This was the non-fiction pick for my book club, and I was really looking forward to reading it. Hidden Valley Road is the story of the Galvin family: Don and Mimi, and their 12 children, born between 1945 and 1965. Of the 10 boys, six developed schizophrenia.
Kolker traces the Galvin family from Mimi and Don’s early lives, to their marriage and the beginnings of their family, all the way through to the next generation. We learn about the sick kids and the well ones, how individuals and the family as a whole were affected by mental illness and trauma, and a great deal about schizophrenia, itself.
There was a lot in this book that was both heartbreaking and infuriating. First and foremost, there is so little understanding within the medical and psychiatric communities about what schizophrenia is, what causes it, and why it manifests in some people and not others. It was also astonishing to me that we have been using the same drugs to treat schizophrenia for the last 70 years, without even understanding how they work. Kolker does a fantastic job of breaking down how we got here, and why there has been so little progress – to whit, that the nature of schizophrenia itself renders those suffering uniquely incapable of advocating for themselves.
In addition to the history and science, Kolker does a magnificent job of showing how the disease affected each and every member of the Kolker family, whether or not they were diagnosed. Mimi, the matriarch, made the decision time and again to prioritize the needs of her sick children, sometimes to the clear detriment of the well children, especially Lindsay and Margaret (the two youngest and the only girls). We see how trauma and abuse are passed down and down and down.
But we also see how there might be paths forward. The Galvins have donated genetic material that is helping researchers to figure out the causes of schizophrenia, and maybe develop new treatments. We also see how the well children have struggled (with some varying success) to make whole and healthy lives for themselves. And the fact that every surviving member of the Galvin family cooperated with Kolker in the research for the book shows incredible strength and courage.
Not an easy read, but truly extraordinary.