Wiley Cash’s monthly literary column highlights all things books in the Old North State.
This month’s book is The Other Dr. Gilmer, by Asheville-based physician Benjamin Gilmer.
The Other Dr. Gilmer, by Asheville-based physician Benjamin Gilmer, is chockfull of the motifs and themes that are currently driving America’s fascination with true crime: patricide, incest, mental illness, substance abuse, financial mismanagement, family secrets, and a murder so violent that I hesitate to recount it here.
It’s the kind of true crime that, if you were streaming it on your television at home, would keep you glued to the couch through the last credit. We live in peak true crime mania, from the trial of Alex Murdaugh in South Carolina to the Golden State Killer to the cutely named podcast, My Favorite Murder. The 2004 murder at the core of The Other Dr. Gilmer has been on the leading edge of this wave since it was featured in a 2013 episode of This American Life and became one of the show’s most popular episodes.
Here’s the quick backstory: In June 2004, Vince Gilmer, who had founded the Cane Creek Clinic in Fletcher, North Carolina, picked up his 60-year-old father Dalton from a psychiatric hospital in Morganton, North Carolina with the plan to check him into a private nursing facility closer to Asheville. Dalton had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and dementia and was having trouble communicating and maintaining control of his body.
At some point during a circuitous drive home, Vince strangled his father, cut off the tips of his fingers, and left him on a roadside in Virginia. He returned home and went to work the next day as if nothing had happened.
Vince was quickly arrested and tried for murder. During the trial, he fired his attorneys and represented himself, all the while exhibiting outlandish, inexplicable behavior—some of which he blamed on his going off an antidepressant. He also complained of what he described as “jellyfish stings” in his brain. His repeated requests for a mental health evaluation were denied, and he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
In 2009, Benjamin Gilmer—no relation—arrived at the Cane Creek Clinic and stepped into the shoes of a man who shared not only his last name, but his dedication to selflessly serving a rural community. Benjamin heard this over and over from Vince’s former patients, and soon found himself seeking to understand how Vince’s life had taken such an inexplicable descent into violence.
Here’s where The Other Dr. Gilmer veers sharply from the bulk of contemporary true crime offerings: Benjamin Gilmer actually seeks to understand what happened to Vince, and follows his Hippocratic oath to “do no harm” while serving the medical needs of both his patients and the doctor who shared his name.
That isn’t to say that Benjamin didn’t feel trepidation. In the book, he admits to spending much of his early years at the clinic in the throes of an “existential anxiety” born from “the fact that I’d inherited a killer’s practice, and my name was inextricably linked with his.” It wasn’t until 2012 that Benjamin decided to face his fear and write Vince a letter, introducing himself and letting Vince know that his former patients still spoke highly of him.
A few months later, Benjamin received an alarming response: a handwritten note that appeared to have been scrawled by a child, containing barely legible words and phrases—aggression, violence, serotonin deprived brain, please help.
When Benjamin visited Vince at the supermax facility in rural western Virginia where he’d been sentenced to spend the rest of his life, what he found shocked him: Vince had trouble walking, making eye contact, and speaking. He seemed wasted away, physically and intellectually. How could this have happened to a healthy, strapping man whom patients and employees had teasingly called “Bear” in less than a decade? Vince had been accused of malingering during his trial—essentially legalese for “faking it”—but how could someone keep up the ruse for so many years?
This sets Benjamin Gilmer on a quest to unspool both a medical mystery and a legal quandary, requiring countless hours spent in the car driving back and forth from Asheville to the prison in Virginia, late nights poring over trial transcripts, and dozens of meetings with the medical professionals and attorneys who take on Vince’s case.
In the book, he is refreshingly forthright about the toll this takes on his family, his work, and his own mental health. When Vince is eventually diagnosed with the neurologically and physically debilitating Huntington’s Disease, which was undoubtedly passed to him on his father’s genetic line, it becomes even clearer that the denial of Vince’s requests for a mental evaluation during his trial were a grave injustice.
Perhaps the most shocking twist came after the book went to print, when outgoing Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam weighed in on Vince’s fate in January 2022. Northam, who spent his medical career as a pediatric neurologist, took the complexities of the crime and diagnosis into consideration and granted a conditional pardon, requiring Vince to secure guardianship, pay for his own medical transport, and find a facility able to meet his psychiatric and medical needs.
Benjamin Gilmer’s postscript, which readers can find in the recently released paperback of The Other Dr. Gilmer and on The Assembly, details the news of Northam’s pardon and the struggles they faced in securing his actual release.
While the medical mystery of the strange case of Dr. Vince Gilmer has been solved, his legal fate remains undecided: Despite being a free man since January 2022, he is still incarcerated at the Wallens Ridge State Prison.
Be sure to read the postscript here.
Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.