The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer

The Executioner's Song

For a time it actually looked like the death penalty was ending in America, as it has in almost all developed countries. In the late ’60s and into the ’70s, polls had gone from the usual strong support of the death penalty to maybe not opposition but at least close to an equal split for and against. It was kind of like today with gay marriage—the polls may be about even, but all the momentum is in the liberal direction. It seemed like times were changing, and soon the death penalty would be obsolete.

Meanwhile the Supreme Court issued some major rulings against the death penalty. It did not flat out ban it as unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment, but it did rule against various of the specifics of how states had implemented it. It said not “You can’t have the death penalty,” but, “You can’t have the versions of the death penalty you’ve had up to now.” That left the door open for states to come up with new versions that perhaps could pass muster, but with public opinion shifting the way it was, that seemed a moot point.

It wasn’t though. In time public opinion reversed itself and the death penalty became much more popular. Indeed in recent decades it has been about as popular as the flag and supporting the troops. States did indeed come up with new versions to address the Supreme Court’s objections, and the Court ultimately decided that the new laws were indeed constitutional.

But for a few years there, there had been no executions. And given how capital cases can drag on for years and even decades through various challenges and appeals, it seemed like even with the death penalty’s reinstatement it would be at least a few more years before executions resumed.

Then came the Gary Gilmore case. Gilmore murdered two people in Utah—gas station attendant Max Jensen and motel manager Bennie Bushnell—and was sentenced to death. He announced that he would waive all appeals and accept the sentence. In 1977 he was executed by firing squad, becoming the first prisoner to suffer the death penalty since 1967. (The last one had been Luis Monge, who also waived all his appeals and insisted on being killed as soon as possible.)

Due to its timing, the Gilmore case got a huge amount of press coverage. Reporters from all over the country, and from other countries, flocked to Utah to find out all they could.

The case reached a level of notoriety that went beyond the daily newspapers and news broadcasts, or the weekly newsmagazines. From the beginning, people were talking about more in-depth magazine pieces, books, TV specials, even movies. There was a scramble to enlist all the key players—and plenty of minor players—in one such project or another.

The Executioner’s Song was the biggest such project to come to fruition, winning Norman Mailer the second Pulitzer Prize of his career, and later being adapted into a movie with Tommy Lee Jones and Rosanna Arquette.

The book is the story of Gary Gilmore—in detail about his life from when he was paroled in 1976 after a long stint in prison through his murders and then execution, with a little information here and there about his earlier life—and of that media frenzy.

It’s not surprising that Mailer would write a book in part about researching and writing a book, since it was very much his style when writing nonfiction to make it about himself covering the story rather than just the story. But the surprising part is that he’s really not in the book at all. He writes about the experiences of other journalists, writers, producers, etc. involved in the Gilmore case, not about himself.

This may be because he didn’t get involved until late in the process. Gilmore had already been executed and most of the interviews for the book had been completed when the agreement was reached with him to write the book. So he was mostly working from other people’s notes. Still he certainly could have written about the negotiations to write the book, the minority of the research and interviews that he then did, the writing of the book, etc., not to mention he could have given his analysis of the people and events he’s recounting.

But he doesn’t. Indeed, it’s as if he goes to the opposite extreme in keeping himself out of it, and refraining from the kind of literary and complex prose he’s capable of. The book is written in a straightforward, “just the facts,” Hemingwayesque clipped prose manner from the perspective of a semi-omniscient narrator, with spaces between the (invariably short) paragraphs to emphasize the feel of an edifice built out of discrete facts.

You get the feeling he wanted to show that when he writes about himself and imposes his personality on every page of a book it’s because he chooses to, and not because he’s incapable of writing “straight.” Winning Pulitzer Prizes for books written in such diametrically opposed styles—the autobiographical, participatory journalism of The Armies of the Night versus the very neutral journalism from an outside observer of this book—certainly proves his versatility as a nonfiction writer.

Insofar as it’s a book about covering a story and not just about the story, it’s mostly about Larry Schiller, with some discussion of local Utah reporters, David Susskind, Geraldo Rivera, and others. Schiller was not a practicing writer, but more a producer or organizer of projects who then contracted with other parties to do the actual writing or filmmaking. It was he who eventually hired Mailer to write the book version of the story. He worked freelance, buying the rights to as many of the principles as possible and finding out as much information as possible, and negotiating along the way with various networks and print outlets who wanted to share in the stories he generated.

