The turbulent lives of six brothers with schizophrenia

Karen Iris Tucker

THE WASHINGTON POST – It was Thanksgiving eve, 1972. Mimi, the matriarch of the Galvin family, had laboured over a flawless meal for her husband and the 11 of her 12 children who had converged for the holiday.

If a stranger had glanced inside their home, he or she would have noted a seemingly idyllic scene, punctuated by the gingerbread house Mimi had made and placed on display ahead of what she’d hoped would be a beautiful night. But it was not to be.

For starters, her eldest son, Donald, picked up the dining room table and threw it at his brother Jim, sending the pressed linen, plates and silver everywhere.

“There may have been no better, more precise manifestation of her deepest fears than this … that everything good she had done, all the work, all the attention to detail and love, yes, love, for her family was in pieces.”

So relates Robert Kolker, journalist and author of Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, his non-fiction rendering of how 12 siblings – half of them schizophrenic – and their parents navigated illness, unspeakable violence and the crushed promise of the American Dream.

Kolker’s telling of the Galvin trials is at once deeply compassionate and chilling.

He gives as much voice to the schizophrenic siblings – who, one after another, had psychotic breaks, were heavily medicated with debilitating drugs, and were in and out of largely unsuccessful inpatient treatment – as he does to their relatives, many of whom suffered tremendous psychological abuse from being in their orbit.

Interwoven with the harrowing familial story is the history of how the science on schizophrenia has fitfully evolved, from the eras of institutionalisation and shock therapy, to the profound disagreements about the cause and origins of the illness, to the search for genetic markers for the disease.

Along that path, Kolker noted, “families like the Galvins, meanwhile, continued to live at the mercy of a mental health profession still caught up in a debate that came nowhere close to helping them”.

The book draws from hundreds of hours of interviews Kolker conducted with the Galvins, their friends and their therapists, as well with the scientists who studied the Galvins’ genetic material to form the foundation for the National Institute of Mental Health’s current research into the genetics of schizophrenia.

The latter include Lynn DeLisi, a psychiatrist who, in visiting their home, thought, “This could be the most mentally ill family in America.” In exploring their story, Kolker finds that, growing up, the healthy Galvin kids were equally tortured by their lineage.

“How much longer, they wondered, before it would overtake them, too?” They include the family’s only girls, Margaret and Mary Galvin, each of whom were prey to the brutish roughhousing of their schizophrenic brothers, Donald, Peter, Matthew, Joseph, Jim and Brian.

Beyond the bullying, Kolker shares the sisters’ childhood memories of a host of disturbing scenes. Donald looms particularly large initially, as he is the eldest and the first to show signs of the disease.

Mary would come home from school, for example, to find Donald “transplanting every last piece of furniture out of the house and into the backyard, or pouring salt into the aquarium and poisoning all the fish. Sometimes he is sitting in the middle of the living room quietly.”

Kolker is particularly sensitive in broaching the sisters’ conflicted feelings about their family – what he chronicles as a tortured tangle of hate, guilt and love that they ultimately struggle to confront throughout their lives.

Despite how traumatic the effects of their illness were for Margaret and Mary, the sisters also recalled the many meaningful attributes of their brothers as individuals: for example, Matthew’s talent as a ceramic artist, Brian’s career as a rock guitarist, Joe’s sense of humour and poignant understanding of his illness.

Kolker, author of Lost Girls, about the murders of four entertainment workers, plies his craft as an investigative journalist and explorer of the less-travelled corners of humanity to individually chronicle the lives of all 14 Galvins. He takes the reader through the family’s history, beginning with the refined Mimi, a daughter of Texas aristocracy who was raised in New York, and her husband, Don, a handsome, all-American military man who taught political science and held domestic diplomatic posts.

Between 1945 and 1965, they raised their 10 boys and two girls in Colorado, much of that time in a cul-de-sac on the unpaved Hidden Valley Road.

Mimi had longed for an urbane and intellectual life in the heart of New York City, but her husband’s career took them to Colorado Springs. So she sublimated her dreams into painstakingly creating and moulding a perfect family that was initially envied by the community.

As the years pass, Mimi becomes less successful in explaining away the growing chaos in her home that invariably spills into the streets of her neighbourhood. Meanwhile, her husband grows more emotionally and physically remote with each child they have together.

The book gives much space to how difficult the disease has been to diagnose and treat. Yet it ends in 2017, as a story of hope. Kate, one of the Galvin grandchildren, who is interested in neuroscience and schizophrenia, takes a much-coveted undergraduate internship in the University of Colorado laboratory of Robert Freedman.

On her first day in the lab, Kolker notes, “she stood near where the data from choline trials on little children were studied for signs of schizophrenia – tests that could change everything for a future generation, thanks to six of her uncles”.