Mimi and Don Galvin married in 1945. Twenty years later, Mimi gave birth to the last of 12 children the couple had together. Having 12 children makes for an interesting story, but astonishingly, six of those children were diagnosed with schizophrenia by the time they were adults.
Beginning in the 1970s and up to present time in 2020, the family’s genetic material has been analyzed by researchers seeking to understand the causes and potential cures of schizophrenia.
How anyone in the family managed to survive the chaotic, sometimes abusive, puzzling, and shattering legacy that made up the childhoods of the 12 children is astounding. Yet within the dysfunction, love and hope did exist. Six of the children managed to live comparatively successful lives as adults. The other six had lives that ended early or are now living in homes for adults with medical and mental issues.
The children grew up in Colorado. Don Galvin worked in the Air Force and later for the Federation of Rocky Mountain States. Working in various positions as a fundraiser and organizer, he traveled and worked closely with politicians and cultural icons.
Mimi was left alone most of the time and seemed to cheerfully and tirelessly handle the rearing of 12 children. Following the births of 10 sons spaced one or two years apart, Mimi had two daughters. The daughters and four of the sons escaped the diagnosis of schizophrenia. All 12 of the children were intelligent and talented.
The sons were in and out of mental and medical facilities most of their adult lives. In between, they lived with their mother and father who allowed them back home, at the expense of the well being of the children still at home. Many times Mimi feared for her own life, but there was always another child in the home to deflect the abuse from her sons.
None of the treatments for the Galvin children suffering from schizophrenia worked the same on any of them. In the 1970s, drugs were used to quell the thoughts and actions of people with the disease. Shock treatments provided temporary help to some of the young adults, but not all. One medication worked for one person, but not another. None of the men suffered in the same way from their illness.
Research scientists were made aware of the family’s unique situation. Countless times, the family was involved in a series of physical, medical, and psychiatric tests. Was the illness caused by nurture or nature? Was there something in the DNA that the children inherited?
The genetic testing from the family members helped scientists gather significant material for their work towards treatment, prediction, and hopefully prevention of the illness. Genetic samples from the family are still being worked with today by researchers in science and in the pharmaceutical industry.
Readers familiar with the story of Henrietta Lacks and the significance of finding a cure through her cancer cells will understand how important the Galvin’s family contribution to the study of schizophrenia may be. Just as Lack’s cell lines have become vitally important in cancer research, it is possible that the Galvins’ cell lines may help with the discovery of better treatments for those with mental illnesses. Some progress towards those goals has already been made using their genetic markers.
During the latter part of the twentieth century, drug companies were not interested in developing new medicines to help schizophrenic patients. The research was too expensive. However, as recently as 2017, renewed interest has been generated by scientists who have access to the genetic material gathered from the family. One of the budding researchers is the granddaughter of Mimi and Don Galvin.
The larger part of this story is a telling of the family life of the parents and children as each sought to navigate a journey that few others have experienced. The book was based on interviews with living family members, including Mimi who died in 2017, and with doctors who worked with the family.
“Hidden Valley Road” is unfailingly a story of affliction, but one also of affection, love and aspiration.