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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

This is a fascinating, disturbing, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful book.

Hidden Valley Road is the true story of a family with twelve children, six of whom are ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia. It’s absolutely meticulously researched and riveting. (I had requested the audiobook but when it came up, I didn’t remember at first what the book was about; the beginning reads like fiction.)

Robert Kolker retraces the lives of Mimi and Don through their young marriage, their conflicts in ambition (he clings to hopes of promotion within the military system; she craves culture and urban stimulation impossible for a military family stationed in mid-twentieth-century Colorado Springs), and the births and upbringing of their ten boys followed by two girls.

Over time, the eldest boys begin to fracture the family with their unrelenting violence, destruction, and constant tension. One by one, six siblings develop mental illness. For many years Mimi desperately insists on keeping the family’s troubles private, clinging to the preservation of her idea of a perfect family. (It’s noted that at the time, some significant blame for mental illness was typically laid at the feet of the mother—nurture over nature--and chalked up to her choices and missteps). But there’s no permanently hiding the wandering, ranting, furious young men. The family descends into chaos; there is secret abuse, and there is always the dark, disturbing force of unchecked mental illness shaping the lives of all involved.

Eventually some of the boys are attended by mental health professionals and begin a cycle of living in and out of hospitals, undergoing various standard therapies of varying effectiveness, and being subjected to more experimental treatments. The oldest of the sisters is sent away to live out her school years as a privileged guest of wealthy family friends; the younger remains fully enmeshed in the darkness of instability, terror, and abuse.

One sister remains linked to the family, and as an adult she continues to try to assist ill siblings and her frail parents; the other distances herself as much as possible. Kolker explores the issues of duty and escape, especially as related to the two daughters, presenting the situation with sympathy and understanding for both sides.

The scientific community studying schizophrenia locks onto the family; with the help of the brothers and their now-willing parents, researchers begin to pick apart genetic factors that might contribute to schizophrenia. The vast amount of genetic material from the family--both those affected by and those free from mental illness—begins to bear out valuable breakthroughs in understanding and treatment. The significant advancements wouldn’t have been possible without the genetic material from and the cooperation of the Glavin family, and Kolker explores the scientific ins and outs in a manageable way for the reader.

Hidden Valley Road is a fascinating, disturbing, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful book.

What did you think?

Whew! This one took something out of me, but I thought it was definitely worth reading.

#nonfiction, #dysfunctionalfamily, #fourstarbookreview

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