- Last Words: Transference and the Auto/biographical Demand in Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart
“There will always be a father.”—Gary Gilmore’s last words before a Utah firing squad
“A story can’t be told
Until a story’s done”—opening lines of a poem Gaylen Gilmore was writing in the hospital where he died
Shot in the Heart, Mikal Gilmore’s (1994) account of his family history and the execution of his brother Gary Gilmore, is structured through what I will call the auto/biographical demand, in which the demands of autobiography (to tell my story) and the demands of biography (to tell your story) coincide. The auto/biographical demand entails a narrative dilemma, because it both divides and doubles the writing subject. An auto/biographer manages this instability, and the constraints it produces, to some extent, through form; nevertheless, the writing subject is caught up in, indeed emerges through, his or her implication in a family, a culture, and a self, however divided and split. The auto/biographical demand offers a way to focus on how the writing subject inherits tasks which are as unavoidable as they are unrequitable. As a professional writer for Rolling Stone magazine, Mikal Gilmore brings substantial talent to the task. While his book is not an “as told to” effort, there is a sense in which it is ghost written.
Namely, Mikal Gilmore must speak to and for the dead. Because his effort is to organize his identification with his family, rather than simply to be a living emblem of the pain [End Page 277] they represent for him, he must lay down a line between his story and their story in order to understand the claims the dead make on him. His book clarifies further the extent to which biography and autobiography emerge through the demands that the dead place on the living. The dead stalk the unconscious and wait, in Gilmore’s text, for any opportunity to appear: dreams, current relationships, the writing of his book. They make demands on him; he issues pleas. Tell me your secrets, he begs; never, they respond. Yet they refuse to be still. Recalling Toni Morrison’s (1987) brilliant evocation of the traumatized past that refuses to stay buried until it is properly mourned, the dead Gilmores, like the ghostly Beloved, threaten to haunt noisily until there is a reckoning. While Mikal Gilmore’s book aims to be that reckoning, his task is further complicated by how haunting persists in the form of family secrets. He must elicit and disclose his family’s secrets if he is to be their biographer; yet, if he is to uphold the family code of loyalty, he must keep them. Gilmore must tell their story if he is to tell his, even if the former act entails infidelity—the latter is an act of survival. Yet he cannot set it all out clearly, cannot resolve why violence marked his family, or why he was spared certain forms of it. Secrets structure his family’s narratives: apart from them, his family does not exist. Given the implacability of the auto/biographical demand as Mikal Gilmore structures and is structured by it, the only words that comfort him are ones he repeats in an agony of insight about what it means to survive his brother’s execution and still be a member of his family: “It will never be all right. Never. It will never be all right” (398).
Most biographers never articulate this degree of transference to their subjects. Shot in the Heart differs in that transference explicitly drives the project. Mikal Gilmore wants to understand his dead brother’s life, to trace his family’s lineage to see if he can read in it the story of how violence begins, and to retell it so that his story can include a chapter on how violence might end. Because his book is both biography and autobiography, and therefore offers Gilmore an opportunity to foreground his relation to his subject, his text offers a way to bring some recent critical insights into autobiography to bear [End Page 278] on biography, especially with respect to the task...