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NYT bestselling author Bob Kolker talks about his oprah book club pick HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD, the history–and future–of schizophrenia, family trauma, resillience, & so much more


By Leslie Lindsay 

A razor-sharp tale of one American family ravaged by the devastating effects of mental illness, schizophrenia, in particular.

HVR Cover low-res

~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~

WEDNSDAYS WITH WRITERS

OPRAH’S BOOK CLUB PICK

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER 

ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES TOP TEN BOOKS OF THE YEAR

ONE OF THE WALL STREET JOURNAL TOP TEN BOOKS OF THE YEAR

PEOPLE’S #1 BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR 

Named a BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by The New York TimesThe Washington Post, NPR, TIMESlateSmithsonian, The New York Post, and Amazon 

Meet the Galvins. They are your all-American family living in Colorado in the 1950s-70s, except they have one big secret, and one big family: half of the dozen children are afflicted with mental illness. Welcome home to HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD: Inside the Mind of an American Family (Doubleday, April 2020) and meet Don and Mimi, their ten good-looking boys, and equally stunning daughters.

After WWII, Don’s work with the Air Force brings them to Colorado, where the baby-making doesn’t seem to cease. But not to worry, Mimi has it all under control. She’s calm and has a system to making breakfast, getting the children dressed and schooled, to piano lessons, hockey, chess, and her twice weekly trips to the grocery store where each time she picks up ten half-gallons of milk and four loaves of bread. On the weekends, she and Don are glamming it up with various fund-raisers and balls, ballets, and more. Here, the Galvin’s are the picture-perfect family raising a very big, boisterous family.

What happens behind closed doors is another story: sudden shocking violence and aggression, breakdowns, violence, sexual abuse, and more. But the mid-1970s, six of the ten Galvin boys are diagnosed with schizophrenia. The other six children standby, helpless, terrified, and most of all: will it happen to them, too?

At the heart of HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD is sacrifice. It’s also about how one family can shatter and rebuild. Sure, it sounds simple and easy; it’s anything but. The tone of HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD is infused with sympathy and hope. Kolker does a remarkable job of taking a very large amount of data–hospital records, interviews, phone calls, scientific research, historical research, medicine, and more and funnels it into a gorgeous, cohesive whole. This is a compassionate story, one in which there is a desperate cry for understanding, an openness (by most) to see help for this horrific turn of events. Sure, it’s challenging. It’s devastating. But there’s marvel and awe in these pages, too.


Hidden Valley Road contains everything: scientific intrigue, meticulous reporting, startling revelations, and, most of all, a profound sense of humanity. It is that rare book that can be read again and again.”

David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon


Slowly, we are introduced to each family member, beginning with the parents, Don and Mimi, a bit about their backgrounds, and then we dive into each child as he (and then she) is born. At the beginning of each chapter, readers are provided a list of which family member we are investing in…and which birth order they fall. I found this helpful in keeping everyone ‘straight.’

While HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD is mostly a case study, we do get a good dose of science and genetics, which I loved, but could become tedious and cumbersome to readers who are not as intrigued with science. Kolker does a fabulous job of distilling the science, of making it read like a story, each researcher being like a character in a novel. HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD is gorgeous reportage, a journalistic feat of epic proportions.

HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD is a captivating and moving account of mental illness, not just an isolated case, but a broader, more expansive view that certainly will inject hope and resilience.

Please join me in welcoming Robert Kolker back to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Bob, wow. This book! I am blown away. We last chatted in 2017 after LOST GIRLS released in paperback. You told me you were working on HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD and I was so taken with the glimmer of this book even then. What initially piqued your interest in the Galvin family?

