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An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family

Written by Kathryn HarrisonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kathryn Harrison


List Price: $7.99


On Sale: June 10, 2008
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-58836-715-0
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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true crime (12) non-fiction (7) crime (6) murder (4)
true crime (12) non-fiction (7) crime (6) murder (4)


Early on an April morning, eighteen-year-old Billy Frank Gilley, Jr., killed his sleeping parents. Surprised in the act by his younger sister, Becky, he turned on her as well. Billy then climbed the stairs to the bedroom of his other sister, Jody, and said, “We’re free.” But is one ever free after an unredeemable act of violence? In this mesmerizing book–based on interviews with Billy and Jody as well as with friends, police, and social workers involved in the case–bestselling writer Kathryn Harrison brilliantly uncovers the true story behind this shocking crime and examines the extent as well as the limits of psychic resilience in the aftermath of tragedy.


On the morning of Thursday, April 26, 1984, Jody Gilley went to her neighbor Kathy Ackerson's before school. As was her habit, she went out the kitchen door and cut across the field that separated their two homes. Jody and Kathy had gotten to know each other the previous year, on the bus to and from Medford High, where they were now sophomores. They didn't socialize during the school day; Jody hung with a straighter crowd than Kathy, who by her own admission was something of a stoner. As Jody describes it, she and Kathy weren't best friends, but they liked each other and were frequently in each other's homes. "My next-field neighbor," they called each other. It wasn't unusual for Jody to finish getting dressed over at Kathy's.  

"Because you wanted to wear something your mother didn't approve of?" I ask Jody.  

"No, the dressing-sexy-for-school thing happened much earlier, in fifth or sixth grade. By tenth grade it was all about looking punk. Ratting my hair, applying dark eye makeup, piercing my ears with safety pins. And all of that happened at school, in the girls' bathroom. At Kathy's it was just, you know, getting ready for school together. Me probably using the Mary Kay makeup she had because her mom sold it, whereas my makeup was bottom-drawer Fred Meyer lip gloss and Maybelline. Also, I was curling-iron challenged, and Kathy could get that perfect eighties feather in a way I couldn't."  

I nod. Long, auburn, glossy: Jody's hair is the first thing I notice about her. The way she gathers it into one hand and pulls it forward in a thick rope over one shoulder-the image stays with me after our first meeting, I'm not sure why. Perhaps because it's a pretty gesture. Jody herself is pretty, with a heart-shaped face and hazel eyes, not much if any makeup. Dressed in dark pants and a denim jacket, high heels. When she talks, all the emphasis is in her voice. She speaks without using her hands, as I was taught, unsuccessfully, to do.  

Nothing about Jody's appearance surprises me-I didn't, after all, have any idea what she looked like-but her physical presence is itself unsettling. The Jody I know is sixteen, a girl in a car with her brother, the two of them motionless. Petrified, as if the murders had been, like the head of a Gorgon, a sight that turned them to stone. For ten years I've known Jody not as a woman but as a character, one among the many in my head, images taken from books and movies, not so much people as ideas of people, whom I expect never to encounter in the flesh.  

There was more to getting dressed at Kathy's than looking the way Jody wanted for school. It was easier in the house across the field. Kathy's parents weren't always fighting with each other or screaming at their children. Her mother didn't look for excuses to punish her daughter; she didn't throw things at Kathy or pin her down and blow cigarette smoke in her face just out of meanness. She didn't denigrate her children or act like reading was a waste of time, the way Jody's parents did. The fact that Jody spent so much of her life hidden behind the cover of a book was a source of conflict at home; her family understood her insatiable, nearly compulsive reading for what it was: escape, judgment. Jody would rather be anywhere than there, with them; she was just biding her time until she could walk out the door, old enough that the police wouldn't come after her and bring her back, as they did her brother when he ran away.  

Kathy had brothers, but they were younger than Billy, thirteen and fourteen, and they were good kids, normal anyway. They didn't cause the kind of trouble Billy did-didn't get kicked out of Bible camp for smoking in the woods, didn't get arrested for breaking into cars or setting people's living rooms on fire. They didn't sneak into Kathy's room at night to put their hands between her legs.  

After they got dressed that day, the girls rode the bus to Medford High, but, as Jody would tell Detective Richard Davis the morning after the murders, they never entered the building. "We went to Games People Play [a video arcade] for a while and then we went over to a guy's house. And we stayed there for a while and then we went to Pappy's and got potatoes and then we walked home."

Jody had skipped school before. According to Kathy Ackerson, interviewed in 1999 by a private investigator, Jody cared about her grades and made straight A's-"B's," Jody corrects-but she was sixteen years old, and it was hard to have to answer to someone every minute of every day. A few unstructured hours, safe from the strife at home and apart from the demands of her teachers, must have presented a significant temptation.  

