Read Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family Online
Authors: Robert Kolker
With money from the National Endowment for the Arts, Don started offering residencies to the East Coast’s most prestigious and accomplished dancers and choreographers and conductors. By the late 1960s, Don and Mimi and whichever children were too small to leave at home on their own would travel to Aspen and Santa Fe for concerts, fund-raisers, conferences, and galas. Which was how, with the Federation, Mimi’s old dreams of a life of art and culture and the best of everything really were coming true—first the dream house, then the dream life.
In Santa Fe, the Galvins were regulars at parties where the guest list often included Georgia O’Keeffe—in her signature black hat and long black skirt, her hair in a long braid down the middle of her back—and Henriette Wyeth, Andrew’s sister, who demanded to paint Don and Mimi’s little girls, Margaret and Mary, in their gossamer organdy dresses that made them look like they’d stepped right out of a double portrait by Gainsborough. For Mimi, very little could match the thrill of visiting Henriette Wyeth’s ranch in Roswell, New Mexico, standing in the barn where she and her husband, the artist Peter Hurd, painted, and seeing Hurd take her two little girls on a hike to look at the orange trees and the sagebrush that made little Margaret sneeze. Or having breakfast with the legendary conductor Maurice Abravanel and choreographer Agnes de Mille (who, like Georgia O’Keeffe, showed extraordinarily little interest in young Margaret and Mary). Or watching Don as he sweet-talked David Rockefeller into funding the Federation’s new public television project.
They made new friends, too, like the oil wildcatter Samuel Gary, whose 1967 strike in Bell Creek Field in Montana tapped an estimated 240 million barrels of oil—the largest oil strike west of the Mississippi at that time. Sam relied on Don and the Federation for help in building out Bell Creek into a town that could support hundreds of new oil workers. If the main drag of Bell Creek needed a new traffic light, Don Galvin was a phone call away. Through the late 1960s, with Margaret and Mary in tow, the Galvins visited with the Garys at their house in the refined Cherry Hills section of Denver. Sam and his wife, Nancy, had eight children, and a few of the girls were close in age to Margaret and Mary. The children would play together while the grown-ups would play tennis or talk politics. The Garys loved watching Don with his falcons; Don’s fame as the Air Force Academy’s falcon man preceded him. Once, in Colorado Springs, Don and Mimi enlisted young Donald to teach Sam and Nancy and some of their children how to rappel off the cliff at Cathedral Rock. Another time, when the Garys flew Don and Mimi to
in Cedar Springs, Idaho, in their tiny, unpressurized private plane, Mimi got dizzy during the flight and passed out.
Back home, Mimi and Don became regular guests at dinner parties, where Don held forth with authority on politics and industry and the arts. All eyes were on her accomplished husband. Mimi felt she had it all on those nights. Don was handsome, intelligent, and a little flirtatious. Her friends would call him Romeo.
NOTHING IS FREE,
and before long, Mimi put her finger on the price. More than Don, she saw how her nose was pressed up against the windows of this world. She had no college education, and she and Don had no wealth. Her own pedigree, Grandfather Kenyon and his levees, mattered very little among the millionaires of the new West. At best, they were the help. Even at their most benign, Sam and Nancy Gary, their new multimillionaire friends, were living reminders that the world that Mimi and Don were traveling in—the world of the Federation and governors and oil wildcatters and world-class artists and dancers and celebrity orchestra conductors—was not really their world at all.
And, of course, their world was not as perfect as Mimi had wanted. She would not have admitted this to herself at the time, much less told another soul about it. But if she needed reminding, she only had to wait for visits home from her oldest two boys. Donald and Jim continued to fight, with each other and with their younger brothers. Every visit to Hidden Valley Road—Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas again—ended in bruises. Richard remembered once watching as Donald ran down the road after Jim, caught up to him, and knocked him to the ground with an uppercut. He had never seen anybody punch someone so hard in his life.
Mimi had surprised herself by being relieved that her two oldest boys were out of the house, on the pretense that Donald and Jim were, in theory, nearly adults and capable of making their own decisions. Each time they came home put the lie to all that. But she also was aware that the slightest acknowledgment that all was not well in her family risked coloring everything else about her life—Don’s new professional prospects, the standing of the other children, the reputation of them all.
