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

Shortly before three in the morning on an April night in 1984, Jody Gilley, a 16-year-old girl, called 911. “My brother beat my mom and dad and sister to death with a baseball bat,” she confessed to the dispatcher. Asked if they were dead, she began to cry, and replied, “I?m pretty sure they are. I didn?t look at them. I couldn?t.”

Soon after her call, the police discovered the 911 call was not a teenage girl?s prank. Jody?s older brother, Billy, had awoken in the night, grabbed his aluminum baseball bat, and headed to his father?s bedroom where the man lay sleeping. He beat his father once with the bat, then ran into his mother?s room and bludgeoned her to death. In a frenzy of panic, he also killed Becky, his frightened 11-year-old sister, attacking her until she had 15 or 20 fractures throughout her skill. He returned to his injured father, hitting him with the bat and screaming, “I hate you” over and over, until he, too, was dead. Upstairs, in her bedroom, Jody Gilley heard the screams of her little sister and this relentless pounding noise. When Billy appeared, there was blood all over his chest, and he said to her, “We?re free now.” The two then took off in a car, headed perhaps for Nevada, before the sensible Jody persuaded her brother to drop her off at a friend?s house, from where she made her tearful 911 call.

It is this gruesome crime of parricide that Kathryn Harrison examines in her revealing, unusual, and occasionally frustrating book, While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family. A brutal and cruel small-town crime (the murder took place in Medford, Oregon) might seem an unlikely subject for Harrison, a Brooklyn-based writer of poetic novels like Exposure, Poison, and The Seal Wife and several acclaimed memoirs about her own family life, including The Kiss and The Mother Knot. One might wonder why a sophisticated author like Harrison would want to try her hand at true crime, a genre not known for its poetic quality. Harrison?s past work — whether dealing with incest, desire, or motherhood, has always refused to simplify or blame, and yet manifesting outrage is often one of the essential components of the popular true-crime tale, in which the killers are frequently rendered as demons, and the victims as saints. Why would an author known for the beauty of her prose wish to take on the Gilley killings — a project that necessarily involves re-creating sordid scenes such as the one of a bloodied teenaged boy bashing out his father?s brains with a baseball bat?

Obsession, for one. As Harrison honestly recalls in the book?s prologue, she became fascinated by the Gilley case after a friend told her “that Jody?s brother killed the rest of their family while they were sleeping; that he did it because he loved Jody and hoped or maybe just wished that afterward the two of them would run away together.” After hearing this vague, tantalizing version of the case, Harrison spent a decade wondering about “the murders, the crazy brother, the failed escape.” Twenty years after the crime, she emailed Jody Gilley, now a 37-year-old communications strategist in D.C. “I?m trying to understand your story.” Jody agreed to meet with her, and the two women, together, returned literally to the scene of the crime. Harrison also visited Billy Gilley in Oregon, where the convicted killer remains incarcerated in the rather dire sounding Snake River Correctional Institute. Soon her Brooklyn office became overrun with piles of official documents — affidavits, trial transcripts, and reports from social workers.

Harrison is a thorough investigator, and her exhaustive research allows her to not merely re-create the events leading up to the killing but also provide a revealing, if depressing, history of the murdered parents, Bill and Linda Gilley. Their lives, depicted here, seem to consist almost exclusively of poverty, infidelity, bad luck, and cruelty. Bill Sr. ties his son to a tractor wheel and whips him with a rubber hose. He makes sexual advances on his daughter. Linda Gilley is equally unlikable, failing to protect her children and reveling in their punishment. Not surprisingly, the children turn into troubled teens. Billy is kicked out of Bible camp, drops out of high school, gets arrested for breaking into cars, and sets neighbors? living rooms on fire. Jody retreats into the imaginary world of books, particularly the fantasy world offered in Harlequin romances. Both children make efforts to get outside help but are failed again and again by agencies and relatives. The Gilley parents appear to be so horrific and wicked that when the murder happens it certainly seems inevitable, even fortunate.

The murder itself is the least interesting aspect of Harrison?s book — the event is rendered in a detached tone, with little vivid detail or suspense and a lack of the proverbial “chills up the spine” effect. While this may disappoint fans of true-crime paperbacks, it seems purposeful on Harrison?s behalf. She?s less interested in offering up a gory, voyeuristic read and more concerned with looking precisely and intelligently at her true subject: the aftermath of abuse within the supposed shelter of the nuclear family.

As she acknowledges, her own personal experience with abuse informs her examination of the Gilley case. When she was a college student, around the time of the Gilley murders, she began a four-year incestuous relationship with her father, a damaging affair powerfully recounted in her memoir The Kiss. In drawing parallels between her own story and the Gilley case, Harrison occasionally veers her narrative into therapy-office territory: “Because I fled from my father without attempting to address any of our differences, I?ve had to resign myself to what I find uncomfortable: a lack of resolution that leaves me prey to fantasies of reaching an understanding we never had.” Yet, she?s also able to insightfully articulate an essential aspect of trauma: a rupture or division caused by “the murder of one?s family, sexual intercourse with a parent — these experiences, and any other that once seemed unthinkable, too awful to come true.”

In Jody Gilley, Harrison offers a remarkable portrait of a woman who survived the unthinkable, refusing to be crushed by the horrific event she endured at 16. As Harrison portrays her, today she?s eloquent and forthright, a successful professional who seems to have coped with the horror of her past by facing it directly and exploring it through writing, including “Death Faces,” a creative college thesis written from the point of view of her brother. Billy, interestingly, also has turned to fiction as both outlet and exploratory process: writing children?s stories, like one entitled “Ned No Arms and Buttercup” — stories Harrison finds are tellingly “characterized by alienation and misunderstanding among humans.”

In the end, it is Harrison?s empathy for the Gilleys — as children and as adults — that allows her book to transcend many of the limitations of the true-crime genre. Jody and Billy are not merely subjects to be exploited and dismissed as monstrous villains or innocent victims. Instead, they emerge as complex, haunted, contradictory figures. “I didn?t look at them. I couldn?t,” Jody Gilley told the 911 operator, when speaking of her parent?s murdered bodies. In While They Slept, Kathryn Harrison does look — and with a cool, compassionate gaze, she offers an illuminating and original take on the meaning of crime and the darker impulses of human nature.