Schiller had produced a variety of projects, mostly quite well received, but he was troubled by the fact that the two or three best known of his projects—and now this one—were all about death and related topics. He had acquired a bit of a reputation as a ghoulish fellow who exploited human tragedies.

The second half of the book is as much about him as Gilmore. One can infer that one of the conditions for being chosen to write the book was to include a great deal about Schiller, presented the way he wanted it to be presented. So we get a lot about his thoughts and emotions, what a hard worker he is, how resourceful he is, how well he treated the people in Gilmore’s life, etc.

I’m not saying that’s all necessarily inaccurate—maybe he really is a decent guy whose behavior as regards the Gilmore case is defensible—but it highlights a common issue/problem with nonfiction books like this, which is that in order to get the information you need from the people who have it, you often have to treat them sympathetically in the book. Sometimes they just want money or something like that in exchange for being one of your sources of information, but often they want to make sure they come out looking good in what you write.

And not even necessarily in the crude sense of “I want you to lie and spin things to make me look better than I am,” but more in the sense of “I want you to be fair to me. I want to make sure my perspective on events is respected and my reasons for doing what I did are included.” Unfortunately, given the natural human bias in favor of oneself, most people think the account that puts them in the best light is indeed the account that is most accurate and fair, so keeping your sources happy can indeed require slanting things their way, whether they would admit it or not.

That being said, there’s certainly value in the sections of the book that are more about the media coverage of the case than the case itself. This kind of pack journalism, of everyone rushing to cover the latest hot story, is an interesting sociological phenomenon in itself, worthy of investigation and discussion.

For me as a reader, though, the parts more directly about Gilmore typically drew me in more than “The Story of Larry Schiller” material that dominates the second half of the book. The book is over a thousand pages, and if you had to cut something, I would have cut a good portion of that material about the press coverage.

I’m not saying I would have preferred that be cut, just that if you didn’t want such a long book and decided to cut a few hundred pages, that’s where I’d look to make the cuts. The thousand page book as it is is very good, and I think a 600-700 page book with considerably less about Schiller and the various book deal negotiations and TV movie deal negotiations and such would have been very good as well. I’m not sure which would be better.

Clearly Mailer—or really Schiller, since he did the bulk of the research before Mailer came aboard—got extraordinary cooperation from a huge number of the people involved. There are surprisingly few gaps in the story.

On the other hand, some of that thoroughness may be misleading. Mailer’s approach in writing this book was to take all the available evidence and create the most plausible narrative from it. Thus where the evidence was conclusive, he told it the way it was. Where the evidence was sparse or contradictory, he took his best guess and went with that. So maybe the lack of gaps is really just an indication that he filled them in with his best speculations rather than that the principles really revealed everything.

By the way, while that approach can certainly be faulted for going beyond what’s known—and so you have to remember when reading it that much of it is what probably happened rather than what did happen—it could be worse. I’d much rather an author take Mailer’s approach and choose content based on its likelihood of truth (when certainty of truth is unavailable), rather than choosing on the basis of what is most entertaining, what will sell the most books, what will further some ideological goal, etc.

Mailer does confess in an afterword the few intentional falsehoods he included in the book. I can understand all of them, but would prefer he not have made the choice he did in most of them.

For instance, an interview with a psychiatrist turns out to be fictionalized, though the person gave permission to have his views thus represented. The “old prison rhyme” that introduces the book is actually just something Mailer made up.

Most significantly, some of the Gilmore material is altered. I can sort of go along with cleaning up the transcripts of his interview tapes, as I agree with Mailer that spoken English does not translate well to the printed page—it makes almost anyone sound dumber and less articulate than they really are if you include all the “you know”s, and “like”s, and “uhh”s, and such. I faced that same issue when I wrote an oral history book and I too chose not to stick exactly to the words as they were spoken. I purposely kept the changes minimal though, not altering the substance but just making it less tortuous to read. I would hope Mailer too made only small changes like that to maintain some tolerable flow, but I don’t know.

