While They Slept

Chosen as a Notable Book of 2008 by The New York Times Book Review


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.


“The violations that destroy human lives, or maim them, seem to demand telling. Possibly we seek such stories as ways to understand our smaller, more ordinary losses and griefs….[WHILE THEY SLEPT] 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 Book Review (front page)

“You can count on Harrison for white-water prose and ferocious candor. In her daring variation on In Cold Blood, Harrison takes us to an isolated house in Oregon where, in 1984, 18-year-old Billy Gilley beat his parents and 11-year-old sister, Becky, to death with a baseball bat. He then informed his terrified 16-yearold sister, Jody, that they were finally free from their parents’ abuse: the Gilley household had been a veritable theater of horrors. Harrison, who survived her own shocking “point of rupture,” an incestuous affair with her father (recounted in The Kiss, 1997), revisits the heart-wrenching Gilley case in a quest to understand its “before and after.” While incisively analyzing her tricky conversations with Billy—who writes children’s fantasies (he didn’t mean to kill Becky) while serving three consecutive life sentences—and with Jody, a successful communications strategist, Harrison painstakingly chronicles their legacy of violence, how society failed Billy at every turn, and how as a girl-in-peril Jody found strength and guidance in books. Reaching more deeply, she looks to Greek myths for keys to the grim mysteries of incest and patricide. Harrison’s intense and resonant inquiry affirms the cathartic power of story, and reflects on the miraculous cycle of loss and rebirth.”—Booklist

“While They Slept is a masterful psychological study of the reach and consequences of brutality. It is harrowing, beautifully rendered, and unforgettable: a ‘blood-soaked fairy tale’ that stays in one’s mind and alters one’s assumptions about human nature.”—Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind

“A brilliantly wise moral, psychological, social narrative: a skilled writer doing relentlessly insistent and savvy documentary work, and drawing on her own life, even as she takes careful retrospective watch of not only particular parents, their children, but the world around them. This book earns a connection, in subject matter and manner of presentation, to Freud’s appreciative tribute to Dostoevsky’s fiction in the essay ‘Dostoevsky and Parricide.’”—Dr. Robert Coles, author of The Spiritual Life of Children

“Kathryn Harrison goes where other writers dare not. In While They Slept, An Inquiry into the Murder of Family, she transcends genres, focusing on the results of an unthinkable killing–how survivors manage to go on–rather than sticking with the grim details of the act itself. An absorbing, heartfelt and meticulously considered book.”—Beverly Lowry, author of Crossed Over

“An absolutely riveting read, While They Slept is as much a meditation on the implications [or lingering impact] of a brutal domestic murder as it is a depiction of the grisly facts that led up to it. Instead of passing judgment, Harrison provides disturbing insight into the nature of physical and psychological abuse, deftly weaving her personal narrative into a story that, on the surface, bears little similarity to her own. Her effort to comprehend the surviving family members – a brother and sister, one who is behind bars the other who has been “freed” by the killings to forge a better life for herself – is both poignant and persuasive. There is more about trauma, recovery, and the unrecoverable in this genre-breaking ale of true crime than there is in a shelfload of books on the subject.”—Daphne Merkin, author of Dreaming of Hitler

“In this brilliant work, Kathryn Harrison brings a literary sensibility to her “inquiry” into a story of bloody family violence. It is the tale of teenaged Billy Gilley, who beat his parents and his little sister to death with a baseball bat, sparing only his older sister. What is so remarkable about this book is the way in which Harrison weaves the disconcerting memories of her own incestuous father/daughter relationship into the unfolding stories told by Billy and his one surviving sibling, Jody. This book contains some fascinating reflections upon the nature of trauma – particularly, Kathryn’s and Jody’s – and describes the slow, difficult reassembling of the self that must take place in its wake. While They Slept is riveting, and unlike any book that I have ever read.”—Maggie Scarf, author of Secrets, Lies, Betrayals

“Quite simply, the most important book about the consequences of child abuse ever written. In unraveling the reasons why Billy Gilley brutally murdered his parents and sister, using court documents, interviews with Gilley and his surviving sister Jody, their accounts of that fateful night, Harrison, with empathy and an acuity born of her own experience, probes the chilling heart of what so often goes unrecognized: the terrifying, hopeless, tragic isolation of the battered child while she rethinks the consequences of her own past — and invites us to examine our own.” —Louise DeSalvo, author of Writing as a Way of Healing

From The New York Times Book Review June 8, 2008 Front Page: Speaking The Unspeakable By Robert Pinsky

The violations that destroy human lives, or maim them, seem to demand telling. Possibly we seek such stories as ways to understand our smaller, more ordinary losses and griefs. mythology and literature (and their descendant, the Freudian talk- ing cure) manifest a profound hunger for narrat- ing what is called, paradoxically, the unspeakable. Raped, her tongue torn out, Philomela becomes the nightingale, singing the perpetrator’s guilt. When oedipus appears with bleeding eye-sockets, the tragic chorus simultaneously narrates and says it cannot speak; it looks while saying it must look away:

What madness came upon you, what daemon Leaped on your life with heavier Punishment than a mortal man can bear? No: I cannot even Look at you, poor ruined one. And I would speak, question, ponder, If I were able. No. You make me shudder.

In the “Inferno” of dante, Count ugolino, forced to cannibalize his children’s corpses, is led to nar- rate the horror by dante’s offer to retell the story up in the world above. genesis 19 not only tells the story of incest between lot and his daughters, but proceeds to name their offspring: moab and Ben-ammi, and the moabites and ammonites descended from them. abel’s blood “cries out” with its story, and the fratricide Cain is marked.

