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

( 16 )


Early on an April morning, eighteen-year-old Billy Frank Gilley, Jr., killed his sleeping parents. Surprised in the act by his younger sister, Becky, he turned on her as well. Billy then climbed the stairs to the bedroom of his other sister, Jody, and said, “We’re free.” But is one ever free after an unredeemable act of violence? In this mesmerizing book–based on interviews with Billy and Jody as well as with friends, police, and social workers involved in the case–bestselling writer Kathryn Harrison brilliantly ...

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

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Early on an April morning, eighteen-year-old Billy Frank Gilley, Jr., killed his sleeping parents. Surprised in the act by his younger sister, Becky, he turned on her as well. Billy then climbed the stairs to the bedroom of his other sister, Jody, and said, “We’re free.” But is one ever free after an unredeemable act of violence? In this mesmerizing book–based on interviews with Billy and Jody as well as with friends, police, and social workers involved in the case–bestselling writer Kathryn Harrison brilliantly uncovers the true story behind this shocking crime and examines the extent as well as the limits of psychic resilience in the aftermath of tragedy.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[Harrison’s] telling brings moral clarity to the dark fate of a family: the daylight gaze of narrative itself as a form of empathy.”—New York Times Book Review

“A tale at once gothic and Greek, Freudian and Shakespearean, taboo and tragic.”—Washington Post Book World

“Magnificent . . . a darkly poignant study of survival.”—USA Today

“Masterful . . . 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.”—Los Angeles Times

“Lucid, psychologically probing and disturbing…[While they Slept is] a morally nuanced story, and a culmination of Harrison’s favored themes: sex, family and power.”—Time Out New York

“You can count on Harrison for white-water prose and ferocious candor…Harrison’s intense and resonant inquiry affirms the cathartic power of the story, and reflects on the miraculous cycle of loss and death.”—Booklist

Robert Pinsky
Like Jody Gilley's example of the Bosporus—a strait connecting two separate masses—her brother's vision, of the desolate rescued by the mute, suggests the unspeakable isolation of ruptured lives, and the reparative need to speak of that isolation, as Kathryn Harrison does here. Her telling brings moral clarity to the dark fate of a family: the daylight gaze of narrative itself as a form of empathy.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In the early morning of April 27, 1984, outside Medford, Ore., 18-year-old Billy Gilley bludgeoned his parents, Bill and Linda, and his 11-year-old sister, Becky, to death. He believed his act would allow him and his 16-year-old sister, Jody, to free themselves from an abusive home. Comprising extensive interviews with both Jody, a Georgetown graduate and victims' rights advocate, and Billy, serving three consecutive life sentences in Oregon, Harrison recounts the trial, where Jody was the prosecution's star witness, and attempts to understand the Gilleys' troubled family history. Despite differing accounts from the now estranged siblings on the severity of their parents' abuse, it's clear that both parents routinely engaged in verbal and physical cruelty. Billy claimed his murder of Becky was unintentional, but it sealed his fate. Novelist and memoirist Harrison (The Kiss) attends admirably to detail, and her dissection of the effects of violence on both perpetrators and victims is thorough. But by bookending the account with musings on her incestuous relationship with her own father—already addressed in both her fiction and nonfiction—Harrison dilutes the power of the Gilleys' story. (June 17)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Ideally, the family environment is a loving, nurturing one where children are cherished and cared for. This is not always the case. Some children are raised in an emotionally and/or physically abusive environment, and the harm bestowed can haunt them throughout their lives. In rare cases, a child may take revenge against the abusive parents. Such was the case with Billy Gilley Jr. In While They Slept, novelist/memoirist Harrison (The Kiss) describes the details that led to Billy killing his parents as they slept and then his youngest sister, Becky, who walked in on the act. Gilley believed that he would be liberating his other sister, Jody, from their abusive parents. Harrison's accounts of these 1984 slayings come from interviews with Billy (who is still imprisoned) and surviving sister Jody and from a variety of documents (e.g., transcripts of 911 calls). Just as unusual as Harrison's pursuing this subject 24 years after the murders is her intertwining an account of own abusive childhood throughout the narrative. Whatever the title may say, it is evident that Harrison is using the Gilley tragedy as a means of dealing with her own abusive relationship with her father. Though the narrative can therefore sound self-indulgent, she does a good job of reviewing the Gilley case, offering a fundamental look at the searing private dramas that can lead to family tragedy. Recommended for criminal justice collections.
—Tim Delaney

