WHILE THEY SLEPT: AN INQUIRY INTO THE MURDER OF A FAMILY, by Kathryn Harrison, Random House, 291 pages, $25
Kathryn Harrison, a prolific author of both fiction and nonfiction, has written a true crime story with a powerful message: The consequences of child abuse are inescapable.
After the manner of Truman Capote's classic work, "In Cold Blood," she traces the events of a family murder as gleaned from documents and interviews with remaining family members, friends, police and social workers in Jackson County, Ore.
The basic facts are as follows: On April 27, 1984, 18-year-old Billy Gilley Jr. took a baseball bat and beat his sleeping parents to death. When his 11-year-old sister, Becky, caught him in the act, he killed her, too. Finally, he went upstairs to his 16-year-old sister, Jody, and told her, "We're free!"
He suggested she get dressed so they could run off together.
Later, a jury found Billy guilty of three counts of aggravated murder and he was given three consecutive life sentences. His sister, Jody, was the prosecution's sole material witness.
In her copious research, Harrison spoke at length with Billy in prison and Jody, who has tried to pick up her life and move on. Ironically, although Billy thought Jody felt the same way about their parents as he did, she tells an entirely different story. She remains shocked and horrified at what her brother did.
Harrison clearly convinces the reader that the children of the Gilley family were seriously abused by their parents and that Billy received the most serious abuse. The father often took his little son to a diving board, clutched him close to his body and jumped into the swimming pool, taking care to push young Billy as deep as he could.
The child was totally traumatized and grew up to hate his father.
As Harrison tells this story, she weaves into it her own frightening experiences with child abuse at the hands of her own father, who used her as his sexual object. Because she, too, was an abused child, she readily identified with the Gilley children.
Yet, she is careful throughout to stick to known facts and to deal with the different accounts. Harrison is a gifted writer who tells a story beautifully, even when it concerns what she sees as evil.
While Billy continually works out the horrible effects of his act in the walls of a prison, Jody, now 37, and educated at Georgetown University, is a communications strategist who has had several high-powered jobs. In the process, Harrison concludes, she has "either buried or silenced or lost the girl she was."This excellent book will be devoured by educators who try to come to grips with the lasting effects of the traumas of childhood.