"Mrs. Gilley was very controlling," Kathy explained to the private investigator dispatched by Billy's attorney for appeal. "Jody had to sneak around to do things she wanted to do," things most parents considered harmless. Not only did Jody have "more than her share of household chores . . . the laundry, the dishes, and the cooking," but while Jody worked, her friend remembered, Linda Gilley just "sat around and smoked cigarettes."  

The way Kathy saw it, "there was a war going on between Jody and her mother." She "never heard anyone in the Gilley family say 'I love you' . . . never heard either parent, Mr. or Mrs. Gilley, compliment or give positive strokes to any of the kids."  

That Thursday, after Kathy came home to discover the school had telephoned to report her absence, she called the Gilleys' house to see if Jody had gotten in trouble, and if so, how much. She knew Jody's brother was beaten severely when he disobeyed or was caught in a lie, and although Jody doesn't remember having been whipped the way Billy was, not by the time she was in high school, anyway, it was Kathy's impression that Jody suffered her share of physical abuse. She remembered bruises, she told the private investigator. Once, she thought she'd seen a cigarette burn.  

But when Kathy called the Gilleys' house, she didn't get to speak with her friend. Instead, Jody's mother, Linda, "answered the phone and said that Jody was grounded until she was eighteen and then slammed the phone down." For the rest of the evening the phone was busy-Kathy presumed it had been taken off the hook-and she didn't see Jody again until 1:34 the next morning.  

The idea of being grounded for two years wouldn't have struck the teenaged Jody as unlikely. The way things turned out, she was pretty much always in trouble, she tells me. Punishments overlapped; they were subject to her mother's capricious revisions. On any given occasion, whether Jody was actually grounded or not made little difference. If Linda didn't want her daughter to go out, she'd just say Jody hadn't done the dishes the right way, or had forgotten to dust the living room, or to pick up after Becky, or whatever else came to mind-it didn't matter what.  

With a few significant exceptions, Jody's memory of the afternoon of April 26 aligns with what her brother recounts for me when I visit him in prison the following fall, and with his sworn statement: the affidavit he prepared in 1996 for his appeal for a retrial. Billy, who had dropped out of school after the ninth grade, was home before Jody returned that day and overheard his mother making plans to trap her daughter in a lie. Having learned from the school's attendance officer that Jody hadn't shown up for class, Linda told the children's father that, as Billy stated in his affidavit, she "was going to pretend not to know about it, so she could catch Jody." Lest Billy try to warn his sister before Linda had a chance to deceive her, Linda "looked straight at [Billy] . . . and told [him] to keep [his] mouth shut."  

When Jody came walking up the road, Billy, who had been watching for the arrival of the school bus, went out to meet her. Linda was too quick, however, and passed him, heading toward the mailbox to make a show of looking inside, "as if to check for the mail" she'd already collected. With their mother hovering too close for them to exchange a word in private, Billy "was afraid to say anything."*  

"Why didn't you come home on the bus?" Linda asked Jody.  

"I got off at Kathy's and walked," Jody told her.  

The scene Billy describes played out just as his mother had scripted it. "Oh, really?" Linda asked Jody. "The school called to say you weren't in first or second period."  

Jody tells me she was ready with an answer. "Well, you know how they screw up sometimes," she said to her mother. "Because when I'm tardy they've already took the card down to the office."  

The three had reached the kitchen door when, Jody told Detective Davis, her brother, who was carrying his baseball bat, said he'd "like to bump [their parents] off with it . . . pound them in." Billy contends that it was Jody who mentioned physical retribution first, telling him under her breath that she'd "like to smash our mom's face in."  

Linda ordered Billy to stay outside, and he did, his affidavit continues, "but just for a little bit. When I got to the living room . . . I heard my mom telling Jody that she knew Jody had skipped all day." It was both children's impression that Linda was delighted to have caught her daughter in a lie on top of truancy. "Drooling," Billy says to me of his mother's eagerness to corner Jody, "foaming at the mouth."  

Then, as both Billy and Jody remember, Billy asked Jody a question. Was she all right?, he wanted to know. "Why don't you ask mom?" Jody said. "She has all the answers." At this, Jody told Detective Davis, her mother "got mad and slapped me for being cocky."  

"I did have a tendency to mouth off," she tells me.  

Even though the family wasn't alone-Glenn Riggs, who worked for Bill Sr., was present-Billy says their father stood up from where he was sitting on the couch, unbuckled his belt, and pulled it out from his pant loops. He started walking toward Jody, "yelling that he was going to beat her ass." That this transpired in front of his father's employee was something Billy found "especially galling," reported the psychiatrist who interviewed Billy two months after the murders.  

