Like all excellent nonfiction, Robert Kolker’s depiction of a family plagued by mental illness proves the credo that truth truly is stranger than fiction. What makes this story incredibly captivating is the disbelief you’ll have that so much misery and pain could exist inside one family. But it’s Kolker’s impressive ability to get to the heart of the story that ends up making this book about more than just tragedy – instead, it transcends into a story about the family ties that both bind us and break us.
“Hidden Valley Road” introduces the reader to the Galvin family, lead by parents Mimi and Don. Spanning from 1945 to 1965, the two had 12 children (10 boys and 2 girls). Living on the titled road in Colorado, the Galvin family appeared to be the epitome of all-American middle-class life. While they tried to keep the facade in place for decades, the truth behind daily life at the Galvin household was something far more terrifying. By the time they reached adulthood, six of the ten boys had displayed alarming and debilitating symptoms of schizophrenia. The house on Hidden Valley road became one plagued with violence and chaos, as one child after another descended into madness. Each chapter sinks into the despair of mental illness, along with the frustrations (that still exist) with the inability of the medical community to appropriately diagnose and effectively and safely treat these types of mental disorders.
This book would have been fascinating enough from a psychology point of view or even just if you enjoy the perverse feeling you get from looking at a slowly-unfolding car accident. Instead, Kolker ups the ante by providing the reader with background on schizophrenia itself (which might sound boring but is actually immensely interesting). But above all else, the aspect that made this book so impressive was the way that Kolker dug into universal themes that impacted the Galvin family – what we’re willing to do to present a picture-perfect image to the world and the secrets we’re willing to keep even if they’re literally killing us.
Mental illness is still so misunderstood and isn’t examined enough on a thoughtful scale like it is in “Hidden Valley Road.” This story will stay with me for a long time; not just because of the horror the Galvins experienced, but more because it gave me hope that the current (and future) generations will be more willing to examine how mental illness and trauma are allowed to fester in families. There will hopefully be more brave individuals like the youngest Galvin, Mary, who eventually entered therapy to help herself heal. Plus, there are also more researchers (like the ones depicted in the book) who have decided to take on the frustratingly complex issue of ‘solving’ diseases like schizophrenia. There’s hope that instead of locking up people with mental illness and throwing away the key, there will instead be compassion and clear-cut treatments for them.
I read this book before Oprah picked it for her book club, but I’m so happy that she’s decided to feature a non-fiction title that shows what the very best in this genre can demonstrate – that we’re all more alike than we think. Every family has skeletons in the closet and only through shedding light on the darker, more shameful parts will we be able to create healthier families in the future. For now, I’ll just be feeling grateful that Kolker put this book out into the world.
*Free ARC provided by Netgalley and Doubleday Books in exchange for an honest review*