Book Review: While They Slept by Kathryn Harrison

2048874Title: While They Slept: An Inquiry Into The Murder of a Family
Author: Kathryn Harrison
Genre: True Crime, Non-Fiction
Pubisher: Random House
Publication Date: June 10th 2008
Rating: 1 stars
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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? The Gilley family murders ended a lifetime of physical and mental abuse suffered by Billy and Jody at the hands of their parents. And it required each of the two survivors–one a convicted murderer, the other suddenly an orphan–to create a new identity, a new life.In this mesmerizing book, bestselling writer Kathryn Harrison brilliantly uncovers the true story behind a shocking and unforgettable crime as she explores the impact of escalating violence and emotional abuse visited on the children of a deeply troubled family. With an artistry that recalls Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, and her own The Kiss, Harrison reveals the antecedents of the murders–of a crime of such violence that it had the power to sever past from present–and the consequences for Billy and for Jody. Weaving in meditations on her own experience of parental abuse, Harrison searches out answers to the question of how survivors of violent trauma shape a future when their lives have been divided into Before and After.
Based on interviews with Billy and Jody as well as with friends, police, and social workers involved in the case, While They Slept is Kathryn Harrison’s unflinching inquiry into the dark heart of violence in an American family, and a personal quest to understand how young people go on after tragedy–to examine the extent as well as the limits of psychic resilience. The New York Times called Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss “a powerful piece of writing, a testament to evil and hope.” The same could be said about While They Slept.

I don’t usually read non-fiction novels, and the true crime genre is new to me as well. But when I saw this book in my local bookstore at a significant discount (three thrillers/true crime books for 10 euros), I was drawn to it like a bee is to honey. I hadn’t heard about this case before, and the name Billy Gilley didn’t ring a bell. But I had heard about other cases in which a young boy slaughters his entire family, driven to the verge of madness by a vast ray of causes, be it abuse, neglect or voices in their head. For Billy Gilley it was the first. He was mercilessly beaten and terrorized by his parents, the two people in the world who should have been there for him but weren’t. And then one day, he just snapped. His sister had skipped school that day, and got into trouble with her parents for doing so. Billy then told his sister Jody that he would like to ‘bash in their heads with a baseball bat’. That night, he did, killing both of his parents and his younger sister Becky.

Author Kathryn Harrison investigates the Billy Gilley case by interviewing both Billy and Jody Gilley regularly. She tries to reconstruct what happened that fateful day by both of their eye-witness accounts, and tries to give the reader an insight into the mind of a young man driven to murder and the aftermath of those terrible events for Jody. She tries to explain to us how Jody is coping with that loss, and the person she became because of it. As I mentioned, Kathryn Harrison ‘tried’ to do all those things. Unfortunately for the reader, she fails on more than half of those things, and offers a book that can be described as ‘interesting’ at best. It’s obvious, even for the non-experienced true crime reader, and a person with no expertise in the area of psychology or criminology whatsoever apart from some basic classes at university, that Kathryn Harrison did not do the Billy Gilley story justice. In fact, she brutally misused both Jody and Billy Gilley in her book, comparing her own bad luck in life with that of what Jody had to go through, drawing parallels that aren’t really there, applying her own mismatched amateur-psychology when it’s not wanted nor advised, and believing every word Jody says where she’s continuously sceptical towards anything Billy mentions. I spent more time being annoyed at Kathryn Harrison’s far-fetched and outrageously large narcissism, her inability to sound neutral and non-biased and her continuous referring to her own life than I spent enjoying the rest of the book, which is saying something.

Unfortunately, rather than teaching me something more about Billy and Jody Gilley, While They Slept taught me more about Kathryn Harrison than about anyone else. For instance, when she was eighteen or twenty (I forgot, because I didn’t really care) Kathryn tongue-kissed her long lost father, trying to make up for all those years of abandonment and trying to get back at her mother for God knows what reason. She then continued to have an incestuous relationship with her own father for about two years, in which he maltreated her and sometimes even locked her up (or that’s what I gathered). Eventually she got out, got her life back on track and has spent the rest of her life trying to deal with her past. It’s not that I don’t find it terrible what happened to Kathryn Harrison. Really, I do. Although she chose to have an incestuous relationship (she wasn’t really forced though, it wasn’t rape) I can understand where those feelings came from, and of course it can’t ever feel right to do that kind of stuff with your father. But let me begin by saying that she already wrote a memoir about that. There’s no need to mention these events occassionally throughout this book, to point them out to your readers in a casual but misleading way and trying to bring the spotlight from where it should be – Billy and Jody Gilley – to Kathryn Harrison. Sorry Kat, but this book isn’t supposed to be about you. You’re not the center of the universe. I understand you have problems, but you already told us about that, and if you want to, write another memoir, but don’t go ruin this story about two different people by trying to make it about you.

