A review of Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker
I heard a lot about Robert Kolker last year – his latest publication, Hidden Valley Road, was championed by The New York Times as one of the best non-fiction titles of 2020 and also made it to Barack Obama’s end-of-year list – yet few reviews, interviews or awards could have prepared me for the experience of actually reading this book. Weaving together the story of one extraordinary American family with the history of a deeply complex, misunderstood illness and a reflection of society’s changing treatment of mental health, Kolker has succeeded in writing a tour de force of research that manages to be both approachable and deep. It struck me with its intelligence, clarity of purpose and refusal ever to venture into melodrama or voyeurism – territory it would be all to easy to stray into, given the subject matter – as it both offers a fresh perspective on a little-explored subject and thoughtfully examines several more common themes. Astute, assured and filled with unexpected insight, Hidden Valley Road is also a work of undeniable compassion.
Between 1945 and 1965, ambitious young American couple Don and Mimi Galvin had an astonishing twelve children – ten boys followed by two girls. ‘Their century was the American century,’ Kolker tells us, and indeed the family set-up epitomises many of the hopes and dreams that became enshrined in the American conscience over the course of the twenty-first century: Don enjoyed a successful career in the Air Force and the family worked hard to increase their fortunes both financially and socially, mingling with the upwardly mobile circles of Colorado and placing great emphasis on sport and cultural pursuits. Don and Mimi strived to have the perfect family life, training their children with as much care as they did the falcons they captured and tamed as a hobby. But, the author wryly notes, ‘children aren’t falcons’, and despite all their efforts cracks soon began to appear in the picture of domestic bliss.
One by one, beginning with Donald, the eldest son, six of the Galvin boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia. For the family it was ‘like a faucet that won’t stop dripping’: as soon as they had begun to come to terms with one boy’s illness, another would be taken from them. In some cases the consequences were comparatively less catastrophic, in others they were fatal – but for each young man, their parents and their siblings, life would never be the same again. From the moment Donald was first placed on a psychiatric ward, the Galvins would struggle with ‘finding a new way to understand what it means to be a family’, as the diagnoses led to a series of breakdowns, conflicts and shattering revelations, – including instances of horrifying sexual abuse – not to mention the daily battle with a little-known illness. And, over time, they would come to be the subject of major clinical studies seeking to understand – and therefore better treat – the elusive nature of schizophrenia.
Hidden Valley Road (which takes its title from the street on which the family home stood) is a book that deals with immensely complex and painful material, sourced from first-person testimonials, interviews, diaries, family photographs and letters, as well as from the numerous scientists who have dedicated their life’s work to understanding schizophrenia. Kolker’s clear-sighted approach sees the story of the family, which is told chronologically and in a compelling tone, interspersed with more scientifically minded chapters that explain the history of schizophrenia in America and the genesis of medicine’s current attitude towards it. The period in which the Galvin boys were first being diagnosed overlapped very much with the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate on schizophrenia’s causes, timing that would have severe consequences for how the affected boys and their mother in particular were seen by society. This lack of understanding also did irreparable damage to the remaining six children, some of whom all but turned their backs on the family, some of whom threw themselves into battling their brothers’ illness. Much to his credit, Kolker manages to draw out all sides of the story with clarity and consideration, empathising with every member of the family and giving the reader a profound understanding of the impact mental health can have on not just the person directly affected but also those who surround them.
On a personal level, the story of the Galvin family is a tragic one – the strength shown by several family members, in particular the daughters, is astounding – yet from a social and medical standpoint it is fascinating. Kolker’s deft handling of the scientific strand of his story is both welcome and necessary, allowing us continually to step back from more intimate events and reminding us that schizophrenia affects untold numbers of people. The various forms of treatment to which the Galvin boys and their fellow patients were subjected in local hospitals are often extremely distressing to read about, as Kolker paints a damning portrait of what was ‘a mental health care system in name only’, yet he is also unequivocal about the fact that previously accepted treatments often arose merely from a lack of understanding rather than any kind of malice. ‘For decades,’ he writes, ‘doctors have been treating schizophrenia pharmacologically without a clear understanding of the biology of the illness’: a sentence that is almost baffling in its blatancy, and all the more poignant when set within the context of the very human consequences this lack of comprehension can have.
Not just in terms of the treatment the Galvin boys and many others received at the hands of society and from the doctors meant to help them, Hidden Valley Road can be a tough book to read. Kolker is unflinching in his exploration of a devastating family story, which is studded with deeply poignant moments in which parents and siblings watch on helplessly as ‘the cure becomes as damaging as the disease’. While never less than clear about the narrative thread that runs throughout the entire book – that ‘for a family, schizophrenia is, primarily, a felt experience’ – he manages at regular intervals to provide the necessary distance, preventing his work from becoming voyeuristic and instead binding it to wider themes such as family and memory, or a sobering view of the care system and scientific research attached to mental health. Few authors, I think, could pull off the right balance of empathy and cool level-headedness, but aside from the odd drift towards a narrative cliché, such as the apparent desire to find a neat ending where there isn’t really one to be had, Kolker seems to have an innate feeling for these things. Moments of symbolism rooted in real life – the falcons, for instance – are drawn upon with sensitivity, and his handling of what is essentially a heartbreaking story is nothing short of graceful.
Well deserving of its place on the ‘best of’ lists, Hidden Valley Road is an eye-opening and entirely approachable account of a difficult subject that requires a lot more attention. It is a book that spoke to me on a very personal note, one I found hard to put down thanks in part to its elegant prose style, an admirable attempt to illuminate a shadowy area of mental health, and an impassioned call for better human understanding. The surviving members of the Galvin family have done both science and literature a great service in so bravely allowing their story to be shared with the world – and at least as far as the latter is concerned, they couldn’t have found themselves in better hands.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker is published in the UK by Quercus Books. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.