Friday, May 29, 2020

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker, narrated by Sean Pratt

Wow. Twelve kids. Six of them with schizophrenia.

The Galvin family seemed like the epitome of the Baby Boom generation. The twelve kids were born between 1945 and 1965, perfectly spanning that entire generation from beginning to end. And the boys who started to lose it, well, that doesn't surface until the last babies were being born. No one knows exactly why but schizophrenia tends to show itself in the late teens or early twenties. They were a good Catholic, military family living in Colorado Springs, And Mimi and Don (especially Mimi) were determined to prop up that facade until well past the time when everyone could see the reality of the situation.

As tragic as this family's story is, it also is an amazing opportunity for medical researchers. Schizophrenia has remained highly elusive in the years since the mapping of the human genome, with no one or even dozen genes showing responsibility for the illness. Treatments are also stubbornly antiquated. But a family with twelve children, half of whom are mentally ill, and half of whom are not, is a gold mine for science. Even though we've moved past blaming the mother and the nature/nurture battles of the last half-century, we haven't improved in either figuring out who is susceptible and any way of early intervention, or in treatment after symptoms have arisen. The Galvins can really help, at least with the first of those problems.

This was a riveting book, which I listened to in just a couple of days. It was long, but nothing seemed unnecessary. There is an early diversion about falconry, but that is something Don pursued most of his adult life, as did many of the kids, so it proved much more important than I realized at the time. Don was most likely the person to suggest The Falcons as the mascot for the burgeoning Air Force Academy he was helping to get off the ground. I do wish there was a little more information about the well adult children now, aside from the two daughters who seemed both to do the most in helping out, but also probably provided the bulk of the information to the author. One complaint they all had about their mother was that she spent all her time and effort on the sick boys at the expense of the well children, and this book did echo that to a degree. A couple of the well boys did not participate much as adults, which is one of the typical reactions to growing up with mentally ill siblings, and I wish that had been further explored. But that wasn't the focus of this book, and the information we do get about that dynamic is a bonus I shouldn't overlook.

I thank the Galvin family for participating in the research studies, and I hope this book both provides information for those who don't understand the illness and also might convince other families to engage with scientific research where they can, especially if it's as simple as giving some blood and doing a survey.

A harrowing and eye-opening story of a family with unprecedented battles to fight, simply in their everyday lives.

I borrowed this digital eaudiobook from the library via Overdrive/Libby.

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