Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Focus on mental health: The family living along Hidden Valley Road May 10, 2021

…I THOUGHT I WAS such a good mother. I baked a cake and a pie every night. Or at least had Jell-O with whipped cream.

That quote from Mimi Galvin, mother of 12, struck me as particularly personal and profound in a 377-page book focusing on one family’s experiences with schizophrenia. Six of Mimi and Don Galvin’s children developed schizophrenia, labeled by author Robert Kolker as “humanity’s most perplexing disease.”

Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road—Inside the Mind of an American Family rates as a difficult read. But this 2020 Oprah’s Book Club pick is something every single person should read to understand the depths and intricacies of a biologically-based brain disorder like schizophrenia. And how it affected one Colorado family with children born between 1945-1965.

But back to that quote and the context thereof. Doctors and others blamed Mimi for her sons’ mental illnesses. Their criticism left her crushed, traumatized, paralyzed, ashamed. Feeling all alone and guilty, as if she wasn’t a “good mother.” Such was the accusatory thinking of medical professionals. Mothers, especially, were targeted and even labeled as “schizophrenogenic mothers.” Can you imagine? Movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (released in 1960) reinforced that theory with Norman Bates’ mother blamed for his delusional homicidal mania.

This was also the era of shock therapy and restraints and so much misunderstanding and horror. Even unafflicted Galvin siblings wondered why their brothers couldn’t simply snap out of it. That thought pattern seems almost laughable, even absurd, to me. Yet, too many people still think that. Why can’t someone simply shut out delusional thoughts and paranoia, stop talking gibberish, separate perception from reality, silence the voices in their head, go to sleep rather than stay awake all night…? And more, much more, detailed with heartbreaking truth in this story of the Galvin family.

This family experienced heartbreak almost beyond belief. Tragedy. Abuse. Violence. Disconnect. Feelings of abandonment. So. Much. Trauma.

If I ended this review now, you would likely feel incredibly disheartened, wondering why you would even want to read such a book. And you would be justified in thinking that. But this story of an American family in the thick of schizophrenia is also inspiring. Hopeful. The Galvins allowed researchers to study their DNA, to learn more about “humanity’s most perplexing disease.” A disease centered in the brain. A disease with genetic markers. Mutations. A spectrum illness. No more mother/parent blaming.

I won’t attempt to further explain those scientific findings. I’m not, as I term myself, a medical person. I had to read and reread the medical parts of this book. But I grasp the basics. That researchers, although too often hindered by lack of funding (including from pharmaceutical companies), continue to work on researching and understanding schizophrenia, on finding better medications to treat symptoms and, ultimately, to prevent the onset of this horrible disease.

I encourage you to read Hidden Valley Road. You may struggle to get through this story. But press on. And then, when you’ve finished, vow to love, support and encourage anyone dealing with mental health issues. And their families.

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FYI: May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health, seek help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, which originated in Minnesota, is a good place to start. I will continue to do what I can to advocate, educate and increase awareness.

I invite you to read three previous reviews I’ve written on books that focus on mental health:

Fix What You Can—Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son by Mindy Greiling

Behind the Wall—The True Story of Mental Illness as Told by Parents by Mary Widdifield and Elin Widdifield

The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954 by Susan Bartlett Foote

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

11 Responses to “Focus on mental health: The family living along Hidden Valley Road”

  1. Bless you for posting this, Audrey. The understanding and treatment for mental health issues are painfully behind other medical fields. And it has such a dark history! Sharing…. ❤ ❤ ❤

  2. […] Focus on mental health: The family living along Hidden Valley Road — Minnesota Prairie Roots […]

  3. Jackie Hemmer Says:

    I bet this is a good read, I will need to add it to my list. Thank you for reminding us that Mental health is not something to push under the rug, we need to learn and support each other.

  4. BERNADETTE Thomasy Says:

    I was pleased to see your review of Hidden Valley Road. I read it a few months ago and it is still a book I think about. There is so much heartbreak in this family but the mother, Mimi, continues to soldier on when so many others would have given up, especially when she is sometimes blamed for her children’s illness. It is tough read but, as you say, hopeful due to the research efforts. Very informative and makes one think more compassionately about mental illness.

  5. Deanna Bjork Says:

    Audrey, It has been perplexing to me, the whole mental illness thing. Thank you for your candid thoughts and encouraging words to read the book. I sure will.

    • Your comment underscores the need to delve into books about mental illness, to learn more so we begin to better understand. I’m thankful for the increasing awareness and for books like this which personalize and help diminish the stigma. I’m reading another book, this one by a Minnesotan, which I will feature soon. The focus topic is the author’s depression. So stay tuned as I shine the light, once again, on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month.

  6. Thanks for sharing. Mothers can be the fiercest advocates at times even when they are faced with the blame (which is sad). My mom is a retired special education teacher as well as has worked with adults with special needs in facilities/group homes, etc. I have learned from her to be patient, kind, compassionate, etc. The greatest give back I gave growing up was babysitting at no charge for parents that were caregivers to children with special needs, elderly parents, etc. just to have a much deserved break. My mom made sure I had a basic understanding of the challenges, first aid and that she was just a call away if I needed her help. I love hearing about as well as seeing pictures of some of the kids that are now adults living their lives to the fullest with some awesome support systems in place. I am glad to see the issue of mental health become more open and the number of resources continuing to increase. I know this pandemic has been a strain mentally and emotionally as well as physically for a good majority of people. I hope people read this and can ask for help and open that conversation. Again thanks so much for sharing 🙂

    • Thank you, first, to your mom for all she’s done as a special education teacher and as a mom. And thank you for following your mom’s lead in helping others. You point out one really important aspect of this: The need to support the caregivers. That’s huge. I expect those caregivers you helped felt extremely grateful.


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