Read Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family Online
Authors: Robert Kolker
Donald went back and forth with the psychiatrist about whether his marriage to Jean was a happy or unhappy one.
One moment, he’d talk about the fun they’d had together on a six-week camping trip to Mexico. The next, he’d be admitting that things had not gone right ever since the wedding. In the three years that had passed since then—it was June 1970 now—Donald had come to believe he’d married Jean when he was on the rebound, after being rejected by his previous fiancée, Marilee, and that their life together now could barely be considered a marriage at all.
It was a sad story, but Donald wasn’t telling it that way. Instead, he came off as stubborn, detached, critical, cool, and even slightly paranoid. The doctor, a psychiatrist from Colorado State University Hospital in Fort Collins named Tom Patterson, noticed a certain rehearsed quality to Donald, a rigorous self-control that flattened his entire personality, as if he were trying to keep the lid on something explosive inside of him. “He watches your every move,” he wrote.
Both Donald and Jean were out of college now but still living in Fort Collins. Donald was working as a research assistant and taking classes in anatomy and physiology, still dreaming of a medical career one day, while Jean was completing her master’s degree. That day, Donald said that he came to the campus counseling center because someone he knew had recommended that he find a sensitivity group to help him communicate better with his wife. Before long, he revealed the real reason he was there: Jean told him that she was going to leave him in three weeks.
Donald spoke candidly with Patterson about how bad things had been recently. Jean had complained that he was distant most of the time, and that the rest of the time he was downright threatening. Where she once was the one refusing sex, now Donald only agreed to sex when she demanded it, about once a week. They ate separately and slept in separate bedrooms. He owned up to being withdrawn around her, and sometimes threatening her, too, but it was too late. Jean seemed fed up with him—and now that she had a paid assistantship lined up in a doctoral program at Oregon State University in the fall, she no longer needed him to support her. “In other words,” Patterson wrote, “the marital relationship is a lousy one, with each person going their own way.”
As calm as Donald seemed, Patterson knew all about the various other therapists Donald had seen since his first run through the bonfire years earlier. He even recalled once seeing Donald’s Rorschach test, which he remembered as “quite pathological.” On that day in June, the psychiatrist tried going a little deeper with Donald, moving beyond the pressing issue of his marriage to talk more about himself. Their talk quickly became a full-fledged therapy session. Donald told the doctor that for years he had not been himself at all, but rather a mirror of what other people wanted him to be. He said he made a practice of reading people’s facial expressions, gestures, and words for hints of the best way to react. He called his mad dash through the campus bonfire a plea for attention, and he said that he’d lied on a lot of the psychiatric examinations he’d taken. Recently, he’d said, he’d gone on an Eastern philosophy kick; he’d fasted for four days, and he bragged now about weighing just 158 pounds. The doctor was not impressed. Whatever Eastern terminology Donald was throwing around now in his conversation, the doctor believed simply made him seem more bland—not insincere, but not genuine, either. It often seemed to Patterson that Donald was about to cry, but then gathered himself and stopped before the tears came.
The psychiatrist came away believing that even if Donald had once displayed elements of paranoid schizophrenia, and even “may have done very bizarre or violent things,” he might not be quite so far gone now. “He is in good contact with reality,” he wrote in his notes. “He is evasive and probably does not commit himself to a deep relationship with anyone….He has a low frustration tolerance and easily gives up on people or situations that threaten him.” The doctor wondered if Donald’s pent-up emotion was the result of him repressing his own desires and needs for too long—a theory that, strangely, almost seemed to blame Jean for Donald’s problems. “He has given in to her needs, her wants,” he wrote, “and has suppressed his own feeling so severely and for so long that he has difficulty now in expressing his affect.”
Patterson ended the session by inviting Donald to come back the next day to talk some more. Donald did, and when he returned, he seemed strangely transformed—relaxed, even happy. He said that he and Jean had talked, and that she had removed the deadline when she learned that Donald was now seeing a therapist. They even went out to dinner together, and Jean agreed to try couples therapy.
Patterson was encouraged, but now that Donald wanted something from him, he felt ready to ask something in return. He said that he’d consider conducting couples therapy with Donald, provided Donald gave him permission to go through his file and learn more about his psychiatric history.
Donald darkened a little. He told the doctor he didn’t believe in psychological tests. He thought the tests done on him were invalid, he said, and he wasn’t sure anything in his file would be helpful.
“Therapy will be difficult because of this,” Patterson wrote. “Can he be reached without denial?”
On his way out the door, Donald warily agreed to take home a paper-and-pencil personality test.
COMPLETE THESE SENTENCES TO EXPRESS YOUR REAL FEELINGS.
TRY TO DO EVERY ONE.
BE SURE TO MAKE A COMPLETE SENTENCE.
FALCONRY, SEX, SWIMMING, TRAVEL, SKIING.
