Authors: Robert Kolker
The children who did not become mentally ill were, in many respects, as affected as their brothers. It is hard enough to individuate oneself in any family with twelve children; here was a family that was defined by dynamics like no other, where the state of being mentally ill became the norm of the household, the position from which everything else had to start. For Lindsay, her sister, Margaret, and their brothers John, Richard, Michael, and Mark, being a member of the Galvin family was about either going insane yourself or watching your family go insane—growing up in a climate of perpetual mental illness. Even if they happened not to descend into delusions or hallucinations or paranoia—if they didn’t come to believe that the house was under attack, or that the CIA was searching for them, or that the devil was under their bed—they felt as if they were carrying an unstable element inside themselves. How much longer, they wondered, before it would overtake them, too?
As the youngest, Lindsay endured some of the worst of what happened—left in harm’s way, directly hurt by people she thought loved her. When she was little, all she wanted was to be someone else. She could have left Colorado and started over, changed her name for real, assumed a new identity, and tried to scribble over the memory of all she went through. A different person would have gotten out as soon as she could and never come back.
And yet here Lindsay is at Point of the Pines, checking to see if the brother she once dreaded needs a heart examination, if he’s signed all the forms that need signing, if the doctor has seen him enough. She does the same for her other sick brothers, too, the ones still living. With Donald, for the length of her visit today, Lindsay pays careful attention as he wanders the halls. She worries that he is not taking good enough care of himself. She wants the best for him.
In spite of everything, she loves him. How did that change?
THE ODDS OF
a family like this one existing at all, much less one that remained intact long enough to be discovered, seem impossible to calculate. The precise genetic pattern of schizophrenia has defied detection; its existence announces itself, but fleetingly, like flickering shadows on the wall of a cave. For more than a century, researchers have understood that one of the biggest risk factors for schizophrenia is heritability. The paradox is that schizophrenia does not appear to be passed directly from parent to child. Psychiatrists, neurobiologists, and geneticists all believed that a code for the condition had to be there somewhere, but have never been able to locate it. Then came the Galvins, who, by virtue of the sheer number of cases, offered a greater degree of insight into the illness’s genetic process than anyone imagined possible. Certainly no researcher had ever encountered six brothers in one family—full-blooded siblings, with the same two parents in common, the same shared genetic line.
Starting in the 1980s, the Galvin family became the subject of study by researchers on the hunt for a key to understanding schizophrenia. Their genetic material has been analyzed by the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, the National Institute of Mental Health, and more than one major pharmaceutical company. As with all such test subjects, their participation was always confidential. But now, after nearly four decades of research, the Galvin family’s contribution finally can be seen clearly. Samples of their genetic material have formed the cornerstone of research that has helped unlock our understanding of the disease. By analyzing this family’s DNA and comparing it with genetic samples from the general population, researchers are on the cusp of making significant advances in treatment, prediction, and even prevention of schizophrenia.
Until recently, the Galvins were completely unaware of how they might be helping others—oblivious to how their situation had, among some researchers, created such a feeling of promise. But what science has learned from them is only one small portion of their story. That story begins with their parents, Mimi and Don, and a life together that took flight with limitless hope and confidence, only to curdle and collapse in tragedy, confusion, and despair.
But the story of the children—of Lindsay, her sister, and her ten brothers—was always about something different. If their childhood was a funhouse-mirror reflection of the American dream, their story is about what comes after that image is shattered.
That story is about children, now grown, investigating the mysteries of their own childhood—reconstituting the fragments of their parents’ dream, and shaping it into something new.
It is about rediscovering the humanity in their own brothers, people who most of the world had decided were all but worthless.
It is about, even after the worst has happened in virtually every imaginable way, finding a new way to understand what it means to be a family.
