Open Book: “Gosnell”

The first Wednesday of each month brings #OpenBook, a blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately.

Gosnell by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer is not easy to read. The style is smooth and fluent, but the topic’s a tough one: Kermit Gosnell, former abortion doctor, now serving life in prison. He killed children who survived attempts to abort them. He was found responsible for the death of a woman who came to him for an abortion and died under what passed for his “care.”

He committed terrible crimes. He is in prison now. Reporters covered the trial as it happened, once they were shamed into it by people like journalist Kirsten Powers. Three years after Gosnell’s conviction, there is now a book that sets down not only what happened, but tells more about the people who were involved. As McElhinney and McAleer tell their stories, the book becomes less about a court case and more about human beings, capable of good choices and bad ones.

I listened to McIlhinney and McAleer talk about their book at CPAC, a political conference in Washington. An odd venue, but perhaps that was the place to reach readers who might not otherwise hear of the book. McAleer was a quiet man, leaving most of the talking to his co-author (who is also his wife).

McIlhenney was not at all quiet. She was passionate and angry as she talked about Gosnell. She was indignant. She called Gosnell “America’s biggest serial killer,” and she meant it. She made no bones about it: she had no objectivity left regarding her subject.

Familiar as I was with the Gosnell case, and as impressed as I was by McElhinney’s passion, I wondered what could be new in the book. As I read, I quickly realized that the close attention to the individuals involved in the case, starting with the investigators, set Gosnell apart from anything else I’ve read on the subject.

The authors’ perspective is unique as well, as McElhinney explains in the preface: “I never trusted or liked pro-life activists. Even at college I thought them too earnest and too religious.”

Fast forward to April 2013 and Kermit Gosnell’s trial in Philadelphia, when everything changed….[T]he images shown in the courtroom were not from activists, they were from police detectives and medical examiners and workers at the 3801 Lancaster Ave. clinic….What they said and the pictures they showed changed me. I am not the same person I was.

The “objective” book about Kermit Gosnell has yet to be written. For now, from that angle, the grand jury report about him will suffice. Why take time for a book-length account of such a sad and painful story, told with a definite point of view?

To meet people like Detective Jim Wood, who was part of the team investigating Gosnell for prescription drug offenses long before the abortion story was uncovered, and to meet Christine Wechsler and Joanne Pescatore from the D.A.’s office. They and many others described in the book were good people who did hard jobs well.

Semika Shaw and Karnamaya Mongar and their families get respectful attention from the authors, much more so than they did from authorities at the times of their deaths at Gosnell’s clinic. Those women are worth reading about.

The authors interviewed Kermit Gosnell in his Pennsylvania prison, dedicating a chapter of the book to the surreal, disturbing encounter. Gosnell’s calmly repeated assertions that he has done nothing wrong boggle the mind after three hundred pages of documentation to the contrary. The book would have been incomplete without the interview. Many people, including the authors, were changed by the Gosnell case; what of Gosnell himself? He hasn’t changed a bit, as the interview makes clear. “I very strongly believe myself to be innocent of the heinous crimes of which I am accused.”

That’s an update, not closure. Closure might not be possible in the wake of the butchery at Gosnell’s clinic. There may yet be some good outcomes, meaning fewer deaths and injuries, if states move ahead with the kind of abortion-facility regulations recommended by the Gosnell grand jury. The authors of Gosnell urge action, not promises.

McElhinney and McAleer are working on a Gosnell film, which they screened at CPAC to an audience that should have been larger. It’s a drama, not a documentary, still in post-production. It looks good, and it will deserve a wide audience. Anyone who reads Gosnell will want to see the film, and anyone who sees the film is going to want to find the book.

For some people, the hard part of picking up the book will be the aversion prompted by the very name Gosnell. The authors share the aversion, but they have nonetheless written a clear and diligently-researched book. They introduce the reader to people worth knowing. McElhinney and McAleer have a sharp eye for medical and legal matters, and a deep concern for justice and human dignity.

The people this book was really written for, though, are the people who aren’t moved by Gosnell’s name or crimes or trial. In Gosnell, Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer are pleading: wake up.  From every page, they reach out to shake the reader out of indifference. As McElhinney writes,

I am absolutely certain that the dead babies spoken of in court were unique people whom the world will now never know. I hope this book and the movie go some way to mark the fact that they lived and in their short lives made a difference. Time will tell. This story can change hearts and minds; it has mine.