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

In this unimaginable real-life account of a Colorado family, six of Don and Mimi Galvin’s twelve children were diagnosed with schizophrenia, starting with their eldest son who was diagnosed in his late teens in the mid-1960s. Extensive interviews with family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, therapists, and well-respected schizophrenia researchers were used with medical records of the father and the six afflicted children to piece together the breakdown of the Galvin family.   

I was drawn to Hidden Valley Road by a phrase in its descriptive blurb—six of twelve in one family diagnosed with schizophrenia. How could it be? In good medical-mystery style, author Robert Kolker weaves the history of the science of schizophrenia throughout the family’s struggle.  When the first son was diagnosed, the medical profession was still arguing whether the disease was inherited or a result of family dynamics. In the last chapters of the book, we learn about the first gene to be definitively associated with schizophrenia.

But, this book is more than a well-explained history of a disease. In the parallel story, the lives of the Galvin parents, children and those close to them are so well described that the reader at times is painfully present in their horrifying reality. The story lines are tempered in the closing chapters with a present account of the surviving family members and a hopeful outlook for understanding and treating schizophrenia. For book clubs, there is much to discuss. Dysfunction of several types was rampant in the Galvin family. Was the dysfunction all due to the disease? Did the era in which Don and Mimi lived, married and raised their family force choices made? Or would the severity of dysfunction have been avoided if the Galvin brothers were born today?

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