Furthermore, what angered me beyond belief about Kathryn Harrison is that she continuously draws parallels between the tragedy Jody Gilley had to go through – the murder of her entire family by her own brother – and Kathryn’s own troubles in life. She refers to both herself and Jody as being people who changed into a ‘before’ and ‘after’ person. I think it’s a tremendously preposterous claim of the author that both these things could even be compared. They can’t. I don’t know how it’s possible that Jody Gilley never once felt like hitting some sense into Kathryn Harrison, especially when the author grows so daring to tell these things in person. Apparently Kathryn lives in this illusion that her own life and troubles can be compared to Jody’s, that she went through so much irreversible tragedy that she’s entitled to behave like a psychologist, and that she has the right – can you believe the pretention? – to analyse everything Jody and Billy Gilley say, find hidden meanings behind their words and declare to all her readers who’s telling the truth and who isn’t. Unfortunately, Kathryn Harrison is nor a psychologist, criminologist, criminal profiler, social worker or a lawyer, and thus she is entitled to no such things. When you have no credentials in a field of expertise whatsoever, then stay out of it. She’s an author, and the point was that she had to write down Billy and Jody’s story, not mismatch it with several assumptions of her own, draw her own conclusions or have the pretention to tell her readers who to believe and who not to believe, based on amateur psychology.

But brace yourself, the horror isn’t over yet. Apart from her continous comparison between Jody Gilley and herself, and her unasked for retelling of her own memoir, Kathryn Harrison also has a clear and obvious favorism for Jody, and believes her every word contrary to those of Jody’s brother, who she doesn’t believe at all. However, from what I gathered from reading this book, sometimes what Billy says makes a lot of sense, whereas it seems as if Jody just suppressed those feelings and events in an attempt to live with survivor’s guilt. However, the author has drawn a clear line in this book: Billy is a murderer, thus he’s always wrong, and Jody isn’t, thus she’s always right. We all know that the real truth hardly is as linear, and that two people may have different reactions as to what’s going on, whereas that doesn’t necessarily mean one of them is lying. It’s obvious that in her effort to draw a parallel between herself and Jody Gilley, Kathryn chose a definite side, and she lost all abilities to talk about the murders in a neutral way.

To be honest, I think both Jody and Billy Gilley deserved an author who spend less time worrying about herself, and more time worrying about what happened to them and to listen to their story. They didn’t need to be psycho-analyzed by an amateur, and they definately didn’t need their case compared to an adult having an incestuous relationship with her own father, however disturbing that may be as well. More than anything, they deserved to be treated as main characters of this book rather than figures used for this author’s self-absorption. Moreover, Billy deserved the benefit of the doubt, definately in a society where the role of abuse leading up to a child murdering his own parents has been thoroughly investigated, speculated and debated by real psychiatrists and psychologists, and where the common answer nowadays is that it can be excusable to kill one’s own family when pushed to the breaking point by physical and mental abuse by one’s own parents. It certainly seems understandable, and we should not always judge people based on what they did in moments all logic left them. I feel that Kathryn chose to paint Billy as a murderer rather than a person, and it’s obvious that her opinion is so biased it greatly weighs down on the quality of this book.

Personally, I felt sorry for both children. Although I’m not a psychologist or criminologist or all those things Kathryn Harrison occassionally pretends to be, it’s my opinion that Billy was once again wronged with this book, in which he voluntarily participated but that portrayed him as being a liar, sometimes on purpose, sometimes without realizing it; whereas I thought it was obvious in some parts of the book that Billy’s recount of the events made more sense and seemed more logical than Jody’s. Rather than believe Jody’s every word, Kathryn should have taken into account that she should hold the same prejudice against Jody that she should against Billy. For example, Jody says she never encouraged Billy to kill her parents, but the thing is that it would be totally understandable if she did. After all, we all say stupid things sometimes, especially when we’re angered or feel threatened. Jody and Billy must have felt threated and scared continuously, and it makes sense that one would snap then. But of course, in her memory, Jody could have suppressed all the times she said things like that, trying to deal with the events and the guilt that followed them, which wouldn’t make her a liar, but rather a victim of this trauma. However, as I said, I won’t go play the psychologist as well, but I think that explenation would be a lot more logical than calling Billy a liar. After all, what would he gain from putting his sister in jail as well for conspiracy or something along those lines, the sister he tried to protect up till the point that he rather killed their parents then let himself and her get hurt at their hands one more time? If Kathryn tells her readers one option, she should also tell us the other option, and not just choose sides.

