Inquiry Into Me, Me, Me

This is a frustrating book. It is frustrating because of what it is and what it is not. It is not, emphatically not, an entry in the true crime genre. It contains none of the staples of true crime despite the author's admission that she is addicted to the genre. It is part exploration of how someone goes on after an event (or rupture, to use the author's term) severs the past from their future, and part exploration their own role in that event. The event in question is the Billy Gilley's murder of his father, mother and 8-year-old sister, an act committed in part, allegedly, to protect his 16-year-old sister, Jody.

Sounds interesting; so what is the problem, you may ask. The problem is the author.

As an author, Kathryn Harrison comes with a back story, one that she has previously shared with the public in fictional (Thicker Than Water) and memoir (The Kiss) form. I never can decide whether Harrison is exceptionally brave or exceptionally self-exploiting or just looking for salvation in all the wrong places. It certainly takes guts to tell the world you had a sexual relationship with your father when you were an adult. But the question that lingers is why tell the entire world? And why keep telling the world over and over no matter what the topic at hand?

"Studying the Gilleys required making inquiries into myself" - and how. Harrison can't go two pages without dragging the action back to herself.  Written in the "here's how I wrote this book" style that lets the reader in on the intricacies of note taking, personal filing systems and motel choices, I expected Harrison to be part of the narrative. I didn't expect the umpteenth recitation of her big, rupturing event.* Having dear, old, formerly absentee dad slip you the tongue during an airport goodbye is indeed a bad thing to have happen. But how about sticking with the main narrative?

The parts of the book that are genuinely focused on the Gilley family and Jody in particular aren't half bad. In the great nature vs. nurture debate Harrison is firmly Team Nurture so she's more interested in bad parenting than mental illness. She sees Jody almost as a character in a fairy tale rescued from her appalling circumstances not by her brother but by her intellect. The fact that Jody read books is treated like a magical gift - something along the lines of Rapunzel's long hair. I kept hoping Harrison would delve into this tendency to see Jody as a heroine instead of as an ordinary teenager, to explore the pressures this might have created for her. No dice.

At its best, Harrison strives to "construct a narrative" that will help her to understand Jody's story, and her own. At its worst, Harrison is prone to eye-roll worthy statements like "Eager to discover some of what informs the sixteen-year-old Jody's vision of the world, I buy myself a box of fifteen Harlequin romances" - the implication being that she certainly never read a single one herself. Or my personal favorite "Might not Jody, as young as six or seven ... have already begun ... to mourn ... all the Jodys she might have been were it not for the destructive environment into which she was born?" Might not Kathryn be full of it?

Occasionally insightful but more often banal and annoying, this book's every other paragraph belies Harrison's early assertion that she knows "my history and Jody's are not comparable." Kathryn Harrison is a good writer. If she could stop writing about herself she'd be worth reading.

*(At one point Harrison tells us that she's never confronted her own father and that stopped me dead in my tracks. Let me get this straight, she's told the entire freaking world about this to the tune of THREE BOOKS but she hasn't had a talk with the owner of the famous tongue?)

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