And so Mimi tended to agree, most of the time, when her husband said what he’d always said when there was something wrong with the children: that the boys should not be coddled; that they should leave the nest, make their own mistakes and learn from them, take responsibility for their actions, grow up.
And she thought about how perfect their life was otherwise. And how fragile her husband’s happiness had always seemed to her. And how sometimes it seemed as if the slightest move in any direction could bring the whole place toppling down.
On September 11, 1964, Donald Galvin, at the start of his sophomore year at Colorado State in Fort Collins, paid his first visit to the campus health center. He had come in to be treated for a minor injury to his left thumb, a bite mark from a cat. He offered no explanation for what had happened—no reason why the cat would have felt so provoked that he’d bite and not just scratch.
The next spring, Donald returned to the health center. This time, his problem was more personal, yet every bit as peculiar. He said that he’d learned that his roommate had caught syphilis, and that he was afraid that he might catch it from him by accident. Donald, who had told his parents that he wanted to study medicine one day, had to be disabused of the notion that he could get the disease in a way other than sexual intercourse.
A few weeks later, in April 1965, Donald visited the health center for a third time. He said he was at home, his family’s place on Hidden Valley Road, when one of his brothers, he did not say which one, got the jump on him, attacking him from behind. Diagnosed with back strain, he spent the night in the infirmary.
Then came the fire.
One night in the fall of 1965, Donald staggered through the health center doors with burns on his body. His sweater had caught fire, he said, during a pep rally. After a little back-and-forth, it came out that Donald had jumped straight into a bonfire. Maybe he did it to get attention, or to impress a friend, or as a cry for help. He could not say.
THE STAFF PULLED
Donald out of his classes and sent him for a psychiatric evaluation. Major Reed Larsen, a clinical psychologist for the Air Force Academy Hospital, saw Donald four times over the next two months. This was the first time that a mental health professional examined Donald, and the first time that Donald’s parents were forced to face the possibility that all was not right with their oldest son. But whatever fears Don and Mimi had about Donald subsided when Major Larsen came back with his report. “Our findings showed no evidence of a serious thinking disorder, nor of symptoms secondary to a psychotic process,” he wrote on January 5, 1966.
Don and Mimi were reassured, even if the endorsement was hardly full-throated. To begin with, the major noted that one of Donald’s sessions took place with the assistance of sodium amytal, one variety of truth serum. Amytal interviews in psychotherapeutic settings weren’t entirely unheard of, but they were usually saved for patients who are having difficulty communicating—and, perhaps, exhibiting the signs of the catatonic variety of schizophrenia. Even so, the major recommended that Donald be allowed back to school, provided he continued to receive psychiatric help. “We did discover a number of emotional conflicts which, I feel, are disturbing enough to Mr. Galvin to account for his erratic behavior while at school,” he wrote. Such treatment could be paid for, he said, by the military’s new Medicare program for dependents.
What was bothering Donald so much that he ran into a raging fire? Before anyone could find an answer, he propelled himself back into campus life at the start of 1966, determined to make up for lost time. Donald desperately wanted to connect with people now, especially females, even as he seemed rather naive about how to find a girlfriend. The distance from others that he’d been feeling seemed even more pronounced. But he was still athletic and handsome, and he hoped there was still every chance that he could become the man his parents thought he could be.
He started seeing someone, a classmate named Marilee. Within a few months, they were even talking about marriage. This seemed fast—but not if, like Donald, you were eager to lead a normal life, to have sex without it being considered a sin, to have a family like his own family, to be all right. But the family never got a chance to get to know Marilee. When the couple broke up, Donald was shattered, and he kept the news to himself as he scrambled to make things right. On the phone with Marilee afterward, he racked up $150 in long-distance charges. He couldn’t pay his rent, but he also couldn’t bear to admit that to his parents. Donald’s solution was to search for a place where he could live for free—a place to hide while he figured out what to do next.