School Library Journal

Adult/High School- Nearly 25 years ago, 18-year-old Billy Gilley killed his parents and 11-year-old sister by hitting them repeatedly with an aluminum baseball bat. His then-16-year-old sister was not attacked, although she was in the house the night of the event. Harrison explores both what led to Gilley's actions and how those actions have colored his surviving sister's life. Jody Gilley, who is now a successful and well-educated woman, cooperated with Harrison to delve into the drama. Imprisoned in eastern Oregon, Billy Gilley also worked with the author as she accumulated information, questions, and theories about the crime. As stark as is the violence described here, so too is the emotional development of the causes and the results of that violence on both surviving children. Readers who are interested in human psychology will be fascinated by this study, which is accessible and nuanced by switches between reporting both past and present. And teens who may find cathartic release in reading about a true parricide will also see the shades of gray the events have left on Billy and Jody Gilley's current self-images.-Francisca Goldsmith, Halifax Public Libraries, Nova Scotia

Kirkus Reviews
Novelist and memoirist Harrison (Envy, 2005, etc.) revisits a 1984 killing. The author conducted six three-hour interviews with Billy Gilley, now serving multiple life sentences after being convicted at age 18 of murdering his abusive parents and younger sister Becky. Harrison also spoke with the surviving sister, Jody, who claimed to have been sexually abused by both Billy and their father. Although Jody managed to rise above her sordid past, eventually graduating from Georgetown and becoming a successful businesswoman, she was guarded in her account of the killings and the troubled family life that preceded it. Harrison tried to bond by revealing that she too had experienced sexual abuse at the hands of her father, but Jody remained wary. Billy proved even more evasive. Arrested for burglary and arson several times before the murders, he argued that he clubbed his parents to death with a baseball bat to rescue himself and Jody from routine beatings and constant psychological abuse. That he was beaten and tormented by both parents seems undeniable, but Billy failed to explain why he went on to kill Becky and sidestepped the question of whether he felt any remorse. Harrison has clearly done diligent research, but she too often resorts to quoting psychological reports and court testimony. Overreaching for connections between her own troubled past and Jody's, she produces an overwrought text that isn't as revelatory as it aspires to be. She does convincingly draw the Gilleys' downward spiral into abuse, alcoholism and violence, a descent with family precedent (Billy's maternal grandmother had shot and killed her cheating husband). But readers may balk at a tawdry tale more depressing thanmeaningful, populated by characters more pitiable than complex. Worthy enough, but nowhere near the level of such true-crime masterpieces as In Cold Blood. Agent: Amanda Urban/ICM
The Barnes & Noble Review
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. --Rebecca Godfrey

Rebecca Godfrey is the author of the novel The Torn Skirt and of Under the Bridge: The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk. She lives in New York City.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345516602
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/24/2009
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,563,209
  • Product dimensions: 4.12 (w) x 6.96 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

Kathryn Harrison is the author of the memoirs The Kiss and The Mother Knot. She has also written the novels Envy, The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure, and Thicker Than Water; a travel memoir, The Road to Santiago; a biography, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux; and a collection of essays, Seeking Rapture. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their children.

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Read an Excerpt

On the morning of Thursday, April 26, 1984, Jody Gilley went to her neighbor Kathy Ackerson's before school. As was her habit, she went out the kitchen door and cut across the field that separated their two homes. Jody and Kathy had gotten to know each other the previous year, on the bus to and from Medford High, where they were now sophomores. They didn't socialize during the school day; Jody hung with a straighter crowd than Kathy, who by her own admission was something of a stoner. As Jody describes it, she and Kathy weren't best friends, but they liked each other and were frequently in each other's homes. "My next-field neighbor," they called each other. It wasn't unusual for Jody to finish getting dressed over at Kathy's.  

