The cover of Robert Kolker’s latest book Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family features the kind of wholesome family photo that could only be accomplished with planning and precision. Don and Mimi Galvin of Colorado Springs stand at the top of a winding staircase. He is dressed in his military uniform while she is the picture-perfect post-War American mother. In front of them are ten of their twelve children, all boys, each dressed impeccably and lined up in order of birth, with the exception of the youngest, who is held in the arms of the oldest son. It’s the sort of portrait that you would expect to see in a newspaper fluff piece, a declaration of the power of good clean family values trumping all else. Of course, pictures are seldom so truthful, and the Galvin family carried a painful secret that would ultimately shatter their perfect facade beyond repair.
Of the twelve children (ten sons, two daughters) born to Don and Mimi Galvin between 1945 and 1960, six of them were diagnosed with schizophrenia. They each developed worrying symptoms that included vivid hallucinations and hearing voices. Some siblings believed that they were messengers of God. One insisted for a time that he was Paul McCartney. As tensions within the family grew and relations became more violent and untenable, the lives of the Galvins exposed both the failings of mental healthcare in post-War America and the damage done by societally mandated ableist stigma.
Our next book club selection is “Hidden Valley Road” by @bobkolker. This nonfiction pick is an extraordinary scientific detective story and family saga in one. Download your copy on @applebooks and #ReadWithUs: https://t.co/fIUUufEguF@DoubledayBooks pic.twitter.com/BAdKsNP4uw— oprahsbookclub (@oprahsbookclub) April 7, 2020
Hidden Valley Road was announced last week as the latest entry in Oprah Winfrey’s book club, an unexpected choice for the tycoon given the lack of non-fiction on her lengthy list of titles, although it’s not hard to see why she would be drawn to Kolker’s work. A follow-up to his equally excellent book Lost Girls, which focused on the women targeted by the Long Island serial killer (and is now a Netflix movie), Hidden Valley Road has all the markers of a classic Oprah-approved page-turner: Family strife, a terrible secret, disenfranchisement with the American dream, and an undeniable page-turning quality to its prose. This is not, however, just another lurid paperback offering a voyeuristic leer into historical trauma. Kolker is far smarter than that.
What made Lost Girls so wonderful — and a refreshing change-of-pace in the world of true-crime — was his willingness to balance the personal and political. On top of offering a concise and authoritative insight into an unsolved crime, he created deeply empathetic portraits of the women at the heart of the case, the ones who society deemed disposable because of their working-class statuses and connections to sex work. These were not just victims but women who loved and were loved and deserved better than a legal system that disowned them. Kolker is equally as considerate with Hidden Valley Road. His research is detailed but concise, his viewpoint clear, and he sacrifices none of that humanity in favor of cheap thrills.
The Galvins were smothered by the stigma of mental illness from the moment their eldest son, Donald, began exhibiting worrying symptoms of schizophrenia. Kolker details how changing psychiatric conversations of the era went through the cycle of blame and theory in an attempt to find the root cause of this deeply confusing condition, one that still eludes doctors to this day. For a period of time, mental illness was deemed to be caused by ‘schizophrenogenic mothers’, essentially putting the blame on supposedly bad parenting for the health of their offspring. Mimi Galvin’s attempt to care for her sick children while maintaining the shield of happy family life is detailed thoroughly and without judgment. Indeed, Kolker is remarkably free of judgment throughout the book in a way that few authors on his level could commit to. Mimi and Don Galvin may have made mistakes but the crucial context that Kolker provides ensures that the reader always understands why they made the choices that they did, even when they stridently disagree.
Kolker focuses as much on the healthy Galvin kids as those affected by schizophrenia. The two daughters of the clan, Margaret and Mary (later known as Lindsay), felt especially trapped by their predicament, the youngest children who were inevitably left to fend for themselves as their mother tried to deal with the police, doctors, and medications that became part of their daily lives. They faced violence at the hands of their brothers and were both sexually abused by one of them. Mimi Galvin may have successfully held her family together during impossible times but the collateral damage was just as traumatic as the illnesses themselves, the book argues. Mental illness leaves behind an immense crater that impacts those closest to the patient.
While Hidden Valley Road spends much of its time documenting the Galvins’ history, it also dives into the history of schizophrenia and research into the condition that the family ended up playing a crucial part in. Dr. Lynn DeLisi, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, emerges as the closest thing to a hero in this book. A pioneer in mental health research, she became convinced by the hypothesis that there was a genetic component to schizophrenia that could be found among families. Not taken especially seriously at the time, DeLisi compiled research into families wherein several individuals lived with the condition, which included the Galvins. Their struggles may have helped scientists gain a clearer understanding of the disorder, but as the book notes, the for-profit pharmaceutical system has little interest in conditions like this. As always, the system fails those who need it the most.
Reviews for Hidden Valley Road have been near-rapturously positive and it’s not hard to see why. This seems destined to be one of those once-in-a-while non-fiction titles that breaks out in a major way, something that Kolker is thoroughly deserving of. In much weaker or less caring hands, this story could have been far more tawdry in a manner that’s plagued the Galvin family’s history for decades. Instead, they get to be individuals again, people with stories rather than numbers in a lab.
Hidden Valley Road is available now wherever you get your books.
Header Image Source: Doubleday