While They Slept: Book summary and reviews of While They Slept by Kathryn Harrison

While They Slept

An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family

by Kathryn Harrison

While They Slept
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  • Published in USA  Jun 2008
    304 pages
    Genre: True Crime

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Book Summary

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? The Gilley family murders ended a lifetime of physical and mental abuse suffered by Billy and Jody at the hands of their parents. And it required each of the two survivors – one a convicted murderer, the other suddenly an orphan – to create a new identity, a new life.

In this mesmerizing book, bestselling writer Kathryn Harrison brilliantly uncovers the true story behind a shocking and unforgettable crime as she explores the impact of escalating violence and emotional abuse visited on the children of a deeply troubled family. With an artistry that recalls Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, and her own The Kiss, Harrison reveals the antecedents of the murders–of a crime of such violence that it had the power to sever past from present–and the consequences for Billy and for Jody. Weaving in meditations on her own experience of parental abuse, Harrison searches out answers to the question of how survivors of violent trauma shape a future when their lives have been divided into Before and After.

Based on interviews with Billy and Jody as well as with friends, police, and social workers involved in the case, While They Slept is Kathryn Harrison’s unflinching inquiry into the dark heart of violence in an American family, and a personal quest to understand how young people go on after tragedy–to examine the extent as well as the limits of psychic resilience.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Novelist and memoirist Harrison attends admirably to detail .... But by bookending the account with musings on her incestuous relationship with her own father—already addressed in both her fiction and nonfiction—Harrison dilutes the power of the Gilleys' story." - Publishers Weekly.

"[R]eaders may balk at a tawdry tale more depressing than meaningful, populated by characters more pitiable than complex. Worthy enough, but nowhere near the level of such true-crime masterpieces as In Cold Blood." - Kirkus Reviews.

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Red

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Could not get past the first 8 pages - and flipped through them trying to hook onto something interesting. I give it a big, fat 0.

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Author Information

Kathryn Harrison Author Biography

Kathryn Harrison is the author of the novels Envy, Enchantments, The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure, and Thicker Than Water. She has also written the memoirs The Kiss and The Mother Knot; a travel memoir, The Road to Santiago; a biography, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux; and a collection of essays, Seeking Rapture.

Ms. Harrison is a frequent reviewer for the New York Times Book Review; her essays, which have been included in many anthologies, have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Vogue, O magazine, Salon, and other publications.

She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their children.

Link to Kathryn Harrison's Website

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