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Nature Vs. Nurture and The Mystery Behind Mental Illness

Updated: Aug 1, 2020

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family

By: Robert Kolker

The Galvin Family - 1969

I will admit, this week's selection was a really tough one. In April, I listened to a podcast with Robert Kolker about this book. I was fascinated by the subject matter because it seemed impossible to me that there could be a family with six children diagnosed with schizophrenia.

This is the story of Mimi and Don Galvin and their twelve children who were born over a span of 20 years (1945-1965). Don and Mimi had been high school sweethearts in New York and married right before Don enlisted in the navy and was shipped off to fight in the South Pacific. Don left the navy in 1950 to join the Air Force and was instrumental in the opening of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO where he also taught. That is how the family ended up in Colorado and more specifically on their street, Hidden Valley Road.

Of the twelve Galvin children, the first ten were boys and the youngest two girls. Six of the boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia at various stages of adolescence. The Galvin’s oldest son, Donald Junior showed signs of mental illness when he entered college. He had a successful high school career, being a star athlete, and dating the popular girls. He may have displayed signs before college but it wasn’t until some bizarre incidents at school that the college health center saw that he was very troubled. At first, Mimi and Don tried to brush it off and do everything in their power to resume a sense of normalcy, but the more the situation was ignored the worse it became.

In the 1960s there was still a belief that mental illness was caused by incidents that occurred in your early life. It was believed that a mother and how she “nurtured” you in your childhood could determine the kind of adult you became. In the 2020s you and I know that this is simply not true. We now know that incidents in childhood can shape the person you become but that a child cannot become mentally ill because of how a parent loves a child in youth.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, very little was known or understood about mental health. There were various doctors and psychologists who studied the disease, but because people like the Galvin’s swept these issues under the rug, the doctors didn’t have many cases to study. What they needed were families with a few mentally ill members so that they could find the common thread between the mentally ill family members and how they differed from their healthy siblings.

Donald Junior may have been the first sibling to show signs of mental illness but he was certainly not the last. Each of the six mentally ill sons broke down at different times and in different ways. Matthew, a much grouchier brother with schizophrenia, was also the one that responded the best to medications. Another brother Peter was loving, extremely talented musically, but very troubled. He spent his life in and out of Pueblo, the state mental hospital because he flew into rages and became very violent. Jim was by far the most abusive son and had destructive relationships with his wife, son, and his two sisters. Brian was a quiet and shy brother who was much more removed from the family. He formed a rock band and played the bass and flute and soon taught himself the electric guitar. While his parents traveled all over for Don’s job, Brian had parties at home with his band. Brian spent his days taking a lot of drugs. Not just smoking weed but some much more mind-altering drugs which probably did not help his genetic predisposition to mental illness. As one of the brothers says in the interviews, no brother dropped more acid than Brian. Brian’s troubles came out of nowhere and in the end, it proved fatal. And finally, there was Joseph, the brother who was obsessed with Chinese history and often communicated with a Chinese emperor that he saw in the clouds.

In the 1980s there was a doctor named Dr. Lynn DeLisi who was recognized as a pioneer in the field of mental illness. She was one of the top researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health, and she became fascinated by the idea that if you studied a family with a large incidence of schizophrenia in it you might be able to find some sort of genetic marker that could help understand schizophrenia and its origins.

She was introduced to the Galvin family and spent a lot of her time interviewing the family members and taking blood samples. She was thoroughly immersed in studying the family when her project lost its funding and the entire thing was put on hold. DeLisi believed that mental illness and specifically schizophrenia was inherited and the environment had nothing at all to do with it.

While many psychologists would blame Mimi Galvin, the matriarch of the family for the way she “nurtured” her children, having a family like the Galvin’s helped doctors determine the fact that a genetic mutation so vital to brain function could help us understand how schizophrenia works. By continuing to study families like the Galvin’s, we may be able to someday find an effective drug to treat schizophrenia.

I think the saddest part of the Galvin tragedy is how it affected the two girls, Lindsay and Margaret. These two sisters suffered the most because they were both mentally and physically abused by several of the brothers. They grew up in a house with brothers that were in and out of the state mental hospital and their reality was locking themselves in their parents’ bedroom and calling 911. In adolescence, Margaret was sent to live with family friends because of the toll it took on her. When she left, her younger sister was left to be abused by the brothers and was so desperate to get away that she eventually applied and went to boarding school on the East Coast.

Kolker spent years interviewing family members and studying schizophrenia for this book. It’s interesting because many reviewers felt that he was sympathetic to Mimi and the family in how they handled things. He claims that for a mother to keep a family like theirs together was nothing short of miraculous.

What the Galvin’s story teaches us is that as tragic as their lives are, so much good has come out of telling it. The scientific advances that doctors were able to make in the study of mental illness was possible because of families likes the Galvin’s. This in itself is a victory. Mimi Galvin went to her grave knowing this. She was also content in knowing that the disease is something her children were born with and not something that occurred as a result of her mothering.

You might wonder why this family was so forthcoming in talking with Kolker for his book. They were ready to share their story with the world, as awful as it had been because they believed their tale had something that could be of comfort to other people or families who are suffering from mental illness. There is hope in the scientific advances being made by doctors like Lynn DeLisi every day. As it stands right now, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 2.4. million people age 18 or older in the U.S. suffer from schizophrenia. Hopefully, in time, this number will only get smaller and smaller.

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family

By: Robert Kolker

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

By Doubleday


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