News USA The strange case of the Galvins, a family with six schizophrenic children

The strange case of the Galvins, a family with six schizophrenic children

It was his publisher who put him in touch with Lindsay and Margaret, the two Galvin sisters. They were the youngest, and also the only two girls, of the long line of 12 children who had Don, a veteran of World War II, and Mimi, a perfect housewife. Six of the boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia, in one of the most unusual mental health cases in the US, studied by medical specialists to try to unravel the age-old question of whether this condition is hereditary or acquired.

“The first time I spoke to them about their tragic story I thought that not all of the family members who were still living would agree with me doing a book about their case, but after a few months of conversations it turned out that they did, including Mimi, the mother. There are many essays, memoirs of schizophrenics and medical books, but a non-fiction book had never been done, an investigation into a story like that of the Galvins with everyone’s testimonies”, explained investigative journalist Robert Kolker (Maryland, 53 years old), author of The boys from Hidden Valley Road. In the mint of an American family (Sixth floor).

The journalist Robert Kolker, author of ‘The Boys from Hidden Valley’, this Thursday at the Hotel de las Letras in Madrid.bald elm

Shortly after starting their investigation, at a Colorado hospital he visited with Lindsay, they were handed two carts full of folders containing the Galvins’ medical records. “That changed history,” recalled Kolker, who throughout the 500 pages of his research reconstructs not only the history of the family but also the evolution of psychiatry and the study of schizophrenia, from the dispute between Carl G. Jung and Sigmund Freud to the role of pharmaceutical companies. “When the first brother, Donald, began to be treated, lobotomies were not performed, but psychoactive drugs were prescribed, something that is still done today as if they were a panacea. We have grown up in an era where it seems like there is a pill to cure everything, but not with schizophrenia. One of the reasons why the stigma around depression, anxiety or bipolarity has decreased is because there are increasingly sophisticated medications that are effective in many cases to treat it, but this does not happen with schizophrenics and these patients have a increased difficulty fighting or protesting. Existing medicines are considered to be good enough because they calm patients, but they do not improve with these treatments”, explained the journalist.

“The Galvins’ case helped determine that there was a genetic component, a series of mutations, but there is no specific gene. The predisposition to the disease does not imply that it will necessarily develop. For this reason, he adds, to combat the development of schizophrenia today we are seeking to strengthen the brain and try to prevent new outbreaks that weaken patients and complicate diagnosed cases. “Schizophrenia is not a disease like covid, let’s say, it is a diagnosis that encompasses different conditions. There is an epidemiologist who has pointed out that centuries ago fever was considered an ailment in itself and not a symptom. The same thing may end up happening with schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses.”

Lindsay and Margaret Galvin.
Lindsay and Margaret Galvin.Editorial Sixth Floor

In the case of the Galvins, Kolker describes fights with a certain sadism between the brothers, as well as the abuse of a priest friend of the family and of Brian Galvin towards the rest. How is it possible that this level of violence did not alarm the parents? “Don and Mimi considered themselves to be following the rules, their children were altar boys, played musical instruments, had an artistic background and shared a love of falconry. The rest thought it would sort itself out. They clung to that old idea that boys are boys. They didn’t think there was anything else,” the author explained. Mimi refused to see her problems until in the 70’s the crime followed by the suicide of one of her children changed her completely. She “she kept her composure and her way of seeing the world, but at that moment her mission changed. It was no longer about maintaining the image of the perfect family but about getting help and treatment for her children.” One of the things that Kolker denounces in his book is the theory of the so-called “schizophrenogenic mothers”, pointed out as guilty of the mental illness of their children. “One of the great mistakes has been to blame mothers for every psychiatric disorder, from autism to psychotic behavior, even homosexuality when it was considered a disease,” he noted. “There is a clear misogynistic bias that seeped into psychoanalysis.” In the case of the Galvins, the journalist says that, in part, these accusations, which left shock Mimi and were deeply embarrassed, which led her to try to keep her children away from hospitals. “They should have been treated sooner, and that might have made things better.”

Six of the Galvin brothers do not suffer from schizophrenia, how do they live with the shadow and the suspicion of that disease that has marked their family? “They are functional and very nice, but the more I have known them, the more I have seen that they are hypervigilant. They never got over that question of who would be next. In the next generation there are only two cases of mental illness. But what intrigued me most when working on the investigation was to understand why the two sisters did not choose to radically distance themselves from the family. Each of them has had a different evolution: Lindsay took perspective on the case of her brothers and her mother’s position and saw the injustice that punishes many mentally ill people who end up in prison or on the street, and calls for a better system of mental health. Margaret has known how to mark the distance better, but she has also needed to approach her family history to close the wound ”.

The Galvin family in 1965. Six of Donald and Mimi's twelve children were diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The Galvin family in 1965. Six of Donald and Mimi’s twelve children were diagnosed with schizophrenia.:ditorial Sixth Floor

For Kolker, the key to approaching this story as a journalist lies in a delicate balance. “You can be empathetic and compassionate and not lose your impartiality. With vulnerable people you have to be careful, but you know that in the end you are at the service of the readers. The story of the six schizophrenic Galvin brothers is not a horror film or a case of possessed monsters, but the story of a family affected by illness and stigma”, she explains. “When I started, investigative journalism was understood to be things like Watergate. I was interested in ordinary people and telling their story also has a political component”.

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Source: EL PAIS

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