Liberty and the Pursuit
Season One is a ten-episode series focused on
Jack Henry Abbott, Norman Mailer, and Jerzy Kosinski.
It charts their literary careers, which include some of the most celebrated books of the 20th century, and their criminal careers, which include murder, rape, felony assault, and plagiarism. Penknife examines how their crimes informed their writing, and how their writing informed their crimes. And likewise, how their status as writers managed to aid and abet their criminal behavior. Finally, it explores how a murder committed by Jack Henry Abbott had a profound—and in one case devastating—impact on the lives and careers of Mailer and Kosinski.
Episode 1: A State Raised Convict
Outside an East Village diner, in the early morning hours of July 18th, 1981, a writer named Jack Henry Abbott stabs waiter and fellow writer Richard Adan to death because Adan refuses him use of the diner’s bathroom. Abbott is no ordinary writer; from age 12-37 he’s lived all but 9 ½ months in prison or juvenile detention. At the time of the murder, he’s just been released from prison and within a matter of days his highly praised and anticipated book about his life behind bars is set to be released. Season 1 of Penknife explores the books and crimes of Jack Henry Abbott, as well as those of his two most famous penpals, Norman Mailer and Jerzy Kosinski. In this inaugural episode of Penknife we look at Abbott’s first 37 years; years that lead him to write a great book, and to commit a grisly murder.
Episode 2: No Resistance at All
With Mailer’s help, Abbott is released from jail. His book, In the Belly of the Beast, is garnering rave advance reviews and is primed to be one of the biggest books of the summer. We take a close look at the night he threw away his literary career—and his life—by senselessly taking the life of another writer, Richard Adan. The killing’s ripple effect is widespread, affecting not just Adan, Abbott and their families, but his pen pals, Norman Mailer and Jerzy Kosinski, as well as the prison reform/abolition movement of the early 1980s. We also look at how the Adan murder plays into Reagan’s “Tough on Crime/Law and Order” policing agenda.
Episode 3: Hider in the House
When writer Joseph Harms hears of our idea to make a podcast about criminal writers, he leaves a series of disturbing messages pointing us in the direction of one of Abbott’s famous penpals: Jerzy Kosinski. Harms claims that Kosinski killed a man, would regularly hide in people wall’s for days at a time and was somehow responsible for the Manson murders! Allegations such as these are way too juicy not to investigate – so that’s what we do. This episode starts at the beginning, and looks at Kosinski’s early life, especially the years he spent in hiding during the Holocaust. We also explore the childhood of Abbott’s other famous penpal Norman Mailer, glimpse the budding ego and machismo that will define his life, his writings and his crimes.
Episode 4: The Future Is Ours, Comrade
After defecting from Poland Jerzy Kosinski gets to work trying to make a name for himself in the States. He starts telling some incredibly tall tales about his childhood during the war and somehow manages to publish a few non-fiction books in English despite the fact that his grasp on the language is tentative, at best. In order to write his great book, Mailer sails across the Pacific to fight in World War 2. Well, he does a bit of fighting; mostly he makes pork and beans. But eventually he gathers enough material to sit down and write what he believes will be the war’s great novel, The Naked and the Dead. Whether or not he succeeds is up for debate, but he is definitely successful in teaching the world the word “fug.”
Episode 5: The Comet
In fall of 1965 a book called The Painted Bird is published, and begins to make waves across the literary world. It’s the story of a boy separated from his parents for six years during WW2. It follows him while he wanders the Polish countryside witnessing and enduring unimaginably sadistic torture and abuse. And as if the plot weren’t shocking enough, it’s made all the more sensational by the fact that it’s true! Yes, the author, a man named Jerzy Kosinski, managed to live to tell the tale. He’s compared to Anne Frank, his book is held up as one of the most important works of holocaust literature, and his life story is one of the most remarkable ever told! But…well, it’s all bullshit. Kosinski was never separated from his parents. Almost none of the events in the novel actually happened, and on top of that, he didn’t even write the book by himself.
Episode 6 : A Matter of Millimeters
After spending the 1950s trying to follow up The Naked and the Dead with another hit, Mailer writes two poorly-received novels and mostly spends the decade getting stoned, drunk, angry and delusional. By 1960 he’s so far gone that he decides to run for Mayor of New York City. To celebrate his decision he throws a party that begins with him announcing his candidacy and ends with him stabbing his wife Adele in the chest with a rusty penknife, puncturing her pericardial sac and missing her heart by a matter of millimeters. Aside from a couple-week stay in the Bellevue Psych ward, the great white American writer receives no punishment for nearly murdering his wife, and his career continues with hardly any blemish.
Episode 7: American Dreams
Mailer’s violent ways continue both off and on the page. He fictionalizes the stabbing of his wife in an absurd, grotesque little novel aptly titled An American Dream. Not to be outdone, Jerzy Kosinki and his finest ghostwriter get to work on an even more grotesque little novel called Steps, which will win him the National Book Award for fiction in 1969. That year’s non-fiction winner is our guy, Norman Mailer, with his book The Armies of the Night about the Anti-war movement and his experience getting arrested at the March on the Pentagon. When he’s not getting arrested, Mailer’s now making movies. One devolves into a porno, another ends in Mailer getting nailed in the head with a hammer by Rip Torn.
Episode 8: Sexual Politics
If you’ve made it to Episode 8 and part of you still likes Mailer and/or Kosinski, that’ll change with this episode. Jerzy Kosinski admits to having committed rape when he was a young man in Poland, and his adult behavior is just as horrific. As for Norman Mailer, he takes it upon himself to try to save the patriarchy from Second-wave feminism by attacking Kate Millet in The Prisoner of Sex, and then at the so-called “Town Bloody Hall” by championing misogyny and homophobia. Needless to say, he makes a complete fool of himself and is absolutely owned by Germaine Greer, Susan Sontag, and Cynthia Ozick among others.
Episode 9: Criminal Chic
On July 9th, 1981 Jack Henry Abbott, Norman Mailer and Jerzy Kosinki get together at an expensive Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village to celebrate the imminent release of Abbot’s book. A week later Richard Adan is dead and Kosinksi and Mailer have a choice to make: stand by Abbott or throw him under the bus? Mailer endures the negative publicity and supports his friend, while Kosinski turns on both Abbott and the political Left. In doing so, he makes powerful enemies who will begin looking into the whispers that he’s used ghostwriters, plagiarized some of his novels and lied about his childhood. Their findings will destroy his career, and eventually, his life…
Episode 10: Call the Time Eternity
A Village voice exposé denounces Kosinski for using ghost writers and casts aspersions on his entire literary career – nine years later Jerzy Kosinski is a broken man. His writing career is over; he’s managed to write only one novel which was unanimously panned. One night after going to the movies, he drowns himself in his bathtub. Across town, Mailer’s easing into the role of one of the aging titans of American letters. One of Mailer’s many mistresses publishes a tell-all memoir that includes the claim made by a number of people who knew him well: that the most manly, heterosexual man in America was actually bi-sexual. But he manages to live into old age and die peacefully before the book’s release, avoiding the issue and also avoiding any reckoning for stabbing his wife and for all the other horrible shit he said and did.