I do take issue, though, with his decision to alter Gilmore’s written material, like his letters from prison to his girlfriend Nicole. “With Gilmore’s letters, however, it seemed fair to show him at a level higher than his average. One wanted to demonstrate the impact of his mind on Nicole, and that might best be achieved by allowing his brain to have its impact on us.” Nope, I can’t go along with that. Whatever misspellings, or grammatical errors, or factual errors or whatever happen to be in his writings, it’s dishonest to edit them out and claim it’s what he wrote. I don’t want to be manipulated to react to Gilmore the way Mailer thinks I should or the way Mailer thinks his girlfriend did; I want to react to what Gilmore actually wrote. If he’s a sub-literate simpleton (not saying he is, just saying “if”), then so be it. Don’t present him as something else, or allow him to present himself as something else.

I want to talk about my impressions of Gilmore, but first a little about his milieu.

Between his leaving prison and his committing the murders, he lived in a kind of Mormon white trash area of Utah, interacting mostly with an aunt and uncle and cousins, with various short term employers, and then with a new girlfriend Nicole and her family.

I confess I often had a feeling of disgust reading about these people and this world. It sounds like mostly a lot of creepy, ignorant people leading useless lives. They get married and divorced frivolously; some of the main characters have been married three and four times already and they aren’t even very old. Their first marriage is typically in their teens, and they start having babies right away if not before then. Alcohol and drug abuse are almost automatic. Education and steady employment are rare; being on government assistance, petty crime, and domestic abuse are not.

Really it fits a lot of the worst stereotypes about urban ghetto dwellers. It shows that contrary to what a lot of people want to tell themselves, there are plenty of white people who live this way.

There’s a four page interview with Nicole’s neighbor that is both sad and comical in how it epitomizes the lives these folks lead. As she recounts it—apparently with no self-consciousness that any of this is unusual or to be ashamed of—she got married at age 16 to someone she’d dated for about a month, during that month he’d shot himself in the foot as some sort of protest or something to her allegedly cheating on him, the marriage lasted only three months—long enough for her to get pregnant with twins—because he then committed suicide by stabbing himself in the belly, she met a friend of his at the funeral and married him two weeks later, that marriage lasted two weeks before she took off, and he’s now living with her best girlfriend while the divorce is pending. She explains a lot of this with the fact that she was perpetually drunk in her teens.

Nicole herself is a total slut from an abusive background, married multiple times, with kids that rarely seem to represent much more to her than an inconvenience. For all her efforts to paint her romance with Gilmore as some sort of Romeo and Juliet tale of extraordinary love and passion, she seems capable of no such deep emotions for her own kids, who are mentioned here and there in the book almost like inanimate objects, to be dumped on whatever relative or neighbor will take them so Nicole can live her life.

But when I step back and think about it, really there are plenty of people in the book in this same environment who don’t seem so bad or pathetic. Some of them are perfectly able to maintain steady employment, pay their bills, not commit crimes, and fulfill their family responsibilities. I think it’s just that the real trashy ones who seem to have no life beyond drugs and sex and getting married on a whim are so much more arresting that they seem to be even more predominant than they really are.

There’s also some correlation with age. The more stable and responsible folks are mostly older, with some exceptions. So at least some of these folks do seem to mature.

Many of Gilmore’s relatives and others in his circle received money—mostly from Schiller—for their stories. I don’t know that that brought out as bad a side of them as one might have expected. They don’t come across all that sleazy or money-grubbing. Certainly they don’t turn down the money, but they don’t negotiate dishonestly, turn on each other, etc.

Not that it was a massive, life-changing amount of money, so maybe that’s why it doesn’t seem to have had much corrupting influence on them. The most important figures, like Nicole, received in the low five figures, while most received much less than that.

But one group that does come across fairly negatively, to me, is the lawyers. Gilmore went through several lawyers, because he dismissed any that didn’t cooperate with his decision to not appeal his death sentence.

One in particular who came and went fairly quickly in the early stages—Dennis Boaz—is something of a hippie buffoon, too much of an unstable dolt to even succeed more than modestly at being the kind of publicity hound he seemed to aspire to be.

The pair Gilmore eventually settled on aren’t as goofy as that, but they aren’t particularly impressive either. They defy the prison authorities by sneaking in a tape recorder for their meetings with Gilmore (they’re being paid by Schiller also, and they function as his representative in the meetings, asking Gilmore questions Schiller supplies them), but half the time they screw it up. They forget to turn on the recorder, they inadvertently tape over an earlier session, they laugh at some of the questions and make it easy for Gilmore to evade them, they don’t follow up when Gilmore says something interesting, etc., all of which drives Schiller up the wall when he listens to the tapes. So they behave in an ethically dubious way for attorneys, and they’re somewhat inept in doing so.