"Because you wanted to wear something your mother didn't approve of?" I ask Jody.  

"No, the dressing-sexy-for-school thing happened much earlier, in fifth or sixth grade. By tenth grade it was all about looking punk. Ratting my hair, applying dark eye makeup, piercing my ears with safety pins. And all of that happened at school, in the girls' bathroom. At Kathy's it was just, you know, getting ready for school together. Me probably using the Mary Kay makeup she had because her mom sold it, whereas my makeup was bottom-drawer Fred Meyer lip gloss and Maybelline. Also, I was curling-iron challenged, and Kathy could get that perfect eighties feather in a way I couldn't."  

I nod. Long, auburn, glossy: Jody's hair is the first thing I notice about her. The way she gathers it into one hand and pulls it forward in a thick rope over one shoulder-the image stays with me after our first meeting, I'm not sure why. Perhaps because it's a pretty gesture. Jody herself is pretty, with a heart-shaped face and hazel eyes, not much if any makeup. Dressed in dark pants and a denim jacket, high heels. When she talks, all the emphasis is in her voice. She speaks without using her hands, as I was taught, unsuccessfully, to do.  

Nothing about Jody's appearance surprises me-I didn't, after all, have any idea what she looked like-but her physical presence is itself unsettling. The Jody I know is sixteen, a girl in a car with her brother, the two of them motionless. Petrified, as if the murders had been, like the head of a Gorgon, a sight that turned them to stone. For ten years I've known Jody not as a woman but as a character, one among the many in my head, images taken from books and movies, not so much people as ideas of people, whom I expect never to encounter in the flesh.  

There was more to getting dressed at Kathy's than looking the way Jody wanted for school. It was easier in the house across the field. Kathy's parents weren't always fighting with each other or screaming at their children. Her mother didn't look for excuses to punish her daughter; she didn't throw things at Kathy or pin her down and blow cigarette smoke in her face just out of meanness. She didn't denigrate her children or act like reading was a waste of time, the way Jody's parents did. The fact that Jody spent so much of her life hidden behind the cover of a book was a source of conflict at home; her family understood her insatiable, nearly compulsive reading for what it was: escape, judgment. Jody would rather be anywhere than there, with them; she was just biding her time until she could walk out the door, old enough that the police wouldn't come after her and bring her back, as they did her brother when he ran away.  

Kathy had brothers, but they were younger than Billy, thirteen and fourteen, and they were good kids, normal anyway. They didn't cause the kind of trouble Billy did-didn't get kicked out of Bible camp for smoking in the woods, didn't get arrested for breaking into cars or setting people's living rooms on fire. They didn't sneak into Kathy's room at night to put their hands between her legs.  

After they got dressed that day, the girls rode the bus to Medford High, but, as Jody would tell Detective Richard Davis the morning after the murders, they never entered the building. "We went to Games People Play [a video arcade] for a while and then we went over to a guy's house. And we stayed there for a while and then we went to Pappy's and got potatoes and then we walked home."

Jody had skipped school before. According to Kathy Ackerson, interviewed in 1999 by a private investigator, Jody cared about her grades and made straight A's-"B's," Jody corrects-but she was sixteen years old, and it was hard to have to answer to someone every minute of every day. A few unstructured hours, safe from the strife at home and apart from the demands of her teachers, must have presented a significant temptation.  

"Mrs. Gilley was very controlling," Kathy explained to the private investigator dispatched by Billy's attorney for appeal. "Jody had to sneak around to do things she wanted to do," things most parents considered harmless. Not only did Jody have "more than her share of household chores . . . the laundry, the dishes, and the cooking," but while Jody worked, her friend remembered, Linda Gilley just "sat around and smoked cigarettes."  

The way Kathy saw it, "there was a war going on between Jody and her mother." She "never heard anyone in the Gilley family say 'I love you' . . . never heard either parent, Mr. or Mrs. Gilley, compliment or give positive strokes to any of the kids."  

