Authors Benjamin Gilmer (The Other Dr. Gilmer) and Chip Jones (The Organ Thieves) explore true stories at the intersection of the medical world and the legal world. Chronicling failures of the incarceral system and the history of medical mistreatment of African Americans as well as the narratives that attend both, these books convey, contextualize, and critique institutional injustices. In conversation with Kristen Green.
KRISTEN GREEN: Welcome. Thanks everyone for coming out today. I’m so excited to be at my first book event in person in several years. I’m Kristen Green. I’m a resident of Richmond, Virginia, and author of Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County, and I’m your moderator today for Fighting for Justice: When Our Institutions Do Not Serve.
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Welcome to Fighting for Justice: When Our Institutions Do Not Serve. To my left is Benjamin Gilmer, the author of The Other Dr. Gilmer. He’s a family medicine physician in Fletcher, North Carolina. He has lectured across the country about medical ethics, bias in medicine, and criminal justice reform. He lives with his wife and two children in Asheville, North Carolina. Welcome, Dr. Gilmer.
BENJAMIN GILMER: Thank you.
KRISTEN GREEN: And to his left is Chip Jones, author of The Organ Thieves. He’s been a journalist for nearly thirty years at The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Roanoke Times, Virginia Business Magazine, and others. As part of the reporting team at The Roanoke Times, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for news coverage of the Pittston Coal strike. Welcome, Chip Jones.
Thanks to you both for coming today and agreeing to share your stories. I’m so pleased to be with both of you.
So, one thing that really stuck with me about both of your books is that there seemed to be no one advocated on behalf of the subjects of your book. In your case, Chip, a Black man who was sent to the hospital after a fall without his family’s knowledge had something very terrible happen to him. Can you tell us about Bruce Tucker and what happened to him—give us a little bit of background on your book.
CHIP JONES: Sure. Thanks, Kristen. Thanks for being here, everybody. Bruce Tucker was a fifty-four-year-old man who lived in Richmond, Virginia, in 1968. He was a factory worker. He had a good employment record. By all accounts, he was a very steady and strong worker at essentially a processing plant down in Shockoe Bottom. This is Shockoe Bottom, Richmond, today.
And Mr. Tucker was from Dinwiddie County. He came from a rural background in Virginia. He grew up on a family farm. And he came to Richmond, like his brother, to make a better life. And he was doing well. He was supporting a teenage son, Abraham, back down on the family farm in Stony Creek, Virginia. And during the question and answer, if you have—some people who read the book want to actually go to the cemetery described in the book, and I can give very easy directions off of I-95. It’s just south of Petersburg.
So, Bruce Tucker was celebrating the end of a work week on March 24th, 1968. He was up on Church Hill, as some of you know Richmond, which is where St. John’s Church is. He was sitting on a low wall, talking things over with his friends, when he had the misfortune of falling backwards off a low wall, suffered a very severe head injury, was rushed down to the emergency room at what was then Medical College of Virginia. For those of you who don’t know the terrain, I’m going to go back and forth between MCV and today it’s Virginia Commonwealth University or VCU Health.
So, he’s rushed down to the emergency room. He was still speaking. He was agitated but still speaking, still all his vital signs were okay. And he was taken into the hospital that night, and less than twenty-four hours, the transplant team at the Medical College of Virginia had removed life support and, without any knowledge of anything from his family or awareness that he was there, made the decision to remove his heart—and while they were at it, they took his kidneys too—and unfortunately as a Black man with a bit of alcohol on his breath, Bruce Tucker was considered, like many Black Americans before him, easy to exploit. Easy to exploit and an organ supplier at that point at the Medical College of Virginia, which was ready to do its first heart transplant.
So, Kristen, that in a nutshell is the book in three minutes or so.
KRISTEN GREEN: I love it. Benjamin, the subject of your book is a white family doctor who grew up in poverty and was a victim of intergenerational abuse who ultimately murdered his elderly father, shocking his patients and whole community. Tell us about Vince Gilmer and how you came to know him and why you decided to write a book about him in three minutes.
BENJAMIN GILMER: First, I have to say that The Organ Thieves, which I started listening to early this morning, as I neared Charlottesville I wanted to just keep driving because it’s so good. So, you should definitely check it out.
So, my book is about a character who’s a real person. His name is Dr. Vince Gilmer. And Dr. Vince Gilmer was a rural family physician outside of Asheville. And he, in 2004, went to a hospital in North Carolina to pick up his father. And that evening, while driving home, he killed him. I learned about Vince Gilmer only because I helped resurrect the clinic that he had built himself. So, it was news to me that my predecessor was also named Dr. Gilmer and that he had killed his father.
So naturally, I became curious about who this other person was and wanted to find out why this beloved physician became—committed this brutal act. So, I inherited his patients, and I inherited many, many stories about this incredible physician. And there was so much dissonance about the person that I knew in stories and the person that I read about in the newspaper. So here I started a quest that’s lasted a decade now to discover who this person was, why his brain unraveled. I was curious about his previous neuroscience performance. And wanted to understand what happened to him and then ultimately why he was put in prison. Ultimately why did he represent himself for his own murder trial? Why did he never get an appropriate examination that might propose other reasons why he killed his father? He was labeled as a malingerer, that he was faking his symptoms.
So, after visiting him once in prison, I learned that he was not a malingerer. He was a very sick man. And it took very little time to come up with a diagnosis. I’m not going to tell you what it is in case you haven’t read the book yet or heard the story that we told on This American Life back in 2013. I needed some help to pursue this, and so I asked Sarah Koenig, who did Serial, to help me. And ultimately this is a very personal story about myself, as a fledgling doctor, learning to be a doctor and learning how to fight for justice.
