nonfiction

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

Little scares me more than schizophrenia. It attacks seemingly without warning; there are very few treatments; science isn’t even completely sure what causes it. I’ve seen the devastating toll it takes on families, thanks to my friend’s openness on her son’s struggle and ultimate death due to the side effects of the medication he took (a not-uncommon outcome; meds for schizophrenia are hard on the heart and various other organs). But I feel a need to keep reading about it, keep trying to understand, maybe in the hopes that one day I’ll read something positive, a sunnier outlook, an amazing breakthrough. When Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker (Doubleday Books, 2020) came out, it sounded like my worst nightmare, and it immediately went onto my list.

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault and child molestation.

Don and Mimi Galvin appeared, on the outside, to have an amazing family. An Air Force family, they had twelve children (ten boys, two girls), but perfection evaded the ever-growing family. As the boys grew older, one by one, they became stricken with serious mental illness. Schizophrenia took down one son after another, until six of them were affected, most of them so severely that they lived in hospitals, at home with Mimi, or in supportive housing arrangements. Where had it all gone wrong?

Combining scientific research, the history of mental health research and treatment and schizophrenia in particular, and the story of the Galvins and the tragedy that befell them, Robert Kolker has crafted a deep narrative that spans multiple decades of science, from ‘Schizophrenia is caused by overbearing mothers’ to ‘This is likely due to a complicated combination of genetics and possibly some outside factors.’ Due to the large size of the family, the Galvins became research subjects for multiple studies. The results won’t be available for decades, but this family just might be partly responsible for future breakthroughs on the disease.

My God, this was fascinating. CONTENT WARNING: there is a LOT of sexual abuse mentioned in this book. If you’re unable to handle reading about this subject right now, it’s okay to skip this one. Abuse ran rampant throughout this family; both the daughters and the sons were victimized by both family and people in the community. It’s difficult to read about, so if this isn’t something you can handle right now, it’s okay to take care of yourself and choose a book that will allow you to breathe a little easier.

Hidden Valley Road is about a family unexpectedly stricken with multiple cases of one of the most complex mental illnesses out there, who likely did the best they could at the time with what they had (which wasn’t always much; even today, schizophrenia and how to best treat it remains an enigma), and whom society has often failed. It’s social and scientific history, and despite its large size, it’s an absolute page-turner.

Visit Robert Kolker’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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