merely the appearance of handsome, extremely neat, and polite young men. I have learned, analyzing my feelings today, that those attributes I called feminine a moment ago were not feminine in any way as it appears in the real female sex. These attributes seem now merely and tendency to need, to depend on another man; to need never to become a rival or to compete with other men in the pursuits men, among themselves, engage in. It was, it occurs to me now, almost boyish–not really feminine at all.

This is the way it always was, even in the State Industrial School for boys–a penal institution for juvenile delinquents–where I served five years, from age twelve to age seventeen. They were the possession and sign of manhood and it never occurred to any of us that this was strange and unnatural. It is how I grew up–a natural part of life in prison.

It was difficult for me to grasp the definition of the clinical term “homosexual”–and when I finally did it devastated me.

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