Critical Mass

Preview 2008: Kathryn Harrison’s “While They Slept”


The following is excerpted from “While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family” by NBCC member and Balakian award finalist Kathryn Harrison, to be published by Random House in June 2008. “It's nonfiction, a sort of hybrid in that it is 'true crime' and memoir, as it follows my fixation on a particular crime that took place in Oregon, in 1984,” Harrison tells us. 

I learn about the Gilley family murders ten years before I contact Jody Gilley. A friend of mine tells me about the case. She doesn't say much, only that Jody's brother killed the rest of their family while they were sleeping; that he did it because he loved Jody and hoped or believed or maybe just wished that afterward the two of them would run away together–to Reno, Nevada, my friend thinks it was. They were going to take the family car, leave their childhood home, and never return. 

That's all my friend says, that's all she knows, and for ten years I ponder those few things: the murders, the crazy brother, the failed escape. I forget them sometimes, but never for long, and over time the story of the Gilley family, the little I know about it, resolves into what's more of a picture than an unfolding drama. I never embellish the scene. I don't know how, or I can't. The magnitude of the crime, of a tragedy that belongs to other people, not to me, makes it sacrosanct; it prevents me from taking license with what I've been told. Instead, my preoccupation wears it down to an essence, just as years of handling might erase details from the profile on a coin. I don't have a face for the boy or the girl. I don't see the house or the bodies within, the blood. All I see is the lateness of the hour and the silhouetted heads of two teenagers in a car, leaving the dead behind

Sometimes I imagine headlights shining into the dark in front of them, but the two beams reveal only blackness. I-they-can't see what's ahead. What I have is just the barest idea, like a single frame taken from a film, of two teenagers–children, really, sixteen, eighteen–driving away into the night. Driving away from what most people consider impossible, an impossibly violent crime. And one that is, of course, not possible to leave behind. 

Is the scene sexual? It feels that way. Not overtly, but even if the brother and sister aren't lovers, even if one never touches the other, still, when I linger at this scene, one assembled from fragments of another woman's past–alleged fragments at that, gossip, unsubstantiated–when I linger, I find it has a forbidden, sexual charge. Because my friend used the word love? Because she said that's why Jody's brother did it, out of his love for her? 

Yes. Because love, murder, and running away together do imply sex. They do suggest an illicit erotic fixation.