WHILE THEY SLEPT by Kathryn Harrison


An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family
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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 than meaningful, populated by characters more pitiable than complex.

Worthy enough, but nowhere near the level of such true-crime masterpieces as In Cold Blood.

Pub Date: June 17th, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6542-4
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2008


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