Editor’s note: This piece contains descriptions of sexual assault.
This excerpt is published with permission from the book Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker. Copyright © 2020 by Robert Kolker, published by Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
“Tell me about your family,” the campus therapist said.
Lindsay Galvin started talking. And then the therapist’s expression darkened.
At first it seemed like she didn’t believe her—that she thought she was making the whole thing up. Then Lindsay saw what was really happening. The therapist was wondering how much of this was all in her head. She thought she was the crazy one.
The session went nowhere. Who would listen to her? Who would believe her?
At the University of Colorado in Boulder, Lindsay was getting straight As doing hardly any work, and yet at odd moments she was overcome with panic. She had a social life, boyfriends, parties—nothing was stifling her anxiety. She found herself reading every self-help book she could find at any bookstore, trying to figure out why. But of course she knew.
Lindsay’s childhood in Colorado Springs had been a relentless deluge of danger and mystery. She was the youngest of 12 children, and six of her siblings—all brothers—were, one after the other, diagnosed with schizophrenia. One brother sat on his teacher’s desk and spouted nonsense; another thought he was Paul McCartney; others fought one another, forcing the police to come and for Lindsay and her sister Margaret, the only girls, to lock themselves in the parents’ bedroom to stay safe. The more brothers fell ill, the more plagues were visited upon them. One brother died, another almost killed his wife. The chaos left a third brother free rein to sexually abuse both Lindsay and Margaret on a regular basis. There seemed to be no end to the tragedy, and nothing the parents did—testing the water for lead, administering vitamins—could get to the bottom of why it was happening at all.
It took some doing, but Lindsay had gotten away, earning a scholarship to a boarding school in ninth grade. Once she left, she promised herself never to move back to Colorado Springs—never to spend another night in the house on Hidden Valley Road. Now she was back in Colorado, but still a safe distance from home. She had kept her promise, but still, something was wrong. A shadow followed her. Even if, unlike six of her brothers, she happened not to descend into delusions or hallucinations or paranoia—if she didn’t come to believe that the house was under attack, or that the CIA was searching for her, or that the devil was under her bed—she felt as if she was carrying an unstable element inside herself. How much longer, she’d wondered, before it would overtake her?
When, on campus, she tried mushrooms for the first time, she thought that this must be what schizophrenia felt like: absolutely terrifying. She didn’t need mushrooms to be afraid. She had plenty to worry about without them.
That fall, Lindsay started seeing a boy named Tim, someone she’d known for years. Tim’s aunt and uncle, Nancy and Sam Gary, had been close friends of her family’s for as long as she could remember. Like a lot of boys, Tim had been in awe of Lindsay and her sister Margaret—both stunning, both effortlessly athletic. Now he and Lindsay were in college together in Colorado.
Lindsay and Tim had been dating a few months when they both ended up as guests of the Garys in Vail during a school vacation, staying at the family’s condominium on the main strip. There came a time when they finally had the place to themselves—everyone else was either skiing or shopping—and they were on the verge of sleeping together.
Tim asked her what was the matter.
Lindsay looked at him.
This wasn’t an angry boyfriend, demanding sex. This was a boy, nearly a year younger than she was, who had been carrying a torch for her for the better part of a decade—a boy who genuinely liked her, who would not judge her. He knew a little bit about her family already, even if he didn’t know some of the more difficult details. And this was Tim, not some stranger. There may have been no safer person to tell.
Lindsay was in tears as she talked. This threw Tim, at first. She had always seemed so tough to him—a shtarker, like Sam had often called her; Yiddish for a tough guy, someone who knew how to get things done. But he stayed in the room with her. He listened.
She stopped short of revealing which of her brothers had abused her. But she’d said it happened, and that was more than she’d ever said out loud on the subject up until that point. When she stopped talking, Tim struggled with what to say.
“I don’t know what to do,” he finally said. “But I know who would.”
They got dressed and left the condo when Tim spotted Nancy Gary in the distance, walking toward them along the main drag. Tim left Lindsay and ran up to his aunt. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
Lindsay stood there, snow on the ground around her, as Tim and Nancy talked. Barely a moment passed before Nancy cut away from Tim and marched down the lane to Lindsay. She and Nancy went inside and talked some more.
