A quick skim of writers’ Twitter feeds (including, uh, my own) reveals they can be a self-aggrandizing lot. Not Robert Kolker — though a bit of ego would be justified. Kolker’s first book, Lost Girls, the story of a still-at-large serial killer targeting call girls on Long Island, was acclaimed for its compassionate take on the disappearance of America’s discarded women. It is now a film on Netflix. A story he wrote for New York magazine about a dashing but embezzling school superintendent on Long Island has been made into the HBO film Bad Education, starring Hugh Jackman and premiering on April 25th. His latest book, Hidden Valley Road, the story of a family ravaged by mental illness, was an immediate bestseller upon its release earlier this month, and was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club.
The essence of Kolker’s success: He possesses multitudes of the empathy gene. A former colleague of mine at New York, he can listen to you drone on and on about your problems, and then unobtrusively offer an observation or question that makes you look at the situation in a different light.
“I’m probably in some ways emulating my mother, who died in 2018,” says the baby-faced Kolker via FaceTime from his home in Brooklyn. “She spent 25 years as a psychiatric counselor at our local hospital. She was very good at active listening, both professionally and with our family. When I’m listening to people, I think I’m doing what she does.”
Those skills served Kolker well during the reporting of Hidden Valley Road, a Gothic tale of the Galvin family — Mimi, Don, and their 12 children. On the surface, the Galvins were a postwar American dream. Don was a World War II veteran helping to jump-start the just-opened Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs alongside his witty and selfless wife. The first 10 Galvin kids, born beginning in 1945, were handsome boys who became high school football and hockey stars in their growing boomtown. Two beautiful daughters, Lindsay and Margaret, followed them. The Galvins lived on the outskirts of the city, on Hidden Valley Road, and were the envy of other families throughout Colorado Springs.
But inside the house — where Mimi tried to bake a pie or a cake every day — life was a nightmare. Six of the Galvin boys would descend into schizophrenia. The young men fought — cracking each other’s skulls and throttling their mother — while the parents hid it all from the outside world. The girls were sexually assaulted by one brother, and another brother killed himself and his wife in a murder-suicide.
The subject matter could be ripe for exploitation in the wrong hands, which is why Kolker’s New York editor, Jon Gluck, steered Lindsay Galvin, a high school friend, to Kolker when she and her older sister Margaret expressed interest in telling her family’s story. Kolker not only unpacks the horror of life on Hidden Valley Road; he pairs it with a medical mystery, as researchers try to figure out the causes of schizophrenia, an illness that, early on, the medical community blamed on domineering mothers and treated mostly by heavily sedating sufferers. By the end of the book, there is a glimmer of hope, both on the research front and with the two sisters, who have carried on with their lives, even as they have chosen different paths for coping.
When Kolker and I spoke, it was about a week after he had to be persuaded to answer a call from an unknown number: Oprah, trying to reach him. “I’m happy for the [Galvin] family,” Kolker says with a smile. “Lindsay told me she would watch Oprah as a kid and joke, ‘These guests are OK, but if only you could meet my family.’”
You connected with the Galvins through our old editor, Jon Gluck. What were the first conversations like as you tried to comprehend their awful story?
Four of five years ago, Lindsay came to New York, and told Jon that she and Margaret had been talking about wanting to have a book written about the family. They didn’t want it to be a memoir told just from their point of view. Jon thought of me, probably because he thought I was a good match based on the troubled families I wrote about in Lost Girls.
How did the reporting start on such an enormously complicated story?
I got on the phone with the two of them from a conference room. Over the course of an hour, they told me the highlights of this horrible childhood that they both experienced, and I was just aghast. They were very energized on the phone. They were excited about the possibility of having the story told, so it wasn’t like a pulling-teeth situation. In fact, they were pulling me off the floor, because I was so stunned.
You didn’t want to do the story unless all the surviving Galvins were on board. That must have been quite a challenge.
I told them, “What if I get on the phone once a week with a different member of your family, and with a different medical researcher who knows your family? By the end of three months or so, we’ll all know one way or another how feasible this is.” And if I decided not to be involved, I would hand the sisters the tapes, and it would be my good deed for the year.
Did you have a clear sense of how to tell the story?
Not at first. I wondered, “Is this a story about two sisters who have overcome a horrible childhood, or is it about the science of schizophrenia, or is it about medical researchers who’ve studied the family? What is it really about?” It turned out to be about all of that. My first call was to their mother, who was still alive, and it was wonderful. I learned later that she was not always interested in having a book [written] about her family, but she was OK [with it] now, and that was pretty encouraging.
What did you know about schizophrenia going into this? Did you have a preconceived notion that maybe it was more nurture than genetic, as was the conventional wisdom for so many years?
I knew very little about it. I did have a lot of preconceived notions. I thought that whatever drugs were treating schizophrenia were working the same sorts of miracles that SSRIs were working for depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder. I didn’t realize that they were just symptom suppressors, just managing the symptoms of an illness; they weren’t necessarily turning back the clock for people. That was a wake-up call for me.
How would you describe early 1950s Colorado Springs, where the Galvins raised their children?
