Running in the Family

Book review: Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker (Amazon / Book Depository)

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 Womenyou’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.

Amazon / Book Depository


22 thoughts on “Running in the Family

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  1. I was just about to bag considering this book and there you go. Absolutely fabulous review, Ren, and now I’ve gotta have it💜

    FYI, I’m a military brat and grew up on the far side of that time period. It was more normal to see average family sizes of five children (we were the minority with two). It’s just what families were doing post WWII. Don’t know why but…it wasn’t unusual. And, a pregnant wife managing a big household doesn’t have time to give a side-eye to a cheating husband😏 Hope that’s helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Five children as an average doesn’t raise my eyebrows, my dad is one of seven and my mom one of four, but 12?? I can’t imagine that wasn’t unusual. And yeah, I know the cheating husband isn’t unusual either, just couldn’t write about it without mentioning some of his bad behavior!

      This one is definitely a must-read, it was very informative and strangely enjoyable to read despite the toughness of the subject matter at times. I felt much better informed about the issues around it though. Glad I could convince you!! Looking forward to hearing what you think of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. His cheating sounds pathological (didn’t mean to imply that it wasn’t unusual). I’m hoping I learn more about his psychology because it seems to be instrumental in the story.

        See, you’ve already got my mind working and I have yet opened the book!


      2. The parents’ psychology is really interesting! It definitely gives you a lot to turn over and think about 🙂 Let me know what you think of it once you get to it!


    1. I really think it’s worth the hype, and I’m glad to see it’s getting it because he’s an exceptional journalist and writer and it sheds light on such an important topic. Some parts of it are very upsetting, particularly due to the abuse the sisters suffered, but I really think it’s to the author’s credit the way that he handled these difficult subjects. It couldn’t be done more sensitively and meaningfully. Nothing lurid or without serving a bigger purpose.

      And seriously, I just needed a bit clearer of an answer about why that many kids since at that amount there’s usually a pretty severe ideology behind it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent review! I’ve been seeing this one around recently (thanks, Oprah) and wondering if I should pick it up, and I see I have my answer. 🙂 Adding it to my TBR now!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s funny—I heard so much about this book months ago and then nothing over the past few weeks, I assumed it had been out for a while now!

    Yours is probably the first review I’ve read where this book has sound not only interesting, but like something I’d actually want to read. So many others made it sound like … well, for lack of a better term, a ‘trauma parade’, or something. But I love the idea that it’s really a family saga, traumatic spots and all.


  4. I read a review of this the other day and wondered whether you would cover it. So glad you have. An horribly intrigued as to why the mother would have 12 children, particularly as there must have been a point at which obvious the older boys were needing extra care and help – maybe she loved being pregnant and having a new baby and it was her escape from difficult older less cute offspring? I still have Lost Girls on my Kindle, unread. Need to get to that too.


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