KRISTEN GREEN: So, Benjamin, the early section of your book revolves around your kind of fear of Vince Gilmer, once you learned that you share the name and that he was so highly thought of. And then you learned that he was also in prison for killing his father. So, what do you think that was about and sort of how did you get past that? Like why did you ultimately spend the decade working to understand him?
BENJAMIN GILMER: So, we are all defined by preconceptions, and we’re easily swayed. And I was easily swayed that he was a murderer. And I had been told by patients—one patient in particular—that when he got out, that he was going to come after me. It seems very natural since I inherited his life and inherited his life’s work, his clinic, his patients as well. So, after I heard this patient tell me that he was probably going to come after me when he gets out of prison, it triggered a few things. My family wanted me to leave Asheville. Colleagues told me that I should disappear for a while. Which was kind of crazy. But that was a process that I had to dig a little deeper to figure out who he was, if I wanted to stay in this clinic and continue my professional life there. So, I sort of traversed a threshold where the paranoia and fear became an intense commitment, curiosity, or obsession to understand why this happened and why I shouldn’t be fearful anymore.
KRISTEN GREEN: Can you guys talk about why no one or not enough people advocated for either of the subjects of your book? Chip, why did no one—I guess I would say no one to our knowledge or from your reporting knowledge—try to save Bruce Tucker’s heart from being taken from him? Where was the care and concern for him and his family?
CHIP JONES: Just to summarize, I think the word is power. You can look at any situation in your life today, any problems with it, and power often is the problem, especially dealing with large institutions.
So, in the case of Bruce Tucker—and I know Ben will appreciate this because most physicians understand a lot about the history of medicine. So, I’m always a little bit shy to make any pronouncements about the history of medicine around an MD, so you can help me overcome my fear and paranoia. But really at that point—and I’ve heard other doctors tell me this—it was what was known as the wild west of medical research, especially with heart transplants. So, when I say power and wild west, what I mean is the physicians—the doctors—inside the Medical College of Virginia, they were in an international race to perform the first heart transplant.
And one of the things you’ll see in my book—or, if you’ve read it, already—I started out thinking of the book purely as kind of like Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, the race to the moon, but the race to the first heart transplant. And indeed, a lot of that is in the book. This was an amazing medical research that went back well into probably the early part of the twentieth century. But in the fifties, it picked up a lot. So, you had a number of famous doctors who were involved in it, and two of them or three of them are in our book. Four, actually. Dr. Lauer at MCV, who was recruited by Dave McCune, who was the top kidney transplant specialist, who started the transplant center at the Medical College of Virginia, which is still there. You had a gentleman named Dr. Norman Shumway at Stanford, where Dr. Lauer as a young resident was enabled by him to work in the basement of his leaky lab at Stanford, which was then at the hospital in downtown San Francisco.
So, you have all these characters that were really working hard to get what they wanted. And imagine—surgeons have big egos. Imagine that. They should have big egos because they’re doing a lot of important work. Benjamin mentioned ethics for his book. Medical ethics is a big part of my book.
So, what happened was, when Bruce Tucker was rolled into that emergency room on the night of May 24, 1968, I always say he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Especially, again, for an African American male with alcohol on his breath. Because the assumption was that nobody cared about him. You’ll see how they made some very—I’ll just use the word lame—attempts to contact his family. If you’re mature enough like me to remember right after the assassination of Martin Luther King—this was a month later—the sociopolitical environment was not in a place where anyone was going to help the Richmond police find a Black man’s family.
So, once they had made basically just sort of a superficial attempt to find his family, there were no internal controls at this point. There are now, by the way. And this book, if you happen to be in the transplant realm, it’s not meant to deter anyone from being an organ donor. In fact, the opposite has happened. I’m happy to say that Northwestern University has used it, and NBC did a series on race in Chicago, where my book—and I was interviewed for that. It’s on my website if you want to see it, which is ChipJonesBooks.com. You mentioned Twitter.
But I saved a lot of those images. It was very interesting. And actually, Kristen and I as journalists—I’ve actually been very impressed. A lot of times print journalists kind of put medicine aside and put down [indiscernible]. Well, there’s some really sharp people out there doing stuff. So, I’m glad that the injustice and the lack of oversight or any controls at that moment in time, it just—and it still—it stunned me when I first learned about it. And what I always say is the book went from my head to my heart because it started about his race, but it really was about killing a man.
BENJAMIN GILMER: Now I’m going to start crying.
KRISTEN GREEN: We all worked on really sad books. But important. Both of your works are so important. Thank you for sharing that. I don’t want to give away the ending, Benjamin, if you don’t want to, but you mentioned that there were preconceptions about who Vince Gilmer was. And I thought it was so moving that you talked about how caring he was with his patients and how beloved he was and that nobody could put together—could work out in their mind—how someone that they knew as such a loving family doctor, a caring member of their community, a really giving person could have transitioned from that person or could’ve been the same person that killed his father in sort of a brutal way.
And not to give away what you found, but you did learn that there was a mental illness that explained this. Can you talk a little bit about like how—if you don’t want to give away the diagnosis that’s fine but talk about how it presents itself early and why no one would’ve noticed it and basically how no one ever came to advocate for him. Like how no one before you figured out that there was something really wrong with him and that’s why he killed his father, and not because he was hiding some evil side his whole life.
BENJAMIN GILMER: Yeah, so much boils down to preconception and bias. And when Vince Gilmer was labeled to be a malingerer, everyone believed he was. As physicians, we try to enter the exam room without preconception or bias, but it’s so hard. It’s so hard to enter into any relationship without a preconception or bias because our brain often deceives us. And one of the characters in this book is the human brain.
