The Kiss of Death

orb bell kathryn harrison The Kiss of DeathWHILE THEY SLEPT: AN INQUIRY INTO THE MURDER OF A FAMILY
By Kathryn Harrison
Random House, 304 pages, $25

A transcript of a 911 call begins Kathryn Harrison’s While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family. It’s 1984, and 16-year-old Jody Gilley reports that her older brother, Billy, has murdered their abusive parents and 11-year-old sister with a baseball bat in the small town of Medford, Ore. This opening, and Ms. Harrison’s self-confessed "addiction" to true-crime stories, seems to augur an understated book of cold, hard facts. Instead, what we get is a dutifully exhaustive, though overwrought, account of a crime, filtered through the prism of Ms. Harrison’s own incestuous affair with her father.

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Ms. Harrison is famous for The Kiss, her 1998 memoir of the affair and the resultant psychological damage. Two previous books of fiction dealt with the same theme. And she confesses near the end of While They Slept that "There is nothing I write … that doesn’t respond to the chaos he ushered into my life."

Still, for a book hyped as the heir to true-crime masterpieces such as Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, we might be forgiven for expecting Ms. Harrison to edit herself out and focus on the story itself. Instead, she dwells on the causes and effects of the Gilley murders as a way of making sense of her own experience.

 

WHILE THEY SLEPT INCLUDES SOME solid and revealing reporting. Ms. Harrison has conducted meticulous interviews and pored over court transcripts, psychological assessments and other documentation in an attempt to re-create not only the murders themselves but also the family history. Her descriptions sometimes shine with brutal clarity. In one particularly agonizing scene right after Billy’s murderous rampage, Ms. Harrison describes, step-by-step, how Jody leaves her gravely injured little sister at home, heads with Billy to a neighbor’s, and plays cards for over an hour while she tries to figure out how to get help without endangering herself. includes some solid and revealing reporting. Ms. Harrison has conducted meticulous interviews and pored over court transcripts, psychological assessments and other documentation in an attempt to re-create not only the murders themselves but also the family history. Her descriptions sometimes shine with brutal clarity. In one particularly agonizing scene right after Billy’s murderous rampage, Ms. Harrison describes, step-by-step, how Jody leaves her gravely injured little sister at home, heads with Billy to a neighbor’s, and plays cards for over an hour while she tries to figure out how to get help without endangering herself.

The structure, too, is effective: Ms. Harrison alternates accounts of the physical and emotional abuse Billy and Jody suffered at the hands of their vindictive parents with the story of the murder and its aftermath. In so doing, she presents a remarkably sympathetic portrait of Billy, whom we come to see not as a cold-blooded killer but as a child whose "sense of self was so impaired that he no longer believed in the possibility of his freedom—not so long as his parents were alive." Ms. Harrison is eager to examine how Billy and Jody created "a coherent narrative" as a means of "salvaging what they could of the children they had been before."

At times the author sounds like a heavy-handed English professor obsessed with symbolism and metaphor. We get analyses of Jody’s favorite books as they relate to her psychic healing, plus ample and close readings of her autobiographical college thesis and of the children’s stories Billy writes in jail. When literary analysis comes up short, Ms. Harrison resorts to psychological interpretation. This is occasionally provocative: Does the fact that Jody wished her abusive parents dead, for example, make her somehow complicit in their murder?

Kathryn Harrison collected many compelling anecdotes and enough vivid detail to tell a powerful and resonant story. Too bad she didn’t let that story stand on its own, unencumbered by her emotional baggage.

Kaitlin Bell lives and writes in Manhattan. She can be reached at books@observer.com.