Bob Kolker:

First of all, thank you, Leslie, for going out of your way to feature this book. I’m very happy to talk about it. To answer your question: In the spring of 2016, a friend introduced me to two sisters from Colorado, Margaret Galvin Johnson and Lindsay Galvin Rauch, now both in their fifties, who were the youngest siblings in the family. The more I learned about the Galvin family, the more I couldn’t believe their story. It was horrifying. I wondered how such a family could even pretend to stay together under such horrible circumstances — why these sisters wouldn’t have run away the first chance they got, never to come back. But the sisters, when I spoke with them, showed that they still had a reservoir of hope. They told me how each of them found a way through their traumatic childhoods. And they told me that their family has a scientific legacy.

Leslie Lindsay:

I understand your mother is a former psychiatric counselor at a hospital on the east coast. I am sure in some ways, that influenced your interest in mental health? Or maybe not? Can you talk about that, please?

Bob Kolker:

I have written a few stories about mental health and medicine and science, but when I first met the Galvin family, my most relevant qualification was a career writing about vulnerable people, sometimes entire families, experiencing crises. That would include my first book, LOST GIRLS, which aside from being about an unsolved murder case was, at its heart, a nonfiction portrait of five families in crisis. I believe that my interest in families and my desire to understand the rationale of everyone inside a family system comes directly from my mom. She was not a theoretician — we didn’t have long conversations about Freud and Jung or anything like that — but she was a great listener, a very neutral presence with enough warmth that people felt comfortable opening up around her. When I’m doing my job well, I feel like I’m emulating her.

Leslie Lindsay:

My own mother struggled with severe mental illness, a traumatic childhood, drug use, more. At one time, her medical records indicate bipolar disorder, others say schizoaffective. From my perspective, her devolve came half-way between my tenth year. I related to Margaret Galvin as her sister was stripped away from home. There was a sense of abandonment, but in actuality, my mother was terrifying to be around. Like the remaining Galvin children, I worried: will the same fate happen to me? This is a big theme in HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD. You share a ton of research on that; without going into specifics, do you think the remaining, non-affected Galvin children came to terms with the fact that they were not schizophrenic? Do they still worry?

Bob Kolker:

I think the six non-diagnosed Galvin siblings are all leading fully functional lives, with jobs and marriages and families. If you struck up a conversation at the supermarket with any of them, nothing would register as unusual about any of them (and they’re all very likable too). So they certainly have come to terms with it in a day-to-day way. But if you got to know them all better you’d probably notice a certain amount of hyper-vigilance that they share — a sense of walking on eggshells. Perhaps that’s something you’ve felt about yourself, too? I don’t think it’s possible to have a traumatic childhood and not still be vulnerable to moments of worry, at least in some small way.

close up photo of eggs

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Let’s shift over to the cause of schizophrenia. There’s no real answer, I realize. One theory is the schizophrenogenic mother. That is, the mother figure is cold and manipulative, a schedule, etc. But Mimi Galvin, bless her, had twelve children to raise. I think this would make any mother rigid. There must be some organization to a household of that size. Can you talk about this theory a bit?

Bob Kolker:

The theory that bad mothers caused schizophrenia is one of the greatest mistakes of 20th century psychiatry. It’s completely debunked now. But it was at its most powerful when Mimi was a mother, and because her parenting style was so intense she was a sitting duck. She had doctors telling her point-blank that she drove her own children crazy. That’s part of the family’s tragedy.

What interested me most about the schizophrenogenic mother theory is that it came from a place of good intentions. The therapists who believed it were doing battle with other experts who barely acknowledged the humanity of psychiatrically disturbed people at all—they advocated lobotomies and eugenics. So it was a case of everyone being wrong. Which happens from time to time.

cute family picture

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Here’s what I really love about the Galvins: they weren’t afraid to ask for help. They didn’t fear addressing bigger issues. In my (late) mother’s family, at nearly the same time as some of the Galvin children, my mother was defying her parents, setting fires, torturing animals. My grandfather once told me, “We knew something was wrong, just not what—or how to help. No one did.” I think many families fall into this camp. Or, they fear what a professional might say—where the blame may lay. Thoughts?

