Sometimes I’ll read instead of write, or vice versa. I get the sense that I can either read or write, but not both in the same span of time.
Lately I’ve been reading. But then there’s the trick of what to read: prose or poetry.
I have three shelves in my room dedicated to unread prose, and there’s always more poetry to read. Currently I have “Paper Dance” checked out of the library, probably already a few days overdue.
What with school and Mock Trial and Quaker events, I always seem to have a short amount of time to myself, and I make an effort to either write or read during this time.
A few summers ago I read “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote. This is one of my favorite books, and I highly recommend it.
I found it particularly intriguing because it was one of the first works of its kind written: a nonfiction novel.
Part of the work is about the small Kansas town of Holcomb and how its people dealt with the slaughter of one of its families, the Clutters. But the rest of “In Cold Blood” details the journey of the killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. Capote humanizes them, describing their lives at an intimate level that leaves the reader feeling for them.
About a year ago, knowing how much I enjoyed this true crime novel, I picked up “The Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer.
In this work, Mailer gave his readers a close view of Gary Gilmore, an infamous murderer in 1977, known for demanding the state of Utah implement his death sentence; his victims, Max Jensen and Bennie Bushnell; his lawyers, whom Gilmore resented for denying him a defense; his girlfriend, Nicole Baker; and his family, including his cousin, uncle and aunt, brother and mother.
I’ve finished the first book of “The Executioner’s Song,” titled “Western Voices.” The second book is called “Eastern Voices.” Each is a little over 500 pages long, leaving the complete work closely resembling a brick.
Though Mailer’s portrayal of Gilmore did end up making me empathize with him, I didn’t get that feeling until he was imprisoned the second time, in 1976.
Mailer included letters of Gilmore’s written to Nicole Baker – I cried reading the first letters.
Up till that point, Mailer had portrayed Gilmore as a cold-blooded killer. He described the killings and the victims to make readers feel the weight of that loss.
But reading those letters, I saw Gilmore as human. These letters were clearly written by a raw, conscious soul with unfettered devotion to Nicole. They were written by a poet with the intellect to understand both his position and that the prison system had put him there.
One bit that stood out from these letters for me was “Softly grow stronger with me. O Fair Nicole.”
Gilmore was 35 years old when he was executed. Of those years, he had lived 14 in prison. In his time spent in prison, he was reading and strengthening his vocabulary. While Gilmore used large and complex words in his letters, he would spell night “nite,” light “lite,” and so forth.
In his letters it was also apparent that Gilmore was a profound believer in reincarnation. He thought that the soul was tethered to the body but could move without restraint once free of that body, through death or dreams.
So he, at one point, wasn’t dreaming, and he was distraught. Personally, I get nervous if I dream because I would have terrible recurring nightmares as a child. Whenever I dream I feel there’s a possibility of getting a horrendous nightmare again. But Gilmore would crave such dreams. He saw them as a way to investigate his own psyche. I think that’s tremendously brave.
During his trial in 1976, his defense attorneys had tried to find a way to legally argue insanity, but while he had been deemed psychopathic by doctors, he was not found psychotic.
One doctor in particular, Dr. John Woods, delved more into this question: where the line divided the psychopath and the psychotic.
Woods decided that “the psychotic thinks he’s in contact with spirits from other worlds. He believes he is prey to the spirits of the dead. He’s in terror. By his understanding, he lives in a field of evil forces. The psychopath . . . inhabits the same place. It is just that he feels stronger. The psychopath sees himself as a potent force in that field of forces. Sometimes he even believes he can go to war against them, and win. So if he really loses, he is close to collapse, and can be as ghost-ridden as a psychotic.”
On the day of his sentencing, Gilmore chose to be executed by firing squad.
I’m not a proponent of capital punishment. Reading “The Executioner’s Song” hasn’t changed that for me. I believe that the point of living is to experience and that one can experience many things regardless of location or even treatment, especially in a mind like Gilmore’s, where reality was a figment of imagination and dreams were to be sought after – where through meditation, Gilmore could find any question’s answer within himself. Such an artist, such a poet, had much to offer and much to gain in prison. But I understand Gilmore’s choice. And I wrote a poem about him.
All answers can be found in the quiet:
but in the end his mind echoed within
echoing halls filled with echoing cages.
Man of thirty-five years,
minus fourteen for bad behavior.
He’d chase nite’s dreams; he
craved that inner revelation.
Freedom defines humanity –
but, go ahead. Imprison for life.
It is, after all, more humane than
pulling the trigger.
Murky injections altered mind’s state,
never pushing to psychosis –
merely psychopathic tics,
reckless impulses built of need, not want.
Pumped full of chemicals,
he was sentenced to death.
But a body can only confine a soul.
Can you write me a poem, dear Mr. Gilmore?
Quickly sketch me up?
Persist, Mr. Gilmore. Maybe
You, too, will die.
Life sentences are dealt mercilessly:
escape as you can.
Mr. Gilmore will go out the way he stole souls,
so the itching squad lines up,
five index fingers inching toward five triggers.
Your survivors must
softly grow stronger
—By Gabi Alvarado