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Nonfiction Review: Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

Title: Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family

Author: Robert Kolker

Year Published: 2021

Category: Adult nonfiction (memoir)
Pages: 400
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location (my 2021 Google Reading map) USA (OR, CO, ID, IL, CA)

Summary (from Amazon): Named a BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, TIME, and more

Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American dream. After World War II, Don's work with the Air Force brought them to Colorado, where their twelve children perfectly spanned the baby boom: the oldest born in 1945, the youngest in 1965. In those years, there was an established script for a family like the Galvins--aspiration, hard work, upward mobility, domestic harmony--and they worked hard to play their parts. But behind the scenes was a different story: psychological breakdown, sudden shocking violence, hidden abuse. By the mid-1970s, six of the ten Galvin boys, one after another, were diagnosed as schizophrenic. How could all this happen to one family?

What took place inside the house on Hidden Valley Road was so extraordinary that the Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health. Their story offers a shadow history of the science of schizophrenia, from the era of institutionalization, lobotomy, and the schizophrenogenic mother to the search for genetic markers for the disease, always amid profound disagreements about the nature of the illness itself. And unbeknownst to the Galvins, samples of their DNA informed decades of genetic research that continues today, offering paths to treatment, prediction, and even eradication of the disease for future generations.

With clarity and compassion, bestselling and award-winning author Robert Kolker uncovers one family's unforgettable legacy of suffering, love, and hope.

  I had not heard tons about this book before I started reading it, but what I had heard was all good. I read it for my discussion with my high school girl friends who meet every 6 weeks or so to talk about a book and life. We all live in different cities and states so meet over Zoom.

All I knew about this book before I began reading it was that it discussed a family in which half of the 12 kids had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Half! I found the chapters about the family, their background, and their experiences with the disease to be more interesting than the chapters about the science, the theories about the cause of the disease, and the treatments. Those chapters got a little dense for me, but I see why they are included because this family became a case study.

What strikes me most about this book is how the parents were in denial about pretty much everything about their children: mental health issues, sexual abuse, the physical fighting, the drugs, and more. Hiding the psychosis and medications from siblings and the outside world does not help anyone, it just means no one knows what's going on and a variety of abuses take place. Actually, the dad was basically absent. It's the mom who controlled everything and everyone, denying the problems to the very end.

This book sheds light on the impact of severe mental health issues for those who suffer from it and those who suffer as loved ones. Though their experiences are vastly different, both groups have lasting effects. I think it's a really interesting read and it's amazing how much work has been done on mental health and how little progress we've really made in terms of schizophrenia treatments. As the healthy siblings said, their ill brothers were almost as sick from the medicine as they were from the disease.

Challenges for which this counts: 
  • Diversity--mental health (August mini challenge)
  • Literary Escapes--Colorado and Idaho

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