“Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family” Review

My next book blog is on “Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of An American Family” by Robert Kolker.  This book was an Oprah Book Club pick – not always books that appeal to my taste, even though most are well written – but “Hidden Valley Road” kept my interest and I was really drawn into the Galvin family and their tragic story.

“Hidden Valley Road” is a true story about Don and Mimi Galvin and their 12 children, born between 1945-1965. Six of their boys developed schizophrenia before they reached adulthood. The other 4 boys and 2 girls did not develop the disease, but grew up surrounded by mental illness. Even though there are 14 main characters in the book, the author did an excellent job presenting their personalities clearly and I was able to feel such empathy for all of them. In those years, not much was known about mental illness, especially schizophrenia. Parents were often blamed by doctors and others for the disease that the children developed, so Mimi and Don ignored many behaviors, were embarrassed and ashamed by other behaviors and were at a loss as to what to do with the sick boys. They usually pretended that everything was ok in the family, even as they all knew that “ok” was very far from the truth. The parents waited a long, long time before seeking medical help – partly because there was little help available and partly due to the shame of doctors blaming them. When treatment facilities were finally used as their last resort, the “cures” were as damaging to some of the boys as their disease.

The first 6 chapters deal with Don and Mimi’s early lives and marriage.  Beginning in chapter 7, Kolker discusses the mental illness as it affects each of the boys.  But he also shows how the disease affected the well children. Every member of that household was a victim of mental illness in some aspect. I did not realize that schizophrenia presents differently in each person that it affects. No wonder doctors and scientists have had such a difficult time treating these patients. Today, the studies are ongoing in trying to relieve the symptoms of schizophrenia and related illnesses – most scientists now believe that some combination of genetic makeup and environment (triggers) cause this brain disease to show itself. They are studying prenatal factors, nutrition, drug therapy, exercise, social relationships and more – many of the theories and experimental studies are presented in the later part of the book. The Galvins are still involved in many studies on schizophrenia and the two Galvin daughters wanted this book to be written to show the world what mental illness can do to a family. They wanted readers to realize that shaming and blaming those who are affected is not helpful and that understanding of the disease is needed.

Anyone with an wish to learn more about mental illness will want to read “Hidden Valley Road.” There are unpleasant details that had to be part of this story, but Kolker was a wonderful writer and I am glad that I picked this book to read!

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