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

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Reviewed by Lory Widmer-Hess

Schizophrenic. The very word is a trigger for aversion, a signal to run away, with its spiky, spluttered consonants and imprisoned vowels, four foreign syllables meaning to split (or cut) the mind (or heart). It signals the most horrific fate one can imagine, that of being alienated from reality and one’s own self, a living death.

The Galvin family was not able to run away from schizophrenia. Of the twelve children born to Mimi and Joe Galvin between 1945 and 1962, six became mentally ill and were eventually diagnosed with this disease, given its name to add to their own. Theirs is a story of the splitting of hearts and minds, the fracturing of a family, and the tentative healing that some members have found in quelling the impulse to avert their eyes from the family illness and how it has affected all of their lives, turning denial into acceptance, aversion into compassion.

Not everyone is able to make this journey. It is not to be taken lightly. But through the pages of Hidden Valley Road, we are privileged to enter into the Galvins’ path of confrontation with some of the darkest experiences of the human spirit, and to experience how even there, light may be found. 

Until recently, there were only theories and very little real data on how and why some people became schizophrenic, increasingly subject to psychosis and delusions, “walling oneself off from consciousness, first slowly and then all at once, until you are no longer accessing anything that others accept as real.” There was no cure, and many found research not worth the effort; schizophrenia appeared to be a hopeless case.

The Galvins helped to change that. Purely by virtue of being a large group of genetically related people with a high incidence of the disease, they were prime candidates for research by scientists who sought to answer the pressing question of nature or nuture. Were the psychotic episodes produced by environmental influences, genetics, or a combination? If their origin could be understood, could a more effective treatment be found?

In Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, author Robert Kolker weaves together the human story of the Galvins with the parallel story of the therapists and researchers who have sought to solve the puzzle of schizophrenia. I found it a riveting read, a real-life medical mystery that often verged on a horror tale. In spite of its sensationalistic content, it kept me aware that its subjects are not experimental tools to be manipulated, nor demons to be exorcised. They are people, even the ones who did unspeakably terrible things. They deserve our compassion, and our active resolution to break through habitual prejudices and fears to find new ways to heal and relieve human suffering.

Kolker starts with an anecdote about the youngest and oldest Galvin children, abandoned to each other’s care in the family home at Hidden Valley Road in Colorado Springs: twenty-seven-year-old Donald, and seven-year-old Mary, He was in the throes of a religious mania in which he raved about her being the Virgin Mary. She, taking a childish way of dealing with an incomprehensible situation, played at burning him at the stake, but stopped short of lighting the fire.

Jump to 45 years later; she’s visiting him in the assisted living facility that is now his home, the only family member who still goes to see him. She’s renamed herself Lindsay, and spent years trying to escape her family and the horrors it had brought her, yet now she’s drawn back into it, caring for the brother she once fled. “In spite of everything, she loves him. How did that change?” Kolker asks.

From this point, he ranges back in time, to describe the origins of the Galvin tribe, their dreams of being a perfect poster-child American Catholic family, and the hidden weakesses and denials that led to a very different outcome. His narrative draws heavily on the perspective of the women: Margaret and Lindsay, the two youngest children, the only girls, victims and survivors, the ones who have been most willing and able to tell their painful story, and Mimi, the mother, object of both gratitude and criticism, with secrets of her own. Much of the men’s story had to be reconstructed, due to circumstances: there were the irrational ones, the ones who had distanced themselves, and the ones who were deceased by the time of writing. In spite of this drawback, Kolker brings fluency and coherency to a story that must have been incredibly challenging to piece together.

In between the family narrative chapters, there are brief but illuminating glimpses at the ongoing history of schizophrenic research and treatment. Much of this is as disturbing as the disease itself, from the Freudian blaming of “schizophrenogenic” mothers, to the psychotropic drugs that do not heal, but only make people sick in a different way – and can in time be fatal, as they have been already for two of the Galvin brothers. A few researchers, though, are looking for a different way, and as brain science and genetic research have advanced, incorporating data from families including the Galvins, new possibilities have arisen, new directions for healing and reconciliation. 

The book ends with some intriguing glimpses at these possibilities, though not with pat answers. There are still no easy answers to this problem, as to most of the giant dilemmas that confront us today, but one thing is certain: we will never get anywhere if we are afraid to look honestly and deeply into them.

Hidden Valley Road took me down one of those challenging paths, and it is a journey I will not soon forget.

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Lory Widmer Hess blogs about life, language, and literature at Entering the Enchanted Castle (enterenchanted.com).

Robert Kolker, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family (Quercus, 2020). 978-1787473805, 377pp., hardback.

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  1. I have read this book and think that your review is excellent and says what I would have liked to – family memoir is often a good way to personalise an issue for the general reader but this is a particularly good one

  2. Fascinating topic, thanks for your great review Lory!

    1. A great review that explains what the book does and is trying to do.

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