In the fall of 1966, Donald found an old, abandoned fruit cellar near the campus—a room with electricity and an old heater, but no water. He slept on a mattress there alone, not sure of how he might climb out of the hole he’d dug for himself. Days turned into weeks, then months—until, on November 17, Donald returned to the health center, reporting, once again, that he’d been bitten by a cat.
When the doctors learned that this was his second cat bite in two years, they sent him that same day for a full work-up with a psychiatrist. It was there, finally, that the extent of Donald’s troubles became clear. He seemed to open up to these doctors in a way he hadn’t before, perhaps to anyone else. The intake notes mention more “bizarre self-destructive things” Donald said that he had done: “Has run through bonfire, put cord around his neck, turned on gas, and even gone to a funeral home to price caskets—all of which he cannot give adequate motivation for.”
A noose, a gas switch, a funeral home. Donald was fixating on death, on ending his life. This disconnection he’d always felt wasn’t going away at college—it was getting worse, manifesting itself in new and frightening ways.
While under observation, Donald’s free fall continued. He told one doctor that he had a notion that he had murdered a professor. Days later, he shared another fantasy—this one about killing another person at a football game. He also talked more about his past, including a new admission that the doctors found especially troubling. The hospital notes were brief:
2 suicide attempts at age 12.
Exactly what those attempts amounted to, no one could say. There was no telling if Donald had ever told anyone else about them—or, assuming they did happen, that his parents had ever known. But the doctor treating Donald had heard enough. Especially after learning what had really happened with the cat.
“He killed a cat slowly and painfully,” the doctor wrote in his notes. “The cat had been living with him for two days, and apparently brought in another cat (probably male) that made the place smelly. The cat scratched him. Doesn’t know why he killed the cat nor why he tormented. Got emotionally upset as he discussed the behavior.”
Donald was more than baffled as he was relating this. He was frightened.
“This boy represents some risk to himself and possibly to others,” the doctor wrote. “Possible schizophrenic reaction.”
IN THE CAR,
Donald muttered about God and Marilee and some people from the CIA who were looking for him. Back home, in the kitchen, Donald exploded in a panic—shrieking “Get down! They are shooting at us!” Everyone around him jerked around to see if what he was saying was true.
It was the end of 1966, just as Don had started his new job with the Federation of Rocky Mountain States—the new life for them all, about to begin. The doctor at Colorado State said it would be impossible for Donald to continue in college until he received more evaluation and treatment. Don and Mimi drove to Fort Collins at once to check on their son. When they found him, Donald was washing his hair with beer. They decided to take him home. But now that he was there, they did not have the slightest idea what to do with him.
Donald needed help. But what help was available to him? Assuming he’d be willing to go, a private facility like Chestnut Lodge in Maryland or the Menninger Clinic in Topeka—or, closer to home in Colorado Springs, a hospital called Cedar Springs—was too expensive an option for the Galvins. The public hospitals, meanwhile, were a terrifying prospect, places where the peace was kept using neuroleptic drugs and restraints—the stuff of Samuel Fuller’s nightmarish film
released in 1963. In 1967, the state of Massachusetts made headlines by litigating to stop the distribution of documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s film
an exposé of the inhuman conditions at that state’s Bridgewater State Hospital, filled with images of inmates stripped naked, force-fed, and bullied by the people who were supposed to be keeping them safe. In Colorado, the very large state mental hospital in Pueblo, about an hour’s drive from Hidden Valley Road, was best known for treating schizophrenia with insulin shock therapy and a powerful drug called Thorazine. Don and Mimi would have to exhaust virtually every other option on the table before agreeing to send Donald to a place like that. A state hospital like Pueblo was for hopeless cases, not healthy young men like their son.
There was an alternative to the brutal public institutions, but that alternative also was hardly attractive to Mimi. The psychoanalytic approach advocated by Frieda Fromm-Reichmann and others held sway at the Colorado Psychiatric Hospital in Denver, part of the university system. This hospital was steeped in the teaching of schizophrenia as a psychosocial disorder, focusing on the “psychodynamic” origins of mental illness—the schizophrenogenic mother. Mimi and Don may not have known the particulars of this approach—how a psychoanalyst would want to know exactly how Donald was raised, and if there was something they could have done differently—but they understood the threshold they would be crossing by sending their son to a mental hospital of any kind.
