Hidden Valley Road – Book Review

By: Robert Kolker

“…for almost as long, Donald has consistently and unwaveringly maintained that he is, in fact, the offspring of an octopus.”

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker is a true story of a post-world war II family, the Galvin’s, living in Colorado, USA. Through the Galvin family, the reader sees the advancement of mental health research in America’s medical community, beginning in the 1950s and progressing to the modern-day. Six of the twelve children in the Galvin family get diagnosed with varying levels of schizophrenia. This number of diagnoses within one family is extremely rare, and therefore they become the primary test family for mental health research in America. 

“As she walked through the door of the house at Hidden Valley Road, she couldn’t help but recognize a perfect sample. This could be the most mentally ill family in America.”

Kolker dives into the story of the Galvin family, hearing first-hand accounts of what life was like growing up as a Galvin, watching members of your family “lose their minds.” Diary entries, first-hand interviews, medical records and community research are used to piece together who the Galvin’s were. He explores the children’s childhood, Mimi and Don’s marriage, and even the paternal and maternal family history. By the end of the book, you have a clear understanding of who the Galvin family were and how they live their lives today. Kolker writes this book with such vivid detail that it is sometimes hard to believe that this isn’t a work of fiction.  

“At the heart of Jung’s objection was the question of the nature of delusional mental illness: Is schizophrenia something you’re born with, a physical affliction of the brain? Or is it acquired in life, after one has become scarred somehow by the world?”

I was a bit worried about how difficult it would be to read and comprehend the scientific medical information that Kolker would inevitably include in his book about mental health. This is where I believe Kolker deserves the most praise. He includes detailed and complex information about mental health research written in such a simplistic way to allow everyone to understand the information regardless of scientific background. In each of those chapters, I learned something new about mental health and understood the medical advancements he discusses. These sections are very well done, leaving the reader feeling enthusiastic with the scientific progression and, at times, disappointed with the research results. I hope that there will be a follow-up book after twenty years showing more advancements in mental health.

“One of the consequences of surviving schizophrenia for fifty years is that sooner or later, the cure becomes as damaging as the disease.”

There were a few topics that Kolker explores that really affected me. At the beginning of the book, it was clear that when the Galvin’s first son was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the late 1960s, the medical community had few answers for them. Additionally, it seemed that the doctors were blaming mental illness solely on mothers. As a mother myself, I know what it feels like to continuously wonder if I am making the right decisions for my child. This is a feeling I think most mothers feel. I believe mothers from the 1960s would have also had these same thoughts. Now, after doing the best they can, these mothers are being told by a room full of mostly men (if not all men) that they have concluded that there is a correlation between mothers and children who develop a mental illness. Mimi, the mother in the Galvin family, was devastated by this accusation and challenged it relentlessly whenever doctors would discuss it with her. As far as she was concerned, she did everything in her power to raise her children right, committing no different acts than other mothers. My heart broke for Mimi thinking about how she felt during this time. This type of “mom blaming” continues later on when a woman in the medical community chooses to continue her studies after having children; Lynn DeLisi is told by her medical peers that this choice could cause her children to develop mental health problems. DeLisi challenges those conclusions, asking for proof. However, the researchers could give no evidence; these conclusions were, in fact, unresearched and anecdotal. The doctors were merely stating opinions, not researched facts. What mothers like Mimi and DeLisi would have experienced during this time is unimaginable but women like DeLisi challenged the medical community and eventually debunked these theories. I think mothers everywhere owe her a debt of gratitude.  

“And so I was crushed,” Mimi said. “Because I thought I was such a good mother. I baked a cake and a pie every night. Or at least had Jell-O with whipped cream.”

Unfortunately, this was not the only time I felt disappointed by the medical community. There were many examples in the book where companies were more interested in the monetary benefits of the medical research than the possitive results. Time and time again, we see funding for mental health diminishing; we see private for-profit organizations choosing to shelf necessary research because the monetary benefits were not high enough. There were some medical advancements made that needed to be halted because of these reasons, and that is truly devastating for families who are in desperate need of support for their mentally ill family members. 

“The National Institute of Mental Health spends only $4.3 million on fetal prevention research, all of it for studies in mice, from its yearly $1.4 billion budget,” Freedman noted recently. “Yet half of young school shooters have symptoms of developing schizophrenia.”

Lastly, the repercussions of the stigma on mental health are shown clearly in the “well” children’s accounts. Since Mimi and Don tried to hide what their family was experiencing in fear of what people would say, the children who were not affected by mental illness underwent many challenging times. Often these children did not understand or could not comprehend what was happening to their siblings. These same children couldn’t separate appropriate behaviours from inappropriate ones, and unfortunately, their parents were providing little insight into what was happening. Although I initially wanted to blame Mimi and Don for these experiences, I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose everyone around you, even your closest family members, at your most vulnerable time. This reaffirms the importance of breaking the stigma towards mental illness.

“When you don’t find a sense of love and belonging where you are, you go searching for it somewhere else.”

I believe this book is one of the most essential reads of our generation. Hidden Valley Road teaches the reader about mental health, early detection methods, the effects on families and how to treat and care for the mentally ill. For years people with mental health were stigmatized and ostracized, which isolated the most vulnerable people in our society. Kolker shows his reader the importance of supporting families who experience these illnesses. This book has impacted me in many ways, and I recommend that others read it. 

“Our relationships can destroy us, but they can change us, too, and restore us, and without us ever seeing it happen, they define us. We are human because the people around us make us human.”