A biography of a post-WWII American family with 12 children — 10 of them were boys, 6 of whom developed schizophrenia
The Second World War had ended and, buoyed by ‘limitless hope and confidence’, Don and Mimi Galvin dedicated themselves to achieving their idea of the American dream: a happy marriage, a large happy family and a happy life. In their mad pursuit of reproductive success, they had 12 children, 10 boys and 2 girls, between 1945 and 1965.
Their happiness was short-lived, however, when the oldest boy began to show bizarre behaviors, then the next oldest one began to act weird, and on down the line, until six of the ten boys were behaving strangely. Each son had his own particular demeanour, but each was becoming ever more … peculiar. They were diagnosed with schizophrenia, a mental illness with an average age of onset in the late teens and early 20s, so these boys — young men, actually — were getting ready to make their way in the world when they fell ill. But schizophrenia was poorly understood then — it still is, in fact, so most people think it manifested as “multiple personalities”. Biut in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
“Schizophrenia is not about multiple personalities. It is about walling oneself off from consciousness, first slowly and then all at once, until you are no longer accessing anything that others accept as real”, according to journalist and writer Robert Kolker in his latest book, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family (Quercus; 2020: Amazon US / Amazon UK).
Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that encompasses a variety of symptoms, so each son required different treatments, and often their different behaviors inspired a variety of diagnoses before the medical doctors converged on schizophrenia.
Although heartbroken, Don and Mimi pretended to their peers and colleagues that nothing was wrong. Eventually, they tried to get help for their ailing sons, but were faced by an antiquated mental health establishment that knew little about schizophrenia, that advocated the use of barbaric and cruel ‘treatments’, often openly blaming poor parenting, especially by the mother, as the primary or sole cause of schizophrenia — a widely-held, but erroneous belief with no scientific support.
“And so I was crushed,” Mimi, the mother, said. “Because I thought I was such a good mother. I baked a cake and a pie every night. Or at least had Jell-O with whipped cream.”
But the Galvin family’s personal tragedy helped change all that misinformation: both universities and “big pharma” analyzed DNA collected from each family member and compared it to genetic samples from the general population. This large sample size gave researchers the unprecedented opportunity to begin making significant advances in prediction, treatment, and even prevention of schizophrenia.
In this book, which is a skilful mix of biography, a history of mental illness and medical case studies, the author alternates, chapter-by-chapter, between sharing some of the Galvin family’s countless struggles and revealing how our scientific understanding of schizophrenia evolved rapidly during the past 50 years. In these chapters, we read the tragic story of the Galvin family and meet some of the incredible scientists who have dedicated their lives to pushing back the boundaries of our ignorance about the causes of and treatments for schizophrenia, how a healthy brain develops and functions, and he even mentions some past mistakes.
In some ways, this book reads like a retrospective of abuse: familial, social, medical and societal. It certainly is not a feel-good story, but it is educational and meticulously researched. The writing is perceptive, the story is absorbing and it is obvious that the author has spent a tremendous amount of time interacting with and interviewing the family, especially the mother and the two daughters, over a number of years.
The Galvin family themselves are quiet, but complicated, heroes because not only did the entire family share their DNA and brain scans with researchers, but they shared their remarkable story honestly and without reservation with the public, thereby helping to remove the veil of secrecy and shame associated with severe mental illness. Highly recommended.