Natalie’s Pick of the Week: The Other Dr. Gilmer: Two Men, a Murder, and an Unlikely Fight for Justice by Benjamin Gilmer

Dr. Benjamin Gilmer

When Dr. Benjamin Gilmer started at the Cane Creek Family Health Center in rural South Carolina, he knew he shared a surname with his predecessor: Dr. Vince Gilmer. But that was just a coincidence, it’s not like they were related. However, when Dr. Gilmer learns that the other Dr. Gilmer is serving a life sentence for brutally murdering his father, the new Dr. Gilmer embarks on a decade-long search for answers, eventually uncovering not only mental health trauma, but also a surprising medical diagnosis which likely contributed to Vince Gilmer’s state of mind at the time of the crime.

What started out as simple curiosity (What happened to The Other Dr. Gilmer that drove him to murder?) evolves into a full-blown obsession for Dr. Benjamin Gilmer. Initially, Dr. Gilmer was concerned what the patients might think about the coincidence of two Dr. Gilmers. He thought the situation might be slightly awkward in the beginning, but once patients got to know him, any fears and concerns would be assuaged. After all, he had nothing in common with a murderer.

It was only after Dr. Gilmer started treating patients that he learned what Dr. Vince Gilmer was like as a physician. Patients told stories of a kind physician who truly listened to patients. Dr. Gilmer heard stories of Vince Gilmer’s generosity and concluded he had a LOT in common with Vince Gilmer. How could the “Dr. Gilmer” patients were describing be the same man who brutally murdered his ailing father and then saw patients at the clinic the next day like nothing had happened? Stories of Dr. Gilmer’s kindness and generosity didn’t align with the Dr. Gilmer who acted so erratically, he ended up representing himself at trial, where he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

What Benjamin Gilmer discovers is that the other Dr. Gilmer’s story is more typical than extraordinary. Mental illness and incarceration are like the chicken and the egg: it’s hard to tell which came first and they often coexist like different sides of the same coin.

The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. And, according to the Bureau of Justice statistics, over a third — 37% — of that population has a history of mental illness. These mentally ill citizens are languishing in prisons without much needed medical care. However, The Other Dr. Gilmer doesn’t set out to solve that problem. This is just one story.

Just like throwing starfish back in the ocean, Dr. Gilmer can’t save every mentally ill incarcerated person, but to the other Dr. Gilmer, he can make a world of difference. It begs the question, was it really a coincidence that brought the Drs. Gilmer together, or divine intervention? 

To hear more about the two Dr. Gilmers, listen to the “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde” episode of This American Life.

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