Indeed, the medical community appears not much closer today to finding a “cure” for schizophrenia, if such a thing exists. But Kolker argues that’s the wrong ship to wait for. More promising developments emerge in early detection, and in “soft intervention” techniques that combine therapy, family support and minimal medication.
A gifted storyteller, Kolker brings each family member to life — there’s Michael, who found solace in a Tennessee hippie commune; Brian, who moved to California to become a rock star; Mary, who changed her name to Lindsay as soon as she got to boarding school. But he’s also able to widen the aperture, describing how mental illness reshapes the lives of everyone within sight. “For a family, schizophrenia is, primarily, a felt experience, as if the foundation of the family is permanently tilted in the direction of the sick family member,” Kolker writes.
Kolker is used to prowling worlds of pain. His first book, “Lost Girls,” about the murders of prostitutes on Long Island, is filled with similar compassion without indulging in tawdry gore. He manages the same balancing act here, narrating the stuff of tabloid nightmares — one of the brothers kills himself and his ex-girlfriend with a .22-caliber rifle — without ever resorting to rubbernecking.
Kolker is a restrained and unshowy writer who is able to effectively set a mood. As the walls begin closing in for the Galvins, he subtly recreates their feeling of claustrophobia, erasing the outside world that has offered so little help. The political tumult of the 1960s exists somewhere out there, but only as an aside: “They prayed for the president who died just a few weeks after their move to Hidden Valley Road, and they prayed for the president who had taken his place.” What are politics and presidents in the face of your sick children?
Kolker spends several chapters with the two sisters, who responded in different ways to the trauma of their brother who preyed on them, and the other horrors of their lives.
But it’s Mimi, the matriarch, who sticks with me. Toward the end of the book, she reflects on the chasm that nearly engulfed her and everyone she loved.
Hearing her plain, stubborn, shellshocked voice, you can’t help wondering what defenses any of us could muster in the face of madness and monsters and genetic mysteries we may never understand.
“I was crushed,” she says. “Because I thought I was such a good mother. I baked a cake and a pie every night. Or at least had Jell-O with whipped cream.”