The Common Word Community Read brings the UNC Asheville community together each semester around a shared text to engage in a collective educational experience that features lectures and discussions in a welcoming and respectful environment.
“The Other Dr. Gilmer and Why I Chose It”
by Wiley Cash
Alumnus of the class of 2000 and curator of the Common Word Community Read
One of the best things about being a published author is that I receive a lot of blurb requests, which means I often get to read books months and months before anyone else and then perhaps say a few words about them that might end up on the books’ jackets. One of the worst things about being a published author is that I receive a lot of blurb requests, which means that I’m often overwhelmed by the number of manuscripts, many of them unsolicited, that are sent my way. Of course I want to help authors by saying kind words about their books, especially if they’re debuts, but I also want to read for pleasure instead of work, and of course I’ve got books of my own to write and books I’m reading for my classes at UNCA. So here’s my rule on reading manuscripts when I’ve been asked for a blurb: I read the opening pages, and if I’m interested I’ll keep going. If I’m not, the manuscript ends up in a little free library in our neighborhood.
I was in my office one morning when I received an email from Dr. Benjamin Gilmer via my university email address. The email began “My name is Benjamin Gilmer and I am a local physician in Asheville, North Carolina.” I had no idea what was in store for me until I got to the pitch: “My book is a memoire-medical mystery-murder-advocacy thriller based on a true story that has consumed my life… As a NC writer-to-be, it would be very helpful for you to consider writing a brief blurb.”
A memoire-medical mystery-murder-advocacy thriller? I had never heard of a book being described this way, so I opened the attached manuscript and planned to read through the opening pages, fully intending on getting back to my own work as soon as possible. But that’s not what happened. I spent the morning reading the manuscript, and then I left the office for lunch, laptop in hand, and I sat in a booth at a local restaurant and read during my meal. And then I finished the book that night. The story is absolutely incredible, matched only by the honesty and power of the writing.
Want a quick synopsis? Check out the book’s description: Fresh out of medical residency, Dr. Benjamin Gilmer joined a rural North Carolina clinic near Asheville only to find that its previous doctor shared his last name. Dr. Vince Gilmer was loved and respected by the community— right up until he strangled his ailing father and then returned to the clinic for a regular week of work. Vince’s eventual arrest for murder shocked his patients. How could their beloved doctor be capable of such violence? The deeper Benjamin looked into Vince’s case, the more he became obsessed with discovering what had pushed a good man toward darkness.
Now perhaps you understand why I couldn’t put the book down. After finishing it I immediately jumped online and began researching the story of the murder committed by Dr. Vince Gilmer, and I discovered that the beloved NPR staple This American Life had told the story of the two Dr. Gilmers in 2013 in what would go on to be one of the show’s most popular episodes. You can listen to the episode here.
The blurb I sent back to Benjamin is one of the most honest I’ve ever written:
“While this book is many things – a grisly story of true crime; a medical mystery; a deep-dive into the inequalities of rural healthcare; and the story of a good man walking in the footsteps of a killer – it is, most importantly, very, very good. Benjamin Gilmer has written nonfiction that flows like a novel and a piece of investigative journalism full of heart and grace.”
I have no doubt that participants in this spring’s Common Word Community Read will love this book as much as I do, and I have no doubt that they will be just as moved by its twists and turns, especially in relation to how the story of the two Dr. Gilmers continues to unfold. I’ve got a great semester planned of lectures on true crime and the role of mental health in the US legal system, and I’ll cap it off with an in-person conversation with author Dr. Benjamin Gilmer in April. No matter where you are, whether in western North Carolina or somewhere else in the virtual landscape, I hope you can join us in-person or virtually for what I know will be an amazing, semester-long experience. Please peruse this website for a reading guide, links for information on events, and other material related to the Spring 2023 Common Word Community Read, The Other Dr. Gilmer: Two Men, a Murder, and an Unlikely Fight for Justice.