Author: Richard Kolker
APA Style Citation
Kolker, R. (2020.) Hidden valley road. Inside the Mind of an American family. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.
Buy This Book
Hidden Valley Road, named after the street the family lived on, is the tragic story of the Galvin family. The non-fictional account follows the growing family from the time in which the young, recently married Donald and Mimi Galvin moved to Colorado Springs through the twelve children that eventually made up the Galvin family (10 boys and 2 girls). Eventually, six of the boys would develop schizophrenia. The book addresses many facets related to mental illness, including the issues of genetic and environmental factors, the stigma around mental illness, and the difficulty in managing and finding good care for those experiencing different levels of schizophrenia.
Since Swiss Psychologist Eugen Bleuler initially coined the term schizophrenia, which comes from the Latin word -schizo- meaning a split in mental functioning, he had suspected that there was an underlying physical component to the disorder. The degree to which the physical components drive the illness is still one that is fascinating and much debated. Examining a family in which six of the boys developed the disease provides the opportunity to learn more about the underlying genetic components that may be associated with schizophrenia. Freud was the first but certainly not the last to place the blame of development of schizophrenia decidedly at least partially at the feet of the mother, a point not lost on Mimi as her son’s disappeared into the illness. Today, estimations are that one in one hundred individuals may experience schizophrenia at some point in their lives, but with an identical twin, chances increase to roughly 50%. In one other famous case of schizophrenia from the 1950s, the Genain quadruplets all developed schizophrenia by age 25 and were studied by the National Institute of Mental Health.
Don Galvin Sr. was a professor at the Air Force Academy after having spent time in the Navy. He had experienced in his early military career “a case of the nerves” and was hospitalized at Walter Reed hospital, this event was not much discussed in the family, and his career and family developed quickly. The eldest son Don Jr. played football, got decent grades, and wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. By his teenage years, however, he was smashing dishes and ruthlessly beating up his younger brothers. Mimi and Donald were frequently traveling for work and left the boys to their own devices, which could be brutal as they formed camps against one another. By sophomore year in college, Donald was experiencing full-blown psychotic episodes, believing in one case that he had murdered a professor and in another fantasizing about murdering someone at a football game. He also killed a cat that had lived with him for a few days after it scratched him. This behavior was at first attributed to a break up with a longtime girlfriend. When he was forced to return home, he believed people were shooting at him and once removed all of the furniture from the house in a paranoid episode. Don and Mimi opted for a psychoanalytic treatment before eventually resorting to the use of Thorazine to reduce Donald’s aggressive outbursts. Because of the stigma attached to the illness, Donald Sr. and Mimi tried to manage Donald’s illness while he lived at home because admitting him to a mental institution would be to admit defeat and publicly acknowledge what was happening. With Donald Sr. frequently away for work, it was up to Mimi to manage Donald along with the ten other children still living at home, most of whom became terrified of Donald. The Thorazine caused Donald to gain weight and sleep often, but it never eliminated his delusions of having superior powers or being controlled by God. Donald eventually developed tardive dyskinesia experiencing constant jerking movement from the years on Thorazine, but he attributed it to his father, making him “stand at attention as a child.”
The middle group of boys threw themselves into hockey to get out of the house, and Margaret, the second youngest, was sent to live with some wealthy family friends. Mary (who now goes by Lindsay), the youngest, often locked herself in her room when home alone with her brother because she was terrified he would fly into one of his rages.
Shortly after Jim, the second oldest, got married, he started hearing voices, he believed people were spying on him, and he stopped sleeping, often acting violently towards himself. He had a tumultuous marriage even prior to the diagnosis and eventually killed his wife and was sent to prison. Brian and Michael were the next to experience symptoms. Brian played in a band and had a total disregard for authority, some believed that his symptoms might have been brought on by drug use. After a weeklong stay in Denver’s psychiatric ward, he decided it was time for him to leave and he never fully accepted his diagnosis. Michael could often go for long stretches without symptoms, and it seems that although he experienced symptoms of schizophrenia, they were far less severe than his eldest brother Donald Jr. The youngest of the ten boys, Peter, was always oppositional, but after witnessing his father’s stroke in 9th grade he experienced more frequent oppositional episodes and he eventually had to be hospitalized and restrained. Mimi now had to take care of the older boys, her husband, who was recovering from a stroke and try to find a place that was appropriate for Peter’s young age and symptoms. Peter was eventually diagnosed with acute schizophrenia with paranoid ideation. Matt, who was another one of the hockey-playing brothers and who later fought in the Vietnam war, came to believe the government was out to get him but resisted the label of schizophrenia. He became homeless and often sold his medications for money or food but never believed that he actually had schizophrenia. He eventually went through many rounds of ECT therapy.
With so many cases of schizophrenia in a single family it is likely that there was some genetic factor driving the illness. It was later discovered that many of the boys who later developed the illness were molested by a priest who has been a family friend and often spent time with the boys. The lack of acknowledgment, especially with Donald Jr, may have also been an environmental factor that exacerbated the illness. Growing up with an older brother who was schizophrenic created a chaotic and violent home environment and may also have served as environmental triggers for some of the younger boys.
Psychologists like Irving Gottesman and James Shield began to examine the genetic influence of the disease by proposing the diathesis-stress model in which certain disorders could be predisposed for some individuals but activated by environmental factors. In the late 1970s, Richard Wyatt found enlarged ventricles in some schizophrenic patients leading to a stronger belief in the physical attributes of the disorder. In the early 1980s, Irving Feinberg proposed that problems in neural pruning during adolescence might be the main cause of the disorder. The 1990s brought the discovery that the hippocampi in some schizophrenics were smaller than in control patients. MRI scans also found problems with activity in the frontal lobe. Through this all, Lynn Delisi was attempting to find specific genetic markers to identify the disorders. Studying families would be the key to discovering the genetic links to the disorder. In the 1990s, the Human Genome Project began to solve problems such as this and with $3 billion in funding. The Galvin brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews who were willing donated their DNA to be analyzed for clues to the genetic components of the illness. It was determined that a mutation on the C4A gene might provide some answers to the disorders. There is now the possibility of genetic testing in utero, and there may be a way to fix flaws in genes in the womb or early in life. Ironically, one of the Galvin grandchildren is working on the project that contains her family’s DNA to try to ensure that families in the future will not have to endure the chaos his own family experienced.
Other Related Resources
Book Trib: Question and Answers with Robert Kolker
NPR: Hidden Valley Road
Inside the Mind of an American Family
The Gazette: Interview with two of the Galvin Brothers
New York Time Book Review: Good Looks ran in the Family, and so did Schizophrenia
Apple Podcasts: Robert Kolker discusses Hidden Valley Road
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM)
Insulin shock therapy