Louise Silvern remembered meeting Lindsay for the first time in 1984, listening to the pretty, self-possessed 19-year-old talk about her family and what had happened to her. Lindsay’s description of her family, and of the minute-to-minute experience of growing up in that house, was far and away the most traumatic story, certainly, that she had ever heard from a patient. And when Lindsay got to the part about the college health services therapist not believing her, she remembered being outraged. Job one, Silvern had always thought, was to not shut a patient down.
There is a narrative, or a myth, that our society indulges in about trauma and therapy, particularly in the wake of unspeakable childhood abuse. The myth starts with a child unable to speak, and takes flight when the right therapist is sensitive and kind enough to coax the child into a breakthrough. Once the child lets it all out, the trauma disappears like a bad dream. The patient is as good as cured—relieved and unburdened and ready to embrace the world again. In books and movies, the breakthrough happens in one fraught, angry, tearful session, perhaps late at night, after a small crisis triggers something in the patient that they’ve tried to keep bottled up for years.
In Lindsay’s case, the myth was barely half true. In Silvern—Lindsay’s second therapist, based in Boulder and referred by Nancy Gary—Lindsay found a professional listener who, yes, through sensitivity and kindness, created the safe, accepting space that was necessary for Lindsay to take control of her own story.
Where the myth breaks apart is with the idea of a breakthrough. For Lindsay, the breakthrough was more like a seep-through, coming gradually, over 25 years, the product of steady, intense work in sessions that sometimes were as frequent as three times a week. While Lindsay was going to classes and getting straight As and having boyfriends and going skiing and climbing, she was dashing away for an hour a week, sometimes two or three, to tell her therapist her family secrets. And while this took a very long time, Silvern made sure the pace remained unrushed. Unlike the movie therapists, she did not want to seem overly invested in the outcome of each session. That kind of pressure can turn a patient into a performing seal, just doing whatever she feels the therapist expects. At its worst, that pressure can be retraumatizing.
As a first step, she did very little but listen to Lindsay carefully for several sessions, paying attention to which subjects were overwhelming, or “fragmenting,” to her, and which closed her down entirely. To become fragmented, she explained, was to be so walled off from difficult elements of yourself that those difficulties would only grow stronger, more insistent, more destructive. The solution, or the goal, was to help Lindsay find her own strengths and then develop them to help herself cope with these challenging subjects—to “integrate,” as Silvern put it, the difficult parts of her psyche into the rest of her life, rather than cordon them off.
Lindsay paid for the sessions herself. Silvern would put whatever she couldn’t pay on a tab. Lindsay continued to pay it off for years after graduation, settling it finally after starting her own business in her late 20s.
She never asked her parents to pay. Both Mimi and Don Galvin rejected the whole idea of therapy. Why dig all that up again? Let the past be the past. Exactly the response that made Lindsay ashamed in the first place, afraid to tell them the truth.
Silvern focused on getting Lindsay to tell her own story—to reclaim the past on her own terms. This was about more than just trying to face up to reality. It was about reclaiming the past on one’s own terms. Children, Silvern explained, rely on the adults around them to interpret what’s happening to them. They use their parents’ constructed systems: This is good and that is bad; this person is untrustworthy, and that person is somebody you can count on. Shame and guilt are ways that children usually process those traumas when the grown-ups around them have failed them.
Exhibit A for Lindsay, of course, was Jim.
It was with no small measure of satisfaction—a declaration of victory may have been more like it—that Jim, the second-oldest Galvin child, had stepped in to help out when things were too strained at home. Nearly 20 years older than the youngest children, Jim had often had all the younger boys and girls over to his house for sleepovers. He took Lindsay and her sister Margaret to the movies and ice-skating and swimming, and skiing on the Broadmoor slopes in Colorado Springs, not far from their home, and the Manitou Incline, a funicular tourist attraction, well known to everyone in the area, where he had a job. He taught Margaret how to fly a kite and ride a bike. All the kids got rides on Jim’s Yamaha 550 motorcycle. Jim’s wife Kathy became almost like a mother to Lindsay, brushing and curling her hair while they all watched Sonny & Cher.
