Back in the early 80s, when the 12-year-old Charles Graeber signed on to sell Tootsie Rolls door to door for the American Kidney Fund, he never could have envisioned that it would one day help him win the trust of a serial killer. But it may very well have been hearing about this simple act of altruism that led Charles Cullen, a so-called “angel of death,” to grant Graeber access after denying it to every other reporter who’d come before him.
In 2005, Graeber, an award-winning freelance journalist who lives in Williamsburg, stumbled on a newspaper article detailing Cullen’s thwarted attempts to donate a kidney. This was the writer’s first introduction to the case of the New Jersey nurse now believed to be one of the deadliest serial killers in American history, and the man’s crimes were indeed shocking. Using IVs spiked with lethal amounts of insulin, among other drugs, Cullen preyed on what is now estimated to be as many as 400 patients. Still it wasn’t so much Cullen’s horrific past that grabbed Graeber as it was the ethical dilemma at the heart of the article. Was it morally defensible to deny a killer the power to commit a potentially life saving act, even one as monstrous as Cullen?
Graeber was troubled enough by the question to reach out to Cullen in jail. In the letter he wrote he mentioned both his stint as a volunteer for the AKF and the time he’d logged as a medical student and researcher. He assured Cullen that his primary interest was in seeing the greater good prevail, not in holding him accountable for his past. Cullen seemed to believe him. The two men struck up a conversation that lasted for years, years in which Graeber’s interest in the man became more pointed and personal, ultimately resulting in a book, The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder.
In The Good Nurse, Graeber tells the story of Charlie Cullen’s transformation from deeply troubled young man to unbridled predator in vivid, unflinching prose reminiscent of true crime classics like In Cold Blood. But the book isn’t just a portrait of a man turned monster, but also of the repeated failure of the hospitals that employed him to stop him even as evidence of his misdeeds mounted.
Last year The Good Nurse garnered critical acclaim and made a number of best-of lists, including the BBC’s Top Ten Books of 2013 and Stephen King’s “Best Books I Read This Year.” I interviewed Graeber prior to The Good Nurse’s paperback release last week. We talked about the genesis of the book, his privileged relationship with Cullen, and the particular challenges of reporting credible and compelling narrative nonfiction. (more…)