Bob Kolker:

That’s such a beautiful and heartbreaking sentiment. I tried to get across in HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD just how trapped and helpless the family felt. For example, when the first son got sick, the family had the following choices: (1) Send him to a private facility like the Menninger Clinic, that was too expensive and therefore not an option at all; (2) send him to a state hospital that was for hopeless cases, and essentially give up on him; and (3) send him to a hospital that favored a psychoanalytic approach, or the schizophrenogenic mother, and get blamed themselves for the illness.

It wasn’t just that they disliked all of these options. It was they had no earthly idea of what the right decision was. This was not a mental health care system, really. It was like standing in one huge supermarket, forced to choose from options you aren’t equipped to assess, and knowing full well that across the street there was a whole other supermarket selling completely different stuff, and you had know way of knowing which supermarket was better. (And that’s not even counting a third supermarket across town with entirely different stuff from the other two….)

close up of wheat plant during sunset

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Bob, I could probably ask questions all day, alas we both have things we need to do. Before we go, I am curious if you had any idea HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD would make such a splash? I mean, Oprah! A #1 NYT bestseller! What do you think this might do for the future of mental illness?

Bob Kolker:

From Oprah forward, I’ve been completely blown away by the book’s reception — and especially moved by email from families touched by schizophrenia. I have to admit that before the book came out, I spent so much energy wrestling control of the narrative and making sure it was clear and understandable — and scientifically accurate — that I didn’t have time to dwell on how many people out there might identify with it so strongly. So that’s been a wonderful and very moving surprise.

I really think that in our lifetime, many psychiatric conditions have been greatly destigmatized. I’m talking about bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression, for starters. We talk about these conditions now without the judgment and secrecy and shame we used to have. I believe schizophrenia is long overdue for the same shift. And I’d love for this book to be a part of that effort.

rough frozen surface under old stone

Photo by Dids on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Bob, thank you, thank you! This was such a treat. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? 

Bob Kolker:

I’m just thrilled that you want to talk about this book, and I hope others connect with it. I have this to say about that: Even if your family has not been touched my severe mental health challenges, I think the story of this family is meaningful, especially in difficult situations. I actually believe the Galvin family’s story has a lot to teach us about dealing with challenges, and weathering tragedy. Hidden Valley Road is about people who find themselves traumatized and find ways to work through it. It’s about finding the humanity in tragedy. It’s about refusing to shut down. It’s about refusing to turn inward. And despite all the terrible things that the people in this family went through, I really do think it’s about hope.IMG_5006

Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #amreading #bookstagrammer #bookrecommendations

For more information, to connect with Robert Kolker via social media, or to purchase a copy of HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD, please visit: 

ORDER LINKS: 

~BOOK CONCIERGE~

I was reminded of so many fabulous books I’ve read on the topic of mental illness and memoir–nearly too many to count. Please be sure to visit other pages on this website, especially Mental Illness where I list titles that might be of further interest. In terms of fiction, I found some overlap between HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD and the science themes in THE IMMORTALISTS (Chloe Benjamin) meets Yaa Gyasi’s TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM (which also ties in depression and anxiety). 

Kolker author photo low-resABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Robert Kolker is the author of HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD, an instant #1 New York Times best-seller and selection of Oprah’s Book Club that was named a Top Ten Book of the Year by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Slate; one of the year’s best by NPR, the Boston Globe, the New York Post, and Amazon;  the #1 book of the year by People; and one of President Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2020. His previous work includes Lost Girls, also a New York Times best-seller and New York Times’s Notable Book, and one of Slate’s best nonfiction books of the quarter century. He is a National Magazine Award finalist whose journalism has appeared in New York magazine, the New York Times Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, Wired, O, the Oprah Magazine, and The Marshall Project.

image1-5ABOUT YOUR HOST: 

Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Mary Kubica to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.

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[Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. Author photo credit: Jeff Zorabedian. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #amreading #bookstagrammer #bookrecommendations]

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