Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker (2020) – Nonfiction
I have always been a vivid dreamer. While not in exact detail, I have always been able to easily recall them the next morning. Most of my dreams revolve around the usual – falling or being chased or elaborate imaginings. Those never frightened me. Even the jolt that would wake me up from a falling dream never really unnerved me, because the moment I woke up I knew it wasn’t real. The dreams that always made me nervous were the ones that were innocuous. I dreamed I went to the grocery store. I dreamed I was talking to my brother about movies. I dreamed I went on a walk with my dog and noticed something particular.
Those dreams are what unsettled me, because later in the week I would sometimes not be able to discern what was real and what was a dream. Did I talk to my best friend about this particular topic or did I dream it? Why does it feel like I did this same thing before?
It is the closet feeling I could imagine that might even be a scintilla similar to a person who lives with schizophrenia. In Hidden Valley Road, Robert Kolker dives deep into the depths of a family turned upside down by the disease. Mimi and Donald Galvin had twelve children. Six of them were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Kolker describes the disease in detail, explaining the effects on each child and each parent – how this disease tormented them, destroyed the fabric of their family, and with some, led them to an early death. Schizophrenia is unknown to most people. It is a serious mental disorder where people’s brains interpret a different reality. It isn’t just one symptom but one of the most common occurrences is hallucinations – auditory and visual. Individuals also tend to have extremely disordered thinking and behaviors that impair daily life. It requires lifelong treatment and the current drugs used for treatment tend to have serious debilitating effects – and sometimes lead a person to die not from schizophrenia but from the drugs suppressing the mental disorder.
Kolker also describes the unique situation of the Galvins and the use of their brains and genes for science. Scientists eventually found the Galvins who lived on Hidden Valley Road in Colorado Springs and were able to use their DNA to attempt to understand schizophrenia. We have come so far in medicine. Polio, tuberculosis, the treatment for HIV/AIDS. These are miracles. The miracle for schizophrenia has yet to be uncovered. Kolker however updates the reader on the progress that has been made from sources like the Galvins and advances in medicine that came from the Human Genome Project. A cure might be out there. But what is even more promising is that scientists may be able to prevent schizophrenia from even developing in a child in utero.
The science of schizophrenia is a side-story to the lives of the Galvin children. Mary (also known as Lindsay) and Margaret are the two girls of the twelve children and who did not develop schizophrenia. They are also the youngest. Lindsay and Margaret provided Kolker with the most intimate details of their life, their highs and lows, the hardships of being a Galvin, and the traumatic moments of their lives. Lindsey, the youngest child, explains her current daily struggles of taking care of her remaining brothers after both her parents pass. She also attempts to bring the family together in their later years, by encouraging the children who remained untouched by schizophrenia to reach out to their siblings and mend bridges that were once destroyed.
Hidden Valley Road is a fascinating look into schizophrenia and into a family that may potentially be able to help and save others in the future. The book debuted as a number one bestseller on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list and was selected as a book for Oprah’s Book Club.
Lover of the written word.