At first, the numbers boggle the mind: Don and Mimi Galvin raised 12 children, 10 boys and two girls, in a big house in Colorado Springs in the years after World War II.
Even in an era where big families were fairly common, that’s impressive. But here’s the stunning statistic: Out of those 10 boys, six eventually were diagnosed with schizophrenia.
In his book “Hidden Valley Road,” journalist Robert Kolker tells the story of the Galvin family with unflinching detail, but also a strong sense of empathy. And that’s not the only story Kolker tells in this riveting work of nonfiction: He also tracks decades of scientific research into schizophrenia and its causes. That particular road is filled with frustrating dead ends and the occasional small step forward, an illuminating picture of how science works in the real world. (At one point, a potentially promising research avenue gets shut down after one pharmaceutical company buys another one.) The book also makes some pointed observations about how society deals with mental illness.
But the heart of the book is the story of a family, and that’s where Kolker really shines. His primary guides into the family’s story are the two youngest Galvin daughters, Margaret and Lindsay, but he also interviewed every living member of the family, including Mimi (who struggled for years against a tendency among mental health professionals to blame the mother for schizophrenia). He supplemented those interviews with conversations with researchers, therapists, relatives and many others. Galvin doesn’t pull punches, but he never does that in a cruel manner — instead, you’re left wondering how you might have held up had you been part of this particular family,
When I was at the newspaper, every time I wrote an editorial about mental illness and argued about the need for us to shed the stigma society has attached to it, I’d get a letter from a man in Florida who was peeved that I even raised the stigma issue. I understood his point, but the fact is that there still is a stigma associated with mental illness; it’s something we’d rather delegate to the shadows. The real value of a book like “Hidden Valley Road” (in this light, the title is so appropriate) is that it helps to force the issue out of the hidden shadows. Here’s a real American family that suffered mightily with mental illness. Granted, the Galvin family may be an extreme example, but chances are good that you know somebody who’s affected in some way by mental illness. Margaret and Lindsay Galvin understood that nothing good could come from hiding their story, even though it took real courage to tell it. A book like “Hidden Valley Road” might help the rest of us find the courage to finally come to terms with the terrible price mental illness extracts from each of us.
“Hidden Valley Road,” which was originally published in early 2020, is due out in paperback on March 2.