Short and Sweet: Gosnell suffers from poor and overly emotional writing, severe biases, poor pacing, and huge swaths of irrelevant information. Wikipedia is as effective without the bullshit. This is not the true crime novel to pick up if you’d like to learn anything extra about the case. Please don’t waste your time.
Where do I begin?
Firstly, a warning. Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer is a politically charged novel on abortion and thus, this will be a politically charged review. To quickly summarize if politics aren’t your thing:
Let’s start with expectations. When I crack open a true crime novel, I expect a few things from the genre, as you would have expectations when books are labeled things like ‘fantasy’ or ‘science fiction’. With true crime, I expect a certain level of professionalism and detachment within the writing, I expect all claims to be cited, I expect information that is not relevant to be absent, and I expect an organized discussion of the crime. Gosnell failed every single one of these points. This is not a true crime novel. This is a condemnation on abortion, using the Gosnell case as a vehicle to do so.
With the very first page, you are greeted by a myriad of pro-life quotes and support. The second page features a lengthy foreword from Alan Robertson, of Duck Dynasty fame. Yes, that fame. Not to be outdone, we are then subjected to another preface, now written by author Ann McElhinney, on how she switched from pro-choice to pro-life because of this case, how terrible it is, etc. “Pro-abortion advocates” is thrown – oh yes, we get started early.
Finally, we make it to the actual story. First page dives right in, describing to us how the police were originally attempting to bust a drug ring, and halfway down we are then introduced to Detective Jim Wood, the man heading the bust. We are then interrupted so we can read all about Jim Wood’s entire life story for five pages.
No, I’m not joking. We learn about his parents, his birth, childhood, moving to college life, marriage, subsequent children, family tragedy, and into his work as a detective. This is a theme, where random information is suddenly dumped on you, instead of interwoven through the narrative. At first, it’s jarring. After a while, it’s annoying.
Did I mention this all starts within the very first pages? Whoops, I repeated myself. Don’t worry, that’s also a theme here, I’ll get to that.
The second snag that caught me was the section that discussed the oxytocin ring Gosnell ran. The authors made sure to let us know their thoughts and feelings on this; I quote,
“He knew very well the horrific consequences of Oxy addition, he just didn’t care. He loved the power he got from supplying addicts, and he loved the money.”
A bit unnecessary, but okay, I’m not very far into this book. Further on, during the police raid on the doctor’s office, the patrons waiting were understandably upset at their presence, as you would be if you were there for a medical procedure and a freaking SWAT team burst in on the scene. Oh, but no, that’s not why they were really upset: “They were angry that law enforcement was interfering with their abortions.”
And it just got worse:
“[In regard to McMahon, Gosnell’s lawyer, referring to abortions as treatments] Nice euphemism, ‘treatment’.”
“…liberal journalists with their highly attuned sense of social justice?”
“[In regard to Sherry West and Lynda Williams, two of Gosnell’s clinic workers] On top of this, they weren’t very bright.”
“It seems the medical establishment cared more about the principle of unfettered access to abortion than the safety of real-life women.”
“Gosnell’s just not that smart. He thinks he is, but he’s not.”
Where is the professionalism?
I highlighted 74 separate passages, words, or paragraphs that were problematic enough to be mentioned in this review, before I gave up. I could not turn a page without some type of angry, judgmental commentary mixed in with the discussion. If you were concerned about how the authors feel on any given situation or event, don’t worry – they will let you know.
Information is repeated, and repeated often, even within a few pages’ distance. I caught onto this during the aforementioned police raid, when we are introduced to Darlene Augustine and Elinor Barsony. These are two nurses sent from the Department of Health to assist with the raid, and woe betide you should you forget:
“The Department of Health sent two registered nurses, Darlene Augustine and Elinor Barsony.”
Literally two sentences later:
“Except for Darlene Augustine, one of the nurses from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.”
Two pages later this time:
“…shock and disgust to Darlene Augustine, the nurse who – though he didn’t know it at the time – was implicated in the Department of Health’s dereliction of duty…”
Another page later:
“Health Department nurse Darlene Augustine went into the basement…”
Dude. We get it. This happens a few more times, but the most aggravating, the most irritating version of this is the authors’ catchphrase: Gosnell, America’s biggest/most prolific serial killer™. Over and over again, as if we’ve forgotten the title of the book or whom the book refers to. At some points Gosnell’s name isn’t even used:
“…courtesy of America’s biggest serial killer.”