Again, they thought, were things really so far gone? After all, it seemed clear that diagnosing schizophrenia was—and in many ways remains—more of an art than a science. None of the symptoms, taken by themselves, were specifically characteristic of the illness, and so doctors could only diagnose it by excluding other possibilities. The American Psychiatric Association had published the first edition of the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,
or DSM, fourteen years earlier. The definition of schizophrenia was about three pages long, and included the subtypes originally proposed by Eugen Bleuler—hebephrenic, catatonic, paranoid, and simple schizophrenia—and added five more: schizoaffective, childhood, residual, chronic undifferentiated, and acute undifferentiated. The definition was roundly panned: In 1956, one prominent psychiatrist, Ivan Bennett, called the DSM’s definition of schizophrenia “
a wastebasket diagnostic classification,” preferring instead to focus on what drugs might be helpful in treating the symptoms. Since then, the DSM has changed its description of schizophrenia with each successive edition, often tailoring it to the prevailing style of treatment.
The second edition of the DSM, published in 1968, added “acute schizophrenia,” characterized by hallucinations and delusions and nothing else. But there would continue to be no consensus on what schizophrenia actually was. A single illness, or a syndrome? Inherited, or acquired through trauma? Don and Mimi understood that for people in their son’s shoes, whether you even had schizophrenia or not often depended on the priorities of the institution where you were being examined.
There was no talk of prevention. There was very little discussion of a cure. But one thing seemed true: If they admitted Donald to anything resembling a mental hospital, the only certainties were shame and disgrace, and the end of Donald’s college education, and the tainting of Don’s career, and a stain on the family’s position in the community, and finally the end of the chance for their other eleven children to have respectable, normal lives.
Which was why, for Mimi and Don, the most sensible—or at least the most realistic—decision was to hope, somehow, that things would get better on their own. The more they thought about it, the more they decided to be optimistic. Why
he move on from Marilee, find his footing again, move out of that fruit cellar and into the dorms, and get better? They needed to believe that he could. And so they searched for someone they knew and trusted to treat Donald—who could help him through this crisis, get him back to college, put him back on track.
Their obvious first stop, they thought, was back to the hospital at the Air Force Academy, where the Galvin family was well known, and where they hoped to be able to help guide the process to a good outcome. This time, Donald was examined by Major Lawrence Smith, a physician who knew the Galvins well. He had been at the Academy since 1960, overlapping with Don for three years, and he had followed young Donald’s football career.
On December 8, Major Smith wrote a letter to Colorado State University on Donald’s behalf, blaming what he called Donald’s “acute situational maladjustment” on a freak confluence of bad breaks: his substandard housing situation, his breakup with his girlfriend, and the stress of final examinations. The tone of the major’s letter was generous and reassuring, filled with goodwill. “I agree that his reaction in December when he saw you was quite bizarre,” he wrote. “However, I feel that he has recovered from the incident, has insight into the situation, and to the best of my knowledge will probably not repeat this behavior.”
For a second time in the space of a year, Don and Mimi had secured a scandal-free return to college for their son. The major did not mention Donald’s killing of the cat, or his homicidal fantasies. There was a good reason for this: Major Smith hadn’t been told about any of that. He had never spoken with anyone who had examined Donald at Colorado State. They’d never had the chance to let him know.
Donald, naturally, didn’t volunteer it.
DONALD RETURNED TO
Colorado State just after Christmas break. The fruit cellar was a thing of the past. He was out of isolation and back in the world of his classmates again. He kept seeing therapists at the health center, sitting for occasional psychiatric evaluations. After one, his evaluator wrote, “This student is not psychotic.”
Once again, he seemed in a hurry to be all right, to be the son his parents wanted. He was even dating. That spring, he announced that he had met someone new, a successor to his old girlfriend, Marilee. Her name was Jean, and she was tall and broad-shouldered—a tomboy, as Donald once described her. Physically, Jean was a good match for Donald, who was still built like a football player. Like Donald, she was ambitious. She wanted to get a PhD, and Donald still was hoping to become a doctor.