So those preconceptions deceived a lot of people. They deceived everyone during the initial trial, during the arrest, even during his psychological or forensic evaluation. That diagnosis of malingering just persisted for a long time—for over a decade.
KRISTEN GREEN: Malingering is faking.
BENJAMIN GILMER: Malingering means he was thought to be faking these symptoms. So, once you have a label like that, it’s hard to get over it. Once you have a diagnosis yourself as a patient, it’s actually really hard to change that diagnosis. Even if you’ve seen a physician multiple times or you’ve seen a judge or you’ve seen a jury. So that label was never changed, and because of it, people thought that he was a sort of sociopathic type person. And nobody asked. In the prison, nobody asked. I mean, how could you spend ten years in a prison and never ask why is this guy exhibiting these symptoms for so long. How could you keep that up for so long?
So, I was a fresh mind, I think, to take a look at him, to reexamine what had happened. To think with a tabula rasa what happened to his brain. Thankfully there are other people within the prison system who were willing to begin to listen, but it took a decade before that happened.
KRISTEN GREEN: Can you talk a little bit about the human brain and what researching his life told you about the fallibility of the human brain? Or not the fallibility, what is it?
BENJAMIN GILMER: That’s it, that’s it.
KRISTEN GREEN: Thank you.
BENJAMIN GILMER: So, one of the pillar concepts in this book is that we all share a [indiscernible] brain. Each of us. I do. You do. We all do. And there’s a certain spectrum or resiliency or buffering capacity that we share before we hit that moment. And that moment is very different for all of us. In the book, I describe my fallible—well I’ve had many fallible moments, but one fallible moment that I came dangerously close to traversing that would’ve changed my life forever. I think for Vince, getting to know him deeply, getting to know his family and friends, understanding who he was as a child, understanding his family in a very complex way, it taught me that his fallibility was defined by many different things, in addition to this neurologic illness. And if you want to know more about it, Dr. Gilmer’s neurologist is here today, who’s been an amazing partner.
So, Vince’s brain was defined personally I think by incredible intergenerational abuse. He was sexually abused by his father his whole life. That defined him as a person. PTSD defined him as a person. Generalized anxiety disorder defined him as a person. Coming precipitously off an antidepressant, an SSRI, can define you as a person. I see this in the clinic every day. The spectrum, the ways that our brains become vulnerable or fallible are immense. He had four things that were contributing to his all at once. So, it wasn’t just this neurology disease that was confirmed by genetic diagnosis. There was 100 percent certainty that he has this disease. That wasn’t what made him kill his father. It was the constellation of things that contributed to his brain really going awry. But nobody asked the question, nobody was curious curious to know what happened. And as a family doctor, that’s sort of our niche. We’re curious by nature [indiscernible].
KRISTEN GREEN: Chip, did you want to add?
CHIP JONES: I just wanted to tag on something Ben said about preconceptions because a little light bulb went off when he said that in terms of your question, Kristen, which really gets to the heart of the matter of why wasn’t a man protected from having an institution steal his heart with no one’s approval, pulling him off life support. When you start talking about, Ben, preconceptions, it reminded me of like my own education by writing this book and sitting in places like this. I was in the Virginia Historical Society talk celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first heart transplant. And I was there with the archivist Jodi Koste, who really helped me a lot—a VCU Medical historian. And basically, there was not one Black person in the audience. And this is not a very diverse audience, so I’m not saying that to shame anybody. But it was just sort of, okay, here we are. And the weird thing was I sat there. Like it was 2018 right when I signed the contract with Simon & Schuster, and Jodi knew I was getting serious about the book. We were listening to the words that were being used about the lawyer that represented the Tucker family. And his name was L. Douglas Wilder. Well, he later became the first Black governor ever elected in the United States.
And they kept talking about him, and when I did interviews with older doctors or people related to them, there was this preconception that these were Black people trying to get money out of the system. There are certain parallels in the [indiscernible]. In a way, even though he was dead, and his heart had been taken from him and his son didn’t have a father anymore and his brother, who was looking for him, didn’t have a brother, he was considered a malingerer. Why was that? He was Black; he didn’t have any representation.
And so, preconceptions still go on today so much. The positive part of my book is that it’s being used in discussions certainly at VCU and other medical colleges, and also VCU made it their Common Book for freshmen this year. So, every freshman has to suffer through my prose. But the good thing about that not only as a writer but as a human being—and I’ll definitely challenge everyone’s biases. And VCU started a History of Medicine program.
So, what you said about biases, Ben, really also resonated with me. Because obviously if you’re in the medical profession right now or you’re in the legal profession or any academic profession, financial—it doesn’t matter. If you’re not talking about preconceived biases—and not shaming people, but just talking about these things—then, well, you’re probably a political partisan trying to make people feel guilty about talking about those things, right? So we can come to that later. But it’s really got to be part of any conversation in 2022. We are filled with stereotypes, preconceptions, and speaking to the author of a great book about Massive Resistance and how Virginia had preconceptions about Black students. I mean, to me, that links all three of our books.
KRISTEN GREEN: I was going to say I would take it a step further in the theft of Bruce Tucker’s heart and say it wasn’t just ego or power that made them take his heart; it was white supremacy. Because there was the belief that white bodies—white people—were more valuable than Black bodies and Black people. That they were superior.
Did I hear you right that in 2012 you were in some sort of medical setting at MCV?
CHIP JONES: No, 2018.
