If this is a normal author profile written at regular time, I might lead with some details about how Robert Kolker Look, what he’s wearing, is he ordering avocado toast at the Brooklyn coffee shop where we’re meeting. I had put my phone on the table to record our conversation, a notebook to record everything that was personal, or funny, or revealing.
But coronavirus changed that plan. Instead, we spoke by telephone from our respective homes in the middle of a narrow room, surrounding noise and the potential for disturbances caused by teenagers. Sharing a workspace with one of them, Kolker quipped, “my daughter and I are now some kind of coworkers.” This is an appropriate and modest arrangement for talking to a writer whose superhuman strength can be relied upon.
I called to talk with Kolker, a journalist and writer, about “Hidden Valley Road. “Kolker’s second book tells the true story of Galvins, a large mother of 12 children, six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia; this is part of a multi-generational family story, partly a medical mystery, written with an extraordinary blend of rigor and empathy. Reporters at Kolker look for accuracy above all, but there is a lack of judgment in the book that feels extraordinary given the old stigma felt by those who have conditions in their families.
Kolker first learned about the Galvin family through his youngest member and second daughter, Lindsay (the first 10 children were boys). Lindsay and her sister, Margaret, have decided to ask an independent journalist to help them tell the story of their family. A mutual friend recommended Kolker, a former colleague at New York Magazine, whose 2013 book “Missing girl“Recording the families of five victims, a prostitute found murdered by a murderer is still unknown.
“He knew that I had a track record of writing about ordinary people who were experiencing extraordinary situations, and that was what I finally experienced do many things in New York magazines, “said Kolker.” Unlike interviewing mayors and movie stars and fashion designers, I write about people who never imagined that they would get media coverage. “
When talking with Lindsay and Margaret, he was stunned to see the enormity of the trauma. “I cannot believe that all this can happen to only one family,” he said. “This is not just schizophrenia, there is also child abuse, and there is suicide – there is a lot going on.”
He doubted the book might be, he said, because if only one family member objected, it would be very difficult to continue. So Kolker offered to talk on the phone for an hour with each surviving family member, starting with their mother, Mimi, then in their 90s. (Father, Don, and three brothers are dead.) “And look,” he said, “everyone is on board.”
After one year of conversation, he knew his family but not his illness. “Where I am really zero is to understand schizophrenia,” he said. “And that is an interesting part, as a reporter, to learn something from scratch, which is really surprising.”
He spoke with researchers, some of whom had studied Galvins, “and then it was time to get involved with the history of science. I finally read a very old psychiatric text about schizophrenia just to get what people are talking about at the time. It turns out that the books are very easy to find at a price of fifty or two dollars, because the science inside is wrong. “
“Hidden Valley Road,” which will definitely be one of this year the biggest nonfiction book, forging a time line together – one lists the Galvin family’s horror that increases as son after son succumbs to mental illness, another traces the scientific controversy about the origin of the disease itself. “It really is a history of debate, all centered on … nature versus nurture,” Kolker said. “‘Is it genetics or trauma’ – or in another era, ‘Is this brain chemistry or poor parenting?’ Always the same debate, but only shifted slightly in each generation. “
Mimi Galvin raised her children during the baby boom, the era when psychiatrists talked about “schizophrenogenic mother“What causes mental illness is through poor parenting.” You can certainly argue that he made some pretty big mistakes along the way, but it is also true that he was really slandered unfairly, “Kolker said. Moreover, he added,” he brought the family together. One of the reasons why no other family like Galvin was studied was because another family like this would not become a family. They would live on the streets, or half of them would die at a young age. “
For Kolker, reporting traumatized families is nothing new. After studying history in college, he took a different journalism approach from his friends. “People in my generation think of Woodward and Bernstein,” he said. “It has never been something that interests me personally.” Instead, he found himself drawn to an unfamiliar character. “I’m not just doing rip-roaring crime threads; I see a problem that appears below the surface of this crime, “he said. “I am the person you will send to interview a bereaved family.”
It was a skill he developed, perhaps influenced by his mother’s work as a psychiatrist. “There must be something about his listening training and things that I understand. I entered as a listener. Some of them come naturally and some of them come through practice. “
Part of the difficulty of writing about Galvins lies in the sheer size of the family. “I want to make sure everyone in the book is someone – not only good people but also sick people,” he said. “The challenge and pleasure of writing nonfiction about family is that you get everyone’s perspective and … try to get the greater truth. It is an opportunity to write something like a family story, like ‘East of Eden’ or something like that.”
In writing the scientific part of the saga – the story of our efforts to understand schizophrenia – Kolker found reasons to be optimistic. “I think there is hope. I think in general, when it comes to this disease, every breakthrough called makes people a little closer to agreeing on what the nature of the disease really is.” After years of debating about nature versus caregiving, researchers tend to look at both as crucial. “Early intervention has become a motto now. If Galvins was born a few decades later, there would be less stigma and more early warning signs that would limit the amount of psychotic rest. Whereas before, it was, ‘let’s sweep under the rug, let’s institutionalize them, let’s shock them. ‘ “
The book also ends at a moment full of hope, not only for the future generations of the Galvin family, but for larger projects to understand and treat schizophrenia. “After ‘Lost Girls’, which is a very sad book, it’s very nice to find a little bit of hope there at a different time,” said Kolker. “I hope this book will help a lot of people and make people still feel their stigma is lacking alone.”
And that is true – despite the lonely battles fought by patients and researchers, Kolker’s “Hidden Valley Road” is essentially a book about how progress, personal or scientific, can never be achieved on our own.
Tuttle is a freelance writer and temporary book editor at the Boston Globe.
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