Seeing Ghosts

updated 06/13/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/13/1994 01:00AM

LATELY, MIKAL GILMORE HAS BEEN Disturbed by a recurring dream. "I'm back with my family," he says, picking at his salad in a Los Angeles diner. "They're all there—my mother, my father, Gary, Gaylen, Frank. I haven't seen any of them for years, and it's sort of like I've forgotten they're still alive. And I've written this book about them that's going to come out soon. I realize they're going to read it and they're just going to hate me. They won't be pleased I told the story, and they won't be proud."

What makes this dream poignant is that pride is so little a part of the Gilmore legacy. One of Mikal's older brothers was Gary Gilmore, who in 1976 mercilessly shot and killed two young men in Utah. Sentenced to die for his crimes, Gilmore shocked the world by demanding his own execution. He died, at 36, before a firing squad in 1977, the first person to be executed in America in a decade. The story of Gary's crimes and the ensuing media circus was immortalized in Norman Mailer's 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Executioner's Song. But with Shot in the Heart (Doubleday), Mikal Gilmore has chosen to tell a different story: of the violent forces that shaped Gary and his other brothers—Frank, 54, who is a recluse in a boardinghouse in Portland, Ore., and Gaylen, who was murdered in 1971—and of the way his own life has been haunted by his family history. "I think when you come from a background of ruin, that can become part of your core," Gilmore says. "As hard as you reach inside and pull it out, sometimes it feels like it's something you just can't get free of."

On the face of it, Gilmore appears to be the lucky one who got away. At 43, he is a longtime L.A.-based writer for Rolling Stone and now a successful author. In 1991 his 96-page proposal for Shot in the Heart sparked a heated auction among publishers that topped out with Doubleday's offer of a $700,000 advance. Though no movie is yet in the works, Gilmore got a six-figure sum for the film rights, and the literary magazine Granta published Gilmore's proposal in what became one of its best-selling issues ever. Gilmore insists that he never anticipated all the hoopla and that he has made his peace with the accusation that he might be profiting from Gary's notoriety. "People can say that," he says. "The truth is, had I wanted to profit off it, I could have done that a long time ago. I did this to learn the story."

And also to find a private peace. By 1990, he says, he had been through one failed marriage and a devastating romance and had been unable to. complete a couple of books he had promised to write. Mired in a paralyzing depression, Gilmore realized, with the help of a therapist, that he could not move forward without acknowledging the past. "I had spent many years telling myself I was not like them—in particular I wasn't like Gary," he explains. "But I came to see that we had all lived lives that just kind of stopped or ended in disaster. None of us had families, and it was almost like my brothers had tried to erase themselves from the world."

He set out, then, to create an indelible record of their collective tragedy. The first thing he had to do was find his remaining brother, Frank, who had disappeared in 1980 after their mother, Bessie, died after years of ill health. Eventually in late 1991, he found Frank in the Portland boardinghouse and persuaded him to share his memories of the family. "He is the only person living who saw the whole story," says Mikal, who dedicated the book to his brother and plans to share any profits with him. "We've had remarkable conversations that people in families don't often get to have."

Mikal spent a year researching Shot, conducting interviews with teachers, neighbors and people who knew Gary and poring over court records to learn family secrets. His mother, Bessie, grew up in a strict Mormon family in Provo, Utah—later the scene of one of Gary's crimes—and his father, Frank, was a petty con artist who turns out to have had several wives and eight or nine children before he settled down with Bessie, 23 years his junior.

By the time Mikal was born in 1951, the Gilmores had settled in Portland, where his father became a successful publisher of a guide to the area's building codes. But he was also a brutal alcoholic who unleashed his rages on his wife and sons: Frank Jr., born in 1939; Gary, born in 1940; and Gaylen, born in 1944. Gary, rebellious from the start, received the worst of the beatings.

When Gary was 14 he was sent to reform school for stealing cars. Mikal believes that experience, coupled with his father's abuse, helped turn a difficult child into a hardened criminal. "Gary made his own choices in life," he says. "I'm not absolving him of anything. But a lot of cards were stacked against him."

Mikal, however, had some advantages. Like his brothers, he was smart and talented (Gaylen wrote poetry, Gary was an artist), but unlike them, he was his father's favorite and was never beaten. By the time Mikal was a teenager, his father was dead of cancer and his brothers were rarely around. Gary was in and out of prison, Frank had joined the Army, and Gaylen had moved out—to die in 1971 after a still-unexplained stabbing. Mikal sought refuge in '60s politics and rock and roll. "I've often felt like music was one of the best friends I ever had," he says now. "It gave me comfort and a sense of courage." He dropped out of Portland Stale University after less than a year and worked as a drug counselor. In 1974, when a friend asked him to write a piece about Bob Dylan for an underground paper, he "jumped at the chance and never looked back."

One night in July 1976, meanwhile, Gary drove to a gas station in Orem, Utah. He robbed attendant Max Jensen, 24, and then, as Jensen lay on the bathroom floor, shot him twice in the head. The next night, Gary did the same thing at a Provo motel, murdering the manager, Ben Bushnell, 26. After Gary's arrest, Mikal, 25, horrified by his brother's crimes but also adamantly opposed to capital punishment, flew to Utah, planning to file an appeal to stop the execution. When he came face-to-face with Gary, however, he realized his brother was determined to die and acceded to his wishes. "It was horrible," Gil more says. "Whatever my choice, it carried consequences."

Gilmore still agonizes over whether to have a family of his own. In 1982 he married a woman he now describes as having plenty of "family demons" of her own, and they divorced three years later. "When everything first happened with Gary," he says, "I thought, I don't want to raise a kid with that kind of shame." Though the shy, soft-spoken author says he is not himself a violent person, he worries about somehow passing on the Gil-more violence.

For now, Mikal and his cats, Carmen and Pinky, live in a cluttered apartment among his vast collection of books, CDs (he has 18,000 records in storage elsewhere) and electronic equipment. Though he calls Shot in the Heart "lifesaving," he still misses Gary, who could be "terribly funny" and had a "powerful mind," he says. "I don't forgive him for what he did to those two men or what he did to his own life," Gilmore says. "But if I could choose the way people remember him—and I don't get to do that at all—I guess I'd want people to see him as a case study for the things you should not do to a child's heart."

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