Mary’s mother is well practiced at laughing off moments like these, behaving as if nothing is strange. To do anything else would be the same as admitting that she lacks any real control over the situation- that she cannot understand what is happening in her house, much less how to stop it.
Hidden Valley Road is the story of a family, created by Don and Mimi Galvin (ten boys and two girls) picked apart by the ravages of schizophrenia, a disease that takes the foundation of the family and ‘permanently tilted it in the direction of the sick family member’. What happens when it appears in several family members? When, like the fear of it’s contagion, the parents aim a laser focus on each child afraid they may be next? How does this attention harm every sibling? How can the parents possibly dodge the terror of, ‘who will be next’ ? Is it any surprise that fear of odd behavior in their own children will follow the siblings later in life?
In the beginning, Mimi and Don envisioned a life full of ‘limitless hope and confidence’. Don was ambitious, and war bound after joining the Marine Corp Reserves, before heading out near Okinawa where he was to be stationed during the war in 1945, he married Mimi. While he was away, Mimi gave birth to their firstborn son. Soon followed more children, born while her husband came and went for his career, at times he was home from Georgetown (finishing his degree) and Rhode Island to the Navy’s General Line School. Focused always on his career, which came first, Mimi was left either trailing after him with the children or awaiting his return alone with their offspring. She with dreams of a lawyer husband and a life where she could raise their brood alongside their family in New York, bided time until the war was over. Don was using the military as a means to his end, a career in law or better yet, political science. The end of his service came but he reneged on their plan and instead joined the Air Force, which lead them surprisingly to Colorado Springs.
Despite Mimi’s disappointment and after many shed tears, she began to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. Together, she and Don discovered a passion for falconry, one which they shared with their boys, coming of age in the 1950’s. (I found this fascinating). Mimi rushed headfirst into raising her children all on her own without the help of nannies, family anyone. She would raise her boys to be cultured through art, music, nature and as more children came (if Don had his way Mimi would be pregnant forever) she worked even harder at being the best mother anyone could be; their clan would be the ‘model’ American family. Her passion for motherhood knew no bounds! It fed her ego, there was a special pride in ‘being known as a mother would could easily accomplish such a thing’, raising such a brood with unwavering determination and love. Why such a large family, well if it made Don happy, it was her joy to provide more offspring. Personally, as a mother with two children I found her enthusiasm and energy incredible, I get tired just thinking about it.
The dynamic in the couples marriage changed, Don’s career in intelligence yet another thing to keep Mimi at a distance, while she remained the rock for the children through the years, the one left to supervise, a ‘happy warrior’. But her dream of perfect children, everyone in line, the ‘model American family’ was about to shatter. Battling the common childhood illnesses like chicken pox, everyone knowing their chores, cooking, cleaning, for a large family is a mean feat but battling a little understood mental illness in a time where there wasn’t much compassion to be found in anyone straying from the social norms was a terrible mark against you. When the cracks first appeared in the eldest, most adored son (the namesake Don Jr.) who often watched his siblings, bullying them, setting them up against each other, it was largely ignored. The busy family didn’t have time for squabbles, the father’s favorite was believed. Even when he would smash dishes, and act out with violence, Don and Mimi behaved as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, confusing and horrifying the other children. Something was wrong, no one knew it more than Donald himself. He would take the mental disturbances with him away to college, where it would soon show itself.
With the two older boys eventually out of the house, and Don Sr’s professional prospects, order had to be maintained, there could be no admittance of anything being off kilter. Such a thing is a stain that could ruin Don’s career and the Galvin’s social standing. Maybe the boys wreaked havoc, ending in bruises when they were home visiting, but ‘boys will be boys’ and need to become men and stand on their own. Then Don Jr fell apart, again and again, and it was no longer easy to deny something was wrong, not when it could no longer be hidden from the public too. He would never climb out of his illness, despite medicine, science, doctors best efforts. Worse, the abuse their daughters suffered in silences, denial. The embarrassment of their brother’s illness a thing they felt ashamed about and resentful of.
I can’t do justice in a review, it’s hard to summarize what the entire Galvin family went through, the hope, the fear, the denial and sexual abuse. I think about those decades, where mothers were often blamed for any sign of mental decline, where shame was all that mental illness bought you. When turning to doctors often did more harm than good, even now medication that is meant to help navigate mental illnesses do the body, all it’s organs so much harm, but there aren’t many alternatives beyond avoiding medication altogether and that leaves you exactly in the same abyss you started from. It victimizes the person coping with the illness, but you can’t ignore the voices of the family members that are forced to cope with the illness too. Children that are neglected because the illness consumes so much energy within the family, the physicality of it. Science isn’t moving fast enough, despite leaps like studying the Galvins and why schizophrenia claimed some of the children and not others. It feels too late for the Galvins in many ways. As much as we make judgments about Mimi and Don’s attempt to pretend everything is normal, how can we not empathize, imagining being in their place. Parenting is difficult enough, much of what we deny is fear motivated, comes form a place of love, and sure sometimes our own egos.
I’m always drawn to stories and studies about mental illness. I have a schizophrenic uncle, my own son is on the autism spectrum (he isn’t the only one in our extended family)… but for my uncle, I have seen how people fear mental illness, the hopelessness of my grandmother (when she was still alive) and yet immense love and support for her son who would not take his medication, and lives the life of a loner, often taken advantage of and there is nothing anyone can do. There is so much we do not know, and it’s hard for many to trust doctors when some of their treatments have done more harm than good. It can feel overwhelming and hopeless, your choices limited. Of course we aim to fix things, who wants to watch their family member suffer. It is reality still that with diseases people often find public support, compassion yet where there is mental illness most reactions are fear based and the public often judges those coping with it a ‘lost cause’. It’s the terrible result of little education. Doctors can only treat as well as the scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, but behind the illness are very real human beings.
This book is heartbreaking, and I have great admiration for all the Galvin children (those still alive are full grown adults now, of course). This is really their story. They own it, they live in the aftermath and each makes choices based on their own emotional compass. Their story broke my heart and it will stay with me. Yes, read it.
Publication Date: April 7, 2020