Anna Karenina’s iconic first sentence — “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” — could have served as an epigraph to “Hidden Valley Road,” journalist Robert Kolker’s magisterial account of one Colorado’s family’s horrific cage match with schizophrenia at the peak of the American Century.
A weave of gripping reportage and scientific detective story, “Hidden Valley Road” plumbs the heart-wrenching tragedies and surprising triumphs of the Galvins — father Don, mother Mimi, 10 sons in a row, followed by two daughters as cabooses — in a page-turner reminiscent of Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
Catholics from New York, Don and Mimi married young and drifted around the country, following his military career until settling in Colorado Springs in the late 1950s. Don taught at the Air Force Academy as Mimi endured pregnancy after pregnancy.
Culturally aspirational if not wealthy, the Galvins lived out Mimi’s ideal — classical music concerts, piano lessons, hockey tournaments, mass every Sunday — while taking up an unusual passion: falconry.
But beneath the gleaming veneer, darker forces surged. Don was aloof, indulging in affairs while Mimi pushed her children like a drill sergeant. As a college student, Donald, the oldest son, was diagnosed after stripping naked and moving all the furniture out of the home on Hidden Valley Road; and like dominoes five brothers toppled into schizophrenia, although with varying presentations.
Jim molested his sisters. Mark heard voices. Matt claimed to be Paul McCartney. Peter fondled nurses. And Brian, the star musician, hatched a murderous scheme.
The frequent hospitalizations and high maintenance preoccupied Don and Mimi, aggravating tensions with the well boys and especially with the girls, Margaret and Mary, whose voices Kolker amplifies beautifully.
He moves nimbly from the foreground plot to broader clinical investigations and the terra incognita of the brain, focusing on the pioneering genetic investigations of Robert Freedman and Lynn DeLisi. After decades of fits and starts DeLisi homed in on a mutation on the SHANK 2 gene. But this wasn’t a simple win of nature over nurture: The healthy Galvins also carried the same mutation, the biology a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
As Kolker notes, “The precise genetic pattern of schizophrenia has defied detection; its existence announces itself, but fleetingly, like flickering shadows on the wall of a cave.” So many genes are involved; so few medications are able to target the causes.
Drawing on untapped archives and extensive interviews with the surviving Galvins, Kolker gives us a tale like no other. As he writes in the book’s conclusion, “To be a member of the Galvin family is to never stop tripping on land mines of family history, buried in odd places, stashed away out of shame.”
“Hidden Valley Road” is destined to become a classic of narrative nonfiction.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
Hidden Valley Road
By: Robert Kolker.
Publisher: Doubleday, 400 pages, $29.95.