Book Review: Hidden Valley Road – Robert Kolker

Publisher: Quercus Books
Format: MOBI
Release Date: 9th April, 2020
Genre: Non-Fiction

Rating: 5/5 Stars

This is a difficult book to read, with a lot of truly gut wrenching and heart-breaking moments. It is not an easy read, and if you are thinking of picking it up, I would suggest checking content warnings and being aware going in there is a lot of difficult moments. There are a lot of content warnings for this book, and I likely won’t be able to cover them all. But I want to include some of them here because, again, though this is an excellent work of non-fiction, it’s very heavy in content.

Content Warnings:

Mental illness including bipolar, depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Physical violence and abuse. Sexual abuse including child abuse. Suicide. Murder. Domestic violence.

The book serves almost like a biography of an extraordinary family. Through diaries, letters, and interviews Kolker has put together a detailed account the Galvin family, from Don and Mimi’s childhoods and marriage, through their twelve children and beyond. The first child, Donald, was born in 1945, and their twelfth and final child was born in 1965, spanning the baby boom. Out of the twelve children, ten were boys, and six of the boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The family faced circumstances beyond what most would, and the book delves not only into their own struggles, but the struggles of those trying to treat this illness, fighting against outdated ideas and companies which have no interest in research where there is no cash cow at the end.

The work of the researchers and psychiatrists is presented alongside the story of the family. The biggest drawback is that the children at the heart of the book – the six boys – aren’t really in a position to tell their own stories, either due to death or because by the time Kolker was researching, they were too ill through years of mistreatment, breaks, and long-term drug use to really present their own side.

However, Kolker does get a lot of information mostly from the mother, Mimi, and the two daughters. Through their stories, we do get an insight into the brothers, one that shifts and changes as we find out more. Mimi is an almost typical matriarch figure in unusual circumstances, guided not necessarily by what is right for all family members, but what she thinks is right based on her own upbringing and the culture of the time.

Similarly, the perspective we get from the daughters is shaped by their own experiences of their brothers. Although six of the children were diagnosed, we also see the mental health issues dealt with by the other members of the family, and the directions it took them.

Again, this is not an easy read, but it is at times incredibly moving, as we see each family member on their own journey, as we gain a deeper understanding of the parents and children and, through the book, get to see many of them grow up to start families of their own. The book discusses the constant arguments in psychiatry over nature versus nurture, focused on schizophrenia. Something else which really stands out, too, is how many key events and people this family were involved in.

There is a tangle of emotions throughout this book, especially when it comes to the women of the family, and the two daughters who often felt neglected and overlooked in favour of the boys, and the mother who really couldn’t handle everything that was going on.  Mimi also faced the period in psychiatry when a lot of issues were ‘pinned’ on the mother and upbringing, putting her in a position where she often felt attacked. Although there are instances when it feels she maybe could have handled things better, it’s also easy to understand the position she was in, and it’s an important element to the book – the ability to see and understand both sides.

It also spends time showing what all the boys went through, what they endured. It’s a really excellent book, balancing the story of the family with the story of schizophrenia treatment, and emphasising how much this single family contributed to the research. Although the ending isn’t ‘satisfying’ as such, with still a long road ahead in terms of research, it is hopeful, with progress being made and more of a desire to look at alternative treatments. Well worth a read, especially for those already interested in these sort of topics.

Thank you to publishers Quercus for providing me with a copy of this book via NetGalley. All views remain my own.

Goodreads

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