But “Hidden Valley Road” is more than a narrative of despair, and some of the most compelling chapters come from its other half, as a medical mystery. What clues, if any, might the Galvins’ misery hold for doctors and scientists trying to understand the roots of this unfathomable disease?...Kolker is a restrained and unshowy writer who is able to effectively set a mood. As the walls begin closing in for the Galvins, he subtly recreates their feeling of claustrophobia, erasing the outside world that has offered so little help. The political tumult of the 1960s exists somewhere out there, but only as an aside: “They prayed for the president who died just a few weeks after their move to Hidden Valley Road, and they prayed for the president who had taken his place.” What are politics and presidents in the face of your sick children?
As in his previous book, Lost Girls, about the murder of five prostitutes on Long Island, Robert Kolker is forensic in his research, interviewing all the surviving members of the Galvin family, including Mimi, who died in 2017 following a series of strokes. Don died of cancer in 2003 before Kolker embarked on the project. Kolker expertly weaves the Galvins’ story with the history of schizophrenia. And what a horrible history it is. In the 1930s, for example, and in some cases even later, treatment included injections of animal blood, lobotomy and even sterilisation.
Kolker is a fine writer and a first-class investigative journalist. Hidden Valley Road was written at the instigation of Margaret Galvin, who had read his book Lost Girls, about the murders of prostitutes in Long Island, and asked him to tell the story of her family. He does so with patience and empathy, talking to all the surviving family members, and always resisting the temptation to amp up what is already a drama of operatic proportions.
For all its nightmarish depictions of mental illness and terrible medical treatment, it is the passages about the healthy Galvin children that are often most haunting. As the sick brothers pinballed between hospitals and home, those well enough moved away: the third child, John, became a music teacher in Idaho, fifth-born Michael found peace in a hippie commune. Those left behind quickly learnt how to lock themselves in the master bedroom if the police had to be called. Both sisters were abused by their brother Jim, and while the eldest sister, Margaret, was sent to live with a rich family friend, Mary was kept at home — a damaging dual abandonment.
Hidden Valley Road centres around a meticulous reconstruction of the lives of the Galvin parents and children. The family history Kolker provides is remarkable for its depth and for the sympathetic portrayal of a large cast of characters, each of whom is sketched with great skill. To accomplish this feat, the author spent years interviewing family members, their relatives, friends and acquaintances. He pored over family documents and photographs, and read voluminous case records of the many individuals’ encounters with the medical profession. And that last set of materials provides the clue to what would otherwise be a puzzling question: what drew Kolker to the Galvin family and prompted him to immerse himself so obsessively in their lives? It was a disturbing secret that Don and Mimi long sought to conceal from the world: six of their ten sons went mad and ended up being diagnosed as schizophrenic.