KRISTEN GREEN: Two thousand eighteen. Douglas Wilder, a former governor of Virginia, was being referred to as someone who just represented a family for money.
CHIP JONES: Pretty much. The operative word is—and this was repeated to me often, and I hope to be able to speak to writing classes about word choices—he was so flamboyant. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times. Richmond is a very, quote, diverse place. Another very broken word, I know. But it’s just sometimes—and I’m sure it’s like that around here or any city. It’s just like you went back in a time machine.
So, the attitude is, still, among people of a certain age usually, it was a scam that—
KRISTEN GREEN: White people.
CHIP JONES: —against white people to make them pay for someone who was going to die anyway. And you can argue clinically that he probably would’ve died. But you cannot argue technically or morally in any way, shape, or form—and legally. There’s a law against taking organs right away. You’re supposed to wait twenty-four hours at that point. So, there’s no way to rationalize it. But again, it’s like you said, Kristen. Frankly, Kristen has got a way just kind of through the you know what.
KRISTEN GREEN: Well, you know, I’m a reporter.
CHIP JONES: White supremacy was very much part of the attitudes of whether or not anyone was—it’s sort of that—the call it the velvet glove of Virginia [indiscernible]. And they try to do it gently, and sometimes people still do obviously try to do that. And I think the only way is to call it out for what it is.
KRISTEN GREEN: Can you explain just briefly how amazing Douglas Wilder’s defense of—I guess it would be his case against the doctors and against Medical College of Virginia. Like how amazing his case was and the outcome.
CHIP JONES: Yeah. Really briefly, it was a four-year process. It was a civil trial. It was the first lawsuit in the United States ever filed around a heart transplant. So, it basically ground all heart transplants to a halt between around 1970—well probably ’69 when he started filing the first paperwork. So, Doug Wilder was a young criminal defense lawyer. And one of the things I learned in research for my book, even though I covered a lot of files, I didn’t know the chasm between being a criminal lawyer and a civil lawyer. And actually, I think in some ways the Tucker family—though he represented them very well, they could’ve used help.
What happened was this was a case that was too big to fail, as they say about banks now. And that’s what Governor Wilder was kind of on record in an interview said. They were not going to lose this case. So, it was basically a David and Goliath legal situation where he did his best to represent them, to do the depositions, to get the court orders in at the right time, but he was going up against the full faith and credit of the state of Virginia, which had the attorney general’s office representing MCV as an institution. And then one of the first medical malpractice lawyers in the country was in Richmond, representing the two doctors for an insurance company. His name was Jack Russell. A perfect name for him.
So, between Jack Russell taking a bite out of the arguments and MCV—and I will say this. I was able to interview Judge Ted Marco, who became a circuit court judge, who was a young assistant attorney general. And he gave me a blow by blow and kind of walked me through it. He was not critical of Doug Wilder at all. He said he did the best he could under the circumstances. And I also was able to interview one of the jurors in the book. And between them, we could see how basically he got outspent. Just like—I love reading court trial stories because you can see how things are going to go. Who’s got the experts coming in?
And what happened was David Hume brought in—the same week before the trial, he had the first—I’m going to make this name up. It was something like first symposium on neuro something in Richmond. And he brought in—including from the University of Virginia—brought in people from Harvard, Yale—all national experts. And they managed to sway the jury and the judge. Judge Christian Coughlin. A fine judge. He finally allowed into the courtroom an argument that was not part of Virginia law then, that they used, that he was, quote, brain dead. That was not in the Code of Virginia. So, Tucker still did not get a hearing because they got outgunned.
KRISTEN GREEN: Okay, I’ll ask this question later. I need to move back to Benjamin. That’s crazy to me. Benjamin, if you haven’t read the book yet, it’s a little bit confusing how Vince Gilmer could have gone from being this like beloved guy to a murderer. Can you talk a little bit about whether symptoms were visible prior to the murder and why that might not have been picked up by his friends or wife or his own doctor?
BENJAMIN GILMER: Yeah, it’s interesting. So, this neurologic disease goes very slowly, very insidiously. Just like any mental illnesses do. So, in the beginning it’s not—I’m speaking to an expert out there. In the beginning it’s not noticeable as a neurologic process. It’s noticeable as a mental illness, which can be expressed through anxiety, depression, impulsive thoughts—those kinds of things. So, a lot of people thought he was having a midlife crisis at the time. He had divorced his wife. He was going out more frequently to bars, doing things that weren’t customary for him. It wasn’t glaringly obvious, nor was it glaringly obvious either to the folks who examined him in Virginia.
So, this happened in North Carolina, but the body was found in Virginia, which is why he was tried in Virginia in Abingdon, which is why he’s in prison today in Marion. And I’ve never tried to point fingers toward the people because they didn’t make this diagnosis. It’s not an easy diagnosis in the beginning. But it should have triggered some thoughts about being curious. It should have triggered some kind of systemic examination of why his personality was changing at the time. And it was slowly evolving.
KRISTEN GREEN: So, it really didn’t surface until around the time that he and his wife divorced and he was going out alone kind of stuff, in your opinion. Like it wasn’t evident or visible to his friends and family?
BENJAMIN GILMER: It was evident in small ways. Like he used to love to contra dance, and so his dancing was a little bit awkward. He was a little awkward on his feet. But not much different than a fifty-year-old going through a midlife crisis.
KRISTEN GREEN: Okay, so it sounds like you’re saying the time it should’ve triggered questions was after the murder at least.
