Since the last mid-century, the search for a cure for schizophrenia has been elusive. Although positive strides have been made in the last few decades in finding a solution, researchers are no closer, nor do they agree on what causes the illness. In the meantime, 2.6 million people in the United States suffer from this debilitating and heartbreaking disease.
Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family captures the undeniable suffering and frustration of a family of twelve children (ten boys and two girls), six of which have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. As a fictional recreation based on a real family, the Galvins of Colorado Springs, Kohler not only tells the Galvin’s story but also gives a history and timeline of the study of schizophrenia from the 1940s to modern-day. This book is a recreation of the Galvin family’s experience, as the author explains in a “notes” section. For this work, he interviewed Galvin family members who were willing to talk to him, psychiatrists, researchers, friends, neighbors, teachers, caregivers, and colleagues. No scenes in the book were fabricated.
Kolker beautifully weaves the story of the Galvin family, showing how, one by one, six of Don and Mimi Galvin’s boys succumb to the disease. He demonstrates the humanness of the characters involved in the care of those afflicted with excellent prose and story-telling. He shows the juxtaposition of “the perfect family” image demonstrated to the outside world and the difficult life behind closed doors with six schizophrenics.
As the book unfolds, the Galvin family is studied by different psychiatric researchers who discovered their plight. At a time when schizophrenia was very far from being understood and stigmatized, the family is desperate for anyone to help them, so hoping for a solution and cure, they willingly give researchers DNA samples and comply with their requests. The story ends after Mimi Galvin dies and her granddaughter enrolls at CU Boulder studying pre-med with a focus on schizophrenia.
As a person who watched a family member suffer from schizophrenia for almost thirty years until his death, I found myself easily resonating with the female caretakers in Hidden Valley Road. I felt their frustration, their despair, their fear, their anger, and their feelings of helplessness.
When a loved one lives with schizophrenia, it is gut-wrenching to watch. You feel useless in helping them. One day, they are lucid and on top of their game, so you become hopeful. The next day, they have a psychotic break or a relapse and end up in the hospital on more antipsychotic drugs. Two days later, they might stop taking their medicine. The next week, they might have another relapse because they have developed an immunity to the drugs they were currently taking, and they are given new, stronger drugs all the while not knowing how they will respond to them.
It is a very difficult life for the schizophrenic, and the loved one watches them slowly deteriorate from the dynamic person they once were to a very troubled human being. Talking to them is a crapshoot: one day they make sense, and the next day, they are delusional, irrational, irritable, sad, violent, or despondent. You never know how they will show up. At any time, they could become violent. Drugs usually remove the psychosis, but they always come with dangerous side effects. It is a never-ending rollercoaster of emotional pain for the schizophrenic and those who love them.
I highly recommend Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker to those who have or have had a loved one suffering from schizophrenia. It will help you realize you are not alone, that your suffering for your loved one is not in vain, and it will give you hope. The history of the study of schizophrenia is the icing on top of the cake in this book.
Having said all of the above, this book is not for everyone. If schizophrenia has not crossed your life path somehow, this book might not interest you. It is, however, a great read if you are curious about the illness and its ramifications in individuals and families.
This is a must-read for any student of psychology, psychiatry, or mental illness.
A bit about the author, Robert Kolker:
Robert Kolker is a journalist and author. His book Hidden Valley Road made the New York Times’ best-seller list and was named a Top Ten Book of the Year by the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Slate. It was also chosen as one of the year’s best by NPR, the Boston Globe, The New York Post, and Amazon. Even Barak Obama chose this book as one of his favorites of 2020.
Robert is also a National Magazine Award finalist for his impressive journalism. His first book is Lost Girls, also a New York Times best-seller. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his family.
To learn more about Robert Kolker, visit his website, RobertKolker.com.
To purchase a copy of Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, visit Penguin Random House.