Tolstoy once said all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. To many, at first glance the Galvins must have looked like the happiest family on earth. Don, the father, charming and handsome was an accomplished academic with a lifetime of distinguished military service. (An avid falconer, he’s credited with convincing the then newly established US Air Force Academy to adopt the falcon as its official mascot.) His wife, Mimi was an indefatigable homemaker, as cultured as she was talented, patient and resourceful. Thankfully, Don and Mimi were generously blessed with such fine attributes because this was no ordinary family. Devout Catholics living in an age of post-World War II fecundity, by 1965 the Galvins would boast 12 children, 10 of which were boys.
But beneath this veneer of domestic tranquility and professional accomplishment something was horribly wrong. One by one, six of the Galvin boys would succumb to the ravages of schizophrenia. While the rest of the family might escape contracting the horrible disease, nevertheless they too suffered, watching the lives of their afflicted family members spin out of control while serving as their unwilling recipients of physical, emotional and even sexual abuse. This is the heart-breaking yet fascinating decades-spanning story Robert Kolker recounts in his outstanding 2020 book Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family.
I learned of Kolker’s fine book thanks to What’s Nonfiction, one of my favorite book blogs. After reading the glowing review I made a mental note to someday read Hidden Valley Road. This summer I finally reserved a copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal and after a short wait a downloadable copy became available. Only a few pages into it I knew I’d end up loving it.
Hidden Valley Road isn’t just a history of a family. It’s also a history of the disease that made the lives of the Galvins a living hell. In the beginning, when doctors began to see schizophrenia as a distinct disorder rather than some manifestation of overall madness they suspected environmental factors were to blame. Initially, many thought years of childhood abuse sparked the disease but by the mid-20th century medical professionals saw poor maternal parenting as the likely cause. Unfortunately, this dead-end not only did nothing to address the diseases’s true origins (and with it any chances of an effective cure) but shifted the spotlight to innocent mothers like Mimi, unfairly scapegoating them.
Even with our advances in genetics, neurology and medical technology schizophrenia remains a mysterious disease. Some unknown confluence of genetics and a myriad of environmental factors are suspected as being responsible, but with the disease’s ultimate origins unknown, the best we can do is treat its symptoms with the appropriate medications, all of which have serious side-effects and limitations.
Hidden Valley Road is an outstanding book and should easily make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.