When you’re delving into a dark, traumatic story, most people would become depressed. Robert Kolker, however, found it optimistic — “because, I know the ending. I know there’s hope,” he said at Chizuk Amuno Congregation’s Zoom discussion May 20 to more than 140
Kolker, author of “Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family,” spent the evening answering questions about his book and exploring schizophrenia. “Hidden Valley Road” follows the Galvins, a real family with a dozen kids, half of whom developed schizophrenia (not to be confused with multiple personality disorder). It was an instant New York Times No. 1 Bestseller and Oprah’s Book Club Pick. Some readers likened it to science fiction, while Kolker himself described it as a true family story and medical mystery about how to process trauma.
The talk was led by Chizuk’s senior rabbi, Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg.
After everyone figured out how to mute themselves, Gruenberg began asking Kolker questions about writing.
“The most difficult part was to capture the mother’s character,” said Kolker, who is Jewish. He considered that mothers are often blamed, but meeting everyone in the family helped him paint the full picture. He was careful to make sure all accounts were considered, and made a bulletin board to keep track of the various viewpoints, character development, and storyline.
“If you ask me to recall an eventful Thanksgiving, I won’t know if it was 1975 or 1976, so I had to figure out these discrepancies,” he said. “The most amazing things happen when you talk to everyone: Holes get filled.”
Kolker also had a responsibility to weigh the science element, which the latter part of the talk focused on.
The tale raises questions in the field, such as the nature versus nurture debate.
The family’s symptoms came from genetic coding, yet the biology was only a match. Triggers made the disorder catch fire. Examples of potential triggers in the book include when the father randomly smashed 10 dishes. Or when he decided to jump into a bonfire. Or when he killed a cat.
According to the National Institutes of Health, there is no certain cause for schizophrenia at this time, but research shows that genetics and experiences increase one’s likelihood of developing it.
The science discussion flowed into a philosophical one.
“If the family had looked at mental health in a different way, would things have been different?” Kolker asked rhetorically.
Even history crept into the discussion: Kolker asked the audience to consider that perceptions of mental illness in the ‘50s were surrounded by fear, and until the ‘80s most mental disorders were dismissed as the result of bad parenting. Then society saw a completely deviant view, with movies like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” propagating
hallucinations as social awareness. Then society flipped again, and doctors over-
Medications, Kolker believes, actually seem to aggravate schizophrenic symptoms. According to the American Psychiatric Association, only 20% of schizophrenic patients report favorable treatment outcomes.
To complicate it all, Kolker thinks the disorder is a cluster of symptoms and that “in six years, there could be six different names for conditions we lump together as schizophrenia.” Right now, he said, it feels like we’re in a merry-go-round of science. “You might feel like you’re ahead of everyone while you’re working on something, but then the ride stops and everyone is in random positions and not anywhere further than the others.”
But the future is bright for the field, Kolker thinks. He sees less stigma around the topic in this age. However, “There’s a lot of mystery still around schizophrenia. You can say, oh yeah, my cousin has anxiety, but schizophrenia is something society is more embarrassed of.”
For now, Kolker has no major projects in his sights and said the idea of turning the book into a movie would be a “glacial” process. Instead, he’s focused on talks like this and stirring up the medical community.