May 14, 2013

"Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde" and Huntington's Disease

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When we originally aired this episode in 2013, we received emails from people who thought we were concluding that Huntington's Disease had caused Vince Gilmer to commit a murder. Reporter Sarah Koenig wrote the response below, indicating that this was not her conclusion or intention. We have clarified this point in the version of the show we rebroadcast.

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Sarah Koenig here. After our show "Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde" aired, we got some emails about the way I discussed Huntington's Disease in the story. Just to remind you: The story was about a beloved family doctor, Vince Gilmer, who brutally killed his own father. By the end of the story — spoiler coming now — we figure out that Vince has Huntington's Disease, a genetic disorder that can cause physical and psychological symptoms.

The emails pointed out that a listener could walk away from the story believing that Huntington’s Disease led to Vince Gilmer’s violent behavior — that it contributed to the murder. We did not intend to draw that connection. Because I can't say for certain how, or if, Huntington's was affecting Vince at the time.

Michelle Meyer, a fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, wrote to us: "Although the occasional incidents involving people with HD [Huntington’s Disease] who kill themselves or others make for splashy news and riveting human interest stories, the fact is that the vast majority of people with HD are not dangerous to themselves or others."

It’s a sensitive topic, listeners pointed out, because of the history of discrimination against people with the disease. Meyer continued:

"People with HD are instead much more likely to be the victims of violence. They were burned at the stake as witches in Salem and sent to the gas chambers during the Holocaust, for instance. Less dramatically, they are routinely turned away from public accommodations or arrested because their chorea is mistaken for drunkenness. Many who are at risk for HD choose not to be tested, not only because they don't want to know, but also, in many cases, because they fear the consequences of an HD diagnosis for their employment and insurance status … on top of the risk that others will respond to them with irrational fears and prejudices."

So to repeat: I did not mean to imply that Huntington's is what made Vince do this violent thing. Or to imply that he’s not responsible for what he did, because of Huntington's. I regret that I didn't make that clearer in the story. If we rebroadcast the story, we'll correct that.