Summary and book reviews of Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

Hidden Valley Road

Inside the Mind of an American Family

by Robert Kolker

Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker X
Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2020, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2, 2021, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

The heartrending story of a midcentury American family with twelve children, six of them diagnosed with schizophrenia, that became science's great hope in the quest to understand the disease.

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

Prologue

1972 | Colorado Springs, Colorado

A brother and sister walk out of their house together, through the patio door that opens out from the family kitchen and into their backyard. They're a strange pair. Donald Galvin is twenty-seven years old with deep-set eyes, his head shaved completely bald, his chin showing off the beginnings of a biblically scruffy beard. Mary Galvin is seven, half his height, with white-blond hair and a button nose.

The Galvin family lives in the Woodmen Valley, an expanse of forest and farmland nestled between the steep hills and sandstone mesas of central Colorado. Their yard smells of sweet pine, fresh and earthy. Near the patio, juncos and blue jays dart around a rock garden where the family's pet, a goshawk named Atholl, stands guard in a mews their father built years ago. With the little girl leading the way, the sister and brother pass by the mews and climb up a small hill, stepping over lichen-covered rocks they both know by heart.

There are ten ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In Hidden Valley Road, each of the Galvin boys who are diagnosed with schizophrenia show different symptoms. How does schizophrenia present differently in each of the Galvin boys?
  2. How does the Galvin family adapt when the boys develop schizophrenia? Do any of the family members handle it better or worse than others?
  3. At the time when the Galvin boys are being diagnosed with schizophrenia, studies in mental illness claim the parents are responsible. How do you think this affected how Don and Mimi handled the changes happening in their family?
  4. How did growing up on an air force base positively or negatively affect the Galvin family?
  5. How did this book change your perception of mental illness?
  6. Discuss how the youngest Galvins, Lindsay and...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Kolker's writing is clear and concise throughout the narrative, with prose that keeps the nonfiction account moving at a good clip. He vividly describes the chaos of the Galvin homestead and the trauma of growing up in such an environment. The sections of the book that delve into the relevant medical research are equally fascinating and written in such a way that the science can be easily grasped by readers with no prior knowledge of the subject. Although Hidden Valley Road is a page-turner, it's not an easy read emotionally. Nevertheless, it's highly recommended for those who enjoy science books that overlap with real-life family tragedy (it compares well to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks)...continued

Full Review Members Only (643 words).

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Journalist Kolker delivers a powerful look at schizophrenia and the quest to understand it...This is a haunting and memorable look at the impact of mental illness on multiple generations.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Riveting and disquieting...Kolker deftly follows the psychiatric, chemical, and biological theories proposed to explain schizophrenia and the various treatments foisted upon the brothers. Most poignantly, he portrays the impact on the unafflicted children of the brothers' illness, an oppressive emotional atmosphere, and the family's festering secrets...A family portrait of astounding depth and empathy.

Booklist (starred review)
A stunning, riveting chronicle crackling with intelligence and empathy...Kolker tackles this extraordinarily complex story so brilliantly and effectively that readers will be swept away. An exceptional, unforgettable, and significant work that must not be missed.

Author Blurb Susannah Cahalan, author of Brain on Fire and The Great Pretender
A marvel of reportage, research, and style, Hidden Valley Road raises the bar on what is possible in narrative nonfiction. Robert Kolker dives into the exceptional story of one family besieged by humanity's most mysterious malady. Kolker writes about the Galvin family with elegance and insight while weaving together the decades long quest to understand the genetics of schizophrenia, somehow creating a story that is as haunting and intriguing as a great gothic novel. This book is a triumph, an unforgettable story that you should read right now.

Author Blurb David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon
Hidden Valley Road contains everything: scientific intrigue, meticulous reporting, startling revelations, and, most of all, a profound sense of humanity. It is that rare book that can be read again and again.

Author Blurb Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind
An extraordinary case study and tour de force of reporting.

Reader Reviews

lani

the history of schizophrenia
The deft assured writing was the icing on the cake as it explored the history of schizophrenia and the price it cost for this family of 12 children. Six of the children were eventually diagnosed with this disease as the reader becomes intimately ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

Blue and white NIMH logoIn Hidden Valley Road, Robert Kolker writes about the Galvin family's experience with schizophrenia and discusses early research into the disorder performed under the auspices of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

The NIMH's website states it's the "lead federal agency for research on mental disorders," with a mission "to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery, and cure." It has a budget of almost $2 billion (2020) and lists over 1,300 employees, contractors and research fellows as current collaborators.

In support of its mission, NIMH generates research and promotes research training to fulfill the following objectives:

...

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