Robert Kolker first heard about the Galvins—the Colorado Springs baby-boom family with 12 kids, six of whom developed schizophrenia—when he got a call from a friend who’d gone to boarding school with the youngest Galvin child, Lindsay. It was the beginning of 2016 and the friend volleyed Kolker a question: Lindsay, now in her 50s, wanted a journalist to tell the family’s story, a saga of love and violence, desperation and hope, and did Kolker want to tell it?
“It just knocked the wind out of me,” recalls Kolker, the Brooklyn-based journalist who in 2013 wrote Lost Girls, the narrative exposition of prostitution murders on Long Island. After Kolker spoke with Lindsay and her sister Margaret (two of the six siblings not diagnosed with schizophrenia), he waded through decades of family medical records, photos, and documents. During two years of research and writing Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family—which will be released April 7—all Kolker could think was: “How can all this happen to just one family?”
The Galvin family’s story starts, more or less, in 1945, when newlyweds Don and Mimi welcome their firstborn, Donald Jr., to the world. His birth is promptly followed by nine more sons and finally two daughters: Margaret born in 1962, Lindsay in 1965. Supported by Don’s job at the newly opened Air Force Academy, the family moved into a split-level house off Hidden Valley Road—then a dirt path that extended into Colorado Springs’ northwest woods. Don and some sons became well-known as falcon trainers, eventually forming the Academy’s falconry team, which still flies falcons at football games today. But what appeared to be an all-American family from the front yard looked totally different on the inside.
During Lindsay’s first decade of life, six of her brothers, one by one, are diagnosed with schizophrenia. The other siblings watch with horror as life destabilizes beneath them and various abuses ensue, unsure when or if they’ll be the next to uncover a mental disorder—all at a time when the scientific study of schizophrenia was still being relegated to dusty, ill-funded corners of research labs. Don and Mimi do the best they can with what they have, but what they have is often not enough. The story of the Galvins is, in many ways, the story of mental health in America.
As Kolker narrates this winding and wild biography of a family in crisis—as each sibling grows and relapses, settles and resettles around Colorado and other states, leaving and returning to Hidden Valley Road—he also paints an expansive and vibrant landscape of schizophrenia, which afflicts at least 3.2 million people in the U.S. “We’d like to think that there’s a secret answer to every medical riddle,” Kolker says. “But really it’s always much more complicated than that.”
The Galvin family was one of the first genetic pods to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health, which was founded a year after Donald Jr.’s birth. Colorado emerged, rather coincidentally, as a hub for mental health research. By the 1970s, labs at the University of Colorado Medical Center were developing cognitive tests to help the ongoing nature versus nurture debate: Is schizophrenia a genetic issue, or the result of external circumstance? Several brothers cycled in and out of Pueblo’s Colorado Mental Health Institute, which then housed over 6,000 psychiatric patients in a makeshift town-like farm society. While much has changed over the years (now the Institute has no more than 455 patients, and many once-standard therapies for treating mental illness—electric currents, injections, lobotomies—are out of practice), much remains the same: Namely, the fact that there is no explanation for why or how certain people develop schizophrenia, nor is there a cure.
Work examining the Galvins’ genetic code continues in labs today. As Kolker brings each of the 14 family narratives alive, he remains equally critical, curious, and compassionate. Mimi and Don have both passed on, as have a few brothers, but Lindsay, Margaret, and the remaining brothers continue making peace with their individual life histories—all united in theory, yet divided by circumstance.
“The Galvin family story has a lot to teach us about dealing with challenges and weathering tragedy,” Kolker says. “It’s about people who find themselves traumatized and find ways to work through it—and it’s about finding humanity.” Perhaps now, more than ever, we need such a story, which offers up fate entwined with compromise and love in times of war.