What could be more chilling than the most prolific serial killer in history? The cool and calculated corporations he worked for, hiding his tracks every step of the way.
On a windy day, the sort of day I call “earthquake weather” with no idea what earthquake weather feels like, imagining an anxiety in the air that starts at dirt level and works its way up to my sensory organs, my friend Lindsay and I sat in SFO’s cell phone lot. Our world-traveling friend Wendi was finally due to arrive home after months of globe-trotting. As we waited for any news of Wendi’s delayed flight, we watched the sun fade and others around us get the magic call from family members or friends and rush off towards the terminals, released from cell phone lot limbo. The wind blustered around our parked SUV, and we sat there, facing forward, and somehow realized the radio was cooing calmly about nursing and murder.
On NPR, journalist Charles Grabner was being interviewed about his book The Good Nurse. The not-so-good night nurse Charlie Cullen, referenced in the book’s title, may be the greatest serial killer of all time. He slipped his patients deadly cocktails, or stuck needles in random IV bags, and left a trail of devastation behind him so vast that even he isn’t able to recall all his victims.
Occasionally, sitting in the car, my friend would exclaim after some soundbite (angel of mercy, elderly deaths, autopsy, countless suicide attempts) “God, what are we listening to!” She’d threaten to turn off the radio. But we kept the radio on, as the car around us got dark, and when we ran out of things to talk about we listened to Grabner’s voice telling us what seemed to be an impossible yet true story of a murderer flitting from hospital to hospital, unstopped.
Finally, we got the call cell phone lots were made for: the flight had finally landed and our friend Wendi made it back to that California state of mind. Irrational thoughts immediately emptied my mind (what if we’re stuck in this cell phone lot forever, should we try to bond with the other people waiting in their cars, did the world end and only the people in this cell phone lot are left but we’re all unaware due to cell phone lot isolation), we turned our attentions from the murderous nurse to Wendi’s fabulous adventures abroad, and didn’t give Charlie Cullen another thought as we zipped away from SFO, human cargo safely in back seat, towards the Bay Bridge.
At least I didn’t, until now. I finally picked up The Good Nurse, as the words of its author, Charles Grabner, made an impression. This isn’t just the story of the “good nurse,” as Cullen claims himself to be at one point in the book. And thank goodness for that, as Cullen’s story is indecipherable at best. We may never know his exact motives, as he probably doesn’t know them himself. The Good Nurse doesn’t waste much time speculating on the psyche of a murderer. Rather, the book sticks to the facts. From the beginning of the story, the start of Cullen’s life, there is an alarming abundance of facts–little red flags dotting Cullen’s history.
Charlie Cullen’s past is littered with the wreckage of constant struggle with oneself, a landfill of evidence illustrating an unsound mind: countless suicide attempts (over 20, with the first at age 9), domestic violence charges, multiple restraining orders, DUIs, and hospitalizations. Cullen struggled with alcohol abuse, and although this isn’t a heavy focus of the book, one imagines it could be, as so many crucial scenes involve a near sober Cullen drinking again, or hiding his drinking, or a Cullen delusional with drink becoming violent towards himself or others. At one point his fearful wife calls the police while a desperate and drunk Cullen tears the pages from his Alcoholics Anonymous texts, throwing them into the fire. When police arrive Cullen promptly takes an overdose and is rushed the hospital. As anyone who has struggled with alcoholism knows, whatever sort of awful things happen when someone drinks, the story always starts with the alcohol. An optimist might wonder what sort of alternative life this man could have found, had he managed to control the more dangerous of his impulses with 12-step programs, therapy, and medication.
But all this help is offered and rejected, and the first part of the book is an almost unbearably dark walk through Cullen’s history. The rote recitation of suicide attempts and sadistic behavior became so difficult to get through at one point I thought about stopping the book, but I trudged on through.
The bizarre behavior comes not only from the sadistic, alcoholic Cullen but from those he works for, as hospitaladministrators begin to notice they have an “odd duck” on their hands and amazingly, offer him time off with pay or a good recommendation as long as he agrees to leave. Hospital bureaucracy allows this man, who tampered with IV bags at his very first job, to leave a long line of in-house investigations or notes in personnel files in his wake, with no actual repercussions. He receives glowing recommendations, finds new jobs quickly, and is always well paid. One job calls him after a hospitalization at a psychiatric facility, where he was an inpatient after a suicide attempt, not to fire him but to see when he can begin working again.
Part Two of the book widens the story’s circle again, not only including the sad, disturbed Cullen and the neglectful, lawsuit-wary hospitals he floats through, but the street smart homicide cops who finally work the case, a pair of characters with dialogue begging for movie adaptation. Somerset Medical Center finally notifies the police about mysterious deaths in its hospital, in the vaguest way possible, when in a meeting with Detective Tim Braun and Detective Danny Baldwin, a lawyer for the hospital vaguely declares “the medical center isn’t reporting a homicide, but has experienced five unexplainable patient incidents. Last Friday, there was a sixth incident.” What?
And this is where the incredible story truly begins, not with the cold character of Cullen or the even more calculated choices made by hospital bureaucracy. But with these two guys, Tim and Danny, who swing by the mall to pick up a medical dictionary after their meeting with hospital. These homicide police are trained to look at a body, usually a body with some gunshot wounds, and instead are presented with a few memos, a few test results, and a ton of obfuscation. Assistance offered by hospitals is sparse and often incorrect, and every institution seems to oppose the detectives as they seek the truth: at times they go against their own supervisors, and they slowly creep towards facts hidden under layers and layers of hospital misinformation.
At every turn in Cullen’s past, individual people chose to not get involved, or to not rock the boat; all those individual people allowed Charlie Cullen to continue killing for years, across hospitals. He doesn’t even remember how many people he might have killed. The story of these two detectives, and eventually the informant who works with them, is a brilliant, shining example of the truth bubbling to the surface. The brutal weight of sadness surrounding this story is made a little more bearable knowing that in the end, the bad guy and even the bad corporations were no match for two good guys determined to know the truth.