When they first arrived in 1951, the Air Force Academy hadn’t opened, and the whole military-industrial complex hadn’t come to Colorado yet, so it really was just a small town. The line I have in the book is that when the Boy Scout Jamboree was held there, the Jamboree was bigger than the town. But by the time their kids were in high school, the Air Force Academy had opened. The Galvins were a part of a vanguard of young, idealistic, even kind of left-leaning military people. They were like these heroes who had come home and were going to build the new America together out in the West, right? It was not stuffy like the Naval Academy or like West Point; it was gonna be cool. They were big shots in their world. There might have been a couple other families with a ton of kids, but this was the one whose dad flew the Falcons at Air Force football games. The kids were football and hockey stars. They seemed so perfect on the outside.
Was there an actual thought between Don and Mimi about the decision to have 12 kids?
Something was up, and I came up with some thoughts. The first is that they both wanted a life of distinction. She was this brilliant woman who had quit college and moved to this one-horse town with her husband, and then was immediately left alone while he pursued his career. So, is she just going to sit there and mope, or is she going to have an interesting life too? The family filled a hole in her life. She had a missing father that had left the family in a scandal, and now she had a missing husband. She had a missing future that she had anticipated for herself. She felt abandoned. Her kids gave her the distinction that was missing.
The old idea about schizophrenia was that it was, as you write, “a disease of nurture, not nature,” caused by a woman “who suffers from a perversion of the maternal instinct.” Would that have been applied to Mimi, just on the basis of having 12 kids?
Definitely. I think she spent a lot of time battling that view, deflecting blame for her kids’ illnesses, blaming it on her husband’s depression.
But, as you write, the research moves on from that theory to one that schizophrenia is a matter of genetics. That being said, the Galvins had 12 kids and an understandably chaotic home. Also, it was the Fifties and Sixties, when suppression of problems was the norm. Could that have exacerbated the disease, or is there no connection?
It made everything worse. It was a disincentive for them to go public to get help. And we know now that early intervention is important, and perhaps even crucial in some cases. So [in this case it] meant waiting until the person’s 26 and about to try to kill their wife, instead of 16 and “I’m hearing a voice or two.” So, think of all the difference that could have happened in their lives if there was a little more open communication.
Still, strictly speaking, the theory of the dominating mother, if this book were a murder mystery, that would be the red herring in the first part. But it happens to be a red herring that makes life terrible for them. The last thing they would ever want to do is try to let the world know that this is happening, so they acted like everything was alright.
Six of the sons suffered breaks from reality. We know now that schizophrenia affects men more than women, but other than sex, was there any common link among them?The common denominator is that they become strangers to their own motivations. They start doing things they don’t understand. So, whether it’s going up to your teacher and talking gibberish like Peter did or, or running into a bonfire like Don did, or Jim hearing voices, or Matthew stripping naked… You’re doing things and you don’t know why, and maybe you’re angry, maybe you’re not, but at the end of the day, you don’t even know. You’re a stranger to yourself.
The two daughters share some of the same horrible experiences, including being sexually assaulted by their brother, Jim. One is shipped off to wealthy family friends, giving her more stability but the sense that she has been exiled, and the other ends up going to boarding school. But they have very different coping strategies as adults. One becomes the family caregiver, the other keeps her distance. What did you make of that?
I love the fact that their reactions were so different. In the very beginning, I thought, this will be a book about two sisters who survive together under terrible conditions. And then the more I got to know them, the more I saw how different they were in dealing with this condition. I worried for a day or two, and then I thought: Wait a minute; that’s more real. You know, I have a brother, I have a sister, we have very different views of our family, right? We have our own memories, are all self-serving and different. This gives the readers two different ways of responding to essentially the same situation, and then they can ask themselves, “Am I more like one, or am I more like another?” The beauty of it is that you can’t blame either of them for whatever decisions they’ve made.
So, when you met Mimi, the mom, shortly before she died, did you have a different opinion of her after you spent a few days with her?
What the sisters told me about her all proved to be true. They spent many years being very angry with her for favoring the sick children over the well children. It felt like abandonment. They felt neglected, particularly in their hour of need when they were being abused, that it seemed like something they couldn’t even bring up to their mother. This was a sticking point, but at the same time, they also said she had been determined for years that this was a genetic illness, that this wasn’t because of bad parenting, so she felt vindicated by recent advances that researchers have made. She was happy about that. All of that was true, but despite all of these flaws, she accomplished something amazing, which is, she actually kept the family together. The reason you don’t hear about families with six members with schizophrenia is they’re either dead or the family has split and fallen apart. It’s because of her that we have this petri dish to look at.
Did you feel she was honest with you about the family drama?
She danced a lot. I had a lot of help from Lindsay and Margaret, who were sitting right there next to me. When she started to dance away from a question, they would say, “Mom,” and get her back on track. Eventually, she was able to talk about some things with real emotion, like how ashamed she was, she and Don, for so long, and how afraid she had been when one of her sons would be threatening her, and how there was no one she could turn to. But she was 91; I wasn’t going to be prosecutorial. She was 91.
