Twelve children. Six diagnoses of schizophrenia. Two parents navigating a meager mental health care system in midcentury America.
At the center of Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family are the Galvins, who are unlike any family you’ll ever read about. “This could be the most mentally ill family in America,” writes author Robert Kolker.
Hidden Valley Road blends two stories in alternating chapters. The first is about the overwhelmed Galvin parents, Don and Mimi, and how raising a boisterous Catholic family of 10 sons from the 1950s to the ’70s may have allowed mental illness to hide in plain sight. A “boys will be boys” attitude excused much aberrant behavior.
Hidden Valley Road is a must-read for anyone who seeks to understand how far we’ve come in treating mental illness—and how far we still have to go.
The Galvin daughters, the two youngest, provide the emotional heart of the book. They grew up watching their brothers suffer, while also being terrified of—and terrorized by—them. Granted access to the surviving Galvin relatives, Kolker brilliantly shows how mental illness impacts more than just those who are sick, and how festering family secrets can wreak generational damage.
The second story in Hidden Valley Road details the thankless psychiatric research that has gone into defining schizophrenia and establishing treatments. This research has run parallel to the Galvins’ lives—from early beliefs that bad mothering caused schizophrenia to an institutional reliance on Thorazine, an antipsychotic medication, to more contemporary treatments involving talk therapy and other medications. Kolker walks readers through to the present day, where genetic research into schizophrenia happens largely at the whims of pharmaceutical companies.
The author creates a powerfully humane portrait of those diagnosed with schizophrenia. The Galvin brothers have done terrible things—sexual abuse, domestic violence, murder—but Kolker is a compassionate storyteller who underscores how inadequate medical treatment and an overreliance on “tough love” and incarceration underpin so much of the trauma this family experienced.
Hidden Valley Road is heavy stuff, especially for readers with mental illness or sexual abuse in their own families. But it’s a must-read for anyone seeking to understand how far we’ve come in treating one of the most severe forms of mental illness—and how far we still have to go.