While They Slept by Kathryn Harrison

While They Slept

by Kathryn Harrison

Published by Random House

290 pages, 2008






The View From Here

Reviewed by Diane Leach



Kathryn Harrison has spent her writing life parsing her difficult childhood. Born to unmarried teenage parents in 1962, the infant Kathryn was “ransomed,” as her mother put it, to her maternal grandparents. Her father was banished. Her mother, openly relieved at recovering her youthful freedom, moved into an apartment and spent little time with her daughter.  What time she did spend was fractious, critical and unkind. The appearance of Harrison’s father, when the author was 20, seemed a dream come true: the man adored her. In fact, he couldn’t keep his hands off her. The ensuing incestuous relationship shattered Harrison’s already fragile sense of self. Years later, she documented the episode in her infamous memoir, The Kiss

The Kiss was followed by the essay collection Seeking Rapture and the wrenching The Mother Knot. In each, Harrison uses her elegant prose style like a scalpel, prising apart the layers of damage in an effort -- seemingly largely successful -- to heal herself.  Now happily married to writer Colin Harrison and a devoted mother of three, Harrison has not outrun her demons as much as recognized their destructive capabilities, arming herself for their periodic onslaughts. Yet she retains a grim fascination with dysfunction, murder, trauma. How do people survive? Or not? It is this overarching interest that leads her to the Gilley family.


On April 27th, 1984, 18-year old Billy Gilley, Jr. killed his parents and eleven-year-old sister with a baseball bat. He then went upstairs to his 16-year-old sister, Jody, who sat petrified in bed. “We’re free,” he said. Free of their abusive parents, Linda and Billy, Sr. Free of the beatings, the alcoholism, the random punishments. Billy wanted to take Jody away. Where precisely was unclear; just away. 

After a gruesome public trial, Billy was given three consecutive life sentences. He remains imprisoned in Oregon. It was determined that Jody had no involvement in the murders. She went on to attend Georgetown, becoming a freelance writer.  

Harrison is fascinated by the case itself, by the parallels she sees in her own destructive family, and by Jody’s survival and recovery. How, she wants to know, did Jody become a functioning adult, as she, Harrison, largely is? She e-mails Jody, writing:

I’m trying to understand your story. To get some kind of hold on what happened to you, and how it is that you continued in your life, when that life was violently interrupted and had to be begun again. There must be many of us whose lives have been divided into a before and after, with an accident, a death, a crime, a crisis, some moment or year or relationship that came between and changed everything. I want to see how your life moved forward from that point of division.

The premise is a fascinating one, less concerned with why it happened -- though this is explained in depth -- than the how of recovery. In another e-mail, Harrison asks Jody:

Are people like us left with parts of our own psyches walled off, removed from our ability to access them? And are those parts alive? Or are they dead?


Both Gilleys agreed to meet with Harrison.  The book moves between their wildly diverging viewpoints of a horrible home situation. What can be discerned is a history of violence. Their maternal grandmother, Phyllis Tallerico, was institutionalized for seven years after killing her husband for cheating. Fraternal grandparent William Gilley was a raging alcoholic and wife beater until the night he tried crossing a freeway to reach the liquor store. A truck ran over him; he lost both legs. His death remains a mystery: while out fishing from his wheelchair, he was either pushed off the pier by a thief or rolled himself into the water. 

When the teenaged Linda Higdon and Bill Gilley meet, both are high school dropouts with minimal prospects. Their Las Vegas wedding must be postponed until Bill finishes serving a DUI sentence. The early years of their marriage are impoverished. They work as seasonal fruit pickers, often living in their car. Bill is fortunate enough to learn tree trimming between bouts of drinking, and the young couple manage to find a tiny home in Medford, Oregon. There begins the endless cycle of punishments, beatings, and verbal abuse marking Jody and Billy’s childhoods. 

Bill, Sr. put his son to work in the family tree-trimming business at age nine. This gives Bill ample opportunity to abuse his son physically and verbally. The child is subjected to dangerous conditions, often sent up trees without proper safety equipment. Sometimes his father “forgets” and leaves Billy stranded in trees for hours. The child is frequently hurt while working and sustains numerous head injuries, leading to a highly contested case of organic brain damage. By nine years of age, Billy is a deeply troubled child.

Jody is subject largely to Linda’s discipline, given heavy housework and a series of punishments for invented misdeeds.  A bookish, highly intelligent girl, Jody escapes, whenever possible, to her attic bedroom, where she reads insatiably. Both parents mock this habit endlessly. Fortunately, Jody is undeterred. In the end, books are what save her.


Harrison recounts the Gilley family history meticulously, drawing ever-lengthening timelines on graph paper, ending up with a ten-foot scroll of the Gilley family’s truncated lifeline. She carried this in a tube while traveling to Medford, where she finds the Gilley home (she is not allowed inside) and meets Billy in prison. Billy’s version of events is far different from Jody’s: he sees himself as her rescuer. He is unable to discuss why he killed Becky, his younger sister -- even when directly confronted, he changes the subject. (Becky had the misfortune of being in Billy’s way as he tried to kill Linda.) He has taught himself to read, earned an associate’s degree, and doesn’t understand why Jody has severed all contact with him. He dismisses her accounts of molestation -- their father did it, he says, not him. He comes across, if this is possible, as a pitiable monster, a person so deformed by early abuse that his later sociopathic behavior is inevitable.

After the murders, Jody lived with legal aid attorney Thad Guyer. It must be noted that Guyer, with his sports car collection and arrogant manner, comes across as every awful lawyer stereotype. Jody is his Eliza Doolittle, but he does indeed manage to help the wayward, angry teenager turn her trauma into something useful. She earns all A’s, attends Georgetown, and pens a final thesis titled “Death Faces” -- the story of the murder, told from her brother’s point of view. 

When Harrison meets Jody, who has taken the last name Arlington, she encounters a 37-year old woman who frames her experience via wide reading: Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Camus are among the authors brought up in their many conversations. Jody is poised and articulate on the subject of her family, yet tells Harrison she lives with a “self who is out of reach and unknowable.” The dead spot, an unreachable destination. But Arlington has made a peace with that.  Literature provided escape, education, a roadmap for how to live. Arlington is happily married but has decided against children. Alcoholics and murderers run in the family: what if she were to give birth to such a child?

Harrison is saddened by this, writing:

When I learn Jody has decided she will never have children, I can’t stop myself from reacting as a woman who understands motherhood as guarding her sanity and happiness ... I ask if she doesn’t imagine that raising her own child could assuage some of the loss she’s suffered.

But Jody is adamant. Her own sanity rests on a “carefully arranged reality.” In this highly structured place, there is no room for children.


It’s difficult to say whether ours is an increasingly violent society or we just have more media access to the various horrors taking place. A book like While They Slept sheds some light on how such violence occurs.  Alcoholism, poverty, lack of access to education, a failing social system -- all these contributed to the Gilley family tragedy. Yet Slept is curiously hopeful. If the Jody Arlingtons of the world are given help, they thrive. As for the Billys, they are an argument for early intervention from the many agencies Jody lists at the back of the book. In her words:

“Several organizations that help victims and prevent violence are mentioned in While They Slept.  Had any such resources been able to connect with my family, the deaths of my parents and sister might have been prevented. A portion of the proceeds of this book will go toward these groups ... I have included Head Start, because it is where I learned to read, among my most cherished early memories.” | June 2008


Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. She blogs at http://barkingkitten.blogspot.com. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.