Review | Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family – Robert Kolker

About the Book

The heartrending story of a midcentury American family with twelve children, six of them diagnosed with schizophrenia, that became science’s great hope in the quest to understand the disease.

Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American dream. After World War II, Don’s work with the Air Force brought them to Colorado, where their twelve children perfectly spanned the baby boom: the oldest born in 1945, the youngest in 1965. In those years, there was an established script for a family like the Galvins—aspiration, hard work, upward mobility, domestic harmony—and they worked hard to play their parts. But behind the scenes was a different story: psychological breakdown, sudden shocking violence, hidden abuse. By the mid-1970s, six of the ten Galvin boys, one after another, were diagnosed as schizophrenic. How could all this happen to one family?

What took place inside the house on Hidden Valley Road was so extraordinary that the Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health. Their story offers a shadow history of the science of schizophrenia, from the era of institutionalization, lobotomy, and the schizophrenogenic mother to the search for genetic markers for the disease, always amid profound disagreements about the nature of the illness itself. And unbeknownst to the Galvins, samples of their DNA informed decades of genetic research that continues today, offering paths to treatment, prediction, and even eradication of the disease for future generations.

With clarity and compassion, bestselling and award-winning author Robert Kolker uncovers one family’s unforgettable legacy of suffering, love, and hope.

400 pages (hardcover)
Published on April 7, 2020
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This was an Audible purchase. 

I don’t even really know where to start with this review. 

The story of the Galvin family is one that hits really hard, and sometimes I got so emotionally tangled up in the story being told, it was really difficult to step back and internalize what I was reading from a more objective point of view. While there are a lot of aspects of this story that are just absolutely surreal, almost impossible, there are so many other details that will likely resonate with just about any Joe America family. 

The story of Don and Mimi Galvin is one that likely many mid-century post World War II families relate to. Don went off to fight in World War II, came back, and married Mimi. Their life became one of striving to be the perfect family. You know, the one with the perfect house and the mother who has fresh-baked cookies ready when her kids come home from school. The family that everyone aspires to be. That alone is an immense amount of pressure, but Don and Mimi also apparently wanted a big family, because they ended up having twelve kids. Ten boys, and two girls. 

Don spent a lot of time at work, which left Mimi basically alone a lot of the time to single parent this brood. When Don got a good job as a sort of liaison for the Rocky Mountain states, they thought they’d had it made, finally. They went to fancy dinner parties, met important people, did important things. All the while, their home life was falling apart. In quick succession, six of their twelve kids had psychotic breaks, and were eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia.

While most of this book is about the saga of the Galvin family, the author, Robert Kolker, takes readers through the evolution of mental illness as a medical field as well. From various ways it was understood, to how the study of mental illness evolved scientifically, and the people who championed the search for the genetic link that could, potentially, be the cause of schizophrenia.

A popular theory at one point was that it was all the mother’s fault. Fun fact: My brother was born without his corpus callosum, which caused some problems with his understanding of fantasy/reality, and interacting with other people and the world at large. I remember once talking to my mom about it, and she said, “I never wanted to talk to anyone about him because it always ended up being my fault that he was like that.” I always thought she was too sensitive, but when I read this book, I realized she wasn’t. There actually was a point of time when it was all literally chalked up to terrible mothering.

“And so I was crushed,” Mimi said. “Because I thought I was such a good mother. I baked a cake and a pie every night. Or at least had Jell-O with whipped cream.” 

Now, back to that mothering point I mentioned above. One thing about the Galvins that sort of surprised me was how closed-lipped they were about the plight of their six sons. In and out of the hospital, on and off medication, some of them were violent and many were frequently arrested. Home was not a comfortable place to be, as they were extremely violent with each other, and some of them sexually abused others. I mean, the whole house had gone off the rails, and yet, it took almost an act of God to get Mimi Galvin to speak about any of this openly with anyone (which reminded me of my mother). The interweaving of the story of the Galvin family, and the evolution of psychology and the study of mental illness that made so much of the parents’ behavior clear to me. Why would you want to talk to anyone about what is happening, if you knew that it would automatically be assumed that it was all your fault for being a horrible mother? 

