Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Executioner's Song

Within nine months time Gary Gilmore had been paroled from prison, murdered two men, committed various other crimes, fallen in love, shot four times in the heart and his cremated remains scattered from a plastic bread bag by a plane over Provo, Utah - such is the story of The Executioner's Song.

The book by Norman Mailer transcends the story of Gary Gilmore, who by all accounts did not lead the most interesting life. Gilmore was a lifelong criminal mostly of a petty crimes who spent the majority of his life in prison. Even when he murdered two men in Utah his life story or criminal history did not make for that much of an extraordinary story. The only reason the public paid any mind to the story of Gary Gilmore was because he would become the first man to be executed in the United States in ten years in 1977. He also advocated for his own death by firing squad, waiving his appeals to his sentence of death rather than spend the remainder of his life in prison. In some ways Gary Gilmore was a coward and an uninteresting one at that.

Yet from this rather ordinary person author Norman Mailer crafted an extraordinary book around his life story. The book which comes in over a thousand pages in length offers several indictments of society. The book exposes the flaws and failures in the American criminal justice system, the prison system, the entertainment industry, journalism, the Mormon religion, the political system, the mental health system and the human condition.

Going into this book I knew next to nothing about Gilmore. I had only seen the movie version of this book with the same name that was made for television in 1982. I had watched it a few times as a child back then and mostly all I remembered was the fine performance of actor Tommy Lee Jones in the role of Gary Gilmore.

The book goes much more into detail than the movie about Gilmore's life from childhood to his execution. Gilmore was born in Texas while his parents were traveling so he only lived there for six weeks. His parents eventually settled in Oregon where he would spend the majority of his youth and his formative years. In interviews that are published in the book Gilmore is reluctant to discuss his childhood in terms of his relationships with his parents. He more often than not relishes in the glories of his past crimes. Gary never seemed capable of feeling any genuine remorse for any of his crimes during his life. His main priority in life was self satisfaction and self preservation without any impulse control and that is a very bad combination of personality traits to have.

The excerpts from his letters that he wrote to his girlfriend were revealing to his completely bonkers way of thinking and lack of impulse control. He often talked of sex, his obsession with his girlfriend and how he did not want her sleeping with other men for the rest of her life even after he was dead and he regularly attempted to manipulate her into killing herself so that they could meet together in death on the other side. It is revealed in the book that on a tape Gary left his girlfriend to listen to after his execution that he wanted her to kill herself. Even in death Gary Gilmore was a selfish manipulator.

Gilmore did attempt suicide twice while awaiting his execution. He also convinced his teenage girlfriend Nicole to attempt it. They both survived the attempts; hers was nearly fatal but she was found in time by a neighbor and recovered in the intensive care unit in the hospital.

In addition to his murderous and manipulative ways Gilmore also had an attraction to teenage girls and boys that were well below the age of consent. Before committing the murders that he would ultimately be convicted of he and his girlfriend would often have sex with a teenage neighbor girl.

He did not appear to be a pedophile but instead his attraction to young adolescent boys and girls would classify him as suffering from hebephilia.

In one letter published in the book to his girlfriend he relates the story of when he was in Oregon State Hospital and how he was sexually attracted to a thirteen year old boy:

"this  13-year-old boy came in 'cause he couldn't get along at home. He was really pretty, like a girl, but I never gave him much thought until it became apparent that he really liked me. I was 23 then. I'd be sitting down and he would come up and sit beside me and put his around me. It was just natural to him, a show of friendship. One time he came up in the locker room and asked if he could read this Playboy I had. I said sure, for a kiss. Man he was dumbfounded! His eyes got big a silver dollars and his mouth dropped wide open. He said no and it was really pretty, and I fell in love on the spot. He thought it was over then and he decided he wanted to read that magazine pretty bad, 'cause he gave me, or rather let me take, a very tender little kiss on the lips. I used to watch him down at the swimming pool. He was one of the most beautiful people I've ever seen, and I don't think I've ever seen a prettier butt. Anyhow, I would kiss him now and then and we got to be pretty good friends. I was just struck by his youth, beauty and naivete."

Now as Gary told the story the boy pursued him and he admitted to being attracted to the boy and kissing him. It would not surprise me if this not entire story and that he had sex with the boy as he did admit to having sex with other men while in custody.

Gary Gilmore was also a racist. He claimed to have had ties to the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist group. He regularly used racist language and claims to have nearly killed a black inmate over sexual advances on a fellow white inmate. In one of the interviews published in the book Gilmore's words to the NAACP, who were fighting to stop his execution, were vile calling them "Brillo Pad heads."

The book tries to elevate Gary Gilmore into more than just a simple criminal by mentioning that he was an avid reader and that many considered him well-read. In none of the conversations that are printed in the book does Gary seem to be more than a man with a high opinion of himself and his own thoughts. His intelligence came across to me a veneer that lacked any deep understanding of issues that would mark him as an intelligent man. Reading without discernment is simply a superficial exercise.

The one talent, aside from lying, that Gilmore may have had was his ability to sketch. The few examples, though none are in the book, of his work that I have seen do show that he was a capable sketch artist. The book mentions that in 1972 Gary had the opportunity to attend an art school in Eugene, Oregon. That opportunity may have been a chance for him to turn his life around and use that talent at drawing for good. He of course never used that opportunity and committed an armed robbery that sent him off to prison.

There is one quotable line that I found worth remembering. In a book that uses short sentences and has a matter of fact way of writing there are not many beautiful uses of the language. Mailer is not known for possessing a florid style of writing so this is to be expected. However, I did like this line about pain that never goes away,  "pain was a boring conversationalist who never stopped, just found new topics."

Though a fascinating book and well-written this is a depressing story. It would be difficult to find any hope in it other than that Gilmore's girlfriend did not kill herself in the end. The writing of Gilmore's execution down to the smallest detail is difficult to read no matter how one feels about capital punishment. There are no heroes in this story and perhaps we might consider after reading it is that we all live in a moral gray area faced with daily challenges but thankfully most of us do not cross over the fragile line of horror to become murderers.