I have no idea why I picked up While they Slept, by Kathryn Harrison. While I have done my time with Capote and Bugliosi, I do not consider myself actual fan of the True Crime genre. You know, unless Dominick Dunne was writing about it in Vanity Fair.
However. In 1984, an 18-year old boy in Oregon beat his father, mother and 11-year old sister to death with a baseball bat. The parents were asleep; the little sister interrupted. His 16-year old sister, Jody, was in the house at the time. It was a horribly abusive environment where the system failed the kids a hundred times. Mostly, this is Jody’s story.
I say “mostly” because Harrison tries to do something of a dual narrative. She seems to think that we need to know why she was so emotionally invested in the case. The book jacket calls it, “weaving meditations of her own experience with parental abuse”. At age 20, Harrison met her father and he initiated a sexual relationship with her. It seems to have lasted a couple of years. I don’t want to minimize her trauma, but honestly, her personal interjections ruined the book for me.
Harrison does such a great work in putting together a story from both Jody’s and her brother, Billy’s, perspectives. She does her homework from the criminal case files to the files from the phychological profiles and the CFS records and the interviews with many of the players. I think she does a fine job of separating fact from fiction from perspective. However, her armchair psychology was just too much. For example, Billy tells a story of his father finding him, age 7ish, wearing water wings in a pool. His father tore the water wings off, picked him up and jumped into the pool. He held Billy until he reached the bottom of the pool and then let go, making the boy find his own way to the top. Then he did it over and over again. Harrison says:
“in mistreating his son, Bill re-created the life-threatening incident in which he had been the victim. Five years after he’d been pulled, paralyzed, from the lake in Eugene, he forcibly rehearsed Billy’s entry into and exit from the water, in order to “make him a man”. Perhaps the scenario wasn’t as it seemed to Billy, conceived to punish and terrorize him. It may be that his father was in the thrall of an inexorable psychic demand that he prove and reprove his own manhood, in the form of his small namesake’s ability to save himself from drowning.”
I was really impressed by Jody’s story. She, also, worked hard to separate fact from fiction from perspective. She owns the fact that her brother’s actions, in a way, set her free from a horrible life. She and Harrison share a life view of Before and After trauma. It is as though the Before person is dead and the After is a rebirth. This is why I really like her:
Billy was appealing his case on the grounds that the abuse he suffered was never submitted as evidence in his original trial. He wanted Jody’s help. Jody doesn’t want her brother released from jail. She thinks he is a fundamentally violent creature and has said she is afraid of what he will do to her if he is released. But she read the transcripts of the trial and determined that he was absolutely right in thinking that something was omitted from the evidence – something that the jury should have known in order to make a fair decision. She personally testified as her own lawyer advised – answer only the questions that are asked and don’t offer up anything. So by omission, her own testimony made worse the injustice. When the book was written, she planned to help correct the record. Whatever the consequences, she values the truth.
You know what? That’s the story I wanted to read. I’m gonna go Google it now.