That Thursday, after Kathy came home to discover the school had telephoned to report her absence, she called the Gilleys' house to see if Jody had gotten in trouble, and if so, how much. She knew Jody's brother was beaten severely when he disobeyed or was caught in a lie, and although Jody doesn't remember having been whipped the way Billy was, not by the time she was in high school, anyway, it was Kathy's impression that Jody suffered her share of physical abuse. She remembered bruises, she told the private investigator. Once, she thought she'd seen a cigarette burn.  

But when Kathy called the Gilleys' house, she didn't get to speak with her friend. Instead, Jody's mother, Linda, "answered the phone and said that Jody was grounded until she was eighteen and then slammed the phone down." For the rest of the evening the phone was busy-Kathy presumed it had been taken off the hook-and she didn't see Jody again until 1:34 the next morning.  

The idea of being grounded for two years wouldn't have struck the teenaged Jody as unlikely. The way things turned out, she was pretty much always in trouble, she tells me. Punishments overlapped; they were subject to her mother's capricious revisions. On any given occasion, whether Jody was actually grounded or not made little difference. If Linda didn't want her daughter to go out, she'd just say Jody hadn't done the dishes the right way, or had forgotten to dust the living room, or to pick up after Becky, or whatever else came to mind-it didn't matter what.  

With a few significant exceptions, Jody's memory of the afternoon of April 26 aligns with what her brother recounts for me when I visit him in prison the following fall, and with his sworn statement: the affidavit he prepared in 1996 for his appeal for a retrial. Billy, who had dropped out of school after the ninth grade, was home before Jody returned that day and overheard his mother making plans to trap her daughter in a lie. Having learned from the school's attendance officer that Jody hadn't shown up for class, Linda told the children's father that, as Billy stated in his affidavit, she "was going to pretend not to know about it, so she could catch Jody." Lest Billy try to warn his sister before Linda had a chance to deceive her, Linda "looked straight at [Billy] . . . and told [him] to keep [his] mouth shut."  

When Jody came walking up the road, Billy, who had been watching for the arrival of the school bus, went out to meet her. Linda was too quick, however, and passed him, heading toward the mailbox to make a show of looking inside, "as if to check for the mail" she'd already collected. With their mother hovering too close for them to exchange a word in private, Billy "was afraid to say anything."*  

"Why didn't you come home on the bus?" Linda asked Jody.  

"I got off at Kathy's and walked," Jody told her.  

The scene Billy describes played out just as his mother had scripted it. "Oh, really?" Linda asked Jody. "The school called to say you weren't in first or second period."  

Jody tells me she was ready with an answer. "Well, you know how they screw up sometimes," she said to her mother. "Because when I'm tardy they've already took the card down to the office."  

The three had reached the kitchen door when, Jody told Detective Davis, her brother, who was carrying his baseball bat, said he'd "like to bump [their parents] off with it . . . pound them in." Billy contends that it was Jody who mentioned physical retribution first, telling him under her breath that she'd "like to smash our mom's face in."  

Linda ordered Billy to stay outside, and he did, his affidavit continues, "but just for a little bit. When I got to the living room . . . I heard my mom telling Jody that she knew Jody had skipped all day." It was both children's impression that Linda was delighted to have caught her daughter in a lie on top of truancy. "Drooling," Billy says to me of his mother's eagerness to corner Jody, "foaming at the mouth."  

Then, as both Billy and Jody remember, Billy asked Jody a question. Was she all right?, he wanted to know. "Why don't you ask mom?" Jody said. "She has all the answers." At this, Jody told Detective Davis, her mother "got mad and slapped me for being cocky."  

"I did have a tendency to mouth off," she tells me.  

Even though the family wasn't alone-Glenn Riggs, who worked for Bill Sr., was present-Billy says their father stood up from where he was sitting on the couch, unbuckled his belt, and pulled it out from his pant loops. He started walking toward Jody, "yelling that he was going to beat her ass." That this transpired in front of his father's employee was something Billy found "especially galling," reported the psychiatrist who interviewed Billy two months after the murders.  

