From the outside, they looked like a picture-perfect mid-century American family.
Don and Mimi Galvin, an attractive and accomplished young couple, were married in 1944, while he was home on leave from World War II. Between 1945 and 1965, as Don’s career led eventually to a position on the faculty of the Air Force Academy, Mimi gave birth to 12 children — 10 sons, two daughters — and devoted herself to motherhood and homemaking.
But the Galvin family had a distinction no family would want. Of their 10 sons, six were diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Robert Kolker’s engrossing new nonfiction book, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, tells the Galvins’ story. Kolker, a journalist and the author of the bestselling true crime book Lost Girls, shows readers the personal side of a family’s almost unimaginable struggle with multiple cases of mental illness, and he also writes a history of how such illnesses have been treated that is by turns heartbreaking, enraging and hopeful.
The book’s title comes from the street in Colorado Springs that the Galvins moved to in 1963, after Don began teaching at the Air Force Academy. Their household had always been chaotic, given the sheer number of kids living in it. The brothers were all athletic and competitive, so things could get raucous, but on Sundays all the Galvin kids went to Mass, the boys in jackets and ties, the girls often in matching dresses made by Mimi.
But as the boys grew into their teens and 20s, roughhousing turned into something else. Oldest son Donald, charismatic and movie-star handsome, was the first to break. When the family moved to Hidden Valley Road, he was already out of the house, attending Colorado State University. In April 1965 he showed up at the campus health center with burns that, it turned out, he had suffered when he “jumped straight into a bonfire” at a pep rally. After a girlfriend broke up with him, he was so shattered he ended up homeless, living in a fruit cellar for weeks.
A psychiatric evaluation was inconclusive but deemed him “some risk to himself and possibly to others.” So Don and Mimi brought him home, and thus began decades of increasingly severe hallucinations and violent rages, interspersed with periods of calm — Donald held various jobs and was even married for a while.
But a vignette from 1972 that opens the book makes clear how devastating his illness became to the family. It recounts his youngest sister, then-7-year-old Mary (whom he alternately adores and terrifies), leading him into the woods and tying him to a tree, intent on burning him at the stake “like the heretics in the movies.”
One child suffering from schizophrenia would be an enormous challenge, but in the space of a few years five more Galvin boys became sick, each one with a different set of symptoms. They “took ill,” Kolker writes, “at a time when so little was understood about schizophrenia — and so many different theories were colliding with one another — that the search for an explanation overshadowed everything about their lives.”
The Galvin sons’ history is also a history of theories about and treatments for schizophrenia in the last 50 years. They cycle in and out and in again at psychiatric hospitals; at some points as many as three of them were in the state hospital in Pueblo, Colo., at the same time, in different wards. They were treated with a wide range of therapies, including electroconvulsive therapy, and a pharmacopeia of drugs, some with lethal side effects — two of the brothers would die from those.
Despite their tragedies, the Galvin family became a gift to researchers who are chasing the elusive causes of schizophrenia. The argument that long raged about whether its roots were genetic or traumatic has now become a theory that both nature and nurture are at play. Having a family with so many members diagnosed with the condition, and others who are not, is an invaluable resource for scientists, several of whom are profiled in the book.
Kolker interviewed many of the Galvins for the book, and much of it focuses on Margaret and Mary, the two youngest siblings and only girls. As children they were repeatedly sexually molested by one brother; both escaped the family in their early teens. Margaret was taken in by wealthy friends of the Galvins who lived in Denver, and Mary determinedly got admitted to the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, where she even changed her first name to Lindsay to put her family behind her.
Their complex attitudes toward their brothers are intertwined with their relationship with their mother. Don Galvin died in 2003, but Kolker interviewed Mimi, who lived to be 93. She and her daughters offered insight into their family, some of it surprising. The daughters are still conflicted about her fierce devotion to her sick sons; one of them says Mimi never chose “a healthy child against a sick one.” But, as mothers now themselves, they seem to have come to an understanding of how and why Mimi dealt with such enormous challenges.
Donald lived with his mother at the house on Hidden Valley Road until she suffered a stroke in her late 80s and could no longer care for him.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family
By Robert Kolker
Doubleday, 377 pages, $29.95