BENJAMIN GILMER: Yes. When he was arrested, he was fully delusional. He even had seizures. He described himself as his mind was not working right. He was very clear and very descriptive about what he was experiencing, but curiously he didn’t explain the symptoms in medical terms. He explained them in very layman terms. So, he didn’t describe that he was having a seizure-like disorder. He described these jellyfish-like scenes in his brain. He described that he was hearing voices. He described hearing voices telling him to kill his father. Those are not normal thoughts. Those are associated with mental illness.
KRISTEN GREEN: Okay, that leads me to my next question. This is going to be the final question before we take audience questions, so be thinking of what you guys want to ask. So, I have a final question for both of you. How do you think institutions did not serve both of these men? Both Bruce Tucker and his family and Dr. Vince Gilmer. I guess I want to ask how common is the incarceration of the mentally ill. Sort of how pervasive of a problem is this. Maybe you could tell us quickly like how the story ended. Or maybe you can save that for a question with the audience. But I just want people to know what the outcome has been of all your work.
BENJAMIN GILMER: Sure. So, I’m embarrassed to tell you I didn’t know anything about mental illness in prison. Many years in graduate school, two fellowships, a residency, medical school—I didn’t know anything about what people experienced in prison. I didn’t know that there were 800,000 people currently today with severe mental illness who are behind bars. I didn’t know that 40 percent of all incarcerated people—up to 40 percent of all incarcerated people—experience mental illness. I didn’t know that there were ten times more mentally ill people behind bars than in mental hospitals. Ten times. So, this was a new experience for me, the discovery of this and the discovery of what it takes to get someone out.
We during this process had to bow to two different governors of Virginia to try to get Vince Gilmer out. We had to bow to a system—referring to the system—a system that is committed to not getting people out of prison, a system that is not committed to diagnosing their incarcerated people.
So, the system works against that. This was kind of baffling because I thought this is going to be easy to get someone out of prison who has a diagnosis—a confirmed diagnosis. When we have an undifferentiated cancer patient and we’re trying to figure out what to do with them—do they need chemo, do they need surgery—we have professional chemo people that get together in a room to talk about it, to figure out what the best course is.
When he was getting ready to spend a life in prison, he had just a handful—or less than that—of people who weighed in on what his prognosis was, what his diagnosis was. Really just one person. During the trial, there was not an expert witness on his behalf, which is insane. So, I [indiscernible] to see through this process that the two systems just don’t match. Our goal is to heal people. Our carceral system’s goal is to punish people. So those are not connected in a meaningful way. That’s what I tried to do in the book, is connect those two things. That we have to see that problem as a systemic and institutional problem to figure out a clinical lens in order to heal crime instead of just punish it.
KRISTEN GREEN: And what is his status now?
BENJAMIN GILMER: So, his status after two rejections by two different governors—
KRISTEN GREEN: Both Democratic governors, correct?
BENJAMIN GILMER: Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam both rejected our clemency petition. In 2017 when that rejection came through, I became deeply committed to writing this book because I was mad. And in just this past summer actually Governor Northam rejected our clemency appeal, which was a big surprise to us. We thought that a neurologist would be able to start seeing this problem differently, and we were wrong. We thought that the stars had lined up to have a neurologist as a governor. It was a miracle. Truly it was a miracle. For us it was. But he said no. So strangely, during the last week of his governorship, he reversed—in unprecedented fashion he reversed his clemency position. I like to think it was because I gave a book to everybody in his cabinet, including himself. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but. We also had an amazing legal team who is from Charlottesville. Jerry, are you here? Jerry. Jerry is the captain of the legal ship. And yeah, on his last day he agreed to set him free.
But he’s not free. He’s still in prison today. Which is hard to imagine: a free person in prison. Because we have to find him a hospital, which was part of our clemency petition. To secure a hospital where he can be treated for the first time. So, it’s very hard to find a place for him. It’s very, very hard to find a clinical setting. So, if you know anybody, please. We are up for suggestions.
KRISTEN GREEN: Thank you. Chip, how did VCU specifically fail Bruce Tucker, and what have they done to make amends? Have they made any sort of apology for their role in his death or spoken directly to the family? Is there anything they’ve done to show remorse for their actions in this story?
CHIP JONES: I would say the brief answer is no. There’s no apology. I would also say that I hope that we have thought on it this fall, when the entire freshman class reads the book and a lot of professors bring it up. I also know for a fact—and I didn’t know this for a long time because I don’t believe much of what I read in the papers that comes from public relations departments because they’re public relations. I also know that VCU did try to get in touch with Abraham Tucker, who’s his son. He’s in his mid-sixties living around [indiscernible] if he read it. And I can tell you that—and this is a deeper conversation about the role of a journalist versus the role of an author. I tried not to play sort of the white guy trying to rescue the Black family. The white knight kind of thing or whatever. I also tried to be more respectful than a reporter—no offense, Kristen. But we go after the stories no matter what, and then you try to figure out how to handle it later.
And I really did learn a lot about writing sort of creative nonfiction working on this book. Because I realized I was not going to be trying to dictate an outcome to the Tucker family. So today I can tell you that, through my cousin, I had a conversation with Abraham Tucker a few weeks ago, which was really amazing, just because he was willing to talk to me. And it was a real gift. When I thought about talking with you guys today, what was the one word? It was a gift to me because—I mean, I would have been happy just to talk to him. If he said he really hated the book and please leave me alone, I would’ve at least known how he felt. But he actually told me—he’s a very nice guy, and he said, “Look, man, I can see your passion for this story. I learned a lot from it.” Because he was just a teenager then, so he actually learned his family’s own story in a way—or parts of it—from reading the book. Even though he didn’t want to be a part of it while I was working on it.
