I picked this up because it intersected with my interests in NYC, mental illness, and true crime, and I’d been considering getting it for a while before my mom agreed to buy it for me on vacation (she’s a great mom!). Honestly, if I’d bought this myself I don’t know if I’d have been that happy with my decision because this book was perfectly fine but nothing exceptional. It was only $10 but it’s always easier when it’s not your $10.
Golden Boy follows the very sad story of Thomas Gilbert Jr., who grows up in a wealthy Manhattan/Long Island family, going to private schools and eventually getting into Princeton. He’s tall and handsome and everyone sees only a bright future for him. However, he starts developing what at first seems like OCD in high school. His symptoms only get worse as time goes on (to the level of probably being schizophrenia), culminating in him murdering his father. A lot of the book covers attempts to get him mental health treatment and the failure of those efforts throughout his life. It was really depressing seeing well-meaning people trying to get him to take medication or get his life on track and knowing that it was going to end with such a horrible murder. Honestly, it seemed like he’d developed something more in line with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder by the time he was in Princeton but he was functional enough and his family was so invested in maintaining the illusion that everything was fine with him, so he was never forcibly committed. I also completely understand why they felt they could not force him into treatment, because as an adult he could only be held for 72 hours and then could release himself. They were scared of his reaction and of losing any connection to him, which felt very reasonable to me considering how angry he was all the time. The only time it seemed like they could have course corrected was when he was in high school and his illness first started appearing. There seemed to be a similar reaction of not wanting to rock the boat and denial that things were serious, but since he was a minor they could have gotten him into an inpatient program without his consent. Hindsight is 20/20, though, and I don’t mean at all to blame his family for what happened. His mother in particular went through a pure nightmare of finding her husband’s body and then trying to get her son help after the fact, only to be met with the fact that the prison healthcare system and the legal system is not set up to provide actual mental health care to prisoners. The section of the book that dealt with the wrangling over his competency hearings was a pure Kafkaesque nightmare scenario. It boggled my mind that they kept declaring him competent and able to participate. He seemed delusional and out of control to me, but since he met the “knows right from wrong” M’Naughten rule somehow and could answer the judge’s questions, the court saw him as able to take part in his defense even though he was extremely disruptive and kept having to be removed from the courtroom. It was just overall an awful situation and a black eye for how our legal system deals with mentally ill defendants.
While the subject matter was very interesting to me, the book itself was pretty straight forward crime writing and wasn’t above an average level. It was a good book to churn through in a sitting or two and has a picture section that will make you sad. Personally I didn’t love that the cover is just a picture of his face because it felt exploitative and like it was using that “golden boy” image to shock you with the contrast between his face and the crime, when I think the story here is really more about the complete failure of our mental health and justice systems to be able to help a very sick person. Recommended if you’re interested in these topics, but not my highest recommendation.
Warnings for: assault, murder, arson, mental illness