October 6, 2022

Murder and Medicine

Dr. Benjamin Gilmer shares his memoir at the National Writers Series
By Anna Faller | Sept. 17, 2022

What does it take to get a man out of prison—especially one who doesn’t deserve his sentence?

In his memoir, The Other Dr. Gilmer (of This American Life podcast fame), author Dr. Benjamin Gilmer examines this question, amongst countless others, in his quest to reframe the American approach to mental health and mass incarceration. Tune into his National Writers Series event on Wednesday, September 21, and prepare for an answer you never saw coming.

The Power of Primary Care
A family physician and academic doctor, Benjamin Gilmer is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC). He also runs MAHEC’s Rural Health Initiative, a program that provides pipeline training for rural students pursuing medicine.

“After my third year of medical school, I decided to do a [program] in West Africa, called the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship,” he says. It was here that Gilmer was exposed to the full spectrum of what primary care could provide. He explains, “It was really exciting to see how [those] doctors were supporting not only patients, but the whole community. The experience was a calling for me.”

It was precisely that calling that landed Gilmer at North Carolina’s Cane Creek clinic, where he learned that his predecessor, Dr. Vincent Gilmer, had been convicted of brutally murdering his father. “It was like this universal colliding of fate. That’s kind of how I accepted it: that there would be two Drs. Gilmer whose lives had never touched before,” the author explains.

But, as Gilmer delved ever deeper into the life of the “murderer” who shared his name—“just learning about how wonderful he was, both as a physician and as a man,” he says—it became clear that something was wasn’t right.

The Perfect Storm
This is where Gilmer’s story begins. His memoir, The Other Dr. Gilmer, details the perfect storm of events that led a small-town doctor to commit the unthinkable and the decade-long call for justice it sparked.

Is any of this ringing a bell? It should. Prior to the book’s release, Vincent Gilmer’s plight was the subject of a This American Life episode (titled “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde”), which has since accrued more than 10 million listens, 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 suffered from Huntington’s Disease. For those who might not be familiar, Huntington’s is an autosomal condition wherein the brain slowly stops functioning correctly. Symptoms can range from subtle mood changes and depression to full-blown neurological impairments. In Vincent’s case, the disease caused him to hear voices, which instructed 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 resultant PTSD and a traumatic head injury later in life, and you have a neural cataclysm waiting to happen. As Gilmer explains, “[I wanted to] retrospectively reframe how a life is formed and why people commit grave errors such as this. Stories are always more complex than they seem at face value.”

Unfortunately for Vincent, that story was more complex than the court was willing to believe. Instead of providing the rehabilitation his psychiatric prison suggested, the judge branded Vincent a cold-blooded killer—“it was the best he could do,” Gilmer deadpans—and even accused him of faking his symptoms before confining him to his cell.

Today, Vincent—a free man, as of January—still lives inside a Virginia prison. “We were so thrilled when Governor Northam reversed the clemency rejection,” Gilmer says. That was, until a new obstacle arose. Apparently, moving a Virginia inmate to an out-of-state hospital is next to impossible without the explicit cooperation of several departments. “It would only take a phone call to make all of this happen,” Gilmer notes. “[Vincent] must be one of the only free men who’s living in prison today with a terminal illness.”

The Problem with Prison
This unfiltered peek into our country’s prisons marked a discovery for the author. “I had never seen the inside of a prison before, so to see that for the first time was shocking. It opened my eyes to the world of mass incarceration in America,” he says. The utter lack of primary care physicians publicly speaking out on the subject (with the notable exception of Dr. Sanjay Gupta) also wasn’t lost on Gilmer. “No [other doctors], or very few, were doing that, so it dawned on me that this was a very important story to tell.”

In his memoir, Gilmer uses his clinical lens to highlight what he sees as our prison system’s shortcomings—specifically, our lock-and-key approach to treating those with mental illness. It’s here that Gilmer asks us to imagine the 800,000 American inmates who suffer from some form of mental illness, a total that’s about 10 times higher than those housed in psychiatric hospitals that accounts for a staggering 40 percent of people in our prison system.

“That’s just a tragic number,” he says. “When you think about it as a physician or as a human, it shouldn’t make any sense at all to lock up our most vulnerable.”

How do we tackle such deep-rooted issues? Gilmer suggests we begin by approaching prison sentences like medical diagnoses: that is, seriously and with a large group of people.

Take, for example, cancer treatment. “When looking at [those patients], we invite a professional interdisciplinary approach to thinking about the surgery of that cancer,” he says. While this includes the disease itself—the type of cancer and how it behaves—the board also evaluates the patient’s needs before selecting a proper course of treatment.

Vincent’s own sentence was sealed, in large part, based on a single person’s judgment. Nevertheless, Gilmer is clear that his call is not for prescriptive system change (though his book does offer a few ideas). Instead, he hopes to offer access to the issues incarceration creates…and appeal to our pathos.

“In the book, I talk a lot about reverence for life, which is Schweitzer’s philosophy of how we have to support other humans who are fighting to survive,” he says. “That’s more the calling I wanted to make: to find pathways towards compassion for our other humans.”

About the Event: Dr. Benjamin Gilmer’s National Writers Series conversation takes place on Wednesday, September 21, at 7pm, and is available to view digitally or in person. Livestream tickets are available for $12.50 per household through the National Writers Series website, while in-person tickets range from $5-$25 and can be purchased through the City Opera House (fees apply for online and phone purchases). Guest host for the event is Michigan Radio’s Stateside host, April Baer. For more information, please visit nationalwritersseries.org.

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