Book Review – Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

Hidden Valley Road
Robert Kolker

In 1945, Don and Mimi Galvin welcomed their first child into the family. They settled in Colorado Springs and, over twenty years, added eleven more children to their brood, with a final tally of ten boys and two girls. Don’s early years were in the Air Force while Mimi ran the busy household and, to outsiders, they seemed like a highly functioning, although rambunctious group. All of the kids were good-looking, tall and athletic and their proud parents felt they were living the American Dream.

But as the children grew, six of the boys would become schizophrenic while the healthy kids lived in terror of developing the same mental illness. Despite many stays at the Pueblo state hospital, Mimi was determined to care for them. In an endless cycle of psychotic breaks, debilitating medications and returns home, the Galvin house was anything but normal. The six healthy children had to fend for themselves emotionally as their mother tended to their six sick brothers.

Hidden Valley Road is a fascinating look at the Galvin family and a comprehensive study of how patients with schizophrenia have been treated during the Galvin family’s lifetime. What causes this devastating illness? Is it nature or nurture? What kinds of treatments work best and what kind of life can patients and their families expect?

There are no concrete answers or cure and what makes it even more frustrating is that each patient has a unique situation. Sometimes drugs help, sometimes they don’t and they all have undesirable side effects. Controversial electroconvulsive therapy sometimes works, but not without a cost. Research has been slow and long with many dead ends and not enough breakthroughs.

Chapters alternate between the imploding Galvin family and descriptions of different theories and treatments. Most of the family’s problems are impossible to untangle. Sibling rivalry is at its extreme and violence, abuse and chaos make the home frightening and unsafe for the healthy kids. Later chapters describe how the six healthy children, when they become adults leave the home. Some never look back. Others are conflicted and return. They all feel anger, resentment and fear of becoming like their brothers. The two youngest Galvins, sisters Margaret and Lindsay do their best to stay together. Lindsay dedicates much of her adult life to helping her brothers and keeping the family connected.

Don and Mimi spent these years in stunned denial. Mimi was especially sensitive to the idea that her children’s illnesses were her fault. One theory termed the cause as “schozophrenogenic,” a belief that domineering mothers were at the root. Later thought supports the theory that it’s not nature vs. nurture, but a combination of the two and that schizophrenia is triggered by specific life events. Other ideas believe that nutrition during pregnancy may help. Another modern belief is that psychosis exists on a spectrum that includes bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. Early intervention, talk therapy and family support are also newer ideas.

We all seem to love hearing about big families and how parents manage such large clans of kids. No one expects to have problems like this. A small piece of comfort to the healthy members of the Galvin family is that they have become an important case study. Almost all of the family members have contributed to the Human Genome Project, started in the 1980s to understand the function of every human gene.

I was thoroughly absorbed by Hidden Valley Road and learned a lot about schizophrenia and its effects on all members of a family. While a sobering story, it is very well told.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

23 thoughts on “Book Review – Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

  1. Putting on my wish list. So many emotions when I read your review. In my line of work I have had to work with many folks dealing with schizophrenia in one way or another (themselves, a loved one, a neighbor, etc). I look forward to reading it to see if what I saw as reactions and treatment towards one another is similar in what the author writes about.

      1. It really is. I’ve seen SO many variations. So many ways others treat humans. Some of them terribly sad. Some of them leading the way in humanity and compassion.

    1. Hi Hayley – I hope you are as engrossed in it as I was. It was a fascinating story even though it must have been a nightmare to live through. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  2. Wow, what a great review, Barbara, and this book does sound like a sobering and interesting read. I’ve also wondered how large families work, but then adding a serious illness or condition makes it even more complicated. Thanks for sharing. 💗

    1. Hi Lauren – it was very interesting. This large family had so many challenges even without so many of the children getting sick. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  3. This sounds fascinating. I’ve seen the cover pop up a lot lately, but didn’t know anything about it other than it being about a large family. Great review — you’ve definitely piqued my interest! I’ll look for this book once our library reopens. 🙂

    1. Hi Stephanie – it takes the allure away of being in a big family. It’s one thing when everything is going well, but the Galvins had so many problems. Of course, mental illness can shatter small families just the same. Thanks for visiting 🙂

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