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Book Review | The Other Dr. Gilmer by Benjamin Gilmer

From the publisher: The Other Dr. Gilmer takes readers on a thrilling and heart-wrenching journey through our shared human fallibility, made worse by a prison system that is failing our most vulnerable citizens. With deep compassion and an even deeper sense of justice, Dr. Benjamin Gilmer delves into the mystery of what could make a caring doctor commit a brutal murder. And in the process, his powerful story asks us to answer a profound question: In a country with the highest incarceration rates in the world, what would it look like if we prioritized healing rather than punishment?

You may already be familiar with the story of Dr. Vince Gilmer. His story was told on an episode of NPR’s This American Life and on CNN. In 2004, Gilmer, a doctor who worked at a clinic in rural Appalachia, killed his father. In 2005 he was sentenced to life in prison. I was not acquainted with the story. I heard Dr. Benjamin Gilmer, the author of this book, speak during a publisher’s webinar presentation about upcoming books and was intrigued.

This is an unusual true crime novel. There is a crime – Dr. Vince Gilmer strangled his father – but that’s not the focus of the story. There was no question that Vince Gilmer murdered his father. Even if you have not heard about Vince Gilmer, the author spoils the Big Reveal about the crime by mentioning mental illness in the dedication. Nonetheless, I found the story gripping. Benjamin Gilmer is a good writer and had a good editor.

My family is from the Appalachia region, and this passage struck me: “In Appalachia, everything was defined by the mountain. You were going up the mountain, you were going down the mountain; you were from this side of the mountain or the other side.” (p. 30 of the advance reader copy) Benjamin Gilmer comes across as empathetic and a good observer.

Benjamin and Vince Gilmer are not related. After Vince Gilmer was found guilty of murder, Benjamin Gilmer just happened to begin work at his old clinic. Many people commented on the coincidence. It led many of his patients to muse on how much they loved the old Dr. Gilmer. The picture they painted was very different from what Benjamin Gilmer imagined of a man who could brutally murder his father. Benjamin Gilmer became obsessed with Vince Gilmer and began to worry excessively that Vince would get out of prison and come after him for “stealing” his life. I was surprised at how obsessive Benjamin became. It must have been quite trying for his wife. Eventually Benjamin Gilmer met Vince Gilmer and realized there was much more to the story. Benjamin Gilmer’s book is sad, touching, and infuriating.

This is the first memoir I’ve read since the news broke about Alice Seybold’s Lucky (the book is her memoir about being raped as a college student; the man found guilty of Seybold’s rape 40 years ago was recently exonerated). I have to admit I found myself questioning whether everything was ‘true” or perhaps manipulated to make a better story. But although the narrative is riveting, it does not (spoiler alert) have a happy ending. This book is part of a long campaign to get clemency for Vince Gilmer, and to get him out of prison and into a hospital. It also advocates for changes to how we treat the mentally ill, especially if they end up in prison.

If you liked Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy or The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, you may find The Other Dr. Gilmer as captivating as I did. I read an advance reader copy of The Other Dr. Gilmer from Netgalley.

The book is scheduled to be published on March 1, 2022, and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library.

 

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