Author and investigative journalist Robert Kolker admits he tends to be drawn to dark subject matters.
“I think the job of most nonfiction writers is to tell vivid, dramatic stories,” he says. “My job is to not make those stories sensational but to identify with the people in the stories.”
On Wednesday, May 20, Chizuk Amuno Congregation presented a virtual talk by Kolker about his new book, “Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family” (Doubleday). The synagogue’s Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg served as moderator of the Zoom presentation.
A native of Columbia, Md., who resides in Brooklyn, N.Y., Kolker is the New York Times bestselling author of “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery” (Harper Perennial), which chronicles the serial murders of five “Craigslist” prostitutes on Long Island in 2010. The book was recently turned into a Netflix feature film of the same name.
“Hidden Valley Road” was published last month to wide acclaim. An instant New York Times bestseller and “Oprah’s Book Club” pick, “Hidden Valley Road” tells the true story of Mimi and Don Galvin and their 12 children. The family consisted of 10 boys and two girls born from 1945 to 1960 in Colorado Springs, Col.
To the outside world, the Galvins seemed the perfect family. But in reality, their lives were far from ideal. In fact, six of the children had schizophrenia, and the family was plagued with episodes of violence, sexual abuse and trauma.
Because of their unique genetic profiles, the Galvins were among the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health as part of its research into the biological basis of schizophrenia.
The book delves into the experiences of every living Galvin while interweaving the science, stigmas and still unanswered questions associated with schizophrenia.
A contributing editor for New York Magazine, Kolker’s work has been published in Bloomberg Businessweek, the New York Times Magazine, GQ and Wired. He spoke with Jmore prior to the Chizuk Amuno virtual talk about “Hidden Valley,” which was recently selected as one of the “Standouts of 2020” by Audible, a national seller and producer of digital audiobooks.
Jmore: Are you surprised by the book’s reception?
Kolker: I’m really overwhelmed and happy. Some of the credit has to go to Oprah. But with any deeply reported book, people either say, ‘Nice job,’ and move on or people get jazzed. I hoped the book would get a foothold. But it’s more than I ever imagined.
OK, so what’s Oprah like?
She’s terrific! Nice, warm, very professional. You’re the 175,000th person she’s talked to, so she’s very comfortable. That makes you comfortable.
How did you come to write “Hidden Valley Road”?
I was connected to the two youngest Galvins [Margaret and Lindsay] by a mutual friend. They were two sisters in their 50s who were trying to find a way to share their story. They thought it was best not to do a memoir because there were so many angles, including the medical research. They needed to find someone who would help them with the research studies [about the family’s genetics]. There were a couple of studies, and they had access to one study but not the other.
I thought writing the book would be enormously challenging, and at first I was skeptical because it was a multi-generational story and I didn’t know if everyone would want the story told. I didn’t start until every living family member agreed to be interviewed.
Why do you think the general public still doesn’t understand about schizophrenia?
I think schizophrenia takes away the person you know. Our culture tends to associate people with mental illness as monsters.
During the writing of the book, I learned that many people have relatives with mental illness who they don’t want to talk about. Hopefully, going public [about schizophrenia] might help people. I’ve been getting emails every day from people who say that the book has been comforting to them. I’m amazed.
Why do you think there haven’t been more breakthroughs in schizophrenia treatment?
It’s expensive and risky to find treatments. You can’t test drugs for schizophrenia on rats because rats don’t get schizophrenia.
Also, the constituency that has schizophrenia doesn’t really advocate for themselves. It’s still so mysterious and scary, even though [the National Alliance on Mental Illness] does great work.
What was it like growing up Jewish in Columbia?
We were members of Temple Isaiah, and my siblings and I became b’nai mitzvah there. I went to the Howard County Jewish community school. In Columbia, there was still a lot of idealism. We were told we were part of the future. It felt evolved, forward thinking. I had a wonderful childhood there.
Any similarities between your childhood community and the Galvins’ community?
Yes. The Galvins grew up in a bedroom community where people were connected to the U.S. Air Force Academy. It was new and everyone was from somewhere else. It was a new frontier, it was the Kennedy Era. They could tell themselves they were creating something exciting.
Any advice for those struggling with schizophrenia?
The more I learn, the more I hear about options to bring the illness out of the shadows. We need to support caregivers and people with mental illness.
The problem is we don’t have a good system in this country. We don’t really have a system. People can only get treatment covered by their insurance, if they have it. Many people with mental illness are on the street and in jail. But there are innovations …
It’s never too early to take action. If you get help when you’re young, there’s proof that early intervention can be helpful.
For information about Robert Kolker’s presentation to Chizuk Amuno, click here.