IS A GOOD PLACE TO VISIT FOR A SHORT TIME.
SHOULD BE MORE FLEXIBLE IN THEIR THINKING.
SHOULD CARE FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF HER CHILDREN.
MY GREATEST FEAR:
NOT STICKING TO WHAT
I ORIGINALLY WANTED.
THERE’S THE BEST TIME OF A LIFE.
I WAS A CHILD:
I STILL AM
FROM SELF PITY (NOT MUCH)
I DON’T CARE ENOUGH
WHAT PAINS ME:
MOST ARE OTHER PEOPLE.
WANT TO BE HAPPY WHEN
MY GREATEST WORRY IS:
DECIDING WHAT TO DO.
NOT QUITE A
week later, on a Friday night in June, Donald and Jean had another fight. It was all the same conflicts all over again, but worse, more fraught than before. Things were bad enough that Jean walked out of their apartment. Donald followed her, and found her nearby, sitting low to the ground, near an irrigation ditch. Either she was trying to have some time alone, or she was trying to hide from him. But once he found her, Donald started talking about how he wanted to drown her.
Jean talked him out of it. They both made it back into the apartment, more or less together, though Jean did make one thing clear: She would be moving to Oregon without him.
The next day was Saturday morning. Donald was still upset about the fight—and about Jean’s decision to leave him after all. He took some mescaline, an experience that he later said not only offered him incredible insight, but helped him come up with the right response, the perfect plan.
That night—June 20, 1970—Donald came home with two cyanide tablets, procured, most likely, from a lab at the school. Donald dropped them into a glass of hydrochloric acid, took hold of Jean, and tried to hold her still—both of their faces above the glass as the cyanide misted into a gas.
The plan was for them to die together.
DONALD WAS A
no-show for his next appointment. When Patterson opened the newspaper on Monday morning, he learned why.
Fort Collins Police: 10:20am Donald Kenyon Galvin, 24, of 27G Aggie Village was booked for protective custody in connection with an alleged suicide and possible homicide attempt. He was being held in city jail this morning on authority of the district attorney. He was first taken to the Colorado State University Student Health Center for treatment.
Donald’s plan hadn’t worked. Maybe he loosened his hold on Jean, or maybe his grip was never that strong to begin with. But she tore herself away, ran from the room hysterically, and called the police. After reading the report in the paper, Patterson found Donald at a hospital, where he’d been sent on a “confine and treat” order while the district attorney’s office decided whether to charge him or have him committed. Much to the doctor’s alarm, Donald still hadn’t seemed to have come down from the experience. As Donald talked, he came off as euphoric, even boastful—an unmasked comic book villain, crowing about how he’d fooled everyone for years. He talked about the time that he killed a cat, but this time instead of being terrified, he was almost gloating. He said he’d recently dismembered a dog in the bathtub, too, just to upset Jean.
Nothing in Patterson’s notes from Donald’s sessions suggested he was capable of anything like this. Had Donald deliberately pulled the wool over Patterson’s eyes, or had he simply fallen apart without any real warning signs? Had the doctor missed something violent in him? Had he been too willing to have faith in him?
That, at least, was over. Donald had a new diagnosis. “He is probably an intelligent paranoid schizophrenic,” Patterson wrote, “who has wide mood swings from elation to depression….I think the inpatient commitment procedure is definitely the right thing to do.”
The Colorado State Hospital in Pueblo is a collection of large, bland brick buildings at the center of a town that has sprung up around it, largely to accommodate the growing staff of health care workers serving the expanding patient rolls.
When the hospital first opened with about a dozen patients in October 1879 under a different name, the Colorado State Insane Asylum, the facility was just a farmhouse, and Pueblo was a sleepy town on a flat stretch of desert, a hundred miles south of Denver. The institution got its new name in 1917, having grown by then to treat more than two thousand patients—each one housed there with very little hope that they might ever be released.
The early patients at Pueblo were subject to a seemingly endless array of chemical and electric treatments designed to pacify them. In the 1920s, as the eugenics movement gained momentum, Pueblo’s doctors sterilized their female patients, despite lacking the legal authority to do so. It never seemed to occur to any of them that it might be a bad idea. “
We considered it a minor operation,” the hospital’s longtime superintendent, Dr. Frank Zimmerman, said years later. “So they will not produce more mental deficients.”
By the 1950s, the hospital housed more than five thousand patients, becoming a small, largely self-sustaining community—bigger than the county seat of the biggest county in the state—with parents and children and grandchildren all going to work there at the same time. Unable to rely on the state legislature for funding, the hospital arranged for patients to grow their own crops and operate a dairy farm, a pig farm, a garden, and a factory where the patients made textiles. Pueblo had become a colony for the mentally ill, where people stayed forever; the most popular treatments in those days were electroshock therapy for depression, insulin coma therapy for schizophrenia, hydrotherapy for mania, and fever therapy for tertiary syphilis.