BOOKS

Bred in the bone

Violence was the Gilmore family legacy

DIANE TURBIDE July 18 1994
BOOKS

Bred in the bone

Violence was the Gilmore family legacy

DIANE TURBIDE July 18 1994

Bred in the bone

BOOKS

Violence was the Gilmore family legacy

SHOT IN THE HEART

Mikal Gilmore (Doubleday, 404 pages, $32.95)

The story screams out for tabloid headlines: “Brother of executed killer tells all!” “The demons that led him to death row!” But Mikal Gilmore, brother of murderer Gary Gilmore, avoids the sensational aspects of his notorious sibling’s fame in Shot in the Heart. Instead, he has written an unforgettable account of his disastrous family life, an exploration of the violence and betrayal that marked each of them. That mayhem culminated in Gary’s execution by firing squad in Utah in 1977, an event that became a media circus because Gary himself asked for the death sentence instead of life imprisonment. Shot in the Heart is an anguished portrait of Bessie and Frank Gilmore and their four troubled sons, two of whom were hell-bent on destruction from childhood. Mikal, the youngest, escaped the worst and went on to become a successful journalist with Rolling Stone. But, despite his efforts to distance himself from his roots, the memories caught up with him. Coping with a failed marriage and depression, he began to realize that he hadn’t escaped after all. “Indeed, it felt like our ruin might be endless,” writes Mikal, now 43, “and that the only way to stop it might be to stop the legacy itself—and the only way to do that was to crack open its god-awful secrets, if I could find them.”

Research for the book reunited him with his reclusive brother Frank, now 54, the only surviving member of their family. With Frank’s help, Mikal reconstructed a family tale so fraught with violence, misplaced love, loss and doom that it resembles a Greek tragedy. The author also acknowledges writer Norman Mailer and producer Lawrence Schiller, who created a book and TV movie about Gary called The Executioner’s Song. Schiller offered Mikal hours of taped conversations that he had conducted with Gary and mother Bessie. Through those interviews, the author learned a great deal about his family history.

And what a strange, nightmarish history it was. In 1937 Bessie Brown, a rebellious daughter from a strict Mormon family in Provo, Utah, met and fell in love with Frank Gilmore, a charismatic but secretive older man. Frank was the neglected son of a spiritualist mother who told him that he had been fathered by the famed escape artist Harry Houdini. Frank had worked as a tightrope acrobat and a stuntman in Hollywood silent movies. Bessie eventually learned that, before he married her, Frank had wed at least four times and fathered several children.

By the time Bessie linked up with him, Frank was a con man, collecting advertising money from clients for non-existent publications. During the 1940s, the couple was on the run, moving from town to town all over the American south and west. By 1944, they had three sons in tow, Frank Jr., Gary and Gaylen. Periodically, Frank deserted the family, either to flee his responsibilities or

the law. At one point, he abandoned her and Frank Jr. at a gas station in Missouri, taking baby Gary with him. Frank ended up in jail on a bad-cheque charge, while Gary, whom he had left on a park bench, was placed temporarily in an Iowa orphanage.

It was not until 1949 that the family gained any kind of stability. Frank gave up drinking and actually became a successful businessman in Portland, Ore., publishing buildingcode guides. But sobriety and success only made him meaner: the beatings that he regularly inflicted on his sons became more severe. He began hitting the boys with his bare fists, belts and razor straps, often until they bled through their jeans. Mikal was his father’s favorite and mostly escaped the brutality. “When I think of what my brothers went through almost every week of their childhood and young adolescence,” he writes, “the only thing that surprises me is that they didn’t kill somebody when they were still children.”

But Gilmore is not making simple equations about how childbeating turns children into killers. He does not defend Gary’s shooting of two defenceless men during separate robberies in 1976. But he believes that the homicides were the culmination of a life seemingly programmed for destruction. He argues persuasively that domestic violence has inexorable consequences for everyone, inside and outside the family. And Gary’s experiences in g reform schools and prisons— g where he suffered and, in tum, in| flicted every kind of assault— I turned a troubled adolescent into I a hardened criminal perversely proud of his ability to take any kind of punishment.

What is remarkable about Gilmore’s account is how each member of the family remains a recognizable human being, not a deranged monster. Even now, he writes, he still misses them—especially Gaylen, who died in 1971 at age 26 from complications arising from knife wounds. Gilmore’s reunion after 10 years with his gentle brother Frank, who had turned his pain inward and become an alcoholic drifter, is especially moving.

Gilmore’s confessional tone—and even his occasional lapses into melodrama—suit the nature of his material. The author’s mother often spoke of being forced by her father to watch a public hanging in Utah when she was a child, and how each detail stuck in her mind. Shot in the Heart exerts the same kind of mesmerizing power: the spectacle is horrifying, but it is impossible to turn away.

DIANE TURBIDE