One of them makes an interesting admission late in the book, that had they ever expected Gilmore’s execution wouldn’t have been blocked at some point in spite of his trying to waive his right to appeal, they never would have gone along with his wishes. That is, they were willing to cooperate in his attempts to obtain an immediate execution only because they were convinced they’d lose.

But what of Gilmore himself? There’s a temptation to treat him as something special, someone particularly interesting or remarkable, as a justification for the media frenzy, for this thousand page book, etc. Like, “We’ve come all this way and spent all this money to cover a big story, so damn it, this is going to be a big story!” So in the media’s eyes, Gilmore is a genius, or he’s evil personified with a Svengali-like influence over Nicole and others, or he’s the consummate con man who has no intention of going through with this waiving of all his appeals, or he has some great insight into spiritual matters, or his relationship with Nicole is a storybook romance for the ages, etc.

Nah. He’s newsworthy because he’s on schedule to be the first person executed in the country in a decade. But beyond that, frankly he’s mostly a loser.

Not that there aren’t various things about Gilmore that are indeed notable. He’s probably of above average intelligence. He’s a skilled artist (and had opportunities to pursue art more seriously, but blew them).

There are times he exhibits an impressive strength of will or at least stubbornness. For instance, the decision to accept his execution, which, despite some people’s predictions, he sticks with to the end. Or a 25 day hunger strike he conducts in prison when he’s not getting his way. (How many people could last that long?)

His murders were probably a little scarier and creepier, and indicative of an unusual coldness or amorality, than even the average murder, partly because they were so pointless. They happened in the context of robberies, but the robberies were like an afterthought, and certainly very little money was involved. In some twisted way the murders were connected in his mind with his having just had a big fight with Nicole and possibly breaking up with her for good, so I guess if they had any point at all it was to provide an outlet for his rage other than suicide or killing Nicole. But really they were pretty chillingly random.

So there are those and other things that one could use to argue that his was indeed an unusual and remarkable story, but my take is that if you dig into any murderer’s life, or any person’s life for that matter, if you try hard enough you can almost always find a few things about them that are unusually good or unusually evil or just different enough from the norm to be interesting.

In other words, probably the second person to be executed after the death penalty hiatus, or the twentieth, would have had a story worth telling as well, if the same extraordinary resources were devoted to investigating him and interviewing everyone in his life.

It is suggested in the book that drugs administered to Gilmore in prison when he was young, not to mention the whole warping, dehumanizing effects of being in prison to begin with, may have messed up his brain chemistry for the worse and made him what he ended up being. Not that he was exactly a nice guy before that. But he was a low level hoodlum who may or may not have outgrown it as he matured, whereas after the drugs people spoke of a new coldness in him, a scarier look in his eyes, etc.

There’s a criminology theory called the “broken windows theory,” popularized in the ’80s, that as I understand it proposes that when you let little things go, like petty vandalism in urban areas, it increases the chances that the perpetrators will go on to commit more serious crimes. I don’t know how much validity it has—I think it’s been quite controversial in the field—but I thought about that in connection with Gilmore.

Long before he commits his murders, indeed from very soon after he gets out of prison, he returns to a criminal lifestyle, at least at a low level. Mostly this involves stealing. On what sounds like a daily basis or close to it, he walks into a store, takes what he wants, and walks out the door. The very brazenness of his style, he has learned, is what makes it effective. If people notice him at all they assume he must have paid for the stuff he walks out with.

But certainly the people in his life know he’s doing it. And probably some store employees pick up on what he’s doing. But no one seems inclined to do anything about it. At most his uncle or someone might shake his head and tell him he’s foolish to do what he’s doing while he’s on parole. But most people are either scared to challenge him on it, or they don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s not like Nicole is less willing to have sex with him when he commits crimes, for instance.

For that matter he’s routinely irresponsible about work, that is when he has a job at all. In the very early stages he’s actually unusually committed to his job—walking long distances before he gets a car, for instance—but pretty quickly that fades and he becomes something less than a model employee, showing up when he wants, making lame excuses for not coming to work, getting in fights on the job, etc.

