‘Hidden Valley Road’ author Robert Kolker to speak at virtual Aspen Winter Words


What: Robert Kolker at Winter Words


When: Wednesday, Feb. 10, 6 p.m.

How much: $10 ($275 for Winter Words season pass)

More info: Kolker will be interviewed by ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ author Rebecca Skloot. Winter Words continues with ‘The Art of Food Memoir’ with Padma Lakshmi, Ronni Lundy and Toni Tipton-Martin (March 16) and poet Billy Collins (April 13).


‘Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family’

By Robert Kolker

377 pages $29.95

Doubleday, 2020

Mimi and Don Galvin, of Colorado Springs, had 12 children over the course of 20 years after World War II. As this family grew — 10 boys followed by two girls — six of the boys became schizophrenic.

The family was devastated by mental illness and the violence and trauma and shame it brought with it.

But author Robert Kolker, in his acclaimed and bestselling 2020 book about the Galvins, “Hidden Valley Road,” tells a story of ultimate hope. The Galvin boys’ genes may lead to more effective treatment for schizophrenia and their story has already helped de-stigmatize the disease.

His book is a family saga and a medical mystery, but also a feat of empathy.

Kolker will discuss “Hidden Valley Road” on Wednesday evening at a virtual presentation of the Aspen Winter Words series. He’ll be interviewed by Rebecca Skloot, whose “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” tells another story of posthumous medical legacy.

As Kolker was first thinking about writing the book, he spoke to a different member of the family each week over the course of 10 to 12 weeks, gauging how open they would be to interviews and explaining his role as a writer bound by facts and truth. As their willingness to open up their memories and their voluminous family medical records became clear, Kolker saw he had the chance to tell a kind of story that had never been told before.

“There are a lot of really wonderful memoirs out there by people who have experienced mental illness in the family,” he said in a recent phone interview from home in Brooklyn. “But there really was never anything like this where everybody’s point of view would be represented.”

In the Galvins’ time, next to nothing was understood about the disease and the wrongheaded medical wisdom of the time blamed schizophrenia on overbearing mothers. As the book explains, schizophrenia is still little understood, but the latest research shows it is a developmental disorder, which can be helped by early intervention and treatment (rather than sweeping it under the rug, as was done in the Galvins’ day).

“Ending the stigma is the biggest thing, I think, that can happen now,” he said. “I hope for this book to be part of that effort.”

Led by the youngest sibling, Lindsay, the surviving Galvins opened up their family history to Kolker and also gave him access to medical records. The records included contemporaneous interviews with the brothers and other family members about the symptoms and incidents of their illness but also details of everyday life, which Kolker mined to create a vivid and tactile picture of the bustling Galvin home and its sudden tragic turn after the eldest, Don, was stricken. It’s novelistic in both emotional and physical detail.

Kolker took eight trips to Colorado during his research, visiting with family and digging into records at the state mental hospital in Pueblo and meeting with Dr. Robert Friedman, who is doing groundbreaking research on the Galvins’ genes, in Denver.

The author vividly renders a bygone Colorado era, capturing Colorado Springs as it was transformed by the new U.S. Air Force Academy and NORAD in the postwar years and filled with aspirant families like the Galvins.

“There was something exhilarating about the place I could tell from the lives that they and others were leading back then,” Kolker said.

On the surface, the Galvins in the book are a prototypical Colorado family — at once rugged people living strenuous lives (falconry being the chief family pastime) and seeking out high culture (they made trips to Aspen for classical music in the summer, Kolker mentions in the text).

An Oprah’s Book Club selection, a no. 1 New York Times bestseller and a fixture on critics’ year-end best-of lists, “Hidden Valley Road” is the most acclaimed and popular Colorado-set book in recent memory. Its runaway success came during an already breakthrough 2020 for Kolker, who saw the film adaptation of his New York magazine story on a Long Island school embezzlement scandal adapted as “Bad Education,” starring Hugh Jackman, and saw his debut book on unsolved serial murders “Lost Girls” adapted for Netflix.

And yet, being that all of this happened during the pandemic, Kolker’s thrill-ride of a professional year played out much like everybody’s life did over the past year: from home on a computer.

“It’s very strange,” he said. “It’s like being on a spaceship. But I think we all feel like we’re on a spaceship.”

Searching for new projects, he’s focused on gratitude. Noting how many authors struggled to have their work noticed amid the lockdowns and swirling news environment of 2020, Kolker is glad to have found an audience and proud “Hidden Valley Road” has been embraced by its wide readership and that it might do some good for the understanding of mental illness.

“Obviously it’s wonderful to have something hopeful, and hopefully inspiring, to talk about with people during this challenging time,” he said. “That’s the thing I’m most grateful for.”

Aspen Times Weekly

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