Sandra Lee is an Australian journalist and the best-selling author of three works of non-fiction, Beyond Bad, The Promise and 18 Hours, The True Story of an SAS War Hero. Her most recent book, Saving Private Sarbi, will be published next month and is about an explosives detection dog with the Australian Army that went missing in action in Afghanistan for 13 months before being found. For more about the author, visit her website at Sandra Lee. Below Sandra writes about Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song and Mikal Gilmore's Shot In The Heart.
Sandra Lee on The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer, and Shot In The Heart by Mikal Gilmore
Question: how does one choose from a shelf aching with the weight of books and pick just one that is a favourite? Or one that has left an indelible mark on you or made you change your perspective, rethink your past, retool your future, open your mind, or just plain shocked or rocked you?
It is too difficult, so here's two and this is not cheating, for the two are inexorably entwined and bookend many shelves of true crime, one of my favourite genres and the first to which I turned my hand as an author in 2001 when I wrote Beyond Bad, The Life and Crimes of Katharine Knight, Australia's Hannibal.
I'll start with The Executioner's Song, the propulsive book written by Norman Mailer and billed as a 'true life novel' when published in 1979. The second is the must-read companion book to Executioner's, written by Mikal Gilmore and titled Shot In The Heart, published 25 years later, not as a response to Mailer's Pulitzer Prize winner, but as an explanation - in part - of the possible sources of the violence wrought by Gary Gilmore, the man of whom Mailer wrote and who was Mikal Gilmore's brother.
Background: Gary Gilmore was the first man executed by firing squad in 1977 in Utah after the reintroduction of the death penalty in the United States, following a 10-year hiatus of execution as punishment.
Gilmore was an unsuccessful criminal (he spent more time in jail than out) and had built himself a long rap sheet starting from childish tomfoolery and ratcheting up to assault and armed robbery.
In 1976, Gilmore's criminal trope followed a new and unexpected arc, more malevolent and violent than ever, culminating in cold-blooded murder. By two. No remorse. His victims, two honest, hard-working American men, Mormons, were cruelly gunned down for doing what was demanded of them by a callous-hard crim, on parole for four months, who chose to punctuate two armed robberies with two killings.
At age 36, Gary Mark Gilmore was convicted and given the death penalty. He was also given the choice of being hanged or shot by firing squad. He chose the latter. His case became a cause célèbre because of the judicial history surrounding the death penalty, and history alone demanded the harrowing story be told. But Gilmore's cause 'celebrity' (for want of a better word) soared into the stratosphere when he dismissed any possible appeal and insisted on getting on with the business of being executed.
And so, on a cold January morning in 1977, after uttering his famous last words 'let's do it', Gary Gilmore was killed by a lineup of five unseen executioners, four of whom fired one bullet each into his heart, killing him instantly.
Now enter Norman Mailer, by then a well-known and critically acclaimed author and writer. But first, we need to backtrack a little and introduce the photographer, producer and eclectic professional named Lawrence Schiller, who came up with the idea of the book.
A newspaper article about Gilmore's love affair with his tragic girlfriend sparked Schiller's interest in the murderer, not the actual crimes he committed in cold blood.
Schiller bought the rights to Gilmore's life and conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with him and his mother, Bessie, as well as with many associated with them and their family. But Schiller didn't consider himself 'intellectual' enough to write the book and asked Mailer, who accepted the invitation to write The Executioner's Song.
Mailer and Schiller collaborated but the buccaneer author wrote the book he wanted to write, based on Schiller's exhaustive research, and Mailer wanted his book to be more than just an essay on the crime, the trial and the conviction.
As he later wrote in The Spooky Art, Some Thoughts On Writing, 'Every concept I had about him [Gilmore] was inadequate. So I wanted the reader of The Executioner's Song to confront the true complexity of one human'.
Humans, being curious, want to know what makes our fellow man do bad things. What remit to murder, the worst of crimes, the greatest sin? Are those who murder mad or just plain bad? Did evil lurk in the soul of Gary Gilmore? Is there even such a thing as evil?
