Talulah Mankiller's Reviews > Shot in the Heart

Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore
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May 02, 2010

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** spoiler alert ** In the mid-1970s, Mikal’s brother Gary murdered two young Mormon men without provocation and was sentenced to death; he accepted the conviction, refused to appeal, and was executed by firing squad. As Mikal tells it, this was merely the latest in a long string of disasters for the Gilmore family: another brother, Gaylen, had died a few years before of stomach wounds sustained in a knife fight, and their father had died of cancer several years before that. Moreover, their father was a middle-aged conman when he met and married their mother; within a few months of having their first child together (Gilmore Sr. had children from other relationships stashed all over the country), Bessie and Frank were bouncing from town to town, always one step ahead of Frank’s most recent scam. At one point when Frank was feeling exceptionally paranoid, he actually left Bessie and their oldest at a gas station in the middle of nowhere; he drove off in the car with infant Gary, who was committed to an orphanage when his dad left him on a park bench to go scam someone.

God knows why, but the Gilmores actually managed to get custody of that kid again.

Oh, and Frank beat the crap out of all the kids except for Mikal. He would beat them regardless of whether they were “guilty” of a perceived infraction or not; at one point, he beat both Gary and the oldest son, Frank Jr., for a minor “crime.” Gary was actually the guilty party, and after the beating, Frank Jr. asked his dad if it would have mattered if he’d told on his brother. “No,” his father said. “No one likes a squealer.”

Bessie wasn’t exactly a prize, either: when Frank Sr. finally settled into a well-deserved prison sentence, she took the two oldest boys back to her parents’ place in Utah to wait out his time. She beat the crap out of her two toddlers so often and so viciously that even back in the 1940s in fundamentalist Mormon Utah, her relatives were appalled. They told her that if she didn’t shape up, they’d take the kids from her; her response was to flee in the night and keep on smacking. Later in life, however, both Bessie and Frank Sr. thwarted every attempt on the part of “the law” to punish or rehabilitate their two most wayward children, Gary and Gaylen. They hired fancy lawyers, swore up and down that “their boys” weren’t involved in everything from grand theft auto to statutory rape, made sure the Gilmore sons got the lightest punishment possible, and then…turned around and repeated the cycle of screaming, beating, and general abuse when the boys came home. Their basic attitude seemed to be “I can kick the crap out of you, but no one else can!”

To be perfectly blunt, I’m surprised that all four kids didn’t end up on death row with an upbringing like that. They grew up in a world without any rules that made sense, where you were basically an object to be abused or protected according to the whims of two people who hated each other and everyone around them. I don’t excuse or condone what Gary Gilmore did, but I can definitely understand how he came to a point where nothing anyone did or said could extinguish the rage he felt. In a way, it makes sense that his crimes were against random people he’d never even met: he’d been subjected to random acts of violence since he was practically a baby. How could he even conceive of a crime that had a specific target?

As for the book itself–it’s pretty good, but I happen to think that some of Mikal’s interpretations of his brother’s later behavior are a little spurious. Mikal focuses very strongly on Gary’s decision to be executed via firing squad and links it to the Mormon doctrine of Blood Atonement: basically, some crimes are so bad that the only way to be forgiven is to die while your blood is literally being shed. Now, Bessie Gilmore was a Mormon, but Gary wasn’t raised in the church; he spent some time with his Mormon relatives as a child and was later released to their charge as an adult (something they regretted when he went out and shot two people while staying with them), but Mikal never presents any evidence that Gary became a Mormon or held any of their beliefs. Mikal’s very big on inheritance and the legacy of past violence, and since Bessie’s family was descended from some of the earliest Mormon pioneers, maybe he thinks that the whole Blood Atonement thing was predestined or something? I don’t know. It didn’t make much sense to me as a reader. I can see the parallel, and I agree that it’s interesting, but I haven’t seen any evidence that Gary knew anything about it–so I can’t understand spending so much of the book talking about it.

Recommended for: If you like reading about murder in a non-sensationalized way, this is probably for you.
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