A touching account of one American family’s struggle with schizophrenia

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Kolker family. Photo courtesy of Robert Kolker

On the surface, the Galvins were the model American family. Parents Mimi and Don lived in Colorado Springs in the 1950s and 60s and had 12 children, 10 boys and two girls. Don Galvin was an instructor at the Air Force Academy. His sons, all good looking and talented, became football and wrestling stars, musicians and artists. Mimi Galvin introduced her children to opera and fine arts, and took them outdoors in search of wild mushrooms. They were the post-war American dream. But their lives turned into a nightmare. Starting with their oldest son, six out of their 10 boys developed schizophrenia.  

In “Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family,” 

award-winning author Robert Kolker traces the lives of the Galvin family, how they coped with devastating loss and suffering, and searched for answers and treatments. Eventually, their journey as a family helped transform science and research into this disease. 

KCRW’s Joanthan Bastian talks with Robert Kolker about his book. 

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: When doctors told Don and Mimi Galvin that two of their sons had schizophrenia, did they accept the diagnosis? 

Robert Kolker: “I'm not so sure they were happy about the schizophrenia diagnosis at first, but once both Jim and Donald were diagnosed, they suddenly were on high alert for others. In fact, they put one of their sons into the psych unit of a hospital because they thought he might have had a problem. It turns out he didn’t, and he was just partying too much. He was a hippie and took too many drugs. 

So at some point, the switch flipped and they realized something was happening in their family, and that thing has a name, and the name is schizophrenia. I didn't settle the question of where it came from, or why it was happening. So they had their water tested, and Mimi embraced a regimen of mega vitamins for the rest of the children to take. And they looked for any sort of environmental or genetic explanation for this that would absolve them first and foremost, because so much of the psychotherapeutic establishment was really blaming parents, particularly mothers, for severe mental illness. There was a concept called the schizophrenic genic mother, which is a little like a first cousin to the refrigerator mother for autism. They were blaming mothers for everything back then and schizophrenia wasn't an exception.”

There’s a history of a certain religiosity that’s tied to the symptoms of schizophrenia. Were any of the Galvin children religious? 

Robert Kolker: “One of the varieties of schizophrenia involves hearing voices and other involves delusions, thinking something is true when it isn't. And a third one would be hallucinations, seeing things that aren't really there. When these start to happen, religion winds up being a very easy explanation, particularly if it's in your life already. So it's not really surprising that theosophy takes over in these situations. Peter and Donald Galvin both had that issue where they would be very, very religious during their most intense moments of either hallucination or delusion, and certainly this happened with many other people as well.”

Credits

Guest:
Robert Kolker - Bloomberg News - @bobkolker

Host:
Jonathan Bastian

Producer:
Andrea Brody