This post contains affiliate links.  Mental illness has wound its way through my family tree, both on my mom’s and dad’s side, which led to an interest in psychology when I was in college.  One of my favorite books was The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.   So, when I heard of Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker about a family with 12 children–six of whom had schizophrenia–I knew I had to read it.  But this story is darker and sadder than I could have imagined.

Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

About Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

Right at the end of World War II, Mimi and Don Galvin marry suddenly.  Although no one else knows, Mimi is already pregnant, and in July, 1945, she gives birth to their first child.  Don, still away in the military, receives a telegram telling him the good news.

Don and Mimi move around the country for Don’s military career, and they go on to have 12 kids in 20 years.  Mimi, living a life far different from what she would have imagined when she was first married to Don, seeks to cultivate the perfect family.  Her children are overachievers, and she herself guides them on the right path, though most would say she did so by being overly critical in her efforts to make them perfect.

One night when their oldest son, Donald, is 17, he suddenly smashes 10 plates.  This is the first visible crack in the Galvins “perfect” life.  But truth be told, if Don and Mimi would have been paying more attention, they would have seen that their large family had gone off the rails many years before.  Their 10 boys routinely rough housed to the point of hurting one another.

Donald’s actions concern them, but they don’t do much about it.  However, soon, there’s no denying that Donald is having issues.  He’s diagnosed with schizophrenia, and yet Mimi does all she can to keep this silent so her good image won’t be soiled.  A son with schizophrenia does not fit into her narrative of the perfect family.  She tries to maintain her image until one by one, her sons are diagnosed with schizophrenia.  In the end, six of the 10 boys have the illness.

This non-fiction books intersperses chapters that detail scientists looking to find the genes responsible for schizophrenia.  The Galvins, over the last 40 years, have directly contributed to this work by offering DNA samples.  Indeed their DNA is a cornerstone to this research, which progresses slowly.

My Thoughts on the Book

One family member with mental illness can cause so much upheaval in a family; I can’t imagine six of 12 children.

I had a bit of difficulty reading about Mimi’s parenting style because it’s so different from mine.  Even before the boys were diagnosed, Mimi took liberties I would never dream of such as when four of the older boys were out of the house and on their own, leaving her high school boys to care for the younger boys while Mimi, Don, and their two youngest girls spent the summer in Vail, 2.5 hours away.  Who would do that?  How could she not expect six boys, high school age and younger, to go off the rails while they fend for themselves all summer?

This family had so many secrets.  Don and Mimi turned a blind eye to so much that went on in their family because they were so busy with their own lives.  There are so many times when I was reading this book and wondered, what would have happened if they had taken more aggressive action to treat their mentally ill children?  (Of course, the treatment options 50 years ago were much different than the options we have now.)  What would have happened if they had been more involved in their children’s lives?  If they hadn’t been absent so much of the time?

In the end, Mimi ends up caring for the many sick people in her life until she herself is too physically sick to take care of them anymore.

This book stayed with me long after I finished and left me with a profound sadness.

I give Hidden Valley Road 4.5 out of 5 stars on the Mom’s Plans’ scale.  This is only because I wish the author would have delved into each boy a bit further.  He carefully explored the lives of the oldest two boys, but the rest I felt as if he just gave a cursory glance.  I didn’t get to know those other 8 boys as much as the first two and the daughters.

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