I am not sure how to put into word just how affecting Hidden Valley Road is, but I will give it a try here in this review. It’s a heavy and dense one that took me a while to read. It wasn’t one I wanted to pick up and read, but it was a book about a family I wanted to understand.
Robert Kolker delivers a powerful look at schizophrenia and the quest to understand it through the Galvin Family. Don and Mimi Galvin, the perfect American family image, had 12 children with six sons diagnosed with schizophrenia. Hidden Valley Road is a terrifying portrait of a family in crisis and swallowed up by blame and shame from society’s expectations of the perfect mother, wife, and family. Mimi raised her children in the baby boomers’ years when so little was known about schizophrenia. A time when psychiatrists spoke of “schizophrenogenic mothers” who caused “mental illness through bad parenting.” An overbearing mother who coddles her children were blamed by over-parenting their children.
“If bad parenting caused any of these diseases, we’d all be in big, big trouble.”
Drawing on interviews with family members, Robert Kolker tells us their heartbreaking story with empathy. Mimi is a hard person to understand and through Margaret and Mary, the two youngest siblings, we learn about Mimi mostly through them. Mimi devoted herself to motherhood and making a home for her family. I can only imagine she never questioned she wouldn’t devote herself or would not be a good mother.
“And so I was crushed,” Mimi said. “Because I thought I was such a good mother. I baked a cake and a pie every night. Or at least had Jell-O with whipped cream.”
My heart broke for Mimi as she hid in the wall of Hidden Valley in shame as she tries to cope and denies the madness around her. We see how mothers’ expectations and blame denied her of seeing and understanding her family’s crisis as her children slipped further into madness.
“She kept the family together. “One reason why there aren’t other families like the Galvins being studied is because any other family like this wouldn’t be a family. ~Kolker
“To be a member of the Galvin family is to never stop tripping on land mines of family history, buried in odd places, stashed away out of shame.”
“What sort of early interventions might have helped them before the medications took their toll, neutralizing them without curing them? And what about the thousands of people who couldn’t afford what her son had—who languish because of a lack of resources, or a stigma from a society that would prefer to pretend that people like them do not exist?”
As devastating as the Galvin’s story is, it is also a hopeful one for understanding more about schizophrenia learned from the family. My heart broke for the time lost for the family but hopeful for the living families’ future.