‘While They Slept’ Author Kathryn Harrison on Not Getting Over It

kathryn harrison
Photo: Joyce Ravid

Kathryn Harrison has made a career out of mining uncomfortable personal territory, as she did in her famed memoir The Kiss, which documented her incestuous relationship with her father. So the title alone of her latest work, While They Slept, which hits bookstores today following a rave on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, implies a major departure, with its bare-bones description of how 16-year-old Jody Gilley witnessed the murders of her parents and younger sister at the hands of her older brother Billy. But a standard true-crime tale this is not: Instead Harrison fashions a fascinating hybrid of journalism, narrative, and memoir that links the surviving Gilleys' perspectives with her own tumultuous past history. Harrison spoke with Vulture about the impulse to kill one’s parents, brassiere advice from murderers, and lives broken in two pieces.

You spent six separate three-hour sessions interviewing Billy in an Oregon prison, where he was serving a life sentence at the time. What was that like? You mention a letter in which Billy advised you not to wear a bra with underwire…
It is a weird little detail because it's a man in prison talking about my underwear! [Laughs.] And yet it's totally pragmatic advice because if I do wear underwire, I won't get through the metal detector. My first fear about interviewing Billy was that he wouldn't see me or having said yes, he would change his mind. I didn't know if he was going to be taciturn, whether he would refuse to answer some questions. I am perfectly capable of writing things about myself that one doesn't discuss in polite company, but I was raised by people who said you don't discuss politics, you don't discuss religion, and you certainly don't discuss people's sex lives. And I was going to, in defiance of all I'd been taught, talk to a man about murdering his family, whether or not he molested his sister.

And then…?
Billy made it as easy as it could be, I think, for two reasons: One, he wants to tell his story. He answered my questions in good faith and to the best of his ability. We correspond still, which is not something my husband relishes … Billy's my pen pal, I suppose. I send him magazines once in a while.

Early on you talk about how an almost hidden love of true-crime novels helped spur the writing of While They Slept, but why this case – a 23-year-old triple murder – of all possible ones?
The pragmatic reason is that I had access. I'm not an investigative journalist; I don't track crime or police blotters. I had been talking to a friend of mine, who is also my agent [Amanda "Binky" Urban] on the phone about thirteen years ago. At one point she said, "I just spoke with a really interesting woman. You would have thought her story was fascinating." It turns out the woman was Jody, and she was trying to write a memoir about the murders and of her brother, who wanted to run away with her. About ten years later, my agent and editor I met to discuss my next nonfiction project. Apropos of nothing I asked, "What happened to the book about girl whose brother killed their family?" My agent threw up her hands and said Jody would never write the book. So I said I would. Which is how I got myself into fixes before [laughs].

Your own personal narrative — as outlined in The Kiss — intersects with Jody and Billy's stories. I think a lot of people think that once you write about a painful topic that gets attention and press, that door is closed. But as you write, what happened with you and your father is the defining moment of your life.
Of course! My response to people who say, "Oh, there goes Kathryn Harrison talking about her father again" is "I'm not getting over this! If you're waiting for me to get over it, it's not going to happen." It would be very unnatural if I did get over it. It's also one of the reasons Jody let me write the story — because I could say to her, you and I have been through different things, but we are both people with lives that have suffered a rupture. I believe that about myself. My relationship with my father broke my life into two pieces..

I saw aspects of myself in those children. I understood Billy's rage. You could say there was some ugly gratification in exploring what it was like to pound your father's head in with a baseball bat because I am someone who felt murderously angry at my father. I have fantasized about killing my father. Not with a baseball bat; a little more distantly, with a gun … I got both Billy and Jody in a way that made me want to tell what was a very different story from mine, but one I felt connected to from the beginning. It resonated. —Sarah Weinman