In my opinion, the emphazises was mostly on victims of a traumatic event, and how they deal with the aftermath, survivor’s guilt in particular. However, I would have liked a greater emphazises on what happened prior to the murders, the abuse that drove Billy to do what he did and Billy’s own path to redemption or dealing with what happened. Thing is that partially through this book, I began to feel sorry for Billy. One can never say that murder can be approved, but in some cases, like when a child has been abused, maltreated and terrorized until it feels like an animal in a cage, it is excusable. If Billy only saw one way of escaping and that was through murder, then it is somehow understandable that eventually he gave in and did just about that. Furthermore, he was already ridiculed by his parents and fellow schoolmates for not being able to write and read properly, something which we know realize – which no one really did at the time the murders were commited – were probably signs of a messed-up life at home. Add his aggression, the fact that from Kathryn Harrison’s and real psychiatrists’s descriptions he now seems as a loving and caring individual, the constant abuse and the never-ending fear of that abuse, and you have the circumstances set to turn everyone into a murderer. Billy was not accepted anywhere – not by the people at school, not by his own parents, and in the end, not even by the sister he probably cared for the most. It’s a saddening tale. Sometimes throughout this novel Kathryn Harrison – perhaps with her own sometimes twisted and perverted mind – often wondered aloud whether Billy loved his sister the way he shouldn’t, and Jody actually recalls Billy sexually harrassing her. I don’t know if that’s true or not, although according to the book Billy denies it, but from what I gather, in my personal opinion, I think there are two options more valuable than Kathryn just painting Billy off as a pervert. One option is that Jody replaced the image of her father harrassing her with the image of Billy doing so, because this would be easier to cope with, seeing as she already felt a lot of guilt for her parent’s death – blame it all on Billy, because he already murdered them, seems like a viable solution in that case. The other possibility is that Billy did harrass her, but in his own disturbed mind it was probably more a cry for acceptance and love than anything else. However, I’m not a psychologist, and this is just my opinion, as some sort of counter-opinion of Kathryn Harrison, who just portrays Billy as a perverted murderer.

A boy growing up in a household without much love, with a mother who backstabs him continously and a father who beats him mercilessly. He’s terrible at reading and writing, almost illiterate, ends up with the wrong friends and always ends up in trouble. On one day, he has had enough. He talks to his sister about murdering his parents. He takes her silence as an answer and that night he takes a baseball bat and beats his mother and father to death. Unfortunately his little sister hears something is going on and goes back downstairs. Panicking, Billy kills her as well, the only murder he actually feels terribly sorry for. He goes upstairs and tells Jody that now they’re finally free. Does this sound like the portrait of a mad man, a psychopath? Or does it sound like the story of a boy who knew no way out, who was let down by social services, school and everyone who ever could have helped him? Does this sound like the story of a boy accepted by no one, betrayed by everyone and desperately seeking the love and care he so needed? I think it does, and at least on that point, Kathryn Harrison agrees with me, albeit partly.

I would have liked to learn more about Billy, and less about Kathryn Harrison herself. I would honestly say that I’d like to see Billy out of jail. He has been punished before he ever commited the crime, and he has been punished severely afterward for something society nowadays usually excuses or advises therapy for. And at the end of this book, I began to feel sorry for him. I felt sorry for Jody from the beginning, but with Billy it took a while, but it’s there. Unfortunately we may never truly know what happened that fateful night – we have Jody’s version and Billy’s version and the pseudo-psychologic analyse made by Kathryn Harrison – but as always I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Let me finish by adding that throughout this book, Kathryn Harrison sees a lot of sexual references were there aren’t any, probably inspired by her own sexual relationship with her father, or by an overly-in-depth reading of Freud. However, once you look past her odd conclusions, her biased look on things and clear preference for Jody’s side of the story, her continuous self-absorption and her amataur psychology, you will realize that at the core of this book is a story about a family gone wrong, about abuse and destruction, about freedom, acceptance and love and about the ability to move on and keep on hoping for a better future. These underlying thoughts are inspiring, but are unfortunately overshadowed by Kathryn’s own life story and her occassional writing flaws. If you’re a fan of true fiction, or Jody and Billy’s story inspired you, then read this book. If however you’re like me and you’ll find yourself more disturbed by the author’s judgemental and erratic behavior than anything else, and you feel like writing her hatemail by the end of this book, then stay away from it as far as possible.

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