When Jody's father came at her with his belt, she protested that at sixteen she was too old to be thrashed, and Bill backed off, warning his daughter that she'd better not skip school again. Jody promised she wouldn't and asked her parents what her punishment would be, but Linda hadn't decided and sent Jody to her room. Interviewed later, for Billy's pre-sentencing report, Glenn Riggs characterized their interaction as "short-lived and not flagrant." Nonetheless, he was embarrassed to have witnessed the eruption of a domestic conflict, and he got up to go. Bill and Linda walked Riggs out, and Billy took his chance to run upstairs to Jody's room, the baseball bat still in his hand.  

"I asked her if she was all right," Billy said, and Jody told him she "hated our mom and dad and wished they were dead." It wasn't fair, she complained, that when Billy used to get into trouble, their parents would let him off with a warning the first time and punish him only if he repeated the offense, whereas they never gave her that second chance.  

As both Jody and Billy recall, Billy became extremely agitated at the suggestion that their parents had ever shown him any leniency whatsoever. He reminded Jody that on many occasions their father had taken him out to the barn and whipped him with a hose until his back was covered with welts and that she'd seen the "black and blue marks where [their] father had beat [him] with his fist."  

Describing the incident, Billy recalls that he and Jody continued speaking in this vein, comparing the histories of their punishments. It is at this point that their accounts diverge, over the subject of sexual abuse. Speaking with me, Billy doesn't waver even as much as a word from what he stated in his affidavit: Jody told him "the beatings were nothing compared with our dad molesting her," and she knew their father was "going to try it again."  

"Why did she think that?" Billy tells me he asked his sister, alarmed, and she confided in him that she "noticed our dad stares at her while touching his penis.  

"I told her that our mom wouldn't let that happen," and Jody said, "Mom didn't care what he did to her, that Mom had it out for her, and if Mom cared then our dad wouldn't still be living there."  

Jody, who reported her father's leering at her and his propositioning her, denies her father ever molested her. For Detective Davis she recounted a different, shorter dialogue between her and her brother, one that made no reference to any sexual impropriety on anyone's part. She told the detective that while Billy was talking-ranting, really-she "just sat there, and he [Billy] just said he'd like to get, he'd like to get rid of them."  

Detective Davis, who identified himself at Billy's trial as the one who "more or less directed" the investigation of the murders, interviewed Jody immediately after Billy was taken into custody and again ten hours later, pushing her to recall Billy's "exact words as best you can remember," in hopes of establishing that her brother had announced a clear intention to murder their parents that very night.  

But years of physical and emotional abuse had created a context from which it was difficult, perhaps impossible, for Jody to tease out an unambiguous threat. Both she and Billy had wished their parents dead. They'd said outright to each other that their parents were horrible, wicked people who deserved to die for the cruelties they'd visited upon their children. In what was a very human response to neglect, battery, and entrapment, each had fantasized aloud about how he or she might go about killing them. Kathy, who remembered Jody studying how to be a secret agent, said that Jody told her "she could make a miniature bomb and fantasized about blowing up her parents." Jody told Detective Davis that Billy had had the idea to "bash their heads in . . . rent a boat and tie rocks to their feet and throw them in a river."  

* The account Billy gives me in person is nearly identical to that in his affidavit, prepared twelve years after the murders. Unless otherwise attributed, Billy's quoted dialogue is taken directly from the affidavit.

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  • Posted January 21, 2010

    Not worth the read

    The author is too concerned with her own history, and tries to parallel the Gilley story with her own tragedy. We really don't learn too much about the actual feelings of the Gilley's, however, we sure do learn about the feelings of the author, which would be fine if this was supposed to be a book written about her. I was waiting for some in-depth insight into the minds of the Gilley's, but it never came. I was very disappointed I wasted my time with this one.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 17, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    This is a terrific true crime tale

    Almost a quarter of a century ago in Medford, Oregon, eighteen year old Billy Gilley stabbed to death his parents and his younger sister eleven years old Becky. He swore that he killed them so he and hi sixteen year old sister Jody could live abuse free. A shocked Jody testified against her older brother who was convicted of the homicides and is serving three consecutive life sentences as he could not blame parental mistreatment for the murder of Becky.