“Therapeutic” is too mild and cool a word for the telling that rises from such drastic extremes as incest, parricide, fratricide: something like “reconstructive” — as in post-traumatic facial surgery — might be more accurate for such narrative. An eerie, immediate impulse in the direction of storytelling characterizes the thoughts of the terri- fied 16-year-old Jody Gilley in her upstairs bedroom one night in Medford, Ore., in 1984. Jody is aware that her brother Billy has just clubbed their parents and their younger sister to death with an aluminum baseball bat (though the 11-year-old sister is still breathing).

Years later, Jody tells Kathryn Harrison what she was thinking at that moment: “She tells me she remembers knowing what she knew, and telling herself it was happening in a book. How many books had she read in which terrible things happened, the situation appeared hopeless, the hero- ine doomed, when somehow, against all odds, she was saved? Now, Jody told her- self, she was a character in a book, she was the girl for whom things looked bad — very bad — but turned out all right. In the end, they always did turn out. … How did she escape? Jody asked herself. Did the heroine jump out the window?”

These sentences unfold with an ab- sence of emphasis that is essential to the meaning of their stories within stories: Harrison’s narrative of a grown woman’s narrative of this long-ago moment of a desperate turn toward certain narratives she had read. The unadorned quality is not just stylistic — not the eloquence of understatement, but the psychological truth of flatness.

That flatness of tone expresses the na- ture of a life that has been fractured into a before and an after. Jody Gilley is in many ways, strikingly, a survivor: married, with a sophisticated job as a “communications strategist” for nonprofits like the Ken- nedy Center and the Sundance Institute. In the term she uses with some irony, Jody has “jumped class.” But survival is partial, a conviction shared by the author and subject. Jody Gilley’s agreement to co-operate with Harrison’s research is based on Harrison’s experience (recount- ed in her earlier book “The Kiss”) of pro- longed incestuous violation by her father: knowledge, in other words, of what it is to salvage one’s soul after a massively de- structive wound.

The narrative of survival may have qualities that alienate and bewilder other people:

“People who cross the threshold be- tween the known world and that place where the impossible does happen discov- er the problem of how to convey their ex- perience. Some of us don’t talk about mur- ders or intergenerational sex within our families. We find words inadequate, or we lose them entirely. Those of us who insist on speaking what’s often called unspeakable discover there’s no tone reserved for unnatural disasters, and so we don’t use any. We’re flat-affect; we report just the facts; this alienates our audience.”

Telling, it appears, does not always evoke or dramatize emotion; sometimes, at some extremes, it replaces it. The books Jody Gilley has read, the fictional worlds she resorts to at that mo- ment of terrifying rupture, are “cheesy romances.” Jody’s mother, Linda, a fre- quenter of flea markets and a hoarder, bought them when Jody was 12 or 13. A rigid Baptist, a devoted member of the Harvest Baptist Temple, the sentencer of children to beatings administered by her husband, Bill, Linda wouldn’t have allowed the books if she had known what was in them. Interviewing Jody many years later, when she is a reader of Primo Levi and Albert Camus, Harrison is sur- prised to discover the reasons a bright teenager would be interested in those corny, formulaic stories: Jody describes them as “learning tools”: “I wanted them for all the information I could get out of them!” she tells Harrison:

“ ‘Like what?’ I press, skeptical. “

‘Like the Bosporus being the name of the strait between Europe and Asia,’ she gives as her first example. ‘What it means to have high tea in London, England,’ is the second. … Harlequins contained the kind of information Jody might have chosen to get from an encyclopedia, if she’d had one at home, and, she points out, they showed her ‘how “normal” people behaved and treated each other.’ ”

This story of the books, sources for a kind of Minimum Nutritional Value in the form of facts and glimpses of normal life, is moving in itself.

In a way, the most upsetting story in the book is the too-familiar tale of failed agencies and inadequate professional care- takers. When Billy Gilley is 13, stealing cig- arettes leads him to the Children’s Services Division, where the boy trustingly told a social worker about his family: the drink- ing, fighting, extreme verbal abuse in a family where customarily, after sentencing by his mother, his father would tie him to a tractor tire in order to immobilize him for beating with a rubber hose. He described for the social worker how his parents were, in Billy’s terms, “crazy and unfit.”

The child told his story, and the social worker’s response was to repeat it to those abusive parents. Furious, they de- manded to speak with him in private, so that he recanted and said he had been lying. The parents threatened to sue the agency, which fired the social worker and destroyed the record of her conversation with Billy, leaving only the annotation that the child was a liar. Jody’s parallel attempt to appeal for some kind of intervention, at school, was similarly useless.

At the age of 6 or 7, in an act of imagina- tion that foreshadowed her achievement of surviving, Jody Gilley created families of ghosts she would speak with, in the trees near where she lived. Harrison sug- gests that these ghosts — creatures who are dead, yet persist — were a way for the child to mourn for herself, or for the lost selves and family that might have existed. Jody’s senior project at Georgetown, a telling of her family’s terrible story (use- ful to Harrison, who quotes it), is in this way another version of that childhood in- vention. The ghost story is a matter not only of fear, but of a survivor’s necessary action of mourning.

At least equally sad is the information that Billy Gilley — now a convict in his 40s, with no contact between him and his sister, laboring at legal pleas based on his incompetent defense, and on the concept of “victim-offender,” virtually unknown at the time of his trial — writes stories. Having acquired literacy skills in prison, he writes and illustrates children’s books. In these books, large-eyed animals play an important role: children are in trouble or distress, and human adults can- not understand or help. The animals un- derstand the children, and bring them to safety.

Like Jody Gilley’s example of the Bos- porus — a strait connecting two separate masses — her brother’s vision, of the deso- late rescued by the mute, suggests the un- speakable isolation of ruptured lives, and the reparative need to speak of that isola- tion, 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.