Reviewed in the United States on April 17, 2020
Robert Kolker looks at both the nature and nurture sides of schizophrenia, in this story of a family where six sons become schizophrenic. There’s six other children in the family, and it wasn’t unheard of back in the 50s and 60s for families to have that many kids. I had two friends in the early ‘70s in junior high, both Catholic and military, who had many siblings. One had eight and one had ten. The Galvins were Catholic and military and Mimi, the mother, said she had so many kids because it made her husband Don happy. Did it? Or was his wife always being pregnant a good excuse for his cheating, his “Romeo” reputation with other women? Or was his wife the one who really wanted more children? Her unfriendly mother-in-law believed that Mimi, a Catholic convert, was trying to “out Catholic” everyone else.
Mr. Kolker said repeatedly he was not trying to make the mother “the guilty one”, as the field of psychology so often did and still does. Yet he ends up basically doing exactly that. Mimi is the hyper-criticizing and controlling one, while Don is the good guy, the idolized one with the impressive jobs. The reader really doesn’t know what the father’s relationship with his sons was like. That’s not good, either, since his relationship with them is paramount in understanding what went wrong with the six boys, in my opinion. It’s the father who is the main role model for sons in a family with a mother and father. (At least it was back then.) It’s the father who so often is the main source of motivation for sons going out into the world.
When Mr. Galvin’s sons went off into the world, they started falling like dominoes, one after another, with the occasional domino getting out of line before the fall. Was that mostly or strictly a brain problem? The author goes back and forth on the nature and nurture seesaw. As someone who is not scientifically inclined, but certainly not anti-science, I can’t help but mostly focus on the psychological aspect of the case, not the physical aspect. There’s huge chunks of this family story missing. It’s mostly told by the three females in the family and none of them became schizophrenic. The father was dead when the story was written, and there are limited comments from all the sons.
In addition, there’s unfortunately very little “outside” observations and opinions by friends, neighbors, teachers, relatives, law enforcement officers, etc. Comments by health professionals are included, but they, of course, are very limited due to privacy issues. The highly sympathetic way the story is told, too, can make a reader sort of push in the background all the violence perpetrated by the mentally ill sons--the sibling violence, the sexual abuse of the girls, animal torture, spousal abuse, the planned murder of a wife that was not carried out, the planned murder of a wife that was carried out and suicide. And all of those atrocious things can make the reader forget that schizophrenics are usually not violent people.
We find out early in the story that the two daughters were sexually abused by one of the brothers. Much later, we find out the heavy-drinking pervert Catholic priest who hung around the house all the time, when the children were growing up, sexually abused the oldest son, the first one to fall into the dismal schizophrenic pit. Did the priest abuse any of the other boys? It seems possible he did, but no one is talking or did talk. There’s some mention of sexual abuse between the brothers, too, but that is also not really explored. Mr. Kolker states in the book that “sexual abuse does not cause schizophrenia; that much is certain.” Says who? It’s been stated by various health professionals that many schizophrenics were sexually abused as children. There’s probably many more who don’t talk about it or don’t remember it, because they were too young or mentally blocked it. Maybe it’s best to say not everyone who is sexually abused becomes a schizophrenic. It’s also interesting when the author learned after Mimi heard of the abuse and started believing that may have been the cause of the family problems, he so quickly brushed that off, and said she was obviously only thinking that to alleviate her own guilt about the mental problems in the family.
While I personally believe it’s magical thinking to believe a medication will be created one day to cure schizophrenia, there was some interesting scientific data in the book. One being that schizophrenics often have a nicotine addiction because nicotine “turbo charges” something in the brain that is not getting enough power. That lack of power causes delusional thinking. The nicotine charge can stop the delusions. Also, it was proposed that schizophrenia is more likely to occur in young adults, such as college age ones, because that is when the brain stops developing. I’ve always wondered if schizophrenia doesn’t so often occur in that age group because that is when childhood fantasies meet real world realities.
Children in disruptive, dysfunctional homes are far more likely to have unrealistic fantasies about their adult lives, and far more likely to be devastated when they realize those fantasies probably will not, or definitely will not, be coming true. Plus, it’s the time many are faced with the fact they can’t be a doctor, or whatever they or their parents wanted, when they can’t pass certain college courses. Mentally, some are crushed, because there was never a Plan B. (The oldest son was quoted at one point in the story saying his father wanted all the boys to become doctors.) Of course, the late teens and early 20s are also a likely time for drinking and using drugs, and no one should ever underestimate the mental damage alcohol and drugs can do to the minds of some individuals, particularly teenagers and young adults.
Guilt and shame appear to be something that sends some over the edge, too, into permanent patienthood, either mental or physical. Patients aren’t punished, they are cared for like children or babies. (Yes, that’s not always true in mental wards.) Donald was victimized by a Catholic priest. Jim was probably sexually abused by someone, too. (Possibly by the priest or Donald or another adult. Yes, the priest may have not been the first or only adult to sexually abuse a child in that family.) Both Donald and Jim went on to victimize others in various ways. The realization that one has become a victimizer can disturb some individuals so much that they refuse to accept they are victimizers. No, they become permanent patients or forever hurt little boys, forever in need of care from their mothers or fathers or spouses or sisters or medical personale. You can’t blame a hurt little boy for anything bad he does. It’s his mother’s or father’s fault, not his. He’s not a victimizer! He can’t be! He was the one victimized as a child! If the real world says he is guilty and should be punished, he is not going to live in the real world any longer.
We won’t even get into the damage chronic self-pity or hyper self-reflection can do, or not developing a healthy sense of humor. No pill, no medication is going to cure those psychological problems or schizophrenia. Unfortunately, though, the field of psychology has also gloriously failed to find a way to cure schizophrenia. Well, I guess we could explore the case in a metaphysical way, starting with the unbelievable fact the pervert priest who preyed on the Galvin family was named Father Freudenstein. Let’s see . . . Dr. Frankenstein created a monster . . . some probably believe Freud created “monsters” with his teachings, yet his methods were far kinder than what was going on in asylums at the time . . . some believe psychoanalysis makes individuals permanent patients, though . . . or were the stricken Galvins possibly psychiatrists in a past life . . . or at least worked in insane asylums . . . is this all bad karma . . . or was it supposed to be a learning experience where the fall into the bottomless pit of schizophrenia could be stopped . . . from recognizing what was coming, and figuring out how to change thoughts, feelings and actions to prevent the fall? Seriously, some situations only make sense and have meaning if you look at them in a metaphysical way.
P.S. It was sort of strange that not one of the sons in the family enlisted or got drafted into the Vietnam War, even though, by my calculations, the oldest four could have. Plus, there is no talk in the book, from my memory, about the fear of being drafted; except briefly with Michael, the fifth son; when the draft was so feared and so talked about in so many families during that time period. Although in military families that I knew, some sons were fully expected to join up, not wait until they were drafted. (The Galvin family was a military one, until the father retired in 1966.) Of course, there were various deferments and exemptions throughout the war, such as college, marriage, having a child who needed you, physical health problems, mental illness, etc.