In Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family (Doubleday, Apr.), Kolker profiles the schizophrenia-afflicted Galvin family.
How did you learn of the Galvins?
A close friend of mine went to high school with one of the two Galvin sisters, and over time, he got to know both sisters. The sisters had spent many years wondering how best to let the world know about their family’s story—growing up with their 10 older brothers, six of whom became acutely mentally ill, and experiencing horrors and abuse. They finally settled on asking an independent journalist to tell the story omnisciently, including everyone’s points of view, including the sick brothers. That was when my friend introduced us.
How did the members of the family feel about opening up to you?
I took a year before even sending out a book proposal to speak one-on-one with each living member of the Galvin family, including the three surviving mentally ill brothers. I wanted to be sure that everyone in the family was ready to talk about everything that had happened to them. I honestly was not sure if everyone would agree, but they did. I think they said yes because they see their family’s story as more than just medically significant. They see how it might bring comfort to many families experiencing similar issues who are tempted not to seek help, or be open about what they’re going through.
What did you learn that was most unexpected?
Where to begin? My first surprise was that there has been no significant advancement in the development of new pharmaceutical treatments of psychosis since the development of Thorazine and clozapine more than 50 years ago. And even after all this time, no one really knows exactly how or why those medicines work. Then there is the amazing amount of groupthink and tunnel vision that has polluted the fields of psychiatry and psychotherapy for generations. And the sad fact that even after all this time, despite major advancements in treating bipolar disorder and depression and other illnesses, no one can still agree on exactly what schizophrenia is.
What was the hardest part of transforming this complex story into a nonfiction narrative?
This was the challenge of a career, for sure—telling the story of a family of 14 people, 12 kids and two parents, each experiencing the family’s story differently. But I love intergenerational family sagas like East of Eden and The Corrections, and so I was excited about giving this a try. The other great challenge was finding a way to tell the story of the science of schizophrenia without seeming didactic. My goal was to help readers understand everything they needed to know at the exact moment they needed to know it, so nothing felt like being made to eat your vegetables.