While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family
Here's an understatement: The Gilleys were a troubled family.
Linda Gilley was a depressed, overly religious woman who loved
declaring punishment for her three children. Her husband, Bill
Gilley, Sr., was only too happy to administer it on his wife's
behalf. That way, it was no one's fault. Linda never watched Bill
punish the children so she had no way of knowing how bad it could
get, and it was never Bill's idea to abuse the children; he was
only following his wife's instructions.
Their oldest child, Billy, was a sponge for trouble and pain. A
chronic liar and manipulator, he was always in trouble at school,
suffering from an undiagnosed learning disability. The Gilleys
didn't really need a reason to beat Billy, which they did,
severely, several times a week. They found a house with a barn
where Bill could lash Billy to a tractor tire so he couldn't squirm
so much. After 18 years as the family punching bag, Billy fought
back. One night he beat his parents to death with a baseball bat,
also killing his youngest sister, 11-year-old Becky, when she got
in his way.
However, it's the middle child, Jody, who draws Kathryn Harrison's
attention. Against all odds, Jody is a survivor. A college-educated
professional today, Jody survived her terrible parents' idea of
discipline and her brother's idealization, which was nearly as
dangerous. Billy loved Jody and wanted to marry her, although Billy
now denies the implicit incest. After Jody and Billy were orphaned,
he went to jail and she endured all the speculation that she had to
have known what he was going to do, maybe even helped him. How did
Jody survive? How did she shake off dysfunction and tragedy to
become a woman no one would suspect of carrying around such a
The author draws her narrative from interviews with both Jody and
Billy, as well as discussions with friends, police and social
workers. It's fascinating to compare Jody's memories with Billy's.
Unsurprisingly, they do not have a relationship today, and working
through their experiences on their own has solidified their
differences. In addition to denying he ever had sexual intentions
toward Jody, Billy also claims that Jody suggested killing their
parents and knew he was going to do it. Along with a reputation for
dishonesty well documented by numerous teachers and social workers,
Billy has a motive to lie. His crimes seem a little less horrible
if he can picture himself as a white knight, rescuing his complicit
sister from a lifetime of abuse with only the purest of
The Gilleys receive nuanced, thoughtful descriptions. Bill is
violent and unfaithful, a lazy, alcoholic sadist with virtually no
redeeming characteristics, but the plight of his own childhood
gives him another dimension. Little Becky is an innocent victim but
was so like their mother, you can see why Billy couldn't stop
himself from killing her as well. Jody is brave and intelligent,
but there's something about her lack of affect that people can't
quite credit to shock alone.
Kathryn Harrison is exactly the right person to write this book.
She understands that in some people's lives, there is a moment
after which things will never be the same. Readers of WHILE THEY
SLEPT should also pick up Harrison's memoir, THE KISS, to fully
understand why Jody trusts Harrison to tell her story.
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn (CQuinn9368@yahoo.com) on January 24, 2011