“When the trial of American’s biggest serial killer began…”
“…to inspect and stop America’s biggest serial killer.”
The organization of information is poor and often didn’t make much sense and/or wasn’t relevant. You’ve already seen the mini novella of Detective Wood within the first few pages. For example(s), we learn about the grand jury system in Chapter Two, but Karnamaya Mongar’s murder isn’t even given appropriate space until Chapter Five.
In Chapter Ten, we get to experience a lengthy discussion on a Planned Parenthood scandal that has zero to do with Gosnell – but everything to do with abortion.
Chapter Eleven (titled America’s Biggest Serial Killer?, in case you forgot, of course) discusses a different serial killer in greater detail, because I totally came here to learn about other serial killers and their crimes.
Chapter Twelve is the first time we actually learn about Gosnell as a person, after we’ve read literally everything else there is to be told about the case. Throughout my whole… experience… reading this book, all I wanted to do was tear it in half and rearrange the pieces to concurrently fit.
What is even more frustrating, if possible, is the lack of information given when it is highly relevant. The first time we hear about Gosnell’s inclination for injuring women is in Chapter Three, in reference to the “Mother’s Day Massacre”. It is briefly mentioned, and then completely dropped until Chapter Seven. The whole freaking incident isn’t explained in greater detail until Chapter Twelve, when our authors must’ve finally realized learning about Gosnell and his history was, I don’t know, important?
Furthermore, there is one – ONE – mention of the “fertility clinic” Gosnell ran that took money in exchange for advice like drinking “baking soda and vinegar”. Here, again, we have this hugely pertinent piece of information that illustrates Gosnell’s historied manipulation of women’s fertility, and its treated like an freaking asterisk.
But it doesn’t stop there, oh no. Many pages were dedicated to the “baby feet”, one of Gosnell’s most horrid trophies. Our authors go into minute detail about them, spanning 44 different references throughout the novel. As they should be; it was a devastating and macabre find. However, that wasn’t all the trophies he took:
“Gosnell also collected pictures of women’s genitals. He snapped pictures when his patients were unconscious…”
This was mentioned once. Never mind that this illustrated a pattern of abuse of vulnerable women as a whole. It had nothing to do with abortion, and so it was not discussed. This has the effect of making the women of his crimes as asides, footnotes, only mentioned when underlying how terrible abortion is.
What eats at me is the way his crimes are cherry-picked and commented on in this book. Why were they not allowed to stand on their own? Why did the authors feel the need to tell me – constantly – how terrible they were? Why was an abortion agenda pushed so thoroughly? I am a reader, I can certainly come to the conclusion that the abortion procedure is intense without a detailed description on how I should feel about it.
This book could’ve been so many things. It could’ve been a discussion on the concept of life, and how Gosnell violated that. It could’ve had talks on the lack of media presence, and how our news may be more censored than we realize without the wagging finger. It could’ve discussed abortion in the US, and how the push and pull of its legalization interplays with race, sex education and alternative birth control options. It could’ve touched on the actual women who were violated not just with the abortion procedures, but also with the pictures he took. Why did he take them? How did they know? Why did Gosnell prey on black patients, while maintaining a tidy office for white patients?
There are other, smaller, issues within this book that are also ridiculous. Like author Ann McElhinney showing up at a prison with an OVERSIZED hoodie on. To her ~utter surprise~ she had to take it off. Straight up admits this, after languishing us with a description of the lovely B&B they stayed at. (Oddly, they open this chapter with a description of the children’s prisons in Moldova. While I assume they were attempting to draw parallels of the children’s treatment there to the humane treatment of Gosnell, it stands as another example of jarring information inserted into the narrative). They also tried to take out notes after the prison interview with Gosnell, and nearly got in hot water for it. You didn’t ask beforehand? You didn’t do any research on what to wear to a visitor’s center?
It’s smaller stuff like this that makes me both roll my eyes and question the integrity of research in Gosnell – if you can’t find out the clothing requirements for a prison visit, what other research are you lacking? Did your attitude presented in this book bleed into the requests for comments you made to other institutions?
In one word: Anger. Anger when I think of this book, and anger that Gosnell’s crimes were used as a pro-life vehicle instead of standing on their own. Anger that important information was left out in exchange for an abortion micro-lens. This whole book is, to borrow the authors’ inflammatory language, a dumpster fire. Don’t bother, unless you’re here for the obvious agenda. What an absolute waste of my fucking time.