For the two sisters, it was an easy choice. They would much rather stay with Jim and Kathy if it meant avoiding their other brothers—especially Donald, who was home from the hospital now, after having had a psychotic break. To their parents, Jim was coming to the rescue, taking some of the burden away from them when they needed help the most.
Jim was so kind to the girls, so welcoming and accepting, that when he started to touch them, it almost seemed normal.
His approaches were always the same. It would always be very late at night. Usually, he was drunk, after a shift at the bar. The TV would be on, and his wife Kathy would be in bed, and he would come into the living room and lie beside Lindsay, just as he had with Margaret before she began fending him off, refusing him. On countless occasions over more than five years, Jim penetrated Lindsay with his fingers and forced her into oral sex, and she tolerated him partly out of denial, and partly out of confusion. She remained passive based on the same calculus her sister had used: because she loved Kathy; because anything was better than being at home; because some part of her grew accustomed to not resisting, to interpreting the acts as affection. Some part of her understood it had to end. She tried her best not to think about that. But that information sat there. She could ignore it, but not forever.
Finally, on a cool evening in the spring of 1979, Lindsay was more terrified of getting pregnant than she was of Jim’s fury at being refused. She knew that her body was changing. She sensed Jim escalating with her, working his way toward something. She thought about what it might mean if Jim tried to go all the way with her—if that meant she could have a baby.
When Jim approached, one night at the Manitou Incline, she lost control, saying things she hadn’t expected to say. Leave me alone. Get away from me. I hate you.
Jim attacked her anyway. He entered her, something he’d never accomplished with Lindsay’s sister. He came. And he never spoke to her about it after that. He avoided her altogether.
There were, of course, several weeks of terror that she might become pregnant. Once it became clear she wasn’t, Lindsay expected to feel relief. She’d done it: She’d fought him off, protected herself, made it so that he would never do it again. She was almost delirious with the thought of it.
But then, quite unexpectedly, part of her found Jim’s ability to disappear from her life to be utterly wrenching. She tried to ignore that feeling, but there was no mistaking it. She was heartbroken. Some part of her had truly believed, as a child does, that this was love.
Lindsay wanted answers from her therapist about the nature of mental illness—the causes. Could trauma or abuse cause insanity? Is it possible that her brothers Peter or Joe or Matt were sick because of something Jim did to them?
It seemed like a tidy enough explanation. But if that were true—and to be sure, no studies have ever suggested that abuse does cause schizophrenia—that would mean that Lindsay was at risk.
After all this time, she still was terrified of becoming mentally ill. Silvern made it clear to Lindsay how much bravery it would take for her to get past this fear.
Jim was still in all of their lives, a member of the Galvin family in full standing, turning up on holidays, popping by Hidden Valley Road whenever Lindsay visited. Lindsay was working hard to make herself OK with that, showing up at events like her sister’s wedding as if everything was fine. But Jim was only getting more volatile, now that Kathy had finally left him. And Lindsay was getting tired of pretending.
Lindsay asked her therapist: How can I be around him? How can I go home, knowing he’ll drop in at any moment? And if I refuse to come home, can I deal with the upset that would create?
Silvern would help Lindsay fantasize about what she could do with her anger toward Jim. Lindsay thought about killing him—a lot—and then she felt guilty for those thoughts. But her biggest concern, even bigger than confronting Jim, was that she would have to tell her mother. What if Mimi didn’t believe her? Then, she thought, I would somehow be another crazy one.
She was stuck in the same dilemma she experienced as a little girl: If you were angry, you were unstable, like Donald or any other brothers who seemed on the brink. If you cried because you got a B on a test, maybe it was time for you to go to the hospital.
Lindsay’s father remained idealized for her—in her mind, at least, her only kindred spirit left on Hidden Valley Road, despite his frailty after a stroke. But she and Silvern talked a lot about the particular way Mimi had of silencing Lindsay. She wouldn’t say, “Shut up.” It was more like “You think you’ve got troubles?” She attacked Lindsay’s emotions by undermining them, dismissing them, or invalidating them.
Feelings were scary in the Galvin family, Silvern said. There had been too many out-of-control horrors for it to be otherwise.
