“Hidden Valley Road” Reveals the Psychological Dimensions of the American Family

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Six of the Galvin’s 12 children were diagnosed with schizophrenia. (Courtsey of Facebook)

Mason Rowlee, Columnist

In his second book, “Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family,” Robert Kolker chronicles the story of the Galvins, an all-American family with a seemingly perfect life 

who watch as six of their 12 children are diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1970s and ’80s. This gripping true story of American psychology forces readers to think about the harmful expectations placed on Americans, as Kolker beautifully assesses the need for proper psychiatric care in the 21st century and the dismantling of oppressive American gender norms. 

When Mimi Galvin gave birth to her first-born child in 1945, her husband, Don, landed a job in Colorado with the United States Air Force and solidified their position as an upper middle class family. For the next 20 years, Mimi gave birth to 11 other children. These children, 10 of whom are boys, give the illusion that the Galvins are an ideal American family; however, behind the closed doors of the family’s home, Hidden Valley Ranch, lurks frequent abuse and violence, altering the boys in nearly indescribable ways. 

By the late 1970s, six of the 10 Galvin boys are diagnosed with varying degrees of schizophrenia and are treated by psychologists whose understanding of the boys’ disease is limited. Gripping and deeply tragic, “Hidden Valley Road” is the true story of the Galvin family’s deterioration and eventual study by the National Institute of Mental Health, the latter of which produced miraculous results for identifying and treating schizophrenia. 

While a work of nonfiction, Kolker has a gift for immersing the reader in the lives of the Galvin family so much that the book reads like a novel. Frequently, readers are confronted with Don and Mimi’s impossible situation of caring for six schizophrenic boys with varying degrees of violence and gradual mental collapse.

Kolker’s candid interview of the Galvins is beautiful; however, towards the end of the book, he slows the prose to allow the reader to examine the lasting effects this disease has on the Galvins. In some respects, this artistic choice is beautiful, yet it prevents the book from concluding, as if something is missing from the end. In part, this may be a message about the complicated understanding psychologists continue to have of schizophrenia; however, it leaves readers asking for more. 

Most importantly, “Hidden Valley Road” is a relevant statement about the status of the American family. While set in the mid-20th century, Kolker’s prose makes readers recognize the contemporary structures which allow mental health to be neglected, resulting in tragic experiences and diagnoses. His excellent portrait of the Galvin family bursts from the page and does not shy away from contemporary discussions.