When Jody's father came at her with his belt, she protested that at sixteen she was too old to be thrashed, and Bill backed off, warning his daughter that she'd better not skip school again. Jody promised she wouldn't and asked her parents what her punishment would be, but Linda hadn't decided and sent Jody to her room. Interviewed later, for Billy's pre-sentencing report, Glenn Riggs characterized their interaction as "short-lived and not flagrant." Nonetheless, he was embarrassed to have witnessed the eruption of a domestic conflict, and he got up to go. Bill and Linda walked Riggs out, and Billy took his chance to run upstairs to Jody's room, the baseball bat still in his hand.  

"I asked her if she was all right," Billy said, and Jody told him she "hated our mom and dad and wished they were dead." It wasn't fair, she complained, that when Billy used to get into trouble, their parents would let him off with a warning the first time and punish him only if he repeated the offense, whereas they never gave her that second chance.  

As both Jody and Billy recall, Billy became extremely agitated at the suggestion that their parents had ever shown him any leniency whatsoever. He reminded Jody that on many occasions their father had taken him out to the barn and whipped him with a hose until his back was covered with welts and that she'd seen the "black and blue marks where [their] father had beat [him] with his fist."  

Describing the incident, Billy recalls that he and Jody continued speaking in this vein, comparing the histories of their punishments. It is at this point that their accounts diverge, over the subject of sexual abuse. Speaking with me, Billy doesn't waver even as much as a word from what he stated in his affidavit: Jody told him "the beatings were nothing compared with our dad molesting her," and she knew their father was "going to try it again."  

"Why did she think that?" Billy tells me he asked his sister, alarmed, and she confided in him that she "noticed our dad stares at her while touching his penis.  

"I told her that our mom wouldn't let that happen," and Jody said, "Mom didn't care what he did to her, that Mom had it out for her, and if Mom cared then our dad wouldn't still be living there."  

Jody, who reported her father's leering at her and his propositioning her, denies her father ever molested her. For Detective Davis she recounted a different, shorter dialogue between her and her brother, one that made no reference to any sexual impropriety on anyone's part. She told the detective that while Billy was talking-ranting, really-she "just sat there, and he [Billy] just said he'd like to get, he'd like to get rid of them."  

Detective Davis, who identified himself at Billy's trial as the one who "more or less directed" the investigation of the murders, interviewed Jody immediately after Billy was taken into custody and again ten hours later, pushing her to recall Billy's "exact words as best you can remember," in hopes of establishing that her brother had announced a clear intention to murder their parents that very night.  

But years of physical and emotional abuse had created a context from which it was difficult, perhaps impossible, for Jody to tease out an unambiguous threat. Both she and Billy had wished their parents dead. They'd said outright to each other that their parents were horrible, wicked people who deserved to die for the cruelties they'd visited upon their children. In what was a very human response to neglect, battery, and entrapment, each had fantasized aloud about how he or she might go about killing them. Kathy, who remembered Jody studying how to be a secret agent, said that Jody told her "she could make a miniature bomb and fantasized about blowing up her parents." Jody told Detective Davis that Billy had had the idea to "bash their heads in . . . rent a boat and tie rocks to their feet and throw them in a river."  

* The account Billy gives me in person is nearly identical to that in his affidavit, prepared twelve years after the murders. Unless otherwise attributed, Billy's quoted dialogue is taken directly from the affidavit.

From the Hardcover edition.
Kathryn Harrison

About Kathryn Harrison

Kathryn Harrison - While They Slept

Photo © Joyce Ravid

Kathryn Harrison is the author of the memoirs The Kiss and The Mother Knot. She has also written the novels Envy, The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure, and Thicker Than Water; a travel memoir, The Road to Santiago; a biography, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux; and a collection of essays, Seeking Rapture. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their children.


“[Harrison’s] telling brings moral clarity to the dark fate of a family: the daylight gaze of narrative itself as a form of empathy.”—New York Times Book Review

“A tale at once gothic and Greek, Freudian and Shakespearean, taboo and tragic.”—Washington Post Book World

“Magnificent . . . a darkly poignant study of survival.”—USA Today

“Masterful . . . 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.”—Los Angeles Times

“Lucid, psychologically probing and disturbing…[While they Slept is] a morally nuanced story, and a culmination of Harrison’s favored themes: sex, family and power.”—Time Out New York

“You can count on Harrison for white-water prose and ferocious candor…Harrison’s intense and resonant inquiry affirms the cathartic power of the story, and reflects on the miraculous cycle of loss and death.”—Booklist

  • While They Slept by Kathryn Harrison
  • November 24, 2009
  • True Crime
  • Ballantine Books
  • $7.99
  • 9780345516602

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