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A Legacy Survived : Mikal Gilmore tells the painful history of a family--his own. Now, years after his brother Gary was executed, he writes vividly of living through it all.

July 06, 1994|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What could be more purely Americana?

It's a photograph that could be found hanging above a mantelpiece. Maybe slipped inside a gilded frame centered atop the TV. Father in straw hat, mother in cloth dress, stern faces and seen-too-much eyes peering far beyond the lens, into an expanse--probably the future.

Instead of the symbolic pitchfork and wood-frame farmhouse looming in the background, front-and-center stand three healthy boys--smiling or goofing.

But what lies behind this photograph, between the covers of journalist Mikal Gilmore's raw yet eloquently rendered family album of memories, "Shot in the Heart" (Doubleday, 1994), is Americana turned on its head, Americana unflatteringly exposed.

It is a poignant testament to how three spirited young boys, within a few decades, would leave their mark: one dead, another an anonymous recluse and the third on Death Row, demanding to be executed.

The Gilmore story is more than a window into an ugly aberration. It is a disturbing mirror of the violence that echoes down through generations, simmers behind fragile appearances. How many American families, behind smiles or stoic stances, could tell heart-rending stories of wreckage and ruin?

Absent from this photograph, as well as from some of the more awful and relentless violence of the family's early years, the youngest Gilmore approaches the book at first as an outsider looking in--curious and detached, thirsty to understand.

"The family I grew up in was not the same family my brothers grew up in," writes Mikal. "They grew up in a family that was on the road constantly, never in the same place longer than a couple of months at best. They grew up in a family where they watched the father beat the mother regularly, battering her face until it was a mortified, blue knot. They grew up in a family where they were slapped and pummeled and belittled for paltry affronts."

Structurally, Mikal's testimonial unfolds as a vivid diptych. Panel One begins with a macabre history of Mormon blood (his mother's religion), then flows into his own family's bloodlines--the mysterious and incessant hauntings, the anger and violence. It is a history tangled--part fiction, part augmented memory.

The second panel details the stifling life just after Mikal's now-infamous brother, Gary, murdered two Mormon men in Provo, Utah, and then--equally alarmingly--implored to be put to death by firing squad. To spill his blood on Morman soil, "as an apology," Mikal writes, "to God.'

Gary Gilmore got his wish on Jan. 17, 1977, at the age of 36.

In the years that followed, Mikal Gilmore, eight years younger, found himself involved in an intricate push-me-pull-you tango with his family and its knotty history. He tried walking away, staving off the pain, but was ultimately unable to escape the broad cast of their shadows, the persistence of their closeted ghosts.

He bumped around the Pacific Northwest a bit and then set down roots in L.A., embarking on a serious career in journalism. After a stint with an underground paper in Oregon, he began writing about pop culture and music for the L.A. Weekly, the now-defunct Herald Examiner and Rolling Stone.

"What is less generally known," Mikal says in his prologue, is the ". . . story of the origins of Gary's violence--the true history of my family and how its webwork of dark secrets and failed hopes helped create the legacy that, in part, became my brother's impetus to murder."

It was hoped that Mikal would escape this "bad legacy," this family's grim haunting, that left two brothers dead at an early age, another who effectively turned into a wandering ghost. Both mother (branded the family's black sheep for marrying a man who was first "too old" and, even worse, not Mormon) and father (whose mercurial moods and criminal record kept the family Ping-Ponging across the country) in their later years saw Mikal as a symbol of their last chance, the only hope.

"(My mother) wanted me to survive our bad legacy, to be her best work, and yet in order to do that, I felt I had to leave her behind, and of course that hurt her," Mikal writes. "You cannot move into a new world and still stay bound to the demands of the old world."

*

The new world that Mikal has found himself the center of circles back, he's learned, to the old one, demanding closure of sorts. Sitting in a corner of West Hollywood's Book Soup Bistro, unassuming in faded denims and a white shirt upon which rests a small, cubelike silver crucifix dangling from a simple chain, Mikal takes sips from a small glass of Coke.

Despite the horrors related in his book, a sense of placidness prevails; it is in the ease with which he moves his limbs, the slow scan of his blue-green eyes. The only signs of fatigue or world-weariness materialize as circles, like faint ash, beneath his eyes.

He is recalling one of his darker moments--the eyes still calm, the face unchanging--the brick wall he hit, the moment that sent him on his search.

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