Killer's brother recounts a painful life

June 07, 1994|By Lewis Beale | Lewis Beale,New York Daily News

One son was a world-famous murderer. Another was slain, probably by a jealous lover. Two other sons grew up as emotional zombies, filled with anger and fear that will follow them to their graves.

If "Shot in the Heart" -- with its tale of violence, blood lust, madness and death -- were about a garden-variety dysfunctional family, it would be of only passing interest. But Mikal Gilmore is the youngest brother of Gary Gilmore, the notorious double murderer whose 1977 execution became an international cause celebre and was immortalized in Norman Mailer's monumental novel "The Executioner's Song." This book is Mikal's attempt to explain his older brother and the sordid ghosts that surround his entire family's history.

"God, I hate families," says Mr. Gilmore in one of the many cries of pain scattered throughout his powerful, haunted work. "I see them walking in their clean clusters in a shopping mall . . . or I visit families in their homes, and I inevitably resent them. I resent them for whatever real happiness they may have achieved, and because I didn't have such a family in my life."

It's not hard to figure out why Mr. Gilmore feels this way. His mother was reared in a strict Mormon household, rebelled against her family, and wound up marrying a man more than 20 years her senior who spent much of their life together beating her bloody. His father was a con man and grifter, a family tyrant who terrorized his three older sons.

In the early years of the marriage, before Mikal was born, the Gilmores moved like hobos from town to town throughout the West, running from the law and Gilmore Sr.'s private demons.

This certainly did not help the early childhood development of Frank Jr., who become an introverted loner; Gary, who showed early signs of emotional instability and entered maturity as a drunk, doper and hardened con; and Gaylen, who became a drunk and petty criminal whose deadliest sin was sleeping with the wives of his best friends.

"There are all kinds of ways to die in this world," the youngest Gilmore says of his family legacy. "Some die without taking others with them. It's a victory, no doubt, but that doesn't make it the same as redemption."

The book's title has an obvious double meaning -- it refers to the way Gary was executed, and the psychic wounds that destroyed a family. These sections -- the early years and the events surrounding Gary's notoriety -- are also the most mesmerizing parts of a heart-wrenching story.

Mikal Gilmore's tale of how the media circus attending his brother's execution affected his family is especially moving -- it forced Frank Jr. further into his shell and helped move Mikal further along a life path that included many failed relationships and considerable substance abuse.

Autobiography has always been partially about exorcism. "Shot in the Heart" is simply more direct, and horrifying, than most. At the end of the book, Mikal Gilmore recounts a horrible dream about Gary that causes him to awake in a sweat. "It will never be all right," he says to himself. "Never." In a strange, sick sort of way, that is his ultimate comfort.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Shot in the Heart"

Author: Mikal Gilmore

Publisher: Doubleday

0$ Length, price: 403 pages, $24.95

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