While They Slept

From a review of Kathryn Harrison’s new book While They Slept, about a boy who murders his parents:

When Billy Gilley is 13, stealing cigarettes leads him to the Children’s Services Division, where the boy trustingly told a social worker about his family: the drinking, fighting, extreme verbal abuse in a family where customarily, after sentencing by his mother, his father would tie him to a tractor tire in order to immobilize him for beating with a rubber hose. He described for the social worker how his parents were, in Billy’s terms, “crazy and unfit.”

The child told his story, and the social worker’s response was to repeat it to those abusive parents. Furious, they demanded to speak with him in private, so that he recanted and said he had been lying. The parents threatened to sue the agency, which fired the social worker and destroyed the record of her conversation with Billy, leaving only the annotation that the child was a liar. . . .Having acquired literacy skills in prison, he writes and illustrates children’s books. In these books, large-eyed animals play an important role: children are in trouble or distress, and human adults cannot understand or help. The animals understand the children, and bring them to safety.

This reminds me of two things. Many years ago, such as in the 1920s, cancer was a terrible thing and a total mystery. People didn’t like to talk about it. Likewise the social worker’s actions are a terrible thing and a total mystery. What should be done about such behavior? Nobody wants to talk about it. The other thing this reminds me of is the Ten Commandments. Here is something else no one talks about: There is no commandment against child abuse. No stealing: yes. No murder: yes. No adultery: yes. No child abuse: no. Stealing is worse than child abuse? Huh?

Well, at least the review is titled “Speaking the Unspeakable.”

4 Replies to “While They Slept

  1. “No child abuse: no.”

    What’s more, there’s even a commandment on honouring your parents. Unconditionally, that is. That was a popular favourite in religious education: “Why should I honour my parents if they hit me?” “What if my dad’s a murderer?” I’ve never heard a decent answer.

  2. Sad story. In defense of the social worker, maybe he or she had heard made-up stories by kids a lot in his or her line of work. When I was in pre-k (so very young) I told my mom that my teacher hand-cuffed me to a chair. I’m pretty sure I believed this to be true at the time, though it seems highly doubtful now! My mom asked the teacher about it, probably to get a sense of what really happened.

  3. I asked someone who works in the child protective system about this. She said the whole system is broken, in many ways. Caseworker overload, caseworker burnout, corruption, etc. She thought The Wire was accurate. I said, “Why do we bother to have a system that fails so completely? To make politicians look good?” She said, “Yes, there is that. Politicians are in office for 2 or 4 years. They won’t fund something that would produce results when they’re out of office.”

  4. 1. The commandment is against kidnapping, not stealing. It’s a mistranslation.

    2. The ten commandments are not more important than the other commandments. A better translation is “the 10 utterances” — the ones “spoken” by G-d at Sinai.

Comments are closed.