Open Book

A Family in Chaos

A Study of Dysfunction and Resilience

Magazine Issue
July/August 2020
A headshot of a man and the cover of "Hidden Valley Road"

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


Once upon a time, not so long ago, there lived a family with 12 children, evenly divided by severe psychiatric illness: six grew into adults afflicted with schizophrenia, while six did not. Yet they all suffered from a twisted family web of trauma and abuse, fed by denial, secrecy, and a willful parental blindness that many would call neglect. But while their saga is devastating, in its portrait of the grim legacy of family dysfunction, it offers a hopeful view of the power of resilience. That is the reason to read Robert Kolker’s forceful, empathic, and riveting chronicle, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family.

Meet the Galvins—all 14 of them, starting with parents Don and Mimi, and their 12 offspring, born one after another starting in 1945 and ending in 1965. In 1963, when they moved into a newly built, split-level, suburban home just outside Colorado Springs, they presented themselves to the world as a slightly expanded version of a 1950s domestic TV comedy, centering on a bevy of bright, well-behaved kids. If anything made the family stick out (other than its size), it was the family passion for falconry—domesticating and training feral birds for hunting. When Frederica, the family’s pet goshawk, “wasn’t scratching the children,” Kolker writes, the untethered bird of prey “sat on a perch in the front yard, in full view of the neighborhood,” ready to swoop down on any neighborhood pets who might happen upon their house on the hauntingly named Hidden Valley Road.

What a visitor would’ve found inside the house, Kolker reports, was a family in chaos, continually upended by the latest psychotic episode of at least one mentally ill brother and the pending threat of a violent outbreak by another. In an atmosphere fueled by male sibling rivalry and laced with mania, paranoia, and dysfunction, the slightest provocation could lead to a bruising, all-out brawl. Typically, with the aloof Don usually away on business and the diminutive Mimi physically unable to pull her muscular and athletic sons apart, the youngest, littlest kids knew the drill when trouble broke out: cower in the master bedroom, door locked, pray their brothers wouldn’t break through, and wait for the police to arrive. At one memorable Thanksgiving dinner, Donald, the oldest, picked up the dining table, set carefully with the family’s finest linens and china, and threw it across the room at Jim, the second oldest son. The crash left Mimi in tears amid a scene that smashed apart the family charade of normalcy.

How did this family land here? And why, despite medications, hospitalizations, and therapy regimens, did all its members—those diagnosed with the disease and those free of it—remain trapped in the suffering?

Kolker takes on the monumental task of providing answers. A prodigious researcher and interviewer, he essentially presents two separate stories—that of the family and that of the halting march of medical progress. He eventually brings the two together via the efforts of intrepid researchers, who find something fascinating in the Galvin family DNA: clues to the genetic basis and possible prevention of what many scientists suspect is a spectrum of psychiatric illness, which includes not just schizophrenia but bipolar and other disorders that affect how the brain takes in, processes, and transmits information.

Kolker’s extraordinarily detailed recreation of 70 years of one family’s life allows you to make your own judgements about where blame might be placed, beyond DNA. But don’t be surprised if your conclusions keep shifting the more deeply he delves into the history and as more family secrets are revealed.

At the start of their marriage in 1944, Don and Mimi didn’t seem so different from many other wartime couples, with her already pregnant with their first child as he prepared to ship out to the Pacific. But back home after the war, he seemed moodier and more brooding than before—signs that, combined with several hospitalizations over the years for attacks of “nerves,” suggest that the brutal, high-casualty battles he’d fought had left him with what today would be called PTSD. Nonetheless, military life appealed to him, and he signed up for a career in the newly formed U.S. Air Force. And whether it was his Catholic faith or the couple’s determination to fill their lives with children, one baby after another followed, 10 sons in a row, before the arrival of two daughters.

They put up a camera-ready front for the frequent local newspaper features about their seemingly model family, in which the sons were altar boys on Sundays and school athletic stars the rest of the week, and the girls were as pretty as roses. But even before Donald, the oldest, had his first psychotic break, there was clearly something askew in the family dynamic. A hands-off father even when he wasn’t out of town, Don called his kids not by their names but by their number in the family birth order. “Number six, come here!” he’d shout, as if it was too much trouble to remember that this son’s name was Richard. Rather than punish or even just keep an eye on his rowdy sons as they habitually battered, wrestled, and injured one another, he bought them all boxing gloves. His only instruction: “No fighting without them.” But as Richard (aka “Number six”) remembered, “All the brothers were all-state athletes, you know, in top-notch shape. So when a fight broke out, it was a real fight,” with or without gloves.