But I asked him flat out, and I actually asked him if I could share this with audiences like you, to respect his privacy. He said it’s okay. And I asked him—because you guys see this question several times in front of audiences. Where’s the apology? And I’ve been told by some top political leaders I won’t name in Virginia that unless the Tucker family requests an apology—think about this—there won’t be one. It’s kind of what’s that book by Joseph Heller? Catch-22?
But what Abraham said to me was—he said, “I’ve seen the world, and I don’t think much of it.”
So, I said, “So you’re a private person?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Do you want an apology? Do you want financial compensation? Reparations?”
He said, “No, I’m not seeking that.”
So, I still—and Kristen has asked so many good questions about this book, and I really mean that. She’s kind of like pushed me to say, yeah, there should be an apology. Because when you’re a reporter, you really try to maintain objectivity. So, you can see on my website I’ve made comments about it. And I’ve said they should dig up the plaque that’s outside of the West Hospital at MCV. It’s still there, and it’s right across from the state capitol. There are good maps in my book. My wife is here and encouraged maps. So, you can take two of the maps and do a walking tour and see these things. And right in front of what used to be MCV hospital is a plaque that honors this great moment. But guess whose name isn’t on it? Not only Bruce Tucker’s name on it but the recipient—the white businessman who got it and died seven, eight days later, Joseph Cleff. His name is not on it either. So, both the donor and recipient are left out of the story.
So, I’m hoping that being a pain in the butt, as reporters are supposed to be, maybe that’ll change it.
KRISTEN GREEN: Thank you guys. I’m so moved by both of your stories. And we welcome your questions now. We’ve got a microphone coming around. Let’s start with you here. Let’s give her a second to get the microphone to you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you. Amazing story. The question is to Chip. I’m really curious about your title—the book title. Whether that was yours or your editor’s. I know that there’s a whole thing in the industry in terms of who has control of the title or who suggests it. But the follow up to that question is it’s a strong title. It’s an accusation. You’re calling the medical community and in particular the two doctors thieves. So, to what extent was your pushback? Or has there been pushback from the medical community, the physicians, the physicians’ families, or even the medical school?
KRISTEN GREEN: Hold on a second. I’ll repeat it.
CHIP JONES: No pushback.
KRISTEN GREEN: Wait a second. I’m supposed to read the question. Sorry. So, the question was, for Chip Jones, the title. Was it your idea, or where did that book title come from? And has there been pushback to what could be viewed as an accusation in the use of the word thieves?
CHIP JONES: No comment. Just kidding. It’s been a long day. You know, this is my first COVID test ever, incidentally. Thank goodness my daughter was here to help me do it. So, for those of you who are working on books—and I hope there are folks. Maybe you, maybe other people. I was just telling Ben, when we were sitting here with small talk, two things you may have very little control over—let’s put it that way. I mean, John Grisham probably has control over it because he’s a big writer.
But with this book, very little control over the title. The working title was The Stolen Heart. So, I think we can have some interesting discussions in the English classes and philosophy classes about the difference between stealing and being a thief. It is a strong title. It was not my title, and that’s the truth it’s a straight story. There’s thousands of books published every year, as you know. So, when you work with—and the woman who’s the publisher at Simon & Schuster—at Gallery Books—was very adamant about—we worked on every. It was like greatest hits of heart songs. I went all through the sixties and picked songs about the heart that they didn’t want—because Heartless was also the working title. So, we get into the behavior exhibited towards the Tuckers. Which I liked. What was the problem with that? Oh, too much like a romance novel.
So, these are the ridiculous discussions you can look forward to if you’re like me, a nameless author, and you’re not John Grisham. It’s the same with the covers. I really prefer the hardback cover, which Kristen very kindly is showing. But the paperback cover is very in your face. Guilty as charged. Please discern any behaiors..
KRISTEN GREEN: Yeah, right there.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: So, I work at MCV. I was hired at MCV. I worked at MCV. I was hired there in 1975. I knew Dr. Lauer. And first off I will tell you without a doubt that MCV was a bastion of racism.
CHIP JONES: Was what?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: A bastion of racism. They had a separate hospital for Black people in ’75.
CHIP JONES: Was it St. Phillip?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: No, it was East Hospital.
CHIP JONES: Oh, East. Oh, gotcha.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: And it was Richmond. And I grew up there. I know exactly what you’re saying is true about [indiscernible]. And I knew Dr. Lauer. I’m just blown away by the story because he was the kind of guy—at least when I was there. I was the low person on the totem pole. I did life support. And he knew me, and he’d call me by name when he saw me in the elevator. He was probably the nicest guy in the world—I thought he was the nicest guy in the world. How many doctors know you by first name when you’re a peon? And I just thought, wow, he’s a superstar. He knows my name.
So, just kind of—it’s such a mind blowing—so I’m wondering. Because I still think—I still want to think he was such a nice guy, you know? But did he ever say a word about any regrets or remorse or responsibility?
KRISTEN GREEN: So, the question is did Dr. Lauer, one of the main doctors in Organ Thieves—did he express any remorse?
CHIP JONES: So, I’ll say two things to answer your question. The first part of your question about was he a nice guy. Yes, he was. Was he a great guy? Yes, he was. Did he save a lot of people? Yes, he did. And you’ll see in my book that’s part of the tension I explore between why did he get pushed by Dr. Hume to jump on board. And the reason was because they’d lost the heart transplant race to Christian Bernard, who’d studied under them the year before. That’s my thesis. It was a professional competition, and Dr. Lauer had been very cautious about doing anything to that point.
