Bingo category: Rep
Don and Mimi Galvin had twelve children, ten boys and two girls. Six of their sons were diagnosed with schizophrenia. In Hidden Valley Road, Robert Kolker tells the Galvins’ story, as well as exploring the history of schizophrenia research and treatment, and its current state. The resulting book is fascinating and incredibly depressing.
The story mostly centers on the two daughters, Margaret and Lindsay, who are also the two youngest children in the family. It’s clear that Kolker primarily spoke to these two as he was researching the book, and it’s also clear that their childhood left a number of scars they are still working through. Kolker’s examination of Mimi and Don’s marriage, and of the Galvins’ home life, is unflinching and disturbing. The needs of the six sons with schizophrenia overshadowed everyone else’s needs, and this combined with Don and Mimi’s fairly hands-off parenting style resulted in their six children without schizophrenia feeling ignored and neglected. The family dysfunction was exacerbated by the siblings being allowed to physically abuse each other, and by at least one brother sexually abusing several of his siblings, in some cases for years. Another brother commits a shocking and disturbing act of violence. This book is not for the faint of heart, or the squeamish.
Kolker spends a lot of time exploring how Don and Mimi, especially Mimi, were blamed for their children’s mental health issues by health care professionals, and I think he is successful in proving that schizophrenia is not caused by neglectful or bad parenting. But while Mimi is absolved of causing her sons’ schizophrenia, it’s clear that several of her children carry a great deal of resentment and blame toward her for the general unpleasantness of their childhoods. There’s also a lot of resentment toward the sick brothers and how they disrupted family life. The family dynamics, the squabbles between the siblings, the conversations between the children and their parents, can be uncomfortable to read at times, as they are intensely personal (including diary passages from at least one child). I found myself feeling kind of voyeurish as I read about their fights and complaints about each other, like I was listening to gossip and should be minding my own business.
There are no answers in Hidden Valley Road. While we know schizophrenia has a genetic component, no one really knows what causes it, and no one really knows the best way to treat it. No one knows why so many of the Don and Mimi’s children had schizophrenia, when no one in other generations of their family had been diagnosed before or since. It was nice to see how the unaffected siblings have mostly turned out okay, and I admire them for sharing their story and for their contributions to science (the Galvin family has been extensively studied by schizophrenia researchers), but ultimately there was no real resolution. Still, I couldn’t put it down–it’s like nothing else I’ve ever read.