DONALD WILLIAM GALVIN
born in Queens, New York, on January 16, 1924
died on January 7, 2003
MARGARET KENYON BLAYNEY GALVIN
born in Houston, Texas, on November 14, 1924
died on July 17, 2017
DONALD KENYON GALVIN
born in Queens, New York, on July 21, 1945
married Jean (divorced)
JAMES GREGORY GALVIN
born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 21, 1947
married Kathy (divorced), one child
died on March 2, 2001
JOHN CLARK GALVIN
born in Norfolk, Virginia, on December 2, 1949
married Nancy, two children
BRIAN WILLIAM GALVIN
born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on August 26, 1951
died on September 7, 1973
ROBERT MICHAEL GALVIN
born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on June 6, 1953
married Adele (divorced), two children
RICHARD CLARK GALVIN
born in West Point, New York, on November 15, 1954
married Kathy (divorced), one child
JOSEPH BERNARD GALVIN
born in Novato, California, on August 22, 1956
died on December 7, 2009
MARK ANDREW GALVIN
born in Novato, California, on August 20, 1957
married Joanne (divorced)
married Lisa, three children
MATTHEW ALLEN GALVIN
born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on December 17, 1958
PETER EUGENE GALVIN
born in Denver, Colorado, on November 15, 1960
MARGARET ELIZABETH GALVIN JOHNSON
born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on February 25, 1962
married Chris (divorced)
married Wylie Johnson; daughters Ellie and Sally
MARY CHRISTINE GALVIN RAUCH
born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on October 5, 1965
married Rick Rauch; son Jack, daughter Kate
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Every so often, in the middle of doing yet another thing she’d never imagined doing, Mimi Galvin would pause and take a breath and consider what, exactly, had brought her to that moment. Was it the careless, romantic tossing aside of her college education in favor of a wartime marriage? The pregnancies and the children, one after another, with no plan of stopping if Don had anything to say about it? The sudden move out west, to a place that was completely foreign to her? But of all the unusual moments, perhaps none compared to when Mimi—a refined daughter of Texas aristocracy, by way of New York City—clutched a live bird in one hand and a needle and thread in the other, preparing to sew the bird’s eyelids shut.
She had heard the hawk before she saw it. It was nighttime, and Don and the boys were asleep in their new home when there was an unfamiliar noise. They had been warned about coyotes and mountain lions, but this sound was different, the pitch high, the quality otherworldly. The next morning, Mimi went outside, and on the ground, not far from the cottonwood trees, she noticed a small scattering of feathers. Don suggested they bring the feathers to a new acquaintance of his, Bob Stabler, a zoologist who taught at Colorado College, a short walk from where they were living in the center of Colorado Springs.
Doc Stabler’s house was unlike any place they had seen in New York: a home that doubled as a repository for reptiles, mainly snakes, including one that was uncaged—a cottonmouth moccasin, coiled around the back of a wooden chair. Don and Mimi brought their three sons with them, ages six, four, and two. When one of the boys dashed in front of the snake, Mimi shrieked.
“What’s the matter?” Stabler said with a smile. “Afraid it’s going to bite your baby?”
The zoologist had no trouble identifying the feathers. He had been training hawks and falcons as a hobby for years. Don and Mimi knew nothing about falconry, and at first they feigned interest as Stabler went on about it: how, in medieval times, no one beneath the rank of an earl was even allowed to own a peregrine falcon; and how this part of Colorado was a prime nesting spot for the prairie falcon, a cousin of the peregrine and every bit as majestic, he said, a thing of beauty. And then, against their better judgment, both Mimi and Don found themselves fascinated, as if they were being let in on one of the great private worlds of a place they were only just beginning to understand. Their new friend made it sound like a cultish thing, an archaic pastime practiced today by a secretive few. He and his friends were taming the same sorts of wild birds once tamed by Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Mary Queen of Scots, and Henry VIII—and they were doing it very much the same way.
In truth, Don and Mimi may have come to Colorado Springs about fifty years too late. Back then, this part of the state had been an agreeable destination for, among others,
Marshall Field, Oscar Wilde, and Henry Ward Beecher, all of whom came to take in some of the natural wonders of the American West. There was Pikes Peak, the fourteen-thousand-foot summit named for an explorer, Zebulon Pike, who never actually made it to the top. There was the Garden of the Gods, the looming natural arrangement of sandstone rock outcroppings that seem staged for maximum effect, like the heads on Easter Island. And there was Manitou Springs, where some of the wealthiest, most refined Americans came to partake of the latest pseudoscientific cures. But by the time Don and Mimi arrived, in the winter of 1951, the elite sheen of the place had long worn away, and Colorado Springs had gone back to being a drought-ridden, small-minded outpost of a town—such a tiny pinpoint on the map that when the Boy Scout international jamboree was held there, the jamboree was bigger than the town.
