In the mid-20th century, the Galvins of Colorado Springs was the picture of the all-American family. Their patriarch was a war hero who helped establish the Air Force Academy; their matriarch was cultured and educated but embraced domesticity to raise their dozen children. The ten handsome sons all played sports or joined rock bands while the two beautiful girls went to boarding schools and rubbed shoulders with the wealthy.
A perfect family. A perfect life.
Except for the voices.
As the children started to reach young adulthood, strange behaviors started to emerge. First, the oldest son started acting out and attempting to harm himself and his new wife. As the family tried to explain away his odd behavior on the stress of college and a past heartbreak, the second son began acting strangely, too. Denial trumped action until multiple brothers were simultaneously showing out-of-control symptoms of schizophrenia. By then, the rest of the family was falling apart.
The premise of Hidden Valley Road is that of a dozen children, six were eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. It’s not a secret—there’s no big reveal. But there’s a certain horror to seeing the mental illness unfold, especially after the book gives a prelude to how odd the everyday becomes for the youngest children.
The dramatic irony that in a few short years the star football player will be mumbling prophesies to himself while his young sister contemplates trying to kill him as a way of ending their troubles is cold and crushing. But, like many stories involving the kind of obvious and distinct mental illness Hollywood has used to the point of becoming a trope, seeing the affected boys slip out of themselves in their own way has a certain voyeuristic appeal. (Or maybe that’s just me because I’m probably not a very good person.)
Equally tragic is the history of treatment of mental illness, specifically schizophrenia, and how that affected the family during that time. Although the facilities most of the boys would be checked in and out of throughout their lives were a good deal better than the asylums of years past, research transformed the treatment of schizophrenia into a new era during the Galvins’ lives.
But before that transformation, the Galvins as a family suffered from the treatment almost as much as from the disorder itself. A powerful stigma against mental illness (which, unfortunately, has not vanished) kept the Galvins from admitting there was a problem for years, let alone pursuing treatment. One of the common theories about schizophrenia in the day placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the boys’ mother, reasoning that she must have been too overbearing, too permissive—something, anything, to have caused their minds to be so disjointed.
As time went on, though, research did improve—and the Galvins were a significant part of it. For researchers looking for multiple instances within the same family, having six cases with it and an equal number of neurotypical children was a gold mine of information. One of the hardest parts of reading books involving the history of medicine in some fashion is that the development of the relatively advanced medicine we enjoy today came bit by painful bit, and the cost was usually on the heads of the people who suffered from the ailment in question and were treated badly through ignorance.
Hidden Valley Road certainly has plenty of that, but it also is a fascinating look at how the same tragedy can affect a whole group of people experiencing it in very different ways—and how their reflections of those years can vary widely years removed from it.