Saturday, September 10, 2011

An American Story

I'm going to depart from my usual issues today; this story has distracted me even from the burning issues of education here in my corner of Maine.

The case of Gary Gilmore is worth opening up again. The story of the convicted murderer who declined his appeal and accepted his death sentence doesn't lose fascination and horror over time. I read Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore, Gary's youngest brother, many years ago and have reread it just recently, then The Executioner's Song, written by Norman Mailer and Larry Schiller, which I just finished today. The Executioner's Song was published just a few years after the execution; Shot in the Heart was written in the early 90s.

Why on earth are you reading that? asks the person I am married to. I try to think of the reason. I go back and forth from one book to the other, comparing notes, looking for the information left out in The Executioner's Song that is filled in with detail in Shot in the Heart. I look at the incredible detail of the weeks leading up to the murders, in The Executioner's Song, details not found in Shot in the Heart. I look at the same incidents recounted in each book with but with completely different outcomes. I know there are things that Gary withheld, even outright denied, to Larry Schiller in his extensive interviews with the author in the weeks before the execution; but Mikal Gilmore unflinchingly fills in the blanks.

It's entirely an American story. The story of the ties of family and religion, secrets and lies. The story of prisons, poverty, drugs, alcohol. The coping mechanisms of the human spirit: how much withheld parental love, how much societal rejection, how much physical and emotional abuse can one human being take, and what happens when he cannot take any more. The judicial and correctional system's horrendous failures are American. The acceptance of the decision to die by the rugged individualist who was Gary is American.

The story of the telling of the story has been made part of the story itself and is true-blue, all-American: Gary Gilmore became a commodity worth considerable money. Pieces of him were bought and sold until it was very hard to tell, in The Executioner's Song, who cared about Gary and who cared about the money. It was very much apparent that whatever the various judges involved decided, he was worth more money dead than alive. Larry Schiller grapples with this sticky point openly in his book, but he was the one wheeling and dealing over the worth of Gary. Mikal implies in his book that he felt resentment toward the family members in Utah who supported Gary's desire to die, and one has to wonder if on some level, they simply needed the money. There is no question that they were torn apart by his execution, but the money could not have played no role in how they felt in the weeks and months leading to it.

I stare at the life of Gary himself as if it was a terrible accident scene; can't tear my eyes away, can't fathom it. Abused by both his mother and his father, the Gary I see through Mikal (I'll go on first-name basis with him to distinguish him from Gary; also because he's an acquaintance of mine. We met through Echo, a NYC online community, years ago and still keep in touch through Facebook, although we have never met) is someone whose emotions are completely vulnerable -- he has no defenses, no outer core of protection. Everything that is done to him sinks in and stays there. What happens to a person's mind when he doesn't get the primal need for love fulfilled? how does it endure? I think the answer is that it doesn't. It either builds defenses or it explodes. I think Gary was completely unable to protect himself, and the only armor he was able to put on put him directly in the path of destruction (not very effective armor, for sure).

His early forays into breaking the law landed him in reform school when he was an early teenager. Instead of maturing normally, he matured in this abusive environment, then one prison after another. His considerable intelligence and emotional vulnerability combined resulted in a person of deep knowledge but a complete lack of ability to cope with the world outside prison, which in turn resulted in an unwillingness to trust that anyone knew what was best for him but he himself. The Executioner's Song tells the story of his exit from prison and the start of a new life in Utah. He meets a girl, falls in love with her, and she with him. But he has also set his heart on a white pick-up truck. It's not even a very good truck; various characters in the book agree that it was a junker, and the salesman saw Gary coming. But he is determined to have it, and what he has to do to get it plays a role in his downward spiral that ended in the two murders. His emotional maturity seems to have stopped developing in a normal way when he entered reform school for his first incarceration.

It's the life of his girlfriend Nicole that truly hit me in the gut. Imagine a girl who at 17 has been divorced three times. She has two children. She has sex with people because it's too much trouble to tell men no. Sexually molested when she was a child, her sexual life leads her on a winding path that seems to have no particular direction. She wants very much to be a good person, and a good parent, but because of poverty and motherhood, can't find her way to a healthy situation. Enter Gary Gilmore and her great romance, which was as special to her as to him. This damaged girl and this damaged boy; knowing how the story ends, it's like watching an accident in slow motion, and when the impact comes it blows up with a crash that does the most damage that it possibly could.

This story is going to stick with me for awhile. My own life, my own normal family of urban working-class New York Italians and midwestern WASPS, my upbringing, the love I received from family and extended family, has made me someone who can barely peer through the glass at this very different, even sordid, world. I don't pretend to be able to wax profound or bring any great new light to it. It's enough for me to realize: this exists. And enough to know that now, 34 years later, one does not have to do exhaustive research to know that it still does.

Mikal brings his story back in history a couple of generations on both his father and mother's side, in an attempt to give the historical perspective the story needs. Mailer and Schiller enrich their story with backgrounds and histories of almost every character with any role in the story. The result of both books seen together is a kind of aerial view of the whole drama. Seen from every direction, it is thoroughly American. We who live in the comfort of family and the security of love and money need to peer through the glass and take a look at the story of Gary Gilmore.

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