You may know the familiar pearl of wisdom: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is... This adage came to mind as I read Robert Kolker’s non-fictional account of the Galvin family titled, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family. Set around the idealized era of the 1950s, we meet Don and Mimi Galvin and their family. Patriarch Don builds a prestigious career as a Colonel and faculty member in the United States Air Force, while his wife Mimi raises their children and runs the household. They have ten sons in succession before completing their family with the birth of two daughters (finally!), their children perfectly spanning the Baby Boom era.
The Galvin family appears from the outside to be living the American Dream. This is encapsulated by the beautiful family photo that was chosen as the book’s cover: Don and Mimi at the top of a gorgeous winding staircase, with their children each occupying a step from oldest to youngest. Mimi looks beautiful as the noticeably pregnant matriarch (carrying one of their two daughters). Little do we know that behind closed doors, the seemingly perfect life of the Galvin family is characterized by chaos, violence, secrets, and devastating heartbreak. Against incredible odds, six of the twelve Galvin children develop schizophrenia.
The Galvin’s story unfolds with each chapter focusing on one or several family members, juxtaposed with historical accounts of how mental health conditions were understood, studied, and treated throughout the 20th century. Kolker’s writing style reminds me of another favorite non-fiction historical author, Erik Larson. Both authors conduct extensive research into their topic, write about non-fictional events in a style that feels like you’re reading the latest fictional thriller, and embed historical accounts with great humanity and a detailed study of each character.
The Galvin family were one of the first studied by the National Institute of Mental Health. Their contribution to the genetics of mental health helped form the cornerstone of research that continues to this day. Kolker writes in the prologue: “It (the story) is about rediscovering the humanity in their own (aﬀected) brothers… It is about, even after the worst has happened in virtually every imaginable way, finding a new way to understand what it means to be a family.” I found myself thinking about the Galvin family long after finishing Hidden Valley Road. It is a beautiful tribute to a resilient family who had the courage to share their lives with the reader — no longer hidden but out in the light.