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

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family is an Oprah Book Club Selection, something I did not know going in. Years and years ago, when Oprah’s Book Club just started, I read a couple of the books that she picked. Every one of them had rape or incest in them, which is something I don’t want to read about. I just don’t feel the need to read about rape, not because it happened to me or anything, I just don’t like reading about brutality like that, or really graphic sex scenes. It’s the same with me when TV shows or movies show women giving birth. I’ve given birth four times and have no desire to see a woman in pain. I guess I’m a literary prude.

But that didn’t stop me from listening to the audiobook of Hidden Valley Road. It’s a real life story about a family of twelve children, and six of them develop Schizophrenia. The book has the history of the study of the illness as well, and of course, because it’s an Oprah Book Club selection, there’s rape and incest and priest pedophilia and even a murder-suicide. But there’s so much more, too.

From the publisher: “Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American dream. After World War II, Don’s work with the Air Force brought them to Colorado, where their twelve children perfectly spanned the baby boom: the oldest born in 1945, the youngest in 1965. In those years, there was an established script for a family like the Galvins—aspiration, hard work, upward mobility, domestic harmony—and they worked hard to play their parts. But behind the scenes was a different story: psychological breakdown, sudden shocking violence, hidden abuse. By the mid-1970s, six of the ten Galvin boys, one after another, were diagnosed as schizophrenic. How could all this happen to one family?

The writing of Hidden Valley Road is top-notch. The reader is sucked into the life of Don and Mimi Galvin even before they meet. Once they become a couple, you don’t want to stop reading (or in my case, listening to the audiobook.) If it weren’t for the lessons on the study of schizophrenia, this book would read like fiction.

First off, imagine coming from a family of twelve kids. Although, I am the youngest of seven, and my husband is the oldest of six kids, so we’re familiar with larger families. But twelve? And ten boys in a row before having two girls? Poor Mimi. Because this was the stereotypical marriage of the 1950’s and 60’s, the husband went off and worked, and the wife was left raising the brood. It is even stated in the book that Don was an “armchair father.”

Twelve children: six diagnosed with schizophrenia and or bipolar disorder. Imagine how hard it was to see one child succumb to the illness, but then to watch the dominos fall as the others started exhibiting the same or worse behaviors.

The hospitalizations, the treatment centers, the electroshock therapy, the drug cocktails, the kids use of illicit drugs, the incest, the sexual wantonness, it’s all there in one family. Truly sex, drugs and rock and roll. Oh, and did I mention the murder-suicide?

Despite all the years of struggle, when schizophrenia was just starting to be studied seriously in an attempt to understand, the Galvins never buried their heads in the sand like some families would, locking their children away. And they didn’t listen to the popular theory at the time that the mothers were to blame for their children’s behavior. The Galvins were open to experimentation with drugs and therapies to help their six sons; the Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Hidden Valley Road “offers a shadow history of the science of schizophrenia, from the era of institutionalization, lobotomy, and the schizophrenogenic mother to the search for genetic markers for the disease, always amid profound disagreements about the nature of the illness itself. And unbeknownst to the Galvins, samples of their DNA informed decades of genetic research that continues today, offering paths to treatment, prediction, and even eradication of the disease for future generations.”

Even if you don’t normally read non-fiction, this is a landmark book that you don’t want to miss.

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