While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family
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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.
her, her family, her hometown. Compulsively, I organize information into outlines and, especially, timelines. Between April 2005 and February 2006, I make five timelines of the Gilley family’s history. Each begins, roughly, with the 1963 marriage of Bill and Linda and continues on into the present. Each is bisected, cut in two by a red line running through the night of April 27, 1984. Before. After. The first timeline is about five feet long, made from a roll of white drawing paper. I bring it
first aid kit on the site, no other worker to administer it. “If my dad actually saw whatever it was,” Billy says when I ask about his getting hurt, “he’d sorta sneer and ask, ‘You don’t need a Band-Aid, do you?’ in this real sarcastic way.” Billy leans forward over the table between us to show me a scar on his wrist. “It’s from a chain saw,” he explains, and he tells me he got it when working alongside an untrained hire who cut a branch improperly so that it broke and hit the still-running saw,
unconscious, but Billy acted like it was just a normal part of his job. It appeared to me that in his father’s mind it was. “I kept expecting to hear one day that Billy got killed while working for his father,” Linebaugh concluded his affidavit. “When I heard that Billy had killed his father, it didn’t surprise me at all. I remember thinking it was self-defense.” Thad shrugs off the idea that Billy may have suffered brain damage at the hands of his father. His response to Billy’s appeal aligns
predicament, as he never would again. He’d been mistreated and threatened and had committed a crime the magnitude of which confused him to the point that he couldn’t understand himself. “Law enforcement officers got stuck on the fact that Billy killed his little sister,” Connie Skillman tells me. “That ruined his chances of a lesser sentence. It got around that he’d said he didn’t want Becky to grow up and be like his mother and it cemented the idea that he’d acted alone, without Jody’s
less abusive when the two of you were away from home? More?” “He ignored me,” Billy says. “Indifferent, that’s what he was. Like I wasn’t sitting there in the truck next to him. Away from my mom, away from her nagging and picking at him and stopping him doing what he wanted, he had less aggravations to take out. So he didn’t attack me. But it wasn’t like he suddenly decided he liked me. He was indifferent, that’s all.” Billy says the word for a third time, “Indifferent.” The expression on his