Okay, so as to whether he expressed remorse. I wish I could have interviewed him. I interviewed his wife, and I don’t think she shared any remorse on his part. But one of the things that’s very interesting to me and remains interesting was how Dr. Lauer, to the end of the trial—which was a civil trial, not a criminal trial. So, he wasn’t going to go to the institutions of Virginia for this. It was not a criminal charge. He kept referring to it as a crime himself. He’s a brilliant man. He’s one of the greatest heart surgeons in American history. For some reason, when he internalized it, it was that basically I’m one step away from jail. And I don’t know why he did that. I don’t know if it was a deep sense of guilt. It might not have been. Purely speculative.
I try in my book, as you’ll see, to not speculate too much. But giving enough to the reader to make your own informed decision certainly. I always found that one thing interesting, that he kept saying it was one thing when it really wasn’t legally. But he kept holding on to that. And when the Tucker thing—they lost—and he was victorious. And he called up Dr. Shumway in Stanford and said, “We won.”
KRISTEN GREEN: Just for the record, nice guys can also be racist. One over here. Sorry, she’s coming with the microphone.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I just have a question for Dr. Gilmer. The theme of this is about the injustice that can be propagated by institutions. The sort of real kick was when Dr. Gilmer tried to represent himself, which you point out is a disaster. In your examination of the whole system, how do you feel about the idea of people representing themselves? Is that something we should move past, given the complexity of the legal system and the potential fates involved?
KRISTEN GREEN: So, the question for Mr. Ben Gilmer is how do you feel about the idea of people representing themselves, which is what Vince Gilmer did during his murder trial?
BENJAMIN GILMER: I think most people would agree that doing so—representing yourself—would be a surrogate marker of just not being mentally stable. I mean, what is the most ludicrous thing you could do for your own murder trial? Represent yourself. That signifies to me many potential diagnoses. But that’s a low-hanging fruit.
I’ve learned from our legal experts that being competent for a trial is very, very easy. You can be a sociopath and be competent. But if you fire your lawyers, that should be a trigger that there should be another set of examiners to look at things. I agree people should not be able to represent themselves for a murder trial. There are a lot of people out there saying sending someone to prison for life also costs the state a lot of money. It’s much more expensive than putting someone in a hospital for a long period of time. There are many low-hanging fruits that could be implemented in the system, and that is certainly one of them.
KRISTEN GREEN: Not to put you on the spot, but do you know the difference in the cost per day for a hospital versus jail?
BENJAMIN GILMER: I think it’s different from hospital to hospital, but it’s clear that it’s more expensive to hospitalize.
KRISTEN GREEN: Yeah. Any other questions? We just have a few minutes left. Yeah, there’s one in the back.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Dr. Gilmer, could you talk about how the diagnosis of malingering followed Dr. Gilmer down the line from provider to provider through the justice system? Do you see that being—people down the line adopted what people before them had diagnosed? Or were these people then shaping their own diagnoses and looking for signs to confirm what people before them had reported. They say I’ve got a patient diagnosed with malingering, and oh yeah, I see these signs of it myself so I agree that’s what the diagnosis should be.
KRISTEN GREEN: So, the question is did the diagnosis of malingering follow Vince Gilmer in each step from being arrested to his trial to being in prison. And I’m just curious. Is that a diagnosis, or is that more of an observation? Can you explain? Like is that an official diagnosis?
BENJAMIN GILMER: It is an official diagnosis. And the answer to your question is that no one challenged it. It was bought hook, line, and sinker every time he interacted with a clinical professional, until he arrived at Marion. And at Marion, there was an amazing forensic psychiatrist who had been practicing psychiatry for, gosh, forty years, Jerry? Okay. Who became a superhero because he immediately—after Vince threatened to kill himself, he was transported to Marion, which is supposed to be a psychiatric-centric correctional facility that does not have a psychiatrist full time there. And the first question he asked was, was he malingering? And it was clear to him he’d never seen a malingerer like that in his career. I mean, there are lots of incarcerated people who try to work the system a little bit by coming up with some symptoms. But a malingerer with neurologic symptoms for ten years? He knew that that was farcical. It only took him a few minutes to pass the next appropriate question. And man, he fought for it until he was released from the system.
KRISTEN GREEN: That’s amazing, and just a quick follow-up on it. Does that come from a police observation? Where does that idea begin?
BENJAMIN GILMER: Well, there are many observations. One was from the detectives. He did have some symptoms that were not easily—I mean, you could imagine that he might be faking these symptoms if you were not a doctor. I confronted that detective years later—just a couple years ago while I was writing the book—and he still believes that he’s faking the symptoms. He still believes that he should be behind bars. But I was able to start a new conversation that law agencies can’t solve this problem. Doctors can’t solve this problem. And we can only do this together.
KRISTEN GREEN: I’m just noting that a layman—a non-doctor got this diagnosis rolling, right? Am I correct in that assumption?
BENJAMIN GILMER: Well, his observations got the ball rolling. But he was also diagnosed by a forensic psychologist who is currently high up in the system. I had a conversation with him too, and he now agrees this was a travesty.
KRISTEN GREEN: Thank you both. Oh, you want to do one more? Okay, this last one. Actually there’s two, shoot. Okay.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: So, what I really appreciate about both of these books is that they’re sort of pointing out where these institutions have kind of failed to recognize the humanity of the individuals. And Dr. Gilmer, you talked about coming from neurology to family practice, which is a much more human and intimate space I feel like. How did that transition sort of change you and your frame of reference? And I’m curious for Mr. Jones as well because you had a similar kind of evolution [indiscernible].
KRISTEN GREEN: So, the question is when our institutions failed—I think the question is for you going into family practice, how—I’m not sure exactly what the question was. How it impacted you for neurology?
