Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family #BookReview

Robert Kolker | published April 2020 | 422 p

GoodReads Book Summary: 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?

What took place inside the house on Hidden Valley Road was so extraordinary that the Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health. Their story 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.

My Reading Experience:

Like so many other books, I’m not sure how I came across this one but, it was an excellent, very interesting read. Released in April, it immediately became an Oprah Book Club choice and very popular. I’m sure the content is what ultimately attracted me to the book, but the story telling definitely kept me reading. As a Healthcare Admin, I’m always interested in understanding the evolution, or lack thereof, of how Americans are treated in our healthcare system. We know many disparities exist related to race, gender, socioeconomic status, even proximity to care, factors into the quality of care you may, or may not, receive. Added points if you are attempting to circumvent the stigma attached to mental illness. Our system of broken laws will likely force you into an overwhelmed prison system. If you’re lucky, you may enter into the equally as overwhelmed mental health system. But what would life be like for the ‘average american family’? White, middle class, middle america, military family..? They should have access to the best the suburbs and government insurance can offer, right? Surely, they avoided the pitfalls?

Don and Mimi Galvin had their first child in 1945 and their last child, their 12th, twenty years later in 1965. 10 boys and 2 girls, the 2 girls being the youngest of the bunch. 6 of the children, all boys, would eventually be diagnosed with schizophrenia. One of the 6 would commit a horrific murder-suicide. Im not sure their ‘privilege’ helped them to avoid any pitfalls. If anything, I think the pressures of maintaining appearances as the perfect family, left them and others exposed and vulnerable.

The story is autobiographical, as told mostly by the youngest 2 sisters. We get to learn about Don and Mimi’s familial background, which gives great context to how each dealt with the children’s issues through the years. The author notes Mimi wasn’t onboard with the book, which may be why we don’t get a clear picture of why she had so many children. Her backstory alludes to some insecurities that could have led to a desire to fill some emptiness. I would have been satisfied to know she had just kept trying until she had girls! Either way, Don supported his wife and children and seemed to do whatever he needed to care for his family. At no time do the children mention going without or feeling poor. This isn’t that type of story.

I stop short of accusing Don and Mimi of ignoring the problem, considering the lack of knowledge on the illness at the time. Children were institutionalized when necessary, some, several times for extended periods. Unfortunately, outside of those periods, the sick children were home and left alone with the other kids. With Don traveling greater than 50% of the time for work, this left the family exposed to violent episodes, the younger children were sexually molested and physically abused by the older sicker children, and all the while Mimi was baking pies and cakes. (The story notes that at one time Mimi would bake a cake every day.) In my opinion it was Mimi’s determination to live a ‘normal life’ that led to most problems suffered by the family. Later, Mimi, when confronted by one of the daughters with stories of how her brothers treated her, Mimi basically told her, “we all have our crosses to bare”.

Pros: I really enjoyed the storytelling aspect of the book. I kept forgetting it was a true story about a real family. The writer, or maybe the sisters telling the story, allow you to see a very personal side of mental illness. They also do it without laying blame on anyone which is maybe more than I can say about my opinion. Everyone, especially the sick brothers, are described as complete people. They had likes, loves, attempted sexual relationships, careers…one is described as being the favorite uncle that would gift lavishly if he thought it would make you happy. And though some committed horrible acts, I enjoyed the humanizing..because they are humans, a fact most often overlooked with this illness.

Cons: Not really a con to the book but more like the cons of the environment in which the Galvins lived. You’ll hear about some pretty harsh truths of how ‘the system’ failed this family and likely many others, maybe even in current day. Lack of singular electronic medical records led to Drs not having a complete picture of a patients medical history, but, they still delivered a bill of good health and allowed the patient to enter school. Bias played apart in this as the overall idea was young, white, attractive, male athletes from ‘good’ families weren’t ‘trouble’. From Don, he felt the children should live alone and fend for themselves, proving their manhood or ability to exist in mainstream society? I’m not sure. Unfortunately, these missed opportunities led to the murder of a young lady and the death of one son.

I don’t think you should read this expecting to learn how to (not) ‘catch’ schizophrenia 🤦🏾‍♀️, (that’s not a thing by the way). I think you read it to learn how this family, and probably others like it, dealt with the illness. And probably the ramifications of dealing with it the way they choose. I think it tells a grim story of the evolution of healthcare and how illness is/was treated. The Galvins choose to have so many children, really beyond what they could care for properly. Then, not unlike most parents, (except ‘most’ don’t give birth to entire mental wards 🤦🏾‍♀️), proceeded to hide from, themselves and others, harsh truths about their children. perhaps a cautionary tale to parents to read the writing on the proverbial wall. #GoodBook 20 of 42!

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