Silvern called resilience “that wonderful term for something we don’t understand.” Resilience is the subject of umpteen studies, of course, and if someone could figure it out, they would rush to bottle the solution. In Silvern’s experience, it was sometimes a matter of luck that a person has the right temperament to absorb trauma in a way that still allows them to be open to new experiences, to go through life with armor.
But there are all sorts of coping mechanisms, some more self-limiting than others. Lindsay was a tough kid, donning a mask of self-reliance and stubbornness that served her well through childhood, and then eventually that mask fused to her real face. The question was how well that mask was still working for her now: hypervigilant, uncomfortable with failure, terrified to present herself to others as anything less than perfect.
Silvern told Lindsay that when somebody copes by being more armored, it can wind up hindering them later. They have a narrower road to travel going forward—a more fenced-in, claustrophobic life. Her hope for Lindsay was that she end up in a place where she would be willing to trust new people, to let down her armor under the right circumstances.
To get there, Lindsay would have to learn to recognize post-traumatic stress in real time, as it was happening to her—so that she would be able to recognize, for example, that a blistering argument she had with a friend one night was at least in part because of the rape scene in the movie they’d just seen.
There came a time in her sessions when, almost as a dress rehearsal, Lindsay decided to talk about another childhood trauma, this one unrelated to her family—something that had happened to her five years earlier, at end of eighth grade, just a few months before she’d left home for good. She was vague about it at first: “There was an incident with some boys.”
Lindsay had been inches from a clean getaway. She’d been accepted into Hotchkiss and poised to move across the country, away from her brothers, away from Jim. She was invited to a high school party hosted by the older brother of a friend. She’d said yes right away.
Lindsay told her mother she was sleeping over at her friend’s house. She left out the part about the party. When she got there, the big brother was there, along with two other guys, drinking Seven and Sevens. She joined in.
The guys invited both girls out to a well-known make-out spot in town to drink some more. Her friend said no; she had to stay home to take care of her little sisters. But Lindsay said yes and got into a car with them. By the time they came back, Lindsay’s friend and her sisters were all asleep. Lindsay was so drunk she could barely stagger back inside.
The boys, seeking privacy, found a walk-in closet, opened the door, and directed Lindsay inside it. One at a time, they followed.
Lindsay woke up a few hours later with no idea of where she was. She opened the closet door and found her way to the living room. Daylight streamed through the windows. Lindsay shuddered. Her mother was supposed to pick her up. She stumbled outside and waited on the curb, holding her stomach, trying to sort out what had happened.
The plan had been for her mother to take her to a dentist appointment. “I can’t go,” Lindsay said, as soon as she got in the car. “I’m sick.” Mimi might have gathered that her daughter had been drinking—this was her 12th teenager, after all—but she said nothing.
It was then, on the way back home, it all came flooding back—two boys taking turns, a third halfheartedly trying to stop them. Lindsay almost threw up all over herself. A fitting punishment, she thought at the time, for a girl who had been so bad. She had lied to her mother, and she had gotten drunk, and she had failed to run away.
Too clouded by shame to place the blame on anyone but herself, Lindsay told no one what happened. She figured everyone she knew would know sooner or later.
Silvern knew that Lindsay had to admit what had happened at her own pace. First, she needed to work through all the self-blame.
She lied to her mother. She went to a party when she shouldn’t have. Didn’t she deserve what happened next?
Come on, Silvern said. No.
Was she asking to be taken advantage of?
No, Silvern said.
Was she sending out some sort of sexual signal, as the victim of her brother’s abuse, equating sex with affection in some misplaced way? Was she asking for it?
No, of course not.
Why didn’t she just leave the closet?
Because there were three boys in there with her.
And then Silvern took a risk and used the word.
“They raped you,” Silvern said.
Lindsay was not scandalized. She was, if anything, relieved. Someone was giving what happened a name.
The defining of terms was like a glass of cold water splashed on her face. Sexual abuse was sexual abuse. Rape was rape. Being a victim was being a victim. She couldn’t escape the closet that night for the same reason that she couldn’t leave Jim’s cabin at the top of the Manitou Incline: Because someone more powerful was violating her trust, victimizing her, making it impossible for her to do anything other than what he wanted her to do.
