While They Slept By Kathryn Harrison, Random House, 304 pp., $25
Early one morning in 1984, 18-year-old Billy Gilley picked up a baseball bat and proceeded to beat to death his father, mother, and kid sister Becky. He then drove his surviving sister, 16-year-old Jody, to a friend's house, as a prelude to what he termed their "escape" from an abusive family. How Jody survived and managed to make a life for herself could have been a fascinating book. Unfortunately, "While They Slept" isn't it.
Author Kathryn Harrison, a self-described true crime addict, had a good hook for this book, ostensibly the story of the Gilley tragedy. In the first pages, she describes her fascination with Jody as someone who has a ruptured life, "a life divided into before and after." She can relate to such a life, she explains for anyone unfamiliar with her previous work, because she, too, suffered such a split. As her 1997 memoir "The Kiss" recalled, Harrison, in her 20s, had an incestuous affair with the father who had been absent most of her childhood. "If I have an endless appetite for . . . seeing how yet another young woman's life is ended, I also need to hear - perhaps I need to tell - the other story, the one about the girl that gets away," she writes. The problem with this association is twofold. First, and most obvious, an adult's conscious act, no matter how influenced by darkest childhood secrets, is not comparable in complicity or severity to a teen's surviving the brutal murder of her family by her brother. Second, Harrison does not know when to stop.
After the explanatory opening, "While They Slept" starts out with promise, re-creating the day before the murders. It's a typical day for the Gilleys: Jody flees early on to her friend Kathy's house. The two then cut school, and, when Jody's mother finds out, Jody knows she'll face one of the ridiculously severe punishments that her sadistic parents so enjoy. Harrison details these punishments, and also touches on the possibility of sexual abuse by both Jody's father and her brother. Using her extensive research, she then takes the story back further, tracing the familial problems through generations.
Harrison had access to many voices, from trial documents to in-person prison visits with Billy. She also enlisted the full participation of Jody, who not only managed to survive the slaughter but also the family's cycle of poverty and alcoholism. A graduate of Georgetown University, Jody is described as a "communications strategist," a member of "the power elite."
After seeing such credentials, a reader could assume Harrison trusts Jody. She doesn't, except as a useful parallel to herself. Almost as soon as the story is begun, Harrison repeatedly inserts herself and her own history inappropriately, second-guessing Jody and antagonizing other interview subjects, often to the point of absurdity. When Jody guides Harrison through her hometown, for example, Harrison calls the visit a "forced march." Jody rejects that term, saying "a forced march . . . is Napoleon's army retreating from Moscow, starving and barefoot." But Harrison won't let go of her metaphor, using it even in her acknowledgments when it seems she has pummeled Jody into accepting it.
With even more hubris, Harrison rejects Jody's perceptions of her family. Jody had written about the murders in her college thesis, retelling the story through Billy's eyes in what could reasonably be assumed to be an attempt to understand her brother's acts. But Harrison knows better: In her analysis of Jody's thesis, she writes, the "hatred Billy betrays is Jody's own - no matter what Jody says now."
Harrison is a precise and exacting stylist as she describes the ambivalence of love and hate. And she makes - and remakes - valid points about guilt and anger, and how victims as well as aggressors experience both. But her blanket disregard for others' conclusions comes across as pigheaded and narcissistic. The author of "The Kiss" has already told her own story, she should have let the Gilley family and her own research tell this one.
Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of "Cries and Whiskers" (Poisoned Pen Press).