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Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family

Review

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family

HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD, Robert Kolker’s second book (following his New York Times bestseller LOST GIRLS), is a compelling read. The plot line is unbearably simple: six sons in a dynamic, upwardly mobile family develop schizophrenia. As each episode of erratic behavior is exhibited by them, as boy after boy becomes ill, the story becomes heavy with the implications of what else might happen. The remaining six healthy children ultimately escape the illness, but their legacy of trauma and disturbing experiences seems equally destructive.

Kolker did his homework. In an overwhelmingly complicated narrative about schizophrenia, he explains that schizophrenia is overwhelmingly complicated. Labeled “a disease of theories” by Edward Shorter, some experts believed that the disease was biochemical, others neurological, others genetic, still others environmental or viral or bacterial. In HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD, Kolker uses a collection of conversations, emails, details from diaries, visits and phone calls, reading and rereading notes to shift readers back and forth between two worlds.

"...a compelling read.... I believe every reader will...hear the wise, intelligent compassion [Kolker] brings in showing us the personal, anguished stories from so many people whose lives have been touched by schizophrenia."

One world is the theater of the Don and Mimi Galvin family. They are models of the post-WWII era inhabited by the beautiful people, the gifted, the charismatic, the extremely intelligent. They care about background pedigrees, what their neighbors think, what they and their children accomplish. Their lives are constantly changing with many moves necessitated by Don’s career; he becomes an Intelligence Officer at Ent Air Force Base and at last earns his Ph.D. in Colorado. Mimi’s role as the mother of 10 very rambunctious boys (and finally two daughters) is etched in home management --- which is despairingly futile as the they fight and quarrel and vie for her attention, as well as that of their frequently absent father. She is a perfectionist and wishes her sons to be exceptional.

The second world is inhabited by researchers, psychotherapists, students and mentors who are changing and advancing approaches to schizophrenia. Kolker begins with information about the illness starting in 1903 and continues to 2017, documenting how the Galvin family became known in the medical field and how their genetics were used for examination. Throughout the book, he explains the diagnoses of the boys, and offers an accounting of the medicines, therapies and range of facilities that they experienced in their decades of treatment.

In the Prologue, set in 1972 at the Hidden Valley Road home, two children walk outside and climb a hill toward the pine trees looking over Woodmen Valley. Donald, the eldest boy at 27, wears a reddish-brown monk cape and speaks religious gibberish. The youngest child is seven; she was born Mary but changed her name to Lindsay when she left home and went to school in Connecticut in her early teens. Lindsay’s recollection of that walk was one of just wanting to have time to herself, away from Donald’s chanting and yelling, and she envisions burning him, like a heretic, while tied to a tree. Those instances of fear, embarrassment and impotence are the basis for much of the family’s life. The redemptive moments come much later when Lindsay understands that we are more than just genes. We are products of the people who surround us --- those we are forced to grow up with and those we choose to live with as adults.

HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD is not for the faint of heart. There are disturbing connections to the pandemic we are experiencing at this moment. We know, just as the Galvin family knew, that there are horrific events unfolding. We also know, as did the Galvins, that we do not have a timetable for a cure. The uncertainty is huge; the tilting of the universe leans toward the pandemic, just as the tilting of the universe leaned toward the schizophrenics.

In his Acknowledgements, Kolker credits his mother for having told him that she could hear his voice in his writing. I believe every reader will also hear the wise, intelligent compassion he brings in showing us the personal, anguished stories from so many people whose lives have been touched by schizophrenia.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on April 10, 2020

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family
by Robert Kolker

  • Publication Date: April 7, 2020
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction, Science
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 038554376X
  • ISBN-13: 9780385543767