It was the cover that caught my eye. The mother, in 60’s maternity wear that resembled 60’s two-tiered “Cafe Curtains”. Then there was the immediate comparison with Fourteen: Growing up in a Crowd–a chilling enough look at a 60s big family that ought to have put anyone off digging deeper into the myth of the big, happy, family. I had to read Hidden Valley Road. No way could I wait through 290+ holds at the library, I bought it for my Kindle. Now, I know what you’re saying: “But it’s an OPRAH book.” Yes, but it’s nonfiction.
Hidden Valley Road
Call this the mental health version, albeit with better ethics, of the Immortal Life of Henrietta, Lacks but set in Colorado in the suburban, upper-middle-class family of a staunchly Catholic Air Force family. Don and Mimi Galvin had Don’s mandated 12 children–and 6 of the 10 boys grew up to have schizophrenia. All of the boys shared one big “dorm” bedroom. Mom Mimi chose to focus on her mentally ill boys. leaving her other children to be abused and preyed upon by those same sons. The chaos, violence, and lack of parental protection should have sent CPS to rescue the healthy children. But, Lieutenant Colonels who found the Air Force Academy’s falcon program, don’t get investigated by CPS–at least not in Colorado Springs in that era.
Along the way the 6 mentally ill sons grew into men who cycled in and out of the state mental hospital, experiencing everything the world of psychiatry had to offer schizophrenics of each era in their life span. The healthy children did what they could to save themselves. Along the way, medical researchers found the family and began studying their DNA. What they found could possibly help the next generation of potential schizophrenics. That part of the story is as fascinating as the Galvin family’s story itself.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Volker
Comparison With Fourteen: Growing Up Alone in a Crowd
At the same time across the country, another huge Catholic family was experiencing mental illness. Stephen Zanichkowsky and his 13 siblings were growing up with an overwhelmed mother and a father who wouldn’t allow his wife to ask for help from anyone. Eventually, one son is institutionalized. A daughter is mentally disabled. The mother takes an odd pride in these children–her own personal crosses to bear. As adults, the siblings are mostly dysfunctional in terms of relationships. Having never had loving attention as children they did not know how to form close relationships. Their father’s engineering career and his perpetual anger added to the cold environment in the home that the mother’s perpetual child-bearing created and lack of control over her many children created.
Both families were families of their time–the father went out to work, his career was the focus of both his wife and his family. Children were born because the church said so, and in the Galvin’s case because Dad said so. Both mothers clutched at religion to help them make it through each very demanding day. Both sought help from priests for good or bad [they could not know there was a developing epidemic of pedophilia in the church). None of the children in either family ever enjoyed a minute of privacy and very little of calm, peace, and quiet unless they ran away out of doors. Neither was capable of giving enough love and support to all their many children while also being first and foremost a wife to a demanding, sometimes unfaithful, and highly successful husband (successful does not necessarily mean rich). The fathers were there to set expectations, to punish and discipline and to bring home a paycheck. Don Galvin’s expectations were crushingly high for his sons. Stephen’s father’s anger all but obliterated whatever expectations he held for his many children.
Mimi Galvin had better coping mechanisms–she had opera and classical music, books, and painting to escape to–even painting late at night after everyone was in bed. Mrs. Zanichkowsky was floundering even when living in her old, ethnocentric Lithuanian Catholic neighborhood with her extended family all around her. Her husband’s misguided pride would not allow him to let family help his struggling wife. But, Mimi Galvin had little or no help either. Was education the key? Was having an active intellectual life the reason?
Neither family was rich. Both lived in houses well able to physically accommodate their huge families. The children went to normal public and/or Catholic Schools and the healthy ones often went on to college. Nature vs Nurture is always the question in mental healthy stories–even when there is a biological or genetic reason for the illness. Why though, did both of these families end up with children so disturbed that they had to be institutionalized?
What About Today’s Huge Families on TV
TLC and Up Network have given the world a romanticized idea of big family life–all smiles, always together, always glad to lend a hand with any project. But let’s look closer. The Duggars of 19 Kids and Counting/Counting on and the Bates of Bringing up Bates belong to an odd version of fundamentalist Christianity guided by a near cultish organization rife with sexual abuse at the top. They are not Catholic. Their “religion” [they do not belong to a major denomination] forbids birth control of any sort–even so-called natural family planning. Children are not allowed privacy. Children are not allowed to go to school. Parents have a huge say in who the children marry. Jobs and the military–even for boys are not good for they could involve working under a woman or an unGodly boss. Men are to support their families from home with a family business into which sons go at about age 14. They seek to skip the teenage phase by putting responsibility and accountability on their children.
Guess what? There’s been incest, possible mental health issues, a presumed sexual orientation issue, and more. While the Bates may have hidden some issues, they have cc-tv to monitor the kids in their house. The Duggars have a boys’ dorm and a girls’ dorm. The Bates have mixed-aged bedrooms. Kids are taught to rat out their siblings. No one in either family is to go anywhere alone. This is going to be fascinating to watch as the tv contracts go away.
We’ve already seen Josh Duggar, who molested his sisters, go wild when he got away from his family. (He also packed on weight–proving they were not getting much to eat). The Bates kids were allowed to go to college–admittedly one of the strictest fundamentalist Christian colleges in the country, but still it was formal education with peers. It seems to have helped.
What do they all have in common?
- No privacy
- No personal security at home
- Inadequate food in the early years for Stephen’s family, the Bates & Duggars
- Overwhelmed mothers–that’s how the Duggars & Bates found IBLP/ATI–it looked like perfectly functioning families.
- Children’s feelings are not validated
- Individual attention from a parent was scant
- Older children were left in charge of younger children–often with horrific consequences (Not the Bates that we know of though)
- Precedence was always given to the mentally ill child or the newest baby (Duggars/Bates) and finally to Josie Duggar
- The sick became idols to the mother (except for the Bates)–Josie and the stillborn Jubilee Bates.
Britain has a huge family as well-the Radfords. They have 20+ children now. The advantage those children have is that they go to school. Likely the get more attention in class than at home.
I know of two large families who beat the odds. One was on welfare and the kids had jobs in the old CETA program–all are white-collar professionals today. Two lawyers, a doctor, a librarian, two social workers, a CPA, and a restaurant manager. All have a college degree. Another family of nine has two millionaires among it’s many engineers and other professionals. Wanting OUT was the key to their success. They used 4-H and other organizations as stepping stone. No one in these families looked to athletic scholarships. Nearly every child in these two families received MERIT-based academic scholarships.
What do you think? Are big families a good idea? Do they rob children of necessary nurturing? Leave me a comment.