Shot in the Heart: A Portland story

People of a certain age might remember Gary Gilmore as one of America’s most notorious criminals. Sentenced to death after murdering two innocent men in Utah, he was executed by firing squad on January 17, 1977, just a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court had reinstated the death penalty.

I was living in Bend, Oregon, at the time and, as an opponent of capital punishment, I still remember being shocked when I learned from a radio news report that he’d been put to death.

These days, I have another reason to remember Gilmore and, frankly, it’s hard to shake. Turns out that Gilmore not only grew up in Portland, but one of his crimes was committed about a mile away from where I live. As a teenager, he raped a 14-year-old girl in an apartment on a street that I drive on virtually every week.

Creepy? To say the least.

I learned of that sordid crime and much, much more from reading “Shot in the Heart,” a sad but beautifully written memoir by Mikal Gilmore about his brother Gary and their dysfunctional family. I read the book last year and found myself drawn into it despite the dark subject matter, but I’ve never written about it until now.

Picking it up again, I was startled to realize it was published in 1994 — some 25 years ago. And thumbing through it, I am reminded of the powerful, honest writing that propelled me through 400 pages of a book that one reviewer called “mesmerizing…riveting and immensely moving.”

“You were Gary Gilmore’s younger brother, weren’t you? What did it feel like, having him die like that?” he was often asked.

“I was never really sure how to answer that question,” he wrote. “But I hated it every time the questions were asked. I tried for years to be polite or thick-skinned about it….I felt that nobody would ever forget or forgive me just for being that dead f—— killer’s brother. I learned a bit of what it’s like to live on in the aftermath of the punishment: as a living relative, you have to take on some of the burden and legacy of the punishment. People can no longer insult or hurt Gary Gilmore, but because you are his brother — even if you’re not much like him — they can aim it at you.

“It’s as if anybody who has emerged from a family that yielded a murderer must also be formed by the same causes, the same evil, must in some way also be responsible for the violence that resulted, must also bear the mark of a frightening and shameful heritage. It’s as if there is guilt in the simple fact of the bloodline itself.”

Gary Gilmore in Portland Police Bureau mug shots.

Gary Gilmore’s death ended a virtual moratorium on capital punishment that had lasted nearly 10 years in the United States, and it spawned a novel and a movie that both won critical acclaim.

Norman Mailer wrote a fact-based novel (The Executioner’s Song, 1979) about Gilmore that won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Mailer then adapted the book into a movie (1982) that starred Tommy Lee Jones as Gilmore and won the actor an Emmy Award.

Twelve years later, Mikal Gilmore wrote his memoir.

I already knew Mikal was an accomplished journalist as a music writer for Rolling Stone. What I didn’t know was that he was born here and grew up with his family in Southeast Portland (in the same impoverished neighborhood where Lori and I first lived when we first moved here) and in suburban Milwaukie (where I got my first reporting job in Oregon). Mikal attended Milwaukie High School and later graduated from Portland State University, where I now teach.

Author Mikal Gilmore (rollingstone.com)

But “Shot in the Heart” is not about Mikal. It is about his mom and dad and three older brothers, all of whom were scarred by the violence that defined their everyday life. The father, Frank Gilmore, was a petty criminal who beat his young wife, Bessie, and did the same to his sons, Frank Jr., Gary and Gaylen. Mikal, the youngest by seven years and born when his dad was 61, escaped that treatment.

Gary suffered the worst of those beatings, and he rebelled. As a young teen, he began ditching school and staying out late, drinking and smoking weed. Soon enough, he turned to the criminal life, stealing cars and robbing stores. To my astonishment, I found the book riddled with references to streets and places I know: 82nd Avenue, 52nd and Division, Johnson Creek Boulevard, Northeast Weidler Street (where the rape occurred).

Gary did time at MacLaren’s Reform School for Boys in Woodburn, the Rocky Butte Jail in east Portland, the Oregon State Correctional Institution and Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. He was arrested in Washington, Idaho, California and Texas before making his way to Utah, where he fatally shot a gas station attendant and a motel manager while on parole. He was 36 when he was executed — shot in the heart by a firing squad.

Nothing can excuse Gary Gilmore’s life of crime, culminating in the murders in Provo, Utah. But it’s also obvious that his father’s brutish, violent behavior helped set him on that path and, likewise, contributed to the death of his brother Gaylen, at age 27, from complications from a stabbing.

Sad to say, hope for any semblance of normal life was snuffed out at an early age for young Gary.

“My family’s ruin did not end with Gary, because it had not started with him,” Mikal, now 68, concludes. “…I realized I had grown up in a family that would not continue. There were four sons, and none of us went on to have our own families. We did not go on to spread any legacy or dynasty, to extend or fulfill any of our needs, kind or cruel, damaged or conscientious, through children. We didn’t even have kids in order to beat or ruin them as we had one been beaten or ruined…

“It’s as if what had happened to in our family was so awful that it had to end with us, it had to stop, and that to have children was to risk the perpetuation of that ruin.”

“Shot in the Heart” is hardly uplifting reading. But it is searingly honest and infused with empathy and insight. It truly is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.

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