So, with six kids, all diagnosed as schizophrenic, the Galvins—especially Mimi, as Don was gone so much—really had to chart their own course. The hospital was only just helpful enough. Their home became a revolving door of kids who were in and out of the hospital, on and off medications, people who were running away, or just coming home. Kids on and off illicit drugs, in and out of jail for one reason or another, and the mother who somehow managed to hold it all together despite the fact that everything was falling apart and no one was really helping in any lasting way. 

The truth was, schizophrenia just wasn’t (and still isn’t, I’d argue) fully understood. However, there did become a push to understand the disease, to perhaps find the genetic marker that made certain brains default to this particular mental disorder. The transition was, and still is, slow, but gradually this disease stopped being understood as a result of poor parenting, or childhood trauma, and perhaps something genetic, or maybe a symptom of something greater, like the brain not functioning correctly (read the quote below for more on this). The link to genetics was important, and while studies are still ongoing, this understanding of the disease on a different level like this helps science and pharma synthesize more effective medications, which dramatically alter the quality of life for those who suffer with this particular disease. 

“In 2010, the psychiatrist Thomas Insel, then director of NIMH, called for the research community to redefine schizophrenia as “a collection of neurodevelopmental disorders,” not one single disease. The end of schizophrenia as a monolithic diagnosis could mean the beginning of the end of the stigma surrounding the condition. What if schizophrenia wasn’t a disease at all, but a symptom? “The metaphor I use is that years ago, clinicians used to look at ‘fever’ as one disease,” said John McGrath, an epidemiologist with Australia’s Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research and one of the world’s authorities on quantifying populations of mentally ill people. “Then they split it into different types of fevers. And then they realized it’s just a nonspecific reaction to various illnesses. Psychosis is just what the brain does when it’s not working very well.” 

Kolker does a great job at exploring the evolution of thought about mental illness, while showing readers just how devastating mental illness can be. The Galvin family was really an all-American family who became really pivotal to the understanding of Schizophrenia due to the large size of the brood, and the even distribution between six kids who had the disease, and six who didn’t. Their genes are still being studied, and are helping generations of people live better lives. However, they were also a product of the times, the pressure to be the perfect family intermixed with a scientific understanding that was not up to the level they needed to help these boys live even somewhat normal lives. In so many ways, they were victims of a system that had no understand of how to deal with them. 

“They have been warehoused where nobody can really deal with them,” he said. Here was the real reason, he thought, why big pharma could afford to be fickle about finding new drugs for schizophrenia—why decades come and go without anyone even finding new drug targets. These patients, he realized, can’t advocate for themselves.” 

This book broke my heart, but it also gave me a lot of hope. This isn’t a happy story. It’s dark, and twisted, and just about everything that can possibly go wrong, does. However, it shows just how strong family bonds can be. It should be understood that this story, while about one family, is one that is still rippling through society today. The effects of the studies that were done on the Galvins and other families like them, are still impacting our understanding of people right now. For example: 

“…half of young school shooters have symptoms of developing schizophrenia.” 

Understanding that, and understanding why it happens and what causes it, could very realistically help prevent tragedies in the future. This isn’t just some far-flung disorder, it’s something that could have dramatic impact on a lot of lives.

When I was doing my undergraduate internship at a cancer hospital, I realized that cancer is not something one person suffers from. When one person is diagnosed with cancer, the entire family has cancer. In so many ways, this book proved that to be very similar with mental illness. The entire Galvin family had it, even if they didn’t. Trauma breeds trauma, and it was really only through the dogged determination of Mimi Galvin and the other Galvin siblings, that the family stayed together at all. What is, perhaps, the most heartbreaking part of this whole thing (in my eyes) is that the drugs so many of the boys were given to help them cope with their symptoms, gave them fatal heart conditions. They never really had a chance at a normal life, and while a few people championed them, and tried to help as best they could, their lives were fraught with trials I cannot being to comprehend, and often ended far too soon. Luckily, their legacy will live on in further scientific study, and the bettering of treatment for those with mental illness. 

This book really, profoundly impacted me. It should be essential reading for basically everybody. 

5/5 stars


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