By Robert Kolker
Don and Mimi Galvin with their 12 children (10 boys and two girls) were the poster family of a Catholic American family in the 1950s and ’60s.
Don Galvin was a Korean War veteran and a professor at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Mimi Galvin was featured in local newspaper stories for her creative meals, many volunteer activities and the sheer scale of managing a 14-person household.
But behind the doors of their Hidden Valley Road house, life was rapidly growing into a nightmare. Of their 12 children, six developed schizophrenia. In September 1973, one son, Brian, shot his estranged girlfriend and then turned the gun on himself.
The effects of their brothers’ disease on the healthy children was devastating as well.
Author Robert Kolker’s reporting on the Galvin family, schizophrenia and its treatment is moving and eye-opening.
From the 1950s into the early 1980s, when the last of the Galvin boys was diagnosed, understanding of schizophrenia changed rapidly.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, some experts believed it was the result of a person’s upbringing, including having a “schizophrenogenic” mother — demanding, perfectionistic and undemonstrative.
With the development of chlorpromazine (Thorazine) in 1951, doctors began to theorize that schizophrenia was a chemical imbalance of the brain. But while Thorazine helped moderated some of the worst symptoms of the disease, it didn’t cure it.
Research has spread in many directions: Is schizophrenia a disorder of the brain’s ability to filter stimuli? Is it a result of malformations in the brain? Is it genetic? Are latent genes somehow triggered to cause schizophrenia? Is it a developmental disorder that begins in the womb before birth? Is it a symptom rather than a disease?
The Galvin family became a focus for researchers. Because all the children had the same home environment but only half developed the disorder, they offered an opportunity to identify differences that might lead to a better understanding of the disease.
Toward the end of his book, Kolker asks the question whether the Galvin boys would have had different treatment if they had been born today rather than in the mid-20th century.
Sadly, the answer is that little has changed on the treatment front. Anti-psychotic drugs help prevent breakdowns, but cause long-term health problems that can be as bad as the disease itself. Electro-convulsive shock therapy helps in some ways but harms in others.
More and more evidence suggests that “psychosis exists on a spectrum, with new genetic studies showing overlap between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and bipolar disorder and autism.”
According to Kolker, even traditionally trained researchers are supporting the idea of early detection and intervention rather than waiting until a person has a full-blown mental breakdown in adulthood. Earlier action with so-called “‘soft interventions’: a mixture of talk therapy and family support” can help keep the amount of medication needed to a minimum.
HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD (2020) is a fascinating book about the tragic consequences of a terrible and still mysterious disease. With rising rates of homelessness and limited treatment options, schizophrenia has an increasingly public presence.
If you read and enjoyed Rebecca Skloot’s book, THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS, you’ll enjoy this one. Both are medical mysteries of a fascinating order.
About the Author: Robert Kolker
Journalist Robert Kolker has been a contributing editor at New York Magazine and a projects and investigations reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek.
He was approached by Galvin sisters Margaret and Mary to write their family story. The book was listed by The New York Times as one of the “10 Best Books” of 2020 and one of the “Best Higher Education Books of 2020” by Forbes.
The book also won kudos from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Slate. NPR, the Boston Globe, the New York Post and People magazine. It was one of President Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2020 and a selection by Oprah’s Book Club.
Kolker is a National Magazine Award finalist whose reporting has appeared in Wired, GQ, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, O, the Oprah Magazine and The Marshall Project.
His 2004 New York Magazine story about a public school embezzlement scandal was adapted for the film “Bad Education” (2019), starring Hugh Jackman. His 2013 book LOST GIRLS, about the lives of five sex workers murdered by a Long Island serial killer who has yet to be identified, was adapted for the film “Lost Girls” (2020) starring Amy Ryan.
A graduate of Columbia College at Columbia University, Kolker is married Kirsten Danis, an editor at The New York Times and former managing editor of The Marshall Project, whom he met at Columbia.