Providence journalist’s new book examines the ‘Pill Mill Killer’


Philip Eil wasn’t quite 24 when he learned a startling fact: His father, Dr. Charles Eil, had been a medical school classmate of Paul Volkman, M.D., the convicted “Pill Mill Killer.”

Eil might have shrugged off this information, unmoved by his two degrees of separation from a disgraced physician with a deadly legacy of opioid scripts.

But Eil, a Providence native who had just kicked off his career as a journalist, was fascinated by this small-world connection, and wondered how this medical practitioner could wreak such havoc on a small Ohio town, and was he really guilty enough to serve four consecutive life terms in prison?

Fifteen years later, Eil’s first book has just been published, “Prescription for Pain: How a Once-Promising Doctor Became the ‘Pill Mill Killer.

Eil, who turns 39 this month, is a prolific writer and veteran part-time college instructor at Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.  He lives a few streets from his childhood home in the East Side of Providence. His home office is within a mile of Temple Emanu-El, where he became a Bar Mitzvah, and his alma mater, the Wheeler School.

Yet Eil has taken an astonishing journey these past 15 years, delving deeply into Volkman’s labyrinthine world. He has conducted more than 150 interviews, examined police evidence, probed court documents and spent hours talking with the incarcerated doctor, who tirelessly proclaims his innocence.

We caught up with Eil recently to talk about his decorated journalism career, his mammoth book project and his relationship with Judaism.

How did you start out as a writer?

After college [at the University of Michigan], I took a job in publishing, which was a cubicle job at a children’s publisher in New York City, and I found it deeply under-stimulating. This whole amazing city was right outside my window!

I was doing a lot of reading outside of work, on the subway. I was getting really inspired by things I was reading: I read Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” I read William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.”

About six months into the job, I signed up for a night class in creative nonfiction, and that’s where the lightbulb went off. It suddenly made sense that I wanted to write nonfiction.

From there, I applied for a newspaper internship at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and I went out there for the summer. I had my first byline, and I got my first reporter’s notebooks, and I did my first interviews. I was just hooked.

It was after I moved back to Rhode Island, in the fall of 2008, that I was really eager for any writing opportunities I could find. I started writing for the Providence Phoenix, and I think it was either that fall or the winter of the next year that I got connected with Richard Asinof, who was then the editor of the Jewish Voice [now Jewish Rhode Island]. Those two papers are really where I wrote some of my first pieces and started to get my experience as a journalist and as a writer.

Was it meaningful to you to become involved in Jewish journalism?

I took a very influential class in my last year in college, History of American Jews. That class, taught by Deborah Dash Moore, made a huge impression on me. I kind of feel that all the Jewish journalism I’ve done since – and I would categorize this book as Jewish journalism – I kind of consider just assignments for that class, because I am perpetually interested in the thinking about the story of Jews in America.

I inadvertently discovered that writing Jewish journalism turned out to be, for me, one of the most meaningful ways for me to engage with my Judaism. To explore Jewish subjects, to interview Jewish people, to write about Jewish-American history carries more meaning and emotion and fulfillment than what happens inside a synagogue.

To me, it’s where I explore really big questions: What does it mean to be Jewish? The question I ask people whenever I write for those publications is, “What does being Jewish mean to you?”

You served as editor for The Phoenix, the Providence alt-weekly, and have written for Vice, both of which are known for an earthier editorial tone. What attracts you to these kinds of publications?

What drew me into writing in the first place were always writers who wrote with a strong voice, whether that was Philip Guravitch or Susan Orlean at the New Yorker or Joan Didion or Hunter S. Thompson. I didn’t dream of writing according to the AP style guide.

When it comes to alt-weeklies, I love the ability to write in my own voice, I love the ability to peek around at things that traditional news outlets may have missed or overlooked or were not given the depth that I think they deserve. Also, [I wanted] stories that allowed you to be a character, if the story merited it, to use “I.” You can’t do that really often in a traditional [newspaper] piece.

For Volkman’s story, readers deserve to know what my connection is. I don’t think I should be the subject of the story, but they ought to know that this guy went to college and med school with my dad.

If you had googled Paul Volkman before my magazine article came out in 2017, there was a little bit of coverage, but there wasn’t a lot. When he was convicted, the New York Times ran a short, 150-word news brief. It is kind of amazing to me that no one had looked further.

How would you describe your writing style?

It’s heavily influenced by William Zinsser and “On Writing Well.” I have a document at home of my favorite “Zinsserisms,” that I take very seriously. He is also about clarity, simplicity, being succinct, not being pretentious, eliminating unnecessary words. He has an eloquent passage about all the distractions in the modern age that are vying for a person’s attention.

I want my language to be plain and understandable, without sacrificing intelligence or nuance. I loved the fact that the Phoenix was a free paper, and I always strive in my work to be accessible, democratic, and I really resist reaching for words that people are going to need a dictionary to look up. I have a low tolerance for bullsh**, and it turns out, in this book, I encountered a master of spin, dishonesty, self-aggrandizement, rationalization, and for whatever reasons, I’m motivated to cut through that, to get to the truth of what’s really going on.

To wait and have faith in a project for 15 years blows my mind – how did you keep at it?

It might be overstating it to say I’m glad it took that long, but I’m certainly very much OK with it taking that long. I wouldn’t have said that at various stages along the way, when 23-year-old me had this story fall into my lap. But for as much fire and ambition and excitement and energy as I had, I wasn’t ready as a person or as a journalist to pull this off. I have spent a lot of time in therapy asking, “What was it about this story about death and failure and corruption and people being awful that grabbed me so hard?”

Is the true-crime genre having a moment?

True crime has always had a strong presence. But there was really a moment, where in the span of about a year, “Serial” and “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx” came out, and that prompted this new wave.

What do I think that’s about? In some ways, I think there’s a hunger for stories that take a more critical eye to the criminal justice system. I think the internet has a lot to do with it. Podcasts and true crime are like a match made in heaven. But I don’t really know what people are after. I think I know what I’m after.

What are you after?

There have been a lot of amazing books written about the opioid epidemic. I am a fan, as a reader and as a writer, of individual stories that get at bigger subjects through one single throughline. This story is a window into so much. It’s about medicine. It’s about medical research. It’s about medical malpractice. It’s about this town in Ohio, Portsmouth, that I really fell in love with. It’s about telling these tragic stories. The story is so rich, and through that big story I got to explore so many different subjects.

“Prescription for Pain: How a Once-Promising Doctor Became the ‘Pill Mill Killer’ ” (Steerforth Press) will be published on April 9. For more information, go to

ROBERT ISENBERG is a freelance writer and multimedia producer based in Cranston. His latest book, “Mile Markers: Essays on Cycling,” will be released this month.

Philip Eil, writer, Up Front, author