Why do most of us stay on the side of right when a few willingly cross to wrong? What factors - social, familial, economic, psychological - do we blame? Or not blame? Or can blame? Or should blame? Dare we think that perhaps, most chilling of all, some people are simply born bad, bad enough to become killers? Is it chance or choice, or something more foreboding and unyielding?
Gilmore and Mailer tackle these themes adroitly and with a nimbleness that both engages and provokes the reader; they go to the heart, or heartlessness, of the human condition.
The Executioner's Song is as harrowing as it is compelling, as nihilistic as it is optimistic. Witness the opening passage for the optimism: 'Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree... Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down... She was six and he was seven and she thought he was swell. He might be rough with the other kids but never with her.'
At the age of seven, we already see a complex boy, tender yet rough. We know what becomes of him, but how did he get there?
The end of chapter one has reunited Brenda with her cousin, Gary, in April 1976 after he's been paroled from a long stint in jail during which they corresponded. She hasn't seen him in years but still holds hope for the innate goodness and innocence she saw in him as a child. Despite the optimism the chapter ends with looming dread. When Brenda looked into Gary's eyes, wrote Mailer, they 'felt full of sadness again... They did not know what would happen next'.
That uncertainty, combined with a nagging, rattling fear felt by those on the near periphery of Gilmore's life, drives this stunning, taut, revelatory book. They endure torment after torment in searching for answers to 'why' he did what he did, was what he was. Tormented because the question never blooms with a real answer, a singular truth.
Mailer finds many things in his 1000-page-plus opus but he never finds that - probably, maybe, because Gilmore didn't understand why himself, or perhaps he plain ignored introspection. He was the human equivalent of a verb. He did. It's true he had few good role models but on that he is not Robinson Crusoe. Many people have bad starts to life, hail from the wrong side of the tracks, are thrown curve balls they dodge, but few graduate to a life of crime, fewer still to murder. Nature? Nurture?
The Executioner's Song is a phenomenal literary layer cake of a crime and the community in which it occurred. Mailer puts a microscope on a unique part of America and the people who inhabit it. The language is pure, raw, powerful and simple.
Mikal Gilmore's Shot In The Heart is a perfect companion piece to Mailer's Executioner's and a tour de force of family memoir. He asked similar questions to Mailer but from a different perspective, a personal perspective – 'why Gary, why not me?'
I used to tell myself that whatever ran in Gary's blood that turned him into a killer did not also run in my blood, and that whatever turned my family's hopes to wreckage would not also devastate my life. I was different (Gilmore's italics) from them, I knew. I would escape. I now know better. To believe that Gary had absorbed all the family's dissolution, or that the worst of our rot had died with him that morning in Draper, Utah, was to miss the real nature of the legacy that had placed him before those rifles: what that heritage or patrimony was about, and where it had come from.
Mikal Gilmore's insider view of a very dysfunctional family, riddled with child abuse, violence, alcoholism, four brothers - two of whom did good, the oldest, the youngest, two who did other – is heartbreaking. Mother Bessie and father Frank were both violent liars whose parenting skills were at once loving and hellish. The Gilmore home was not Arcadia but it was home.
Mikal was the youngest brother by 10 years and with the gap came a measure of brotherly isolation and his words occasionally read as a threnody for the loss of brotherly love. Yet, as he grew he was freighted with the burden that he had 'Gary's notoriety to contend with'. It wasn't easy and the book isn't easy to read; it is equally haunting, tragic and sad. And yet Mikal Gilmore, like Frank Jr, didn't turn out bad, proving that DNA does not equal destiny.
By the end of Mailer's and Gilmore's books we still don't know what made Gary Gilmore kill, but that doesn't detract from the enormous power of either book. There probably isn't one reason why.
Gilmore and Mailer succeed in slowly revealing the human condition, in showing the 'complexity' of one human being, a criminal who did his worst. They did the same for those in Gary Gilmore's orbit. And Mikal Gilmore triumphs again by showing that being good can be as complex as being bad.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]