If this were a normal author profile written during an ordinary time, I’d probably lead with some details about how Robert Kolker looks, what he wore, whether he ordered avocado toast at the Brooklyn coffee shop where we’d arranged to meet. I’d have laid my phone on the table to tape our conversation, notebook at hand to jot down anything particularly personal, or funny, or revealing.
But the coronavirus changed that plan. Instead, we spoke over the phone from our respective homes amid the tight quarters, ambient noise and potential interruptions caused by teenaged children. Sharing workspace with one of them, Kolker quips, “my daughter and I are sort of colleagues now.” It’s a fittingly unpretentious setup for talking to a writer whose superpower is relatability.
I called to talk to Kolker, a journalist and author, about “Hidden Valley Road.” Kolker’s second book tells the true story of the Galvins, a huge brood of 12 children, six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia; it’s part multi-generational family saga, part medical mystery, written with an extraordinary blend of rigor and empathy. The reporter in Kolker seeks accuracy above all, but there’s a notable lack of judgment in the book that feels remarkable in light of the stigma long felt by those who have the condition in their families.
Kolker first learned of the Galvin family through its youngest member and second daughter, Lindsay (the first 10 children were boys). Lindsay and her sister, Margaret, had decided to ask an independent journalist to help them tell their family’s story. A mutual friend recommended Kolker, a former colleague at New York Magazine, whose 2013 book “Lost Girls” chronicled the families of five victims, prostitutes who were found murdered by a still-unknown killer.
“He knew that I had a track record of writing about ordinary people who are undergoing extraordinary situations, which is really what I ended up doing a lot of at New York magazine,” said Kolker. “As opposed to interviewing mayors and movie stars and fashion designers, I was writing about people who never imagined that they would get media coverage.”
Talking to Lindsay and Margaret, he was stunned at the enormity of the trauma. “I couldn’t believe that all of this could happen to just one family,” he said. “It’s not just schizophrenia, there’s also child abuse, and there’s a murder-suicide — there’s so much going on.”
He was doubtful that the book would be possible, he said, because if just one family member objected, it would be very difficult to proceed. So Kolker offered to speak on the phone for one hour with each surviving family member, beginning with their mother, Mimi, then in her 90s. (The father, Don, and three of the brothers had already died.) “And lo and behold,” he said, “everybody was on board.”
After a year of conversations, he had gotten to know the family but not the illness. “Where I was really at zero was at understanding schizophrenia,” he said. “And that was the exciting part, as a reporter, to learn something from scratch, which was really mind-blowing.”
He talked with researchers, some of whom had studied the Galvins, “and then it became time to engage with the history of science. I ended up reading very old psychiatry texts about schizophrenia just to get what people were talking about at the time. It turned out those books were very easy to find for a dollar fifty or two dollars, because the science in them is wrong.”
“Hidden Valley Road,” which has been earning raves culminating in its selection by Oprah’s Book Club Tuesday, braids together the timelines — one chronicling the Galvin family’s growing horror as son after son succumbed to mental illness, the other tracking the scientific controversies over the origins of the illness itself. “It really became a history of debates, all centering on … nature versus nurture,” said Kolker. “’Is it genetics or is it trauma’ — or in another era, ‘Is it brain chemistry or is it bad parenting?’ It’s always the same debate, but it just shifts a little in each generation.”
Mimi Galvin raised her children during the baby boom, an era when psychiatrists spoke of “schizophrenogenic mothers” who caused mental illness through bad parenting. “You could certainly argue that she made some pretty big errors along the way, but it’s also true that she was really unjustly vilified,” Kolker said. After all, he added, “she kept the family together. One reason why there aren’t other families like the Galvins being studied is because any other family like this wouldn’t be a family. They’d be off living in the streets, or half of them would be dead at a young age.”
For Kolker, reporting on a family in trauma was nothing new. After studying history in college, he took a different approach to journalism than some of his peers. “People in my generation thought about Woodward and Bernstein,” he said. “That was never anything that personally appealed to me.” Instead, he found himself drawn to non-famous characters. “I wasn’t just doing rip-roaring crime yarns; I was looking at issues bubbling up under the surface of these crimes,” he said. “I was the person you would send to interview the grieving family.”
It was a skill he grew into, influenced perhaps by his mother’s work as a psychiatric counselor. “There must be something about her training of listening and such that I picked up on. I come in as a listener. Some of that comes naturally and some of that came through practice.”
Part of the difficulty of writing about the Galvins lay in the family’s sheer size. “I wanted to make sure everybody in the book was a person — not just the well people but the sick people too,” he said. “The challenge and the pleasure of writing nonfiction about a family is that you get everybody’s perspective and … try to get at a larger truth. It was a chance to write something like a family saga, like ‘East of Eden’ or something like that.”
In writing the scientific half of the saga — the story of our attempts to understand schizophrenia — Kolker found reason to be optimistic. “I do think there’s hope. I think in general, when it comes to this illness, every so-called breakthrough gets people a little bit closer to agreeing on what the nature of the illness actually is.” After years of debate over nature versus nurture, researchers tend to view both as crucial. “Early intervention has become the watchword now. If the Galvins were born decades later there would be less of a stigma and more of a watching out for early warning signs that would have limited the number of psychotic breaks. Whereas before, it was, ‘let’s sweep it under the rug, let’s institutionalize them, let’s shock them.’”
The book ends, too, on a hopeful moment, not only for future generations of the Galvin family, but for the larger project of understanding and treating schizophrenia. “After ‘Lost Girls,’ which is such a very sad book, it was delightful to find little shards of hope in there at different times,” Kolker said. “I hoped the book would help a lot of people and make people still feeling the stigma feel a little less alone.”
And it’s true — despite the lonely battles fought by both patients and researchers, Kolker’s “Hidden Valley Road” is at heart a book about how progress, personal or scientific, can never be achieved on our own.
Tuttle is a freelance writer and the interim books editor at the Boston Globe.