‘With each new sick boy, she became more of a prisoner–confined by secrets, paralyzed by the power that the stigma of mental illness held over her.’ – Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

June 24, 2021 at 9:13 pm (Uncategorized)

  This was an extremely hard book to read. It contains so much tragedy, so much suffering. Every time I thought  things could not get worse, they got worse. Some rays of happiness, some relief from trauma, does occasionally break through, but not often – certainly not often enough.

Married in December of 1944, Mimi and Don Galvin were optimistic about their future. Don was doing well in the military; Mimi was the archetypal Happy Homemaker. Settled, finally, in Colorado, they shared an interest in the arts and, rather oddly, in falconry. And the babies – well, they just kept coming…

Eventually, the number topped out at twelve – ten boys and two girls, at the end of the line. There might have been even more, but Mimi’s obstetrician laid down the law: If she got pregnant again, he would refuse to treat her. (He’d been warning her that she was endangering her health.)

Donald, the oldest and the namesake, was the first to exhibit the odd behavior that gradually overtook him. He was frequently called upon to babysit his younger brothers; while so engaged, he seemed to enjoy inciting them to violence. At first, Mimi and Don chalked it up to typical, if somewhat exaggerated, sibling rivalry. Later, they learned what was really happening: Donald was presenting the early symptoms of schizophrenia.

Jim. the second son, soon followed suit. In all, six of the ten brothers were diagnosed with the same condition. And it’s not as though each of them exhibit the same aberrant behaviors. They were all unique in the way they were affected. They could be withdrawn, bizarre, crazed, violent. Each boy was unpredictable; in Brian’s case – he was son number four – the outcome was catastrophic.

As I was reading, I was shaking my head in disbelief. I could not imagine living through such an unrelenting nightmare.

This book is not just about the Galvin family. The author provides considerable insight into the history of the treatment of schizophrenia, as well as the pioneering research done on the causes and possible treatment of what is a fiendishly difficult, not to mention devastating, illness to deal with.

As for Mimi and Don, I kept hoping as I read to gain some insight into why they decided to have so many children. Don was born and raised Catholic; Mimi converted  after they married, but the real reason for this untrammeled fecundity seemed to lay elsewhere than in religion. And it has to be said that the burden of dealing with the nonstop crises engendered by their offspring fell on their mother.

Chapter 17 of Hidden Valley Road opens with this sentence:

Don had spent years building distance between himself and his children.

To me, Don seemed like the old fashioned kind of father that one frequently encountered in mid twentieth century America. (Mine was one.) He was out in the world working; Mimi took care of the home front. But this was not like any other home front. She desperately needed his help and support. But my take is that he was somewat of a narcissist . On top of his military duties he was intent on pursuing a PhD in political science. The required a fairly large additional commitment of his time. I couldn’t help it; it made me angry.

I have to admit, I was glad when this book finally ended. It put me though an emotional wringer. But as an exercise in sheer survival, it was incredible story. And though at times I also felt frustrated with Mimi, I ended by feeling a huge amount of compassion and admiration for her.

Author Robert Kolker is from Columbia, Maryland. Like Laura Lippman, he graduated from Wilde Lake High School. He currently lives in Brooklyn, where every other resident seems to be a writer. In my view, he is greatly to be congratulated on producing this outstanding work of narrative nonfiction.

Robert Kolker


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