Lindsay was instrumental in getting a lot of the family’s medical documents that had some startling information. How did she react when she read about incidents she hadn’t known about?
It turned out that Donald [Jr.] had attempted something similar to the brother who ended up murdering his wife and committing suicide. The story is, they had been told that Donald’s wife left him, and he was so dejected that he had a psychotic break and had to go to the hospital, because he was heartbroken. One day, we were in Pueblo, at the hospital where many of them were treated, and going through reams and reams of documents with Lindsay. And I think we saw the pages at about the same time, and she just said, “Wow, look at that.” Lindsay’s worked really, really hard on the forgiveness part, and she’s all about charging forward, so she was amazed to learn these things, but they were not material things to her. It was Margaret who reacted, who really is more of a truth-teller. She found out about it and said, “No one told me that Donald tried to kill his wife. What if we had known that then? He was living at home with children, and that’s not right.” She’s still there in the moment. Just two different approaches.
There is something almost mythological about Lindsay and Margaret. There’s an unbroken line of 10 brothers, and then these two daughters come along, who are terrorized and sexually abused by their siblings.
The disconnect is that they are people who you could run into on a ski slope or at Whole Foods, and they’re just people. They’re fully functional human beings with kids. And that is really stunning, because you get them talking, and everything gets very Gothic very quickly.
It seems like research into schizophrenia was never a priority in the mental health field.
There wasn’t any money to be made, and the research just seemed so hopelessly complicated. Also, it’s expensive. Rats don’t have schizophrenia, so you can’t test pills on rats. The third element would be the stigma. The schizophrenic population can’t really advocate for themselves. The drugs that are used to treat schizophrenia are not cures, but they are good enough to keep a lot of people out of hospitals, and not to incentivize Big Pharma to try to do better.
The medication, mostly versions of thorazine, had terrible physical effects on the brothers, some of them coming down with severe health problems and organ failure. How do the surviving siblings feel about the medicating of their sick brothers?
I think by the end, Mimi was convinced that the drugs available were not the answer, and that they had a role in killing some of the sons. So she had a very rueful feeling about the whole thing. All the Galvins have come away with a very jaded view of pharmaceutical drugs as a treatment. They know there’s nothing better, but they’re not cool with it.
You tracked down Dr. Lynn DeLisi, who had been doing gene research on schizophrenia on and off for three decades. What was her reaction when you first reached her?
She said that it was interesting to hear from me about this, because they were about to publish their findings, after decades, about a number of families, including the Galvins, and about the identification of Shank2, a gene that helped researchers understand the disease better. She was a pioneer who thought if you studied a family with multiple cases of schizophrenia, you might be able to find a genetic key that would help us understand the condition better. She believed the gene was inherited and had nothing to do with how a mother raises a child. The problem with being a pioneer is not everyone wants to go along with you. She was not taken seriously by a lot of the leaders in the field. They thought that she was looking for a needle in a huge haystack. They thought that it is so complex that it was a fool’s errand to even bother. Decades go by, and she has the largest collection of these families, starting with the Galvins, and, her career whipsaws back and forth. Eventually her research comes out of a cryogenic freezer, and when it is rebooted, it’s almost like a fairy-tale ending for the family. Their genes are finally sequenced in 2016. That is a big advance.
You mention that, unlike Lost Girls, this book ends on a hopeful note. Tell me why you think it’s hopeful.
Lost Girls was deliberately a downbeat book. It’s about how police work is not like CSI. The bad guys often win. People get overlooked and kicked to the curb. Apathy and incompetence rule the day. I was watching a lot of romantic comedies after that. But here, I like where the research is going. There’s hope now of a better understanding. The Galvins have not 100 percent successfully solved those problems, but they’ve come out the other side of some pretty horrible things. And that is hopeful. We all suffer; bad things are going to happen to all of us.
How do you convince people who are reluctant to talk about their problems to sit down with you?
Adam Moss, our editor at New York, scheduled these lunches where legendary writers came in. I remember Gay Talese started talking about how you have to have confidence when you were talking to your sources. You had to walk in and make it clear to them that you were going to make history together, that this was going to be a life-changing moment. That by talking to you, they were going to change the world, and that no one would ever forget the things that they said. I immediately bristled, thinking, “I’m about to try to interview people who don’t want to be interviewed — how am I supposed to make them feel good by telling them that I’m a superjournalist who’s going to change their lives? Right.” He gave a very polite and courteous answer that I can’t quite recall, but what I really remember from that is that I had the wrong takeaway. He was saying you’ve got to believe in what you’re doing. You have to believe that it’s going to be useful and helpful, because if you don’t believe it, nobody else around you will either.
We’re all holed up trying to survive the coronavirus pandemic, and looking for connection in what we read and watch. Is there a lesson in Hidden Valley Road that you think we can apply to these awful times?
This is a book about a family that was overtaken by something serious that they didn’t understand. They weren’t sure where it was going to hit them next. Somehow, they came through the other side. So, I think there, it is possible to read it during this time and wonder, how would you deal with this situation? It might be a safe space for some people to start to think about how they are handling unthinkable adversity. We’re all going through that now.