“Hidden Valley Road” by Robert Kolker – a story of the devastation caused to one family by severe mental illness

Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker has one of the best covers of any book I have seen for a while. It shows the children of the Galvin family arrayed on a set of steps with their parents in descending order of height – very impressive. There were twelve children born over 20 years from just after WW2 and into the 1960s, all white and a military family. They lived in respectability in Colorado in Hidden Valley Road. They looked like the ideal family living the American dream. The problem was that they weren’t. Of the ten Galvin sons six would go on to develop schizophrenia and their illness affected them and the rest of the family.

This book describes what happened to the family under pressure and also the various cures and treatments available for people with this particular mental illness during this period – many of them very unpleasant as well as being ineffective. The book also looks at the theories about the illness itself which changed as more was known. While the medics were marvelling at so many cases in one family and using them as a case study to find out more the family itself suffered as the sons became abusive, self-destructive and unable to cope.

The author has written this book with the full cooperation of some surviving members of the family and I suspect that means that some of what happened has been omitted or skewed – the author, for example, starts to say some things about the father’s behaviour which I don’t think are fully explored. Nevertheless this is a remarkably frank and open discussion of the issues around severe mental illness and its effect on others as well as the problems in diagnosing and treating them.

The book is illuminating about the way that society sees mental illness but also about its effects on those around the sufferer. It’s sympathetic to all the family and truthful about the harmful theories and treatments inflicted on the sufferers. It also shows the fear in siblings thinking that they might develop the illness too. It’s accessible to a non-scientific reader such as myself, mostly because the book puts the family story first.

I found this book eye opening and thought provoking but mostly it made me very sad to read of the devastation caused to one family and its members by mental illness. I originally read this book last year and briefly mentioned it in this blog post. I have also recently read another book by this author called Lost Girls about a series of murders of female sex workers in America which concentrates on the lives and experiences of the victims rather than focusing on the killer – I recommend this book too, especially if you like true crime.

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