BENJAMIN GILMER: I love that question, thank you. I was as guilty as any of these people. I was as guilty as the detective. I was as guilty as the jury. My preconception was that he had a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. Because my master’s thesis was on brain injury, neurons trying to survive. That was my first bias. But family medicine taught me a lot about being less intellectual and more heart centered. And if you’re heart centered, you’re curious. And that opens you up to inquiry, and that’s really what inspired me to ask the next question. But I was stuck on this other diagnosis for so long. Even after speaking to Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter—Woody Guthrie who had this diagnosis. I had a conversation with her in my background, and she [indiscernible] a long time before it was made. And I didn’t even notice it because I was stuck in this other headspace of traumatic brain injury.
KRISTEN GREEN: Do you want to take that real quick?
CHIP JONES: Real quick, yes. Thank you for that observation, for that question. Basically, I learned about the [indiscernible] historical trauma that medical practitioners know about and teach about today in populations such as the COVID vaccine resistance in communities of color all throughout the pandemic. And people were talking to me about that all through COVID, on Zoom calls and everything. The suspicion between Black communities and often other communities.
So yes. Basically, when I say I had to shift gears as a reporter to a writer—and using Benjamin’s notion of trauma. It occurred to me—it’s like I didn’t want to re-traumatize Abraham Tucker. I felt I had to make an effort to talk to him. And that’s how I present the book. So that’s what I learned on a project like this. If you’re working on projects, it’s a mix of head and the heart. You have to mix your skills you might develop as an academic or a journalist. But then you have the skill to step back from them. And even though publishers might give you weird titles, you have to be true to what you’ve learned and what you think is the right treatment of the people being written about.
KRISTEN GREEN: Okay, we’ll take that last question here, and it’s going to have to be a hard stop after this. But of course they’re going to be hanging around signing books, so they can answer your questions while they’re signing your books.
CHIP JONES: Happily signing books.
KRISTEN GREEN: Happily signing books, yes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Just a quick comment and then one question. I’m an attorney, and I’ve worked pro bono for over a decade with prisoners. That’s been most of the work I’ve done. And I’ve noticed that people, almost to the person—the people I talk to about that work. They might initially say why are you helping them. But once they hear their stories and they can humanize a particular prisoner or a handful of prisoners, even their political or their kind of ideas of what we can do to approach the problems often change. So, thank you because what you’re doing I think is the most important part. Just talking about it and reminding people of the humanity of these people.
And then my question I guess would be working in this space the challenges seem so overwhelming. And in the political world there’s not a great incentive for politicians to lobby for these people or for money. And there are so many challenges. You just mentioned low-hanging fruit. If you could tick off a couple of those it might be nice for us to kind of hear or remember what are the more tangible, smaller things we could maybe do to tackle some of these issues.
KRISTEN GREEN: So, the question is what are some of the smaller, more tangible things we can do to address the prisoner population, especially the mentally ill that are imprisoned?
BENJAMIN GILMER: First, tell their story and change hearts. Intellectual vision doesn’t often change hearts, but stories changes hearts. And this is one story that kind of illustrated for me what low-hanging fruit could look like. But there are many things across the country—many programs—that are doing incredible things in terms of trying to change how people are labeled, how people are locked up.
One experience that happened to me recently this past July. We had a mentally ill man that was banging rocks against our car. We turned around and say what’s going on. He said, “Oh, I thought there was a police officer in your car. Therefore, I wanted to destroy it.”
And we sat down quietly. A real police officer showed up and asked me if I wanted to press charges. I said absolutely not. This guy needs a doctor. And then we got him one instead of locking him up that night. And I asked the officer how many more of these people are you going to see tonight. And he said at least twenty-five. This is just the beginning. And I said why don’t you have a social worker in your car, or maybe even a doctor in your car? And he said, “I would be like Captain America.”
That’s just one example of how, if we can get out of our silos a little bit. And there are programs out there who’ve been doing this. We’re starting to talk about being so-called residents and have them integrate with the law enforcement agencies so that they can reevaluate people before they’re seen by a judge. This stuff isn’t so prescriptive, per se, about all those things. It’s more about a call to action. We all have to be curious and ask the questions.
KRISTEN GREEN: Thank you so much to you both.
Thanks to our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop.
“[The Other Dr. Gilmer is a] remarkable medical detective story–cum–memoir, grippingly told . . . I was drawn in by every part of it.” —Atul Gawande, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Being Mortal
“There are too many in prison who should be in hospitals or mental health facilities. . . . The Other Dr. Gilmer does not merely point at a broken system: it humanizes the people trapped within it. They need a physician like Dr. Gilmer to lead the way to healing.”—Anthony Ray Hinton, New York Times bestselling author of The Sun Does Shine
“Startling… [The Organ Thieves is a] powerful story that examines institutional racism, mortality, medical ethics, and the nature of justice for black men living in the American South… A moving exploration of an unthinkable trespass against an innocent man.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Chip Jones’s The Organ Thieves is the brilliantly researched and written story of how Jim Crow racism infected the medical profession during the Cold War era. The twists and turns in this Virginia saga are astonishingly sad and at times triumphant. Every page is a revelation. A must read!” —Douglas Brinkley, Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in Humanities and professor of history at Rice University, and author of American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race
Virginia Festival of the Book staff, volunteers, partners, and attendees appreciate all of our sponsors. It is their crucial support, along with individual donors, that allows us to present the 2022 Virginia Festival of the Book almost completely free of charge. We appreciate the generous commitment from our Premier Sponsor, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and these major sponsors: Michelle and David Baldacci, Dominion Energy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.