But for the most part he’s not held accountable for any of it. People keep giving him second and third and fourth chances, and looking the other way at his antics to avoid getting him in trouble.

Would it have made a difference if he had had to suffer consequences for his pre-murder bad deeds? I don’t know. I especially don’t know if sticking him back in prison would have helped, since there’s evidence that all prison ever did is make him even worse.

But just in reading his story I was struck by what a jerk he was, and what bad behavior he engaged in, up to and including criminal behavior, and yet how little response there was to it, how little people seemed to care or disapprove.

And it’s not like he’s appreciative of all the favors he gets and all the ways people indulge him. I mean, in a superficial way he sometimes expresses gratitude, but generally he seems to barely notice people acting favorably toward him.

He’s quick, though, to react to real or imagined negative stimuli. He’s always ready to accuse someone of betrayal, to fight, to cite the supposed wrongs he suffers at the hands of others to justify his own failures, etc.

Having spent several years in prison as a volunteer—which I wrote the aforementioned oral history book about—one thing that went through my mind is just where a guy like Gilmore would have ranked in the pecking order. He liked to present himself as the kind of tough guy, hardened con who would have ranked at or near the top, but I have my doubts.

My guess is he would have ranked somewhere around the middle. His crimes would not have hurt his status relative to the convict code, and he would have gotten some respect (in the sense of making others wary of him) due to the fact that he had shown a propensity to use violence and was somewhat unpredictable, but he doesn’t strike me as someone with the character and leadership qualities to have been one of those who calls the shots in prison.

On the other hand, there was the potential for him to drop precipitously in prison prestige due to various suggestive bits of evidence that he had pedophile tendencies.

Much of his passion for Nicole seemed to be related to her childlike qualities. His nickname for her was “Elf.” She was young—I think 19 when they met—and petite even for her age. Petite but with very womanly curves and a strong sex drive, so less like a child and more like some fantasy sexualized child.

In one of his letters to Nicole, he related a story about when he was 23 in a state hospital in Oregon, and there was a slight and gentle natured 13 year old boy there at the same time, and how Gilmore delighted in doing things like insisting on a kiss in exchange for lending him a magazine and such. There’s not really a rapist, violent edge to the story, like he’s bragging about some conquest he took by force, but a strangely romantic kind of playfulness to it, emphasizing how cute and naïve and adorable the youngster was.

He also during this time asks if one of his visitors can find a certain book he has heard about and bring it to him, a book of photos of naked and semi-naked children, which he insists is very good quality art photography and certainly not pornographic in any way.

There’s at least one occasion in the book where he’s with an underage girl on the outside, and while apparently nothing happens, multiple people claim to have gotten a creepy feeling from his manner in interacting with her.

I don’t know how strong his tendencies were in this area, or to what extent he acted on them or would have acted on them given the opportunity. I wonder too if a certain degree of fascination with underage sex isn’t particularly common in prison, just due to the fact of its being such an extreme taboo. I’m just speculating, but it seems like if you hold something out as that big a deal, as so horrific, as so unforgivable, as so much the ultimate evil, that some people who may have had no pre-existing inclination in that direction might find themselves drawn to it, or at least curious about it.

It was very important to Gilmore that he “die with dignity.” I suppose in his way he did. He didn’t back out of his decision to accept execution at the last minute. In his final days he was mostly gracious and forgiving toward those in his life (though closer to the very end he did become difficult and irritable when it looked like there might be a last minute stay after all, and when pizza was brought in for his last night party with friends and family and he was not allowed to have any because it hadn’t been on his formal “last meal” request). When placed in front of the firing squad his last words were merely “Let’s do it,” and then some Latin words muttered to the priest, and he allowed himself to be shot without resistance.

His position was not that he deserved to die for his crimes, though occasionally he said things that could be interpreted that way, but that he preferred execution to prison. There was nothing inconsistent, then, in his expressing a willingness to escape if the opportunity presented itself, including that last night when he tried to get visitors to exchange clothing with him so he could potentially slip out.

Gary Gilmore was likable in some respects, admirable in some respects, and intelligent in some respects, but overall I still say he was not all that special, and for the most part he was a reprehensible loser. I don’t think much of him, but I would rate The Executioner’s Song itself fairly high.

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