Book Review: Golden Boy by John Glatt
By Jenny MaloneyJuly 19, 2021
On a Sunday in January 2015, Thomas Gilbert Sr., hedge-fund founder and member of the Manhattan social elite, was laying in bed watching a football game. Then his son, Thomas Gilbert Jr., known as Tommy, walked in wearing a hoodie. Tommy pressed a gun to his father’s head and shot him. After, Tommy went back to his apartment and was arrested seven hours later.
Those are the most straightforward facts of this particular case. The years leading up to the deadly moment and the court case which followed, were anything but simple. The Gilbert’s navigated a world of private schools, Ivy League opportunities, country clubs, and Hampton mansions. Expectations of exceptionalism and a ‘certain lifestyle’ brought additional pressures to complicated situations. And, by all accounts, Tommy Gilbert’s mental health struggles were complicated.
In Golden Boy: A Murder Among the Manhattan Elite, John Glatt, investigative journalist and author of over twenty-five books, has tackled a true-crime juggernaut. In the Acknowledgments section, Glatt states, “Golden Boy is without a doubt my most challenging true crime book.” After reading it, I believe that.
The people involved in this story are grappling with some of the most difficult mental health difficulties—obsessive compulsive disorder, paranoia, and possible schizophrenia—either as a sufferer or a family member/friend. At the same time, they’re in the pressure cooker of maintaining a certain lifestyle standard and under the watchful eye of Page Six. Just putting these elements in perspective must have made Glatt’s job that much more difficult. But he is successful.
First, Glatt breaks down the world of the Manhattan elite. A world of Park Avenue, private clubs, and Princeton. This is the world where Thomas Gilbert, Jr.—Tommy—grew up. He is the son of two bright financiers, Thomas Gilbert, Sr.—Tom—and Shelley.
Growing up, Tommy attended prestigious private schools and was successful, both academically and athletically. He is the titular “golden boy.” Everything is given to him, and happily so. He exhibits a great deal of potential.
Then things shift. While the troubles seem to reach their pinnacle at Princeton, it’s clear Tommy’s mental health problems begin far earlier. At Deerfield Academy, the exclusive private school he attended, he claims his roommate is contaminated. He dreams his father is harassing him. He begins a long string of psychiatric treatment.
But deep inside Tommy Gilbert’s head, seeds of anxiety and paranoia were taking root. He started developing irrational fears of his father and some of his classmates. He experienced social anxiety and was becoming increasingly insecure.
Years later, Tommy would tell a psychiatrist that in the sixth grade something strange happened to his brain during a bus ride with a friend. He would describe it as the first time he experienced any mental problems and had no idea why.
“I didn’t feel like myself,” he explained. “This had happened before. It was alarming because I immediately lost social skills. Luckily, my friend was listening to music at the time, so I didn’t have to speak with him.”
He also started having dreams about his father sadistically harassing him—and vice versa. In a recurring one, he would be kicking his father and shouting at him to stop upsetting him.
In another one, he’d be eating potato chips when his father suddenly snatched them out of his hand and started yelling at him for no reason.
Up to that point, Tommy told the psychiatrist, he had adored his father and they had shared a great relationship.
Here is where the story becomes massively frustrating—and where Glatt expertly interweaves the issues of mental health and privilege.
Multiple times, Tommy breaks down. He is clearly rudderless. He is clearly lying. He is clearly taking illegal drugs. Several of the psychiatrists/psychologists recommend institutionalization. But no one steps in and institutionalizes Tommy against his will. The argument goes something like: After seventy-two hours, Tommy can just check himself out and he’ll be mad.
Dr. Spicer then wanted to forcibly commit Tommy to a psychiatric hospital, but the Gilberts were against it. In most states, including South Carolina, hospitals can only hold involuntary patients legally for seventy-two hours. Once the hold was lifted, they knew Tommy would immediately discharge himself.
“It’s bad enough having a mentally ill child on your hands,” explained Shelley. “It is worse to have an angry mentally ill child.”
Tied to this argument is “What will people think?” Tommy himself is embarrassed by his mental background.
Perhaps there should have been a trigger warning for me. As the child of mental health professionals, I was practically yelling at the pages—as if anyone can hear you through the pages and years. But seventy-two hours, which may seem insignificant, is often (not always) enough to put the brakes on some very dangerous situations. Tommy, prior to the murder of his father, violently threatened a country club employee, assaulted a friend, and set fire to that friend’s house.
But, instead of putting him in a 72-hour hold, his family gave him an allowance, paid Manhattan rent on multiple apartments, paid for his country club membership, insisted he join the family business, and covered up police reports to save face. It is the perfect illustration of privilege.
Clearly, I was frustrated. But Glatt is more sympathetic as a writer than I apparently am as a reader.
Though frustration is the name of the game during the trial, which took three competency hearings, two law firms, and four years to get to. Glatt does a beautiful job of rendering the step-by-step process of getting Tommy Gilbert into the courtroom. Again, according to the Acknowledgments section, Glatt began work on this book in 2015—and it took years of research, interviews, and “following the labyrinthian path through scores of hearings” to gracefully portray the complicated maneuvers and motives of all parties in this case.
Golden Boy: A Murder Among the Manhattan Elite brings to the forefront two aspects of American life we are grappling with—privilege and mental health stigmas. John Glatt, by thorough investigative research and empathy for all involved, has managed to present these complicated matters in an intriguing, enthralling narrative.