The symptoms muffle nothing and amplify everything. They’re deafening, overpowering for the subject and frightening for those who love them — impossible for anyone close to them to process intellectually. For a family, schizophrenia is, primarily, a felt experience, as if the foundation of the family is permanently tilted in the direction of the sick family member. Even if just one child has schizophrenia, everything about the internal logic of the family changes.
But the Galvins never were an ordinary family.
Robert Kolker has got to be in the upper tier of long-form journalists working today, in my humble opinion. His Lost Girls is one of the best modern true crime books I know, and he brings the same immersive research and highly sensitive storytelling style that characterized that book to his latest. If you compare this new book, Hidden Valley Road, his first in six years, to last year’s Three Women, you’ll see what I mean about the quality and meticulousness of his journalism. The latter was often praised for having taken eight years to research and write, but read like the product of a few late-night gab session that swept trauma under the rug and provided no context for its events. Hidden Valley Road reads like it took decades to research and write, and Kolker clearly did his homework in telling not only the family story at its heart, but how that ties into a greater narrative of mental health care, or misunderstandings around it, and medicine’s developing understanding of this famously complex mental illness and treatment.
The family that serves as a lens for this is the Galvins, with twelve children born between 1945 and 1965. Six of the ten boys (TEN BOYS!) were diagnosed as schizophrenic. The Galvins were a military family, and very much the embodiment of the go-getter, everything rosy postwar American Dream-era they lived in, appearing as a kind of idealized model of the American family until things started to go very wrong.
Don enlisted in the Marines before transferring to the Navy and serving in the Battle of Okinawa, and Mimi was a housewife with roots in Queens, where they’d met in high school. After Don’s service, they moved to a house on the titular road in Colorado, where they raised falcons and Don traveled extensively for work and cheated on Mimi while also making sure she was kept almost perpetually pregnant.
Kolker conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with every living member of the Galvin family, as well as many connected figures, and intersperses chapters detailing the family narrative as it progressed with explanations of the work and analysis in the mental health field on schizophrenia research, diagnosis, and the progression of our understanding of what this illness even is.
As an intricate family study, this is just remarkable. It’s so detailed that it reads almost like one of those epic generational family novels, complete with something vaguely menacing burbling under the surface of this idealized, perfectionist family led by a do-it-all housewife and a father with am important government job. I was left a bit curious about their reasoning for having so many kids (I get that this is far from the most important topic here but it remained a big question mark). They are Catholic, but still. They’re two-thirds of the way to a Duggar situation, which is pretty serious and usually has some intense ideology behind it. There are theories but never a clear explanation for why they reproduced so prolifically, although one of the daughters considers her mother’s position — Mimi’s type of abuse and the subsequent reasoning it led to while working towards her own healing and comes to a theory.
For those of us who love intricate family stories, the work Kolker put into unraveling this curious case is a dream to read about, but at the same time, it’s incredibly serious and leads to troubling considerations that don’t have any easy answers here. Kolker follows the developments in the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia throughout the decades that encompass the Galvins’ lives, including a return to the nature-nurture debate and the most recent advancements that researchers studying them have made on identifying genetic components. This makes for compelling reading, but those developments are comparatively minuscule when you consider the massive impact of the illness, what’s still unknown, and what few tools we currently have for treating it.
And it’s impossible not to consider that massive impact when the survivor-heroes of this story are the two Galvin sisters, Margaret and Lindsay, who survived but not without lifelong scars the toxic, out-of-control environment of their family home. Both were sexually abused by multiple brothers, and the mental illness that festered openly as the boys developed doesn’t excuse all of what they suffered. Excerpts shared from Margaret’s journals are haunting: “Life is merely the permanent roots your family knots around you.”
Kolker tells this complex story with a serious amount of compassion for everyone involved, although he does turn quite the critical eye on Mimi. He even interviewed her for the book before her death, so she does get to say her part. It makes for interesting consideration of that nature vs. nurture debate, because Mimi can’t be entirely excused for her role in reacting to, or more accurately, ignoring the boys’ illnesses and obvious pain. It’s a tangled, complicated mess of a story, interwoven with frustrating scientific setbacks or red herrings until finally a little progress, but also a truly fascinating one in what one family can reveal about a long-misunderstood and notoriously difficult to treat illness.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family
by Robert Kolker
published April 7, 2020 by Doubleday
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.