Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker

Trigger warning for child sexual abuse.

One of the scariest things, I think, that can ever happen to a person is to develop schizophrenia. This mental illness is frightening because it can completely erase the boundary between reality and fantasy. It can send people into deep catatonia or drive them into mania. What makes the illness so frightening is that we don’t have a good treatment for it. There are drugs, but they mostly suppress the symptoms and can have dangerous physical side effects. A diagnosis of schizophrenia can seem like the end of normal life forever. Robert Kolker’s fascinating book, Hidden Valley Road, looks at the lives of a family in which six of twelve children developed schizophrenia, played out against psychology’s quest to understand and treat the illness.

Don and Mimi Galvin lived in denial for a long time. To be fair to these parents of twelve, their sons rarely showed signs that there was anything wrong until their sons hit their mid-teen years. One after another, six of their ten sons started to act out, become fixated on things, start violent fights with each other. Eventually, they all had run-ins with police in Boulder, Colorado and wherever they happened to stop for a while before being turned over to the state hospital in Pueblo, Colorado and other mental health facilities. Chapters in the book jump from sibling to sibling, mostly focusing on the daughters. Neither of the daughters had schizophrenia, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t wrestle with their mental health. The daughters grew up in a chaotic household and were sexually abused by one of their brothers—whose behavior was excused by his diagnosis.

As we watch the Galvin family implode and their mother struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy and order, Kolker takes us through the psychological history of schizophrenia. We got back all the way to Freud and the first cases of what we now know as schizophrenia. Psychologists and psychiatrists have argued for more than 100 years about what schizophrenia is and what causes it. Over time, the argument has gone from biology to “schizophrenogenic mothers” to a dual nature/nurture cause to genetics and back. Kolker also dives, briefly, into treatments for schizophrenia. He glosses over the early years of lobotomy to talk about Thorazine and its clones. We learn that, because Thorazine is seen as “good enough” by pharmaceutical companies (and because schizophrenia doesn’t have a clear cause that can be treated), there seems to be no plans to find something better. That said, Kolker reveals that there have been advances in our understanding of schizophrenia in the last few decades.

Hidden Valley Road is not an easy read. I really felt for the two Galvin girls who got lost and hurt in their home. I also felt for the brothers affected by schizophrenia because there seemed like nothing doctors could do for them other than drug them into submission. I was fascinated by Mimi Galvin, the mother left to raise her dozen children by a husband who was always somewhere else (physically or mentally because he was always working). Mimi had clear ideas about what a family should be and what was appropriate to talk about. Nothing, not even six schizophrenia diagnoses, would ever convince her that things were really wrong with her children. To her credit, Mimi did everything she could to get her sons help at the time; she would just never, ever talk about schizophrenia and its terrible ripple effects. Kolker did an amazing job at taking us into the whirl of the Galvin family, showing us the good, the bad, the strong, and the destructive.

I highly recommend this book to readers who are fascinated by the human mind.

5 Comments

    1. It’s not really skippable, either, I’m afraid.

      This book has a completely different tone from Sacks. Instead of wonder at the complexity of the human mind, Kolker’s book has a lot more dread and fear in it.

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  1. The book’s subtle is ‘Inside the Mind of an American Family’. The book was about a family in crisis but the story is not particularly an American story. The trials of this family were not typcially American trials. Too much weight is given to the SHANK2 gene. The title of a paper on Pubmed is ‘The role of SHANK2 rare variants in schizophrenia susceptibility’ the point being that in schizophenia SHANK2 mutations are rare. SHANK2 is not a huge story in research on schizophrenia. Another problem with the book is that the book is not a typical story of schizophrenia in a family. The book could have been better had some ideas on how to improve the mental system been addressed. In terms of this family though the war was not going to be won so the terrible tragedies of this family would not be springboard for analysis on what can be done. Not much is said about America and not much is said about how schizophrenia typcially affects families.

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    1. Some thoughts, tberry1818:

      1. This family was, I would argue, very American. The father put a lot of stock in his position in the Air Force and later as a facilitator of American arts, while the mother did everything she could to present the family as perfectly normal and upstanding. Beyond that, the family–until the sons started to develop schizophrenia–lived a very mid-twentieth century American life with a big house, land, playing sports, etc.

      2. I thought the SHANK2 hypothesis was very interesting, although I think that it’s incomplete. Kolker presents schizophrenia as a very complicated illness that most likely has genetic and environmental factors.

      3. I’m not bothered by the uniqueness of the way that schizophrenia developed in this family. The subtitle, after all, says AN American family. Sure some of the scientists thought that the family had some of the answers–but I don’t think Kolker’s thesis is the same as the scientists’.

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