Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Hidden Valley Road

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family  by Robert Kolker
4/7/2020; 400 pages
Knopf Doubleday

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker is a very highly recommended true family drama and medical detective story following the Galvin family.

Between 1945 and 1965 Don and Mimi Galvin had 12 children, 10 sons first and then 2 daughters. Later 6 of the boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia. This is the inside true story of their family, including the violent wrestling matches between the older brothers, the seemingly perfect father, the control Mimi exercised over them, the hidden sexual abuse, and the feelings of abandonment by younger siblings. Once their first born, Donald, began exhibiting mental issues and was later diagnosed as schizophrenic, they tried to keep the truth hidden as long as possible. By the 1970's six of their sons who were diagnosed as schizophrenic and the families secret could no longer be hidden. Soon Mimi was spending all her time and energy trying to help the "sick" boys while basically leaving the "healthy" children to their own devices.

It is also the story of the history of schizophrenia and the medical advancements made during this time. Kolker follows the background information about the history of schizophrenia and the psychiatric, chemical, and biological advancements in treatment were interesting. The various treatments the brothers endured are shared and the struggles they had taking their medication as the professionals searched to find a treatment that worked for the brothers. Because so many siblings in one family were diagnosed with schizophrenia, the Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health is the search for a genetic marker for the disease. Samples of their DNA are still being used in genetic research today. This research continues to influence treatment, prediction of the disease occurring and hopefully a way to prevent the disease in the future.

This is in turn a heart breaking and fascinating well-written and researched account. It is truly an honest portrait of a family in crisis. Kolker follows each family member, their place in the family, and their story with empathy and honesty. It is easy to judge Mimi's actions, but at the same time impossible to do so unless you were in her situation. She really seemed to handle the mental breakdowns of her sons as most people from her generation would and her own background also influenced this. The recounting of the family's history and suffering is handled with compassion. This is not always an easy read, but it is an eye opening and engrossing narrative.

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