    This is a terrific true crime tale that uses the court record and intense numerous interviews with the surviving siblings, who do not communicate with one another, to tell the story of the Gilley family leading to the killings. The fascination is how far apart Billy and Jody are when it comes to parental physical and verbal violence, but clearly they agree that there was some even if he fails to explain why he killed Becky. Although Kathryn Harrison includes a memoir re her abusive relationship with her father, that feels out of place padding, and should be ignored as the Gilley family murders are tragic enough for one true story.

    Harriet Klausner

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2009

    I would recommend this book

    While they Slept was a gift. I enjoy reading True Crime but usually stick with Ann Rule books. I must say this read to me as smooth as Ann Rule. I could not put this book down. I only have about 15 minutes a day w/out interruption to read, however I would take this book with me to the grocery store (read in line) to dr appts (read while waiting) etc. I was able to understand both Billy & Jody Gilly before & after the murders. The author has several other books that I will be sure to buy. One thing I was disappointed with, was no pictures of the main characters in the store. I would have liked that so I could see who I was reading about. Pictures can enhance a book. Otherwise a solid 4 out of 5 rating for me!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 13, 2009

    Incredibly well written

    As a fan of the true crime genre, it is not often that you find a compelling story written with this level of intelligence. I felt drawn in to the author's recollections about her own life and how she related them to the horrible deaths she writes about. Several notches abouve your average tru crime tale.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2008

    Defined by a tragedy

    Kathryn Harrison has done a thorough and insightful job of understanding and relating Jody's story without bringing too much baggage with her. She gets dangerously close to the brother who caused the devastation that split Jody's life into a 'before' and an 'after.' This is a compelling survivor story with more depth than your typical true-crime chronicle.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2012


    Terrible read...skipped portions so i could hurry and get finished. More of the authors baggage then the story itself and who wants to read about a 20 year old woman who let her father have sex with her and then constantly whine about it...really...20 years old? Will not read this author again.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2008

    A reviewer

    Ms Harrison seems to be on an ego trip. There was more about her than about the murders or the Gilley family. She has already written her memoir 'The Kiss' and this book simply re-stated her own particular family horror, ad nauseum. Way, Way too superficial. I didn't get the sense I knew any of the Gilleys.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2008

    Keen insight into the mind of a murderer

    Kathryn Harrison seems like an old friend after reading her memoirs so I bought this book. I was not disappointed. I never thought I could understand what would make a human being kill another human being let alone one's own family but Ms Harrison untangles the circumstances and emotions leading up to the horrific event of this young man killing his parents and youngest sister as well as the aftermath and the years that followed. Bravely, the author personalizes the trauma endured by the survivng sister by letting us see glimces of Ms Harrison's own painful parental struggles.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2008

    A reviewer

    I was very captivated by this book. Being from Oregon, I was familiar with many of the places Jody spoke of. I found the relationship between the brother and sister to be very odd...I don't think Jody fully understood the level of Billy's torment by their father! Good book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 24, 2012



    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2012

    While they slept

    This book was terrible. I could not even finish it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2011

    Good book

    I loved this book i live in medford orrgon where this happened it was a great book and i got to go by the house this took place and get a visual it was great

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  • Posted February 8, 2011

    Would not recommend

    I did not like the way this book was written the story jumped all over the place. I also do not think you should bring your life into a story that you are writing it is not about the writer it is about the subject I will stay away from this writer

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    No Closure For Me

    I think that the authors attempts to relate this murder to her own abuse muddled the story too much. I stll cant understand why Jody and her brother ended up with the relationship they did or the grandmother's role in the tragic life they led. More unanswered questions than before I read it.

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    Posted June 24, 2011

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    Posted January 28, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2009

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