So for Don and Mimi to happen upon such a grand tradition right under their noses—the mark of nobility and royalty, right there, in the middle of nowhere—sent shock waves through them both, feeding into their shared love of culture and history and sophistication. They were goners. But joining that club took some time. Aside from Doc Stabler, no one was willing to talk about falconry with the Galvins. Falconry was so exclusive, it seemed, that conventional bird-watching groups of the time had yet to embrace the pursuit of these particular birds.
Mimi could never remember how, but
Don got his hands on a copy of
a Persian falconry text that only in the past few decades had been translated into English. From that book, he and Mimi learned to build their first trap, a dome made of chicken wire, affixed to a circular frame the size of a hula hoop. Following the instructions, they staked a few dead pigeons inside the trap as bait, with wires of fishing line hanging from the chicken wire above. At the end of each line, they tied slipknots to catch any bird who fell for the ruse.
Their first customer, a red-tailed hawk, flew off, carrying the whole trap behind it; their English setter ran after it and tracked it down. This was the first wild bird that Mimi ever held in her hand. Like a dog chasing a fire truck, she had no idea what to do if she caught one.
Back to Doc Stabler she went, hawk in hand. “Well, you did pretty well,” he said. “Now sew the eyelids together.”
Stabler explained that a falcon’s eyelids protect them as they dive at speeds upward of two hundred miles per hour. But in order to train a hawk or falcon the way Henry VIII’s falconers did it, the bird’s eyelids should be temporarily sewn shut. With no visual distractions, a falcon can be made dependent on the will of a falconer—the sound of his voice, the touch of his hands. The zoologist cautioned Mimi: Be careful the stitches aren’t too tight or too loose, and that the needle never pricks the hawk’s eyes. There seemed any number of ways to make a hash of the bird. What, again, brought Mimi to this moment?
She was frightened, yet not entirely unprepared. Mimi’s mother had made dresses during the Depression—even ran her own business—and she had made sure her daughter knew a few things. As carefully as she could, Mimi went to work on the edge of each eyelid, one after the other. When she was done, she took the long tails of the threads from both eyes, tied them together, and stashed them in the feather on top of the bird’s head, to keep the bird from scratching at them.
Stabler complimented Mimi on her work. “Now,” he said, “you have to keep it on the fist for forty-eight hours.”
Mimi balked. How could Don walk the halls of Ent Air Force Base, where he worked as a briefing officer, with a blinded hawk on his wrist? How could Mimi do the dishes, or look after three small boys?
They divided up the work. Mimi took days, and Don took nights, during his late shifts at the base, tethering the bird to a chair in the room where he spent most of his time. Only once did a senior officer walk in and cause the hawk to “bate”—a falconry term meaning to fly away in a panic. Classified documents went flying everywhere, too. Don had a reputation at the base after that.
But at the end of those forty-eight hours, Mimi and Don had successfully domesticated a hawk. They felt an enormous sense of accomplishment. This was about embracing the wild, natural world, but also about bringing it under one’s control. Taming these birds could be brutal and punishing. But with consistency and devotion and discipline, it was unbelievably rewarding.
Not unlike, they often thought, the parenting of a child.
WHEN SHE WAS
a little girl, Mimi Blayney would sit under her family’s grand piano and listen to her grandmother playing Chopin and Mozart. On nights when her grandmother picked up the violin, Mimi would stare, transfixed, as her aunt danced like a Gypsy along to the music, the logs in the fireplace crackling loudly behind her. And when no one else was around, the pale, dark-haired girl, no older than five, would venture where she was not allowed to go. The Victrola was broken more often than it wasn’t, and the records the family owned—thick, grooved platters, more like hubcaps than LPs—were filled with music that Mimi was dying to hear. When the coast was clear, Mimi would put a platter on the machine, place down the needle, and spin it with her finger. She would get about two measures of opera that way, over and over again.
The excavation of levees had worked out well for Mimi’s grandfather, Howard Pullman Kenyon, a civil engineer who, long before Mimi was born, founded a company that dredged the rivers of five states, building levees along the Mississippi. Mimi’s mother, Wilhelmina—or Billy to everyone—went to a private school in Dallas, and when the teacher would ask, “And what does your daddy do?” she’d coyly reply, “He’s a ditch digger.” At its wealthiest, during the Roaring Twenties, the Kenyon family owned its own island at the mouth of the Guadalupe River near Corpus Christi, Texas, where Mimi’s grandfather dug his own lake and stocked it with bass. Most of the year, the family lived in a grand old mansion on Caroline Boulevard in Houston. In the driveway were two Pierce-Arrows, a fleet that increased by one additional Pierce-Arrow each time one of Grandfather Kenyon’s five children came of age.
