Friday, July 28, 2017

The Heart of Guilt

I read an interesting book this week, Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart (1994).

Gilmore's brother, Gary, was executed by firing squad in Utah in 1977. At the time of Gary Gilmore's execution, the death penalty had only recently been reinstated: he was the first person put to death in the United States in almost ten years.

In 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court had determined that executions constituted "cruel and unusual punishment," a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and, given the appearance of racial bias against African American defendants in particular, it was determined that the death penalty might also constitute a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In the wake of Furman v. Georgia, all death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty in the United States began.

In 1976, however, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court established guidelines that states must follow in capital sentencing in order to ensure that the imposition of the death penalty does not constitute "cruel and unusual punishment."

The Supreme Court determined that there must be objective criteria that guide and limit determinations of whether or not to seek the death penalty (and this objectivity must be guaranteed by an appellate review of all death sentences) and the judge or jury (whoever hands down the sentence) must be allowed to weigh the record and character of the defendant.

With the guidelines established by Gregg v. Georgia, the death penalty was once again considered constitutional. In Utah in particular, defendants sentenced to death had the option of death by hanging or by firing squad.

What made Gary Gilmore's case unusual was the fact that, when he was ultimately sentenced to die for his robbery and murder of two men over the course of two nights in Provo, Utah, he insisted that the sentence be carried out. Gilmore opted for death by firing squad, stating, "I'd prefer to be shot," and openly objected to requests for a stay of execution filed on his behalf (by his mother and the ACLU).

If you've read Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song (1977) (or if you've seen the 1982 movie starring Tommy Lee Jones), then you're familiar with the story of Gary Gilmore's crimes, his trial, and his eventual execution.

Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart tells a different story-- namely, the story of the Gilmore family, both before, during, and after Gary Gilmore's crimes, conviction, and execution. As Mikal Gilmore insists in the prologue,
I have a story to tell. It is a story of murders: murders of the flesh, and of the spirit; murders born of heartbreak, of hatred, of retribution. It is the story of where those murders begin, of how they take form and enter our actions, how they transform our lives, how their legacies spill into the world and the history around us...

I know this story well, because I have been stuck inside it...
His story is an interesting one, in no small part because he is well aware that, due to the eleven-year age difference, his childhood was nothing like that of his brother Gary. For whatever reason, Mikal was his father's favorite son and spared the relentless emotional and physical abuse that was inflicted on his older brothers.

His memoir is an elaborate and eloquent reflection on the nature of guilt and judgment, both his own and others'.

In Shot in the Heart, Gilmore is brutal and unsparing in his reflections about himself, his parents, his brothers, the legacy of his family, and the toll that the notoriety of his brother's crime and punishment ultimately took on all of them.

Gilmore's opening sentence echoes Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Like Raskolnikov on the eve of his double-murder, Gilmore describes how he too has "dreamed a terrible dream." 

Shot in the Heart weaves Gilmore's dreams with his family's stories of ghosts and hauntings and long-standing secrets.

And although Gilmore acknowledges that he has been "stuck inside" the story of murders, hatred, and retribution that mark his family, he also remarks on the irony of the fact that he is in many ways an outsider in his own story. There are gaps he can't fill, questions he can't answer, answers he will never find.

I read Mailer's The Executioner's Song over a decade ago, and I confess, I found it underwhelming. 

Quite frankly, I think Mikal Gilmore wrote a better book. I say this even as I acknowledge that, as Gilmore himself points out, his book does something very different from Mailer's.

Personally, I prefer what Gilmore's book attempts--namely, an understanding of the human circumstances and consequences that surround a situation like the one that eventually engulfed his brother.

When I read The Executioner's Song, I felt like I was inundated with details.

And I mean really inundated. I distinctly remember opting not to read a full 100 pages of the book, once I realized that Mailer was including the court transcripts of Gilmore's trial... after he had already summarized the trial in extensive detail.

I've read War and Peace and I teach a course on 19th-century British novels. It takes a lot for me to decide that a novel "too long." But that was how I felt about The Executioner's Song. It did not need to be nearly 1200 pages long. (YES. It IS. This is what I'm saying.)

In retrospect, the reason I came to that conclusion was that it never felt like Mailer was giving me a sense of ... the human meaning behind it all, for lack of a better phrase.

I set Mailer's text down feeling like I knew a whole lot about what happened to Gary Gilmore and nothing at all about Gary Gilmore. It was clear that something had gone seriously wrong in his life; it was clear that his more or less constant incarceration in "reform schools" and prisons from the age of fourteen until his death at the age of 36 had contributed greatly to that.

It was clear that he was, by the time of his death, a vicious and truly troubled man who came from a troubled family environment. And yet, I could never quite fathom why he insisted on being put to death--and to me, that was important, to try to come to some kind of understanding of that or to offer us the chance to reflect on it.

To hand the reader reams of court documents and letters and interviews... that simply didn't help me understand what I wanted to understand about the case.

That's why I think Mikal Gilmore's work is the better effort. It represents a whole-hearted attempt to understand his brother Gary, in spite of the distance--both temporal and psychological--that always existed between them. But it also doesn't shy away from the horror that was his brother's life.  

Mikal Gilmore makes no excuses for his brother. He is honest about the anger and frustration and desire to simply escape what his brother wrought in his life and in the lives of his family members.

But he also mourns the brother he lost. And I think it is the combination of these two very different kinds of pain that make his writing incredibly powerful and his memoir well worth reading.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."