Reader's Companion toShot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore
Anchor paperback, ISBN 0-385-47800-3, $14.00 US/ $18.95 CAN
Reader's Companion: ISBN: 0-385-47902-6, Copyright © 1995 by Anchor Books,
Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1540
Broadway, New York, NY 10036
1. Introduction to Shot in the Heart
2. Excerpts from an interview with Mikal Gilmore
3. Recommended Reading Selected by Mikal Gilmore
4. Questions for Discussion
Introduction to Shot in the Heart
Mikal Gilmore is the youngest brother of Gary Gilmore, executed at his own
urging for the murder of two innocent men. His execution by firing squad in
1977 was the first enactment of the death penalty in America in over a decade;
it became the first of many, inspiring a new enthusiasm, some believe, for
capital punishment in our country.
But the true story of Gary Gilmore lies in the story of his family, a painful
and difficult one that has taken Mikal Gilmore many years to face. In
researching his family's history, he searched through three hundred years of
ancestral records. Many of these records were provided by the extensive
archives of the Mormon Church, the history of which plays a fascinating role in
this haunting memoir. Mikal also tracked down lost family members, discovering
in the end a story even more troubling than his memories.
In an eloquent, mesmerizing voice, Mikal Gilmore guides us through generations
of his family's history to uncover the sources that led Gary Gilmore to murder,
and the crippling aftermath of Gary's deeds on his family. A vital and deeply
American story, Shot in the Heart raises many compelling issues of
concern in a country that grows ever more violent.
Excerpts from an interview with Mikal Gilmore
You've been a writer for twenty years. Why did you wait so long to write
about your family?
I simply was never able to face this story, much less write about it or examine
it. Shortly after Gary's execution I wrote an article for Rolling Stone
which served as a sort of temporary psychological exorcism. As a family, we had
been through so much hell--the experience of having the most private thing in
your life thrown to the top of the world and on the front page of newspapers
day after day after day, and in the worst sense imaginable. My brother Gary was
a man who had murdered two completely innocent men, terrible crimes that I
would imagine irreparably damaged two families; he was demanding his death, and
was on a public march to that death. It had become a sensational media frenzy.
Just knowing somebody you care about was going to die, then arguing with his
decision, losing him--it was all so devastating. For several years before
Gary's execution I had tried to put myself at a distance from my family. I felt
they were a bad-luck outfit and that my only hope of escape was to reject them.
That worked for a while. But families have a way of catching up with us, and
what happened to Gary and to all of us in 1977 caught up with me in a big way.
Later I tried again to escape my family. I told myself I didn't have to be
shaped by it, I didn't have to be known as Gary Gilmore's brother. I threw
myself into my work as a journalist. I tried to live my life as if I wasn't a
member of the same family. I tried to pretend I wasn't a part of their history.
I lost touch with Frank, my only living brother, for ten years after my mother
died. I didn't want to go down in the same mire I'd seen them all go down in. I
was emotionally devastated by a bad marriage, a couple of really disastrous
love affairs, projects started and never finished. At first I never associated
these problems with my family. But eventually I came to realize that some of
the same dark forces in Gary's life were in mine; we both had been shaped by a
longing for family, a longing that broke each of us but in different ways. I
began to see the patterns and realized that if I didn't figure out where I
learned these patterns, I would never be able to go on with my life in a
What do you hope to accomplish with Shot in the Heart?
I want to reinforce that the violence visited upon your children and the people
you love is the violence that in some sense never ends, and that we all pay for
it. This is why the world we live in is not a safe world: it is because the
violence in our homes has not only gone on too long, it has been too protected,
and it is still largely unexamined.
On a more personal level, I know that many people will see this as a book about
Gary Gilmore. I cannot control that, but I do not think that is what it is. I
think it is a book about the family that Gary Gilmore came from--a family not
as dissimilar to many families as many of us would like to believe. When we
look at violence in our society, and read the cover stories on all the weekly
news magazines, that is virtually all the violence that is talked about: the
violence of the dangerous streets, the violence of the stranger who will walk
into your life and rob you or shoot you or devastate you. Of course this is a
real concern and something to be frightened of. But where are all these
dangerous strangers coming from, why are they filling up our streets and making
our private lives so fearful? They are coming from somewhere and that somewhere
is our homes, where this violence was learned...
I want people to understand that murder very rarely occurs as a single solitary
response born of a moment. The seeds were sown long before, in the murderer's
family and environment, and in some ways we are all a part of it.
Questions for Discussion
1) Families often share private legacies and myths. The Gilmore children grew
up hearing family secrets and stories, from the abandonment of their father by
Houdini to the dramatic tale of a public hanging witnessed by their mother as a
young girl. Discuss the impact of these stories on the life of each parent, and
on the life of each of the four boys: Frank, Gary, Gaylen, and Mikal.
2) How did the Gilmore family deal with feelings of anger and pain? What
avenues of escape did individual members of the Gilmore family develop as a
means of coping?
3) Was this story fated? If so, why? What do you see as the various key turning
points in Gary's development from innocent child to cold-blooded murderer? What
were some possible actions or developments--or turns of fate--that could have
saved this family from its violent and tragic course?
4) Children often act out the unexpressed fears and desires of their parents.
Give examples of this from Shot in the Heart or from your own
5) What was the most significant difference between the family Mikal grew up
with and the one his brothers experienced?
6) Mormonism is the predominant religion originating in America, and is among
the fastest growing religions in the world. Is the Mormon religion
quintessentially American? If so, why?
7) As a system of beliefs, religion can have the dramatic ability to shape our
perceptions of the world. What impact can religious differences have on a
marriage? How were these differences handled between Mikal's Catholic father
and his Mormon mother?
8) Gary Gilmore was first incarcerated at age fourteen. What was the impact of
reform school on Gary? On Gaylen? Are reform schools substantially different
today than they were in the 1950s? Discuss the advisabililty of incarcerating
youthful offenders. Is getting tough on young criminals a deterrent to crime or
a further conditioning agent to crime?
9) Frank and Gary Gilmore were only a year apart in age yet Gary spent most of
his life in prison and became a vicious murderer, while Frank went to prison as
a conscientious objector who refused to even pick up a gun. Why do you think
this was so?
10) How has juvenile deliquency evolved in our society since the 1950s? How has
the criminal justice system adjusted to this evolution?
11) Is there a difference between rural violence and urban violence? Which one
would you expect to be more violent, and why?
12) We traditionally think of the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. Is it
possible that capital punishment was an incentive for Gary Gilmore to
13) What impact does the media coverage of crime have on society?
14) What rights of privacy do families possess when it comes to child rearing
methods? What forms of abuse require intervention, and at what point is
intervention by outsiders (teachers, neighbors, counselors) acceptable and even
15) What are acceptable methods of punishing children? What do you know about
child-rearing practices in other cultures?
16) Who is to blame when an individual commits an act of violence? The
individual? The family? Society? How do we allocate responsibility?
Recommended Reading Selected by Mikal Gilmore
Coles, Robert. The Moral Life of Children
Lowry, Beverly. Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir
Miedzian, Myriam. Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link between Masculinity
Prejean, Helen, C.S.J. Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the
Death Penalty in the United States
Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers
Wolfe, Geoffrey. The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father
Wolff, Tobias. This Boy's Life: A Memoir