Twenty-six years ago, 18-year-old Billy Frank Gilley Jr., murdered his sleeping parents and his younger sister Becky, who surprised him in the act. He then found his other sister, Jody, in her bedroom and told her "We're free." Billy's motivation? Years and years of physical and emotional abuse by his parents.
In her book "While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family," author Kathryn Harrison paints a detailed picture of the Gilley family murders, built on interviews with Jody (Gilley) Arlington and her brother, Billy Frank Gilley Jr.
Drawing upon her own background of familial abuse (Harrison was sexually abused by her father over the course of four years), the author offers insight into how survivors work through their tragedies to forge new lives.
Read an Excerpt from "While They Slept" below:
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.