three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-While They SleptA self-professed fan of true crime, author Kathryn Harrison explores a shocking murder spree and its long-term effects. Harrison has her own dark past: she embarked on an incestuous affair with her estranged father at the age of 20, as detailed in her memoir, The Kiss.

The Topic: In the early morning hours of April 27, 1984, 18-year-old Billy Gilley, a high school dropout, grabbed a baseball bat and clubbed his abusive parents and youngest sister to death in their home in Medford, Oregon. He found his surviving sister, 16-year-old Jody, cowering in her bedroom. He drove her to a friend’s house, where she secretly called the police. Jody, who may or may not have initially approved of the murders, eventually testified for the prosecution at her brother’s trial. Harrison attempts to make sense of the murders: she describes sadistic physical abuse in a family plagued by alcoholism and poverty, and she explores the years that preceded and followed the crime. Billy is currently serving a life sentence, and Jody graduated from Georgetown University to pursue a successful career as a communications strategist. But the scars of those events still remain.
Random House. 304 pages. $25. ISBN: 1400065429

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Partly a reconstruction of the night of the crime, within its compass is also a lay person’s psychobiography of the siblings as Harrison searches out an explanation for the murders in family history and tries to parse differences between Jody’s and Billy’s accounts where they diverge. … Where there are discrepancies in the record, or the recollection of the siblings are not in accord, or Harrison doubts an assertion (mostly one of Billy’s), she outlines her reasoning when presenting a conclusion, lending a helpful transparency to what she relates." Art Winslow

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Harrison does embellish, does take license in bringing us this tale. … And the result of Harrison’s masterful embellishment is a fascinating and comprehensive examination of the before and after of a brutal triple murder, of the cyclical nature of violence and of the tragic ineffectiveness of our social support systems." Tara Ison

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Initial trepidation about whether Kathryn Harrison is using the tale of convicted murderer Billy Gilley and his surviving sister, Jody Arlington, to rehash her own tragic story is quickly replaced by a certain realization: Harrison’s history as a survivor makes her the perfect person to write While They Slept." Carol Memmott

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 2 of 5 Stars
"I expect that While They Slept will divide readers into two groups: those who hail the book as an insightful look inside some troubled souls; and those who want to grab Harrison by the collar and shout, ‘Enough already!’" Harry Levins

San Francisco Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"But as Jody recounts her struggles, Harrison’s presence in the book becomes obtrusive and, finally, irritating. … Harrison, constantly comparing herself to Jody, comes perilously close to resembling the actress in the old joke who, after recounting her triumphs to a listener, says, ‘But enough about me, dear. Let’s talk about you. What did you think of me in Private Lives?’" Reagan Upshaw

Boston Globe 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Almost as soon as the story is begun, Harrison repeatedly inserts herself and her own history inappropriately, second-guessing Jody and antagonizing other interview subjects, often to the point of absurdity. … Her blanket disregard for others’ conclusions comes across as pigheaded and narcissistic." Clea Simon

Critical Summary

Kathryn Harrison has clearly done her research. She gained the trust of both Billy and Jody, which resulted in multiple interviews and access to their personal papers. The narrative fairly buzzes with warmth and concern for the siblings. However, some critics, deeming it intrusive and pompous, took issue with Harrison’s frequent habit of inserting her own painful past into the story. Others believed her suffering adds depth and authenticity to the narrative. Hailed as "a heartbreaking read" by the Rocky Mountain News, While They Slept is a serious study "of what it is to salvage one’s soul after a massively destructive wound" (New York Times).

Also by the Author

A-The KissThe Kiss A Memoir (1999): In this heartrending and disturbing memoir, Kathryn Harrison narrates her slow descent into hell during a four-year sexual affair with her father.