I first saw Hidden Valley Ranch by Robert Kolker on NPR’s Best Books of 2020. I have three brothers and one of them has Schizophrenia. It has been crippling for both him and our family. Hidden Valley Ranch caught my eye because it is the true story of a family with twelve kids: ten boys and two girls. Six of the boys were diagnosed with Schizophrenia when they were young adults. This book describes the history of the family, beginning with Don and Mimi Galvin: how they grew up, how they met, and their lives together. We also learn about each of the twelve Galvin children–although there are so many, it is honestly hard to keep them straight, especially the younger ones. The book also addresses what is known about the disease, how that’s changed throughout the years, and what scientists learned from the Galvin family. I will probably discuss the whole book in this review, so it may be better to skip it if you plan on reading this one.
All of the Galvin children were born between 1945 and 1965. Their father was in the Air Force after the war and worked at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. You might wonder why they had twelve children. Don Galvin was Catholic, but both Don and Mimi’s families–as well as their doctor–urged them to stop having kids. The book suggests that Mimi may have been trying to fill a hole in her life. Besides the large number, the children’s upbringing seemed odd. On the one hand, the children were held to strict standards when it came to presenting themselves well and going to church. On the other hand, it sounded like the children had free rein and chaos was very much the norm.
Because of my experiences with my brother, I may have a better understanding of this disease than most people. So, I was confused and disturbed when Kolker started describing the violence and physical abuse going on in the Galvin household. The oldest brother, Jim, was especially sadistically mean toward his brothers. Later we understand that there was sexual abuse among the siblings as well. I was pretty sure that sexual and physical violence in children is not a hallmark of Schizophrenia. I figured there had to be some other explanation for that kind of behavior, and I was annoyed that people reading the book might think it stemmed from the Schizophrenia, which really didn’t affect the boys until later.
What we discover later is that Jim (the oldest brother) was almost for sure sexually abused by a family friend and priest, and this abuse seemed to be passed down among some of the siblings.
A significant portion of this book is dedicated to the science of Schizophrenia: what people knew about it then and what people know about it now. There has always been the nature v. nurture debate when it came to the causes of the disease. Unfortunately, back in the 1960’s and 70’s, it was common to blame the mother for sexist, made-up reasons with no scientific basis. Now we know that there is certainly a genetic component, but there are also probably environmental triggers that no one understands. One of the questions the book asks is if the boys would have been better off if they had been born later. The answer is not really. Maybe some of the medications have slightly less worse side effects, but that’s about it. Now scientists know that Schizophrenia is a little bit genetic, but something environmental sets it off.
The two youngest children were also the only girls of the family. They did not get sick. However, after watching more than half of their brothers spiral downward, they lived with the fear of losing their grip on reality. This fear continued when they had children of their own. It was also incredibly difficult to grow up in a house where very mentally ill brothers were constantly coming and going in between stints at mental hospitals.
This book was interesting and, for me, relatable. I can only imagine how horrifying it was for Mimi to lose the children she had such high hopes for, one after another, while the world blamed her for being a bad mother. Kolker does a good job in showing the long-term realities of the disease and what happens to those suffering from it. I sometimes wished that he had included a little more context–so we could understand what symptoms were from Schizophrenia and maybe explore where some of the violence and abuse was coming from. In addition, the medical side of the story was somewhat disappointing because even though the family was studied, there was no breakthrough in really understanding what’s going on with the disease or hope for the future. I was hoping to learn something new to better understand what has happened to my brother. Unfortunately, I did not.
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