Mimi grew up with plenty of stories about the Kenyons. In her later years, she would recite those stories to her friends and neighbors and everyone she met, like secrets too delicious to keep to herself. The family’s first home in Texas was sold to Howard Hughes’s parents….Howard Hughes himself was a classmate of Mimi’s mother at the Richardson School, the academic institution of choice for Houston’s upper crust….Obsessed with mining, Grandfather Kenyon once traveled to the mountains of Mexico in search of gold and was briefly held captive by Pancho Villa, until his command of the local geography impressed the Mexican revolutionary so much that the two men struck up a friendship. Out of insecurity or, maybe, just a restless intellect, Mimi would come back to these stories as a way of affirming her status, her pedigree. It felt good to remind herself that there was something special about where she came from.
It made sense, by Kenyon standards, that when Mimi’s mother, Billy, found someone good enough to marry, the groom was not just a twenty-six-year-old cotton merchant; he was the son of a scholar who had traveled the world as a trusted advisor to the banker and philanthropist Otto Kahn. The families of Billy Kenyon and John Blayney were perfectly matched, and the young couple seemed destined for a life of high-minded adventure. They set up a home of their own and had two children: first Mimi, in 1924, and then her sister, Betty, two and a half years later. The family’s first real crisis came in early 1929, when Mimi’s father, who had failed to measure up to the reputation of his family in practically every important way, exposed Mimi’s mother to gonorrhea.
Grandfather Kenyon went after his son-in-law with a rifle, securing a quick divorce for his daughter. Billy and the girls moved back to the family home in Houston. Billy was helpless, on the verge of despair. A divorced, scandalized mother of two little girls—Mimi was five, Betty three—was not going to build any sort of life in the circles that the Kenyon family traveled in. There didn’t seem to be a solution to the problem—until, a few months later, Mimi’s mother fell for an artist from New York.
Ben Skolnick was a painter who had been just passing through town, on his way to create a mural in California. Ben had good taste, and was raised in a family of creative people, but he stuck out a little in Houston, not just because of what he did for a living but because he was Jewish. Billy’s parents made sure to meet with Ben out of town, where no one would see them. But when Ben proposed, Billy’s mother encouraged her to accept. No matter what her family might have thought about Ben Skolnick personally or Jews generally, they understood that this was Billy’s best hope.
In the summer of 1929, Grandfather Kenyon drove Mimi, her mother, and her little sister to a boat in Galveston, Texas, which took them east along the Gulf to New Orleans, where they boarded a cruise ship on the Cunard line to New York. On board, the future Mrs. Skolnick and her daughters received invitations to sit at the captain’s table, where they were required to have perfect manners, finger bowls included. Mimi got seasick easily, and even when she was well, she failed to enjoy the trip. Not for the last time, Mimi wondered if anything about her life would ever be the same.
THE NEWLY CONSTITUTED
family struggled right away. Ben couldn’t find any murals to paint after the stock market crash. Billy, with her refined breeding and eye for fine fabrics, found a job at Macy’s. In time, she started a dress business in Manhattan’s Garment District that brought the family a little more stability. While she worked, Ben and his family tended to the girls in their tiny house in Bellerose, Queens—the city’s edge, practically on the border with Long Island.
New York slowly grew on Mimi. Sack lunches in hand, she and her sister could take the bus and subway for a nickel from far-off Queens to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, then make their way through Central Park, past Cleopatra’s Needle to the Museum of Natural History, and find their way back home before dark. All the New Deal WPA projects allowed Mimi to see theater in ballparks and high school auditoriums. School took her on her first trips to the aquarium and planetarium. Her first ballet, by Léonid Massine, was staged inside the Met. Mimi would never forget the sight of twelve little girls who came all the way from Russia to dance—all, it seemed at the time, just for her. If the first world Mimi had known was the world of the Victrola and the grand piano and the country club and Junior League of Houston, she took more fiercely to this new world. “I loved growing up in New York,” she would say. “That’s the best education in the world, it really is.”