It was left to Mimi to impose some discipline. But the military-style scheduling of the day’s chores and activities applied almost exclusively to surface details and logistics (think mandatory hospital-corners when making the beds). She called Don an “armchair father,” but she was just as oblivious to the extreme roughhousing, taunting, and bullying that neither parent seemed to worry about. So was it parental neglect, simple exhaustion, or a convenient rationalization to “let boys be boys” that allowed the sons to grow up with almost no limits or guidance as to how to control the roiling emotions that regularly led to violent free-for-alls?

Meanwhile, the youngest, most vulnerable children were left to fend for themselves. Margaret, low on the family totem pole as both a female and the next-to-youngest, remembered being regularly “groped and handled strangely, bullied harshly.” Powerless against her big brothers, and with no one to protect or comfort her, she wondered, “Was this abuse?”

She soon knew the answer when she became sexual prey, in particular, for the second oldest of the brothers, Jim. In time, so did the youngest sibling, Mary (who later changed her name to Lindsay). Amazingly—or perhaps not—when the sisters, as adults, finally confronted their mother about the sexual abuse they’d endured, she shrugged them off, revealing her own deeply held secret, that when she was growing up, her stepfather had sexually abused her, too—and she’d gotten over it, hadn’t she? So much for consolation.

Then again, Mimi herself had received little support as she’d watched six of her sons, beginning in their adolescence and worsening into adulthood, experience delusions, hear voices, become even more impulsive and aggressive, alternate between mania and apathy, and regularly threaten violence to themselves and others. It was bad enough that Jim beat his wife and abused his two sisters. Donald, the oldest, attempted the murder-suicide of himself and his estranged wife. He failed, but his brother Brian succeeded in fatally shooting his girlfriend and himself. Soon after, three more brothers broke down. And in each case, rather than try to help Mimi manage or understand what was happening, psychiatrists and doctors blamed her, labeling her a “refrigerator mother,” whose cold parenting had led to their condition. As Kolker writes, this was a psychoanalytic assumption that psychiatrists had promulgated for decades—despite the absence of evidence to back it up.

Throughout the book, Kolker intersperses the Galvin family narrative with the challenges of researchers who’ve struggled to understand the genesis of schizophrenia and develop better treatments for it. Kolker writes of the available treatments from the 1960s on, “The less consistently you take the medication, the worse off you were—the more psychotic breaks you have, the more far gone you become. It was a painful catch-22 to witness a loved one experience. Not taking the drugs makes them more sick, and then taking them, in some cases, makes them sicker,” leading, as it did with three of the Galvin brothers, to fatal heart disease.

But Kolker provides hope that treatment prospects may be improving. Despite limited research funding and the ups and downs of pharmaceutical company interest, two scientists—Robert Freedman and Lynn DeLisi, who included the Galvins in their research—have made important progress in recent years. Freedman is conducting a long-term study to test his hypothesis that prenatal supplements of choline given to the expectant mother—a nutrient that activates brain receptors crucial to transmission during fetal development—can help prevent a child from eventually developing schizophrenia altogether. DeLisi’s work confirmed that schizophrenia has nothing to do with how a child is raised: it’s inherited. Her genetic discoveries about the disease might also lead to new, more targeted medications with fewer adverse side effects.

Although half the Galvin children didn’t develop schizophrenia, they did suffer from a legacy of trauma. In 1984, 19-year-old Lindsay began therapy with Louise Silvern, who helped her let go of the hypervigilant, impenetrable, perfectionistic persona she’d felt she needed to survive her childhood. Over time, Lindsay learned to dismantle that armor, trust others, and recognize triggers (such as movies with rape scenes) that set her on edge.

At book’s end, Mimi has died, and Lindsay, now married with kids of her own, has found enough acceptance of her life story to have taken on many aspects of the caretaking of the three mentally ill brothers who are still alive. She takes some satisfaction in the hope that through their participation in Freedman and DeLisi’s research, her family’s experience might make a difference for future generations. Perhaps. But it’s been a hard price for each of them to pay, and they’re still paying.

Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.