September 2008

Beth Harrington


While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family by Kathryn Harrison

Since her 1991 debut novel Thicker Than Water, Kathryn Harrison has made a name for herself by publishing novels and memoirs that push boundaries in their handling of intimate subjects commonly considered taboo. With While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family, she branches out into the true crime genre with this investigation into a 1984 case of parricide in rural Oregon.

After enduring a lifetime of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his parents, eighteen year-old Billy Gilley bludgeoned both of them to death with a baseball bat. When his eleven-year-old sister interrupted him in the act, he killed her as well. Upon completing his dire deed, he informed his sixteen-year-old sister, Jody, of his actions and proposed that the two of them should run away together, having been freed from the tyranny of their parents. In actuality, Billy was quickly arrested, tried, and promptly found guilty for three counts of murder, leaving Jody to piece together the wreckage left of a life so brutally interrupted. Miraculously, she thrived, going on to graduate from Georgetown University, where she produced works of fiction and essays based on her life story for the college’s literary journal, and now has a prestigious career in Washington, D.C. Her brother has spent nearly two decades in prison struggling to get an appeal. Not so much a take-by-take account of the murders, Harrison’s book offers a literary dissection of a “life divided into a before and after” because of one instant of time pulls everything out of place. With research and interviews compiled from both the killer and the survivor, she tackles the question of how one survives such an unspeakable occurrence from two diametrically opposing sides of the spectrum.

Much has been made of Harrison’s insertion of her own story into her narrative, including territory in her life that had previously been examined in her notorious memoir The Kiss, not to mention two other books of nonfiction and her novels. It will be hard for some readers familiar with her work not to find this addition redundant, and whether or not one accepts Harrison’s comparison of an incestuous affair in which she was a consenting if subordinate party to more than a decade of child abuse concluded by homicide is likely a matter for individual minds and consciences. On the other hand, perhaps Harrison felt she had little choice but to include these details about her life as she is hardly without bias in her reporting. Reading the text, one is struck by her identification with Billy Gilley’s motives, an identification which supersedes the sympathy his own sister has for him. While Harrison reports that Jody has no contact with her brother, finding it too painful to interact with him and believes that he belongs in jail, one questions whether Harrison, herself, sees Billy’s crime as warranting imprisonment.

Her inability to remain a disinterested party adds a compelling dimension to the text as she is willing to delve into the legacy of violence and family dysfunction that instigated Billy’s actions, rather than merely dismiss him as depraved or sociopathic. However, it also leads her to make blanket judgments and broad assumptions that weaken the book’s presentation as a researched text. “Billy had, of course, been taught to confuse punishment with love,” Harrison writes of a time in the youth’s life when he was living in a group home and subject to nearly constant disciplinary action. While this statement is quite possibly true, she does not back it up with scholarly input from child development experts, thus allowing her own opinion to be passed off as fact.

For some reason, While They Slept delivers itself with a certain anticlimactic quality. As a reader, I did not quite feel aware of the momentous impact of the crimes delineated within its pages. It is hard to tell whether this is due to some subtle flaw in the text or whether Billy’s murders were not notorious enough to carry the draw of those described in, for example, Helter-Skelter (admittedly I had no knowledge of the Gilley murders before reading this book). That being said, Harrison deserves credit for trying her hand at a new genre and successfully carrying off a sensitive analysis of child abuse and its consequences, a subject that is clearly of great importance to her and should be to the rest of us too.

While They Slept: An Inquiry into The Murder of a Family by Kathryn Harrison
Random House
ISBN 978-1-4000-6542-4
304 pages