Murder and medicine | Features
Dr. Benjamin Gilmer shares his memoir at the National Writers Series
By Anna Faller | September 17, 2022
What does it take to get a man out of jail, especially if he doesn’t deserve his sentence?
In his memoirs, The other Dr. Gilmer (of This American Life podcast celebrity), author Dr. Benjamin Gilmer examines this question, among countless others, in his quest to reframe America’s approach to mental health and mass incarceration. Tune in to his National Writers Series event on Wednesday, September 21 and prepare for a response you never saw coming.
The power of primary care
A family physician and academic physician, Benjamin Gilmer is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC). He also leads MAHEC’s Rural Health Initiative, a program that provides pipeline training to rural students pursuing medical school.
“After my third year of medicine, I decided to do a [program] in West Africa, called the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship,” he says. It was there that Gilmer was exposed to the full spectrum of what primary care had to offer. He explains: “It was really exciting to see how [those] the doctors supported not only the patients, but the whole community. The experience was a vocation for me.
It was precisely this call that brought Gilmer to the Cane Creek clinic in North Carolina, where he learned that his predecessor, Dr. Vincent Gilmer, had been convicted of the brutal murder of his father. “It was like this universal collision of fate. That’s kind of how I accepted it: that there would be two Drs. Gilmer whose life had never touched before,” the author explains.
But, as Gilmer delved deeper and deeper into the life of the “murderer” who shared his name – “just learning how wonderful he was, both as a doctor and as a man “, he said – it became clear that something was wrong. it’s true.
The Perfect Storm
This is where Gilmer’s story begins. his memoirs, The other Dr. Gilmerdetails the perfect storm of events that led a small-town doctor to do the unthinkable and the decade-long call for justice.
Does all this mean anything to you? It should. Before the release of the book, the fate of Vincent Gilmer was the subject of a This American Life episode (titled “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde”), which has since racked up more than 10 million plays, as well as a CNN documentary. There’s also a film adaptation in the works, courtesy of Concordia Films.
But before the media attention, Gilmer learned that his predecessor had Huntington’s disease. For those who may not be familiar with it, Huntington’s disease is an autosomal disease in which the brain slowly stops functioning properly. Symptoms can range from subtle mood swings and depression to full-blown neurological impairments. In Vincent’s case, the disease caused him to hear voices, which ordered him to kill his father.
There were also several other factors at work in Vincent’s already volatile brain. We learn, for example, that Vincent had been sexually abused by his father; add to that the resulting PTSD and head trauma later in life, and you have a neural cataclysm waiting to happen. As Gilmer explains, “[I wanted to] to retrospectively reframe how a life is formed and why people make serious mistakes like this. Stories are always more complex than they first appear.
Unfortunately for Vincent, this story was more complex than the court wanted to believe. Instead of providing the rehabilitation suggested by his psychiatric prison, the judge called Vincent a cold-blooded killer – “it was the best he could do”, a deadpan Gilmer says – and even accused him of having simulated his symptoms before confining him to his cell.
Today, Vincent, a free man since January, still lives in a prison in Virginia. “We were so thrilled when Governor Northam reversed the clemency rejection,” Gilmer said. Until a new obstacle arises. Apparently, moving an inmate from Virginia to an out-of-state hospital is virtually impossible without the explicit cooperation of multiple departments. “All it would take is one phone call to make this all happen,” notes Gilmer. “[Vincent] must be one of the only free men living in prison today with a terminal illness.
The prison problem
This unfiltered look at the prisons of our country marked a discovery for the author. “I had never seen the inside of a prison before, so seeing this for the first time was shocking. It opened my eyes to the world of mass incarceration in America,” he says. The complete lack of primary care physicians speaking out publicly on the subject (with the notable exception of Dr. Sanjay Gupta) was also not lost on Gilmer. [other doctors]or very few, did, so I realized that was a very important story to tell.
In his memoir, Gilmer uses his clinical lens to highlight what he sees as the shortcomings of our prison system, particularly our turnkey approach to treating people with mental illness. It is here that Gilmer asks us to imagine the 800,000 American inmates who suffer from some form of mental illness, a total about 10 times greater than those housed in psychiatric hospitals which make up 40% of the people in our prison system. .
“It’s just a tragic number,” he said. “When you think about it as a doctor or as a human being, it shouldn’t make sense to lock up our most vulnerable.”
How do you tackle such deep issues? Gilmer suggests that we start by approaching prison sentences like medical diagnoses: that is, seriously and with a large group of people.
Take, for example, the treatment of cancer. “When we look [those patients], we invite a professional interdisciplinary approach to thinking about surgery for this cancer,” he says. While this includes the disease itself, the type of cancer and its behavior, the counseling also assesses the needs of the patient before choosing an appropriate treatment.
Vincent’s own sentence was sealed, in large part, based on one person’s judgment. Nevertheless, Gilmer is clear that his call is not for a change in the normative system (although his book offers some ideas). Instead, it hopes to provide access to the problems that incarceration creates…and to appeal to our pathos.
“In the book, I talk a lot about reverence for life, which is Schweitzer’s philosophy of how we should support other humans who are fighting to survive,” he says. “Rather, that’s the call I wanted to make: to find pathways to compassion for our fellow humans.”
About the event: Dr. Benjamin Gilmer’s National Writers’ Series Conversation takes place Wednesday, September 21 at 7 p.m. and can be viewed digitally or in person. Live stream tickets are available for $12.50 per household on the National Writers Series website, while in-person tickets range from $5 to $25 and can be purchased through the City Opera House (fee apply for online and telephone purchases). The guest host for the event is Michigan Radio’s In the USA host, April Baer. For more information, please visit nationalwritersseries.org.