One Strange Family


fter reading The Executioner's Song about the execution of Gary Gilmore I learned that his younger brother Mikal had published a book in 1994, Shot In The Heart, that was about the history of the Gilmore family. What a sordid history it was.

I give Mikal plenty of credit for his willingness to lay bare the history of his family for the world to read and judge. It is a history that involved plenty of crime including murder, incest, drug and alcohol abuse and most any terrible thing you could imagine.

The author, Mikal, was the youngest of the four brothers born to his family. He was a stranger in own family it seemed having not been a part of the early years of the family that saw them living as vagabonds moving all over the American west. His childhood began once the family had settled in the outlying neighborhoods of Portland, Oregon. Growing up he still was isolated from his siblings by his father who often took him for months at time to Seattle while on extended business. He readily admits that he did not know his own family very well and that writing this book was a way to learn about his own family.

The book goes deep into the family history from the beginning to when his parents met, through their deaths up until when the book was published in the early 1990s. By the early 1990s, both of his parents were dead and so were two of his brothers including Gary Gilmore.

My motivations for reading the book were to learn more about Gary and see what might have not been written about in The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer. Through the stories that Mikal relates about his family and Gary you come away getting a fuller picture of who Gary Gilmore was but perhaps not a better idea as to what was wrong with him and why he became a murderer. The reason he became a murderer will never be answered of course. His childhood was littered with abuse and abandonment but that doesn't make a person a criminal. Perhaps it contributed? Yes.

It was surprising to learn that Gary Gilmore had a living son. In The Executioner's Song the story is told that Gilmore had a child that did not live but the real story is that his child was born and it was a boy. He fathered the boy in Portland. The child was the result of Gary Gilmore's rape of a fourteen year old girl in 1958. Gilmore was arrested and indicted for the crime but through pressure the girl dropped the charges and had the baby and Gary was never told. He got away with the rape and somewhere out there today his son is alive.

Gary also robbed a grocery story at gunpoint wearing a stocking over his face in the 1950s as a teenager near the family home on Woodstock Boulevard (page 167). His brother writes that he netted $18,000 from the store's vault. He was never arrested for the crime and was never even a suspect. Now for some reason I have a hard time believing this story. I really do not think that a grocery store in 1956 when the crime allegedly occurred would have $18,000 in cash inside the store's vault. The average yearly income for a family was only $4,783 (Source PDF: U.S. Census) in 1956 so why would a grocery store have $18,000 cash on hand inside the store? Mikal also writes that the money, remember $18,000 now, "held him over for a while." A while??? If Gary Gilmore got away with $18,000 in cash in 1956 then he could have been set for years and years living like a king and just how would he have hidden a crime like that? Either the $18,000 is a misprint or this story holds no water.

The book also relates stories of Gary and his friends hanging out in gay bars in Portland in the 1950s (page 166). According to a man using only the name "John" that was interviewed for the book he knew Gary intimately. John says that Gary was seen to be kissing men and allowing himself to be fondled. The tale continues that Gary would turn tricks including giving oral sex to John and his friends in exchange for a place to party and hide stolen goods. It would not surprise me that Gary was sexually confused given his time in an all-boys reformatory school and his sexual experiences then, also the story I mentioned from The Executioner's Song of Gary admitting his sexual attraction to a young thirteen year old boy when he was in his 20s and his sexual encounters with an underage teenage girl during his last release from prison when he was living in Utah. I definitely think that Gary was sexually attracted to young girls and boys given what he admitted to and what has been written about him.

Then on page 302 is the curious story of a young man named Barry Black. Barry was a fellow inmate that was rumored to be Gary's prison boyfriend. Mikal even writes, "Gary in one form or another loved Barry Black." Gary even had plans to break Barry Black out of a prison hospital and escape.

I cannot even begin to relate all of the crazy stories of this family. My own family is far, far from perfect and we've had our own scandals but they are garden variety compared to the Gilmore family. I have never known people that lived like this family did and I do not intend that in a snobbish manner. Some of the stories are appalling like Gary being abandoned at an orphanage by his father as a young child in Iowa because the father was arrested for writing bad checks. The father was also a career criminal that had numerous aliases, children with different women scattered around the country and falsely believed he was the illegitimate son of Harry Houdini. The mother was not any better at being a parent because she had a child a with her stepson, tried to smother her youngest son with a pillow when he was an infant and she believed she was haunted by evil spirits. These people were just bizarre.

Even after reading more about the early years of Gary Gilmore I still do not understand him. He was a violent criminal from an early age, raised under terrible circumstances and yet he got away with more crimes than he was ever punished for in his life. I look at the timeline of events and think maybe if he had been locked up sooner and for longer for his crimes like the rape of a fourteen year old then maybe those two men in Utah would never have been murdered. It baffles me how he got away with how much he did get away with before being executed. 

Shot In The Heart is an entertaining book that is jaw dropping at times even if I am not sure all of the stories are accurately told but even if half are true then that is one scary family. If you have read The Executioner's Song then this book is a good companion to it.