An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family
Random House: 292 pp., $25
In the early morning hours of April 27, 1984, in Jackson County, Ore., 18-year-old Billy Gilley killed his mother, father and the younger of his two sisters with a baseball bat. He and his 16-year-old sister, Jody, then left the house. At 2:51 a.m., Jody Gilley called 911 and reported the episode. Those are the just-the-facts-ma'am of the crime, as plainly as can be told, as true as facts can be. But those facts are not the story.
"I never embellish the scene," Kathryn Harrison writes in "While They Slept," even as she tries to imagine Billy and Jody, afterward, driving away from the house. "I don't know how, or I can't. The magnitude of the crime, of a tragedy that belongs to other people, not to me, makes it sacrosanct; it prevents me from taking license with what I've been told."
Of course, Harrison does embellish, does take license in bringing us this tale. Good storytelling, even of "true crime," demands a subjective shaping of fact, the infusion of perspective, the layer of interpretation. And the result of Harrison's masterful embellishment is a fascinating and comprehensive examination of the before and after of a brutal triple murder, of the cyclical nature of violence and of the tragic ineffectiveness of our social support systems.
But "While They Slept" is less a forensic inquiry than a study of how the very act of storytelling serves as a powerful means of creating, re-creating and holding onto sanity and self. Having suffered years of vicious physical and mental abuse at the hands of his parents, Billy, now 42, continues to justify the murders (he claims he killed younger sister Becky "by accident"); Jody later made their family story the subject of her senior thesis at Georgetown University. Though Billy asserted that Jody either implicitly or explicitly approved of his plan, he alone was charged; he was found guilty and is currently serving a life sentence. Jody, who testified for the prosecution, denies knowledge of Billy's intention. She corroborates much of his account of the family abuse but has also characterized Billy's story as "a mythic scenario that fits the typical parricide case."
Harrison, whose shocking 1997 memoir, "The Kiss," detailed her sexual relationship with her father, presents the Gilley family -- beset by poverty, alcoholism, warped religiosity and the delusional lure of the American Dream -- as a classic case of domestic dysfunction. Grappling with her own disturbing family history may have sparked her interest in this story and enhanced her understanding of it -- particularly of Jody's experience: "Both of us were people who had endured a moment or a period of psychic violence -- Jody's far more dangerous and traumatic than mine -- that required us either to reattach the amputated past to the future or to embrace what felt truer, and more possible: the idea that a previous self had perished and a new one had invented herself in the dead girl's place."
Both Jody and Billy are storytellers, prolific historians of their own lives. Harrison writes: "Among all the efforts to understand how a child is driven to so extreme and desperate an act as killing his parents and sister, most revealing are the stories, both fiction and nonfiction, that Jody and Billy have written in the years since the murders. . . . [T]heir various accounts demonstrate how essential the process of telling and retelling the story of their family has been to their surviving its destruction."
She quotes liberally from the siblings' affidavits, essays and e-mails, from Jody's creative writing, from Billy's legal appeals and the children's stories he has written in prison; part of what distinguishes this from other true-crime accounts is Harrison's identification with her subjects as writers, her intimate appreciation of the consuming drive to put pen to paper: "In the years after the 1984 murders, both Billy and Jody would continue to be preoccupied by what was, for each, a profoundly important work in their now separate lives: creating a coherent narrative."
But while both siblings used writing "to manage the psychic impact of the murders," Harrison makes a careful distinction between their agendas: "To preserve himself from psychic disintegration, Billy had to tell himself the story of the murders -- their antecedents, accomplishment, and effects -- in a way that allowed him to understand and live with himself: a story that made sense to him. And, if his appeal were to succeed, granting him a retrial, the version of the story in his affidavit needed to make sense to other people, too, explaining the murders as a response to brutality."
Jody's emotional legacy was "the guilt she endured after the murders -- guilt for having wished her parents dead, for hating them enough to have fantasized herself about the crime her brother accomplished. . . . Should she judge herself on the content of her heart, find herself as culpable as her brother because she'd shared his desire for vengeance?" Her senior thesis, "Death Faces," is "a creative rendering of the past that gave Jody the freedom to write what she imagined, ten years after the murders, were her brother's thoughts and feelings at the time." It's writing as both catharsis and rebirth: "Free from the calculation that shapes a story told for legal use," it allows her "to both own and disown what she felt. A way to explore on the page what she couldn't allow into her life. Hidden behind the mask of Billy, in defense of his murders and her anger, Jody could reveal her anxiety about being judged herself, and express compassion for her brother." As Harrison sees it, "[t]he narrative of Jody's life, the story of herself by herself, reads not as a story of overcoming tragedy but as the death of one girl and the arrival of another."
Ultimately, "Billy's and Jody's 'delusions' are as different as the needs that inspire them. Billy's narratives rationalize his actions, adding layers of causation, reasons for murders he considers justified. Jody's follow an opposite impulse, toward empiricism; she pares away whatever she fears might obscure the truth."
While researching the book, Harrison wrote to Jody: "I'm trying to understand your story. To get some kind of hold on what happened to you." To us, Harrison admits that "I also need to hear -- perhaps I need to tell -- the other story, the one about the girl that gets away, who goes on to invent another self, another life." And later, to Jody: "Perhaps, in contemplating you and your brother . . . I can articulate something both of us want to understand. I can't tell you what that something is, not yet. I'd have to write my way toward it." But she acknowledges that a writer may never really arrive -- or remain -- at that magical place of understanding: "I write every day, trying to shape a book, an essay, a review, always in the effort to force coherence from what I find impossible to understand. . . . Writing allows me the illusion of understanding, of control. Although it's a treatment rather than a cure: the illusion lasts only as long as I am immersed in the act of writing."
"While They Slept" does not provide the easy answers we hope to discover in "just the facts," but it offers instead the richer and more enduring illumination of "the story." *
Tara Ison is the author, most recently, of "The List."