Next came the careful unpacking of the details. Where the particulars of every incident were once completely off the table, now reciting all that dreadful minutiae was helping Lindsay regain a sense of control. The details reinforced how unrealistic some of her self-blaming notions had been. (Unrealistic, yet understandable—children usually have no way of processing trauma beyond their own experience, and so, all too often, they blame themselves.) And to articulate all of that in front of Silvern—seeing how it was possible for somebody who really cared about her to still see her strengths and respect her and know who she was, even though they knew everything about what she’d been through—was a first for Lindsay. In a way that no one in her family ever could, Silvern gave Lindsay a place where she could own her own emotions and express them on a regular basis.
Talking with her therapist about being raped by those boys was, in itself, a tremendous step for Lindsay to take. It also was a perfect preparation for what had to come next.
They were in the car, Lindsay and her mother, going to Mimi’s friend Eleanor Griffith’s house. They pulled up to the house. They parked and walked slowly to the entrance. They saw that Eleanor was not home yet.
They were alone, mother and daughter, with a stolen moment. This was when she chose to talk about it.
Lindsay had already been opening up more to Mimi, writing her long, philosophical letters from college about what it was like to grow up around Donald, and how no one acknowledged the pain that caused her. She wrote about the state of fear she inhabited in those years. Mimi’s reaction was always the same. She would acknowledge what her daughter was saying and then urge her to move on—to forgive—always reminding her that there was someone else out there who had it worse. It was superb maternal jujitsu: paying lip service to relating to her daughter’s experience when in fact she was obliterating it, draining it of all meaning, blotting it out.
So it shouldn’t have surprised Lindsay when, standing there in front of the Griffiths’ house, she started to tell her mother that she had been sexually abused by her brother Jim countless times over several years—and her mother responded by saying that when she was a girl, the same thing had happened to her.
In the official version of Mimi’s enchanted New York City childhood—the story she’d raised her daughters on, and related to friends and neighbors proudly—Mimi’s stepfather, the painter Ben Skolnick, was her tutor in music and art. While her mother worked in the garment business in Manhattan, her stepfather helped her appreciate culture in a way no one ever had before. All of that was true. He played Tchaikovsky for her on the record player. When she was laid up with a sprained ankle, he suggested Carmen.
But it was also true that Ben drank, and it was also true that he took liberties with Mimi. When Lord & Taylor started selling Mimi’s mother’s A-line skirts, she couldn’t manufacture them fast enough, and she started spending most weeknights in the city—leaving Mimi at home with her stepfather. That was when Ben Skolnick advanced on her.
Mimi was deliberately light on details, and Lindsay did not press her for any. But it was clear that he’d molested her, touching her inappropriately.
As she told Lindsay this, Lindsay sensed some of the stray threads of her mother’s childhood story coming together. She understood now why the marriage between Mimi’s mother and Ben did not last—why they lived apart after the war. And Mimi said one thing that, in an instant, made Lindsay think of her mother entirely differently. Mimi said that she finally told her mother about it when Ben started to prey on her little sister, Betty.
Lindsay knew something about the nerve it would have taken a girl in that position to speak out—to put her own credibility on the line to save her sister. If her mother had really done that, then Lindsay must not know her as well as she thought she did.
That exchange with Mimi might have been the most emotionally complicated moment in Lindsay’s life. Part of her was knocked flat by her mother’s candor, and after hearing her mother’s story she felt closer to her than ever. But at the same time, Lindsay felt she had been denied something—her own misfortune was once again preempted by someone else’s. Mimi was talking about her own experience, skipping right past the details of what Lindsay was saying about Jim. Lindsay needed Mimi to take her side, to tell her that what Jim had done to her was wrong.
But Mimi did not do that. She had never picked the side of a healthy child against a sick one, and she wasn’t going to start now. Instead, Mimi started talking about how Jim was mentally ill.
Lindsay flushed. To her, schizophrenia wasn’t an excuse for what Jim had done to her. Certainly no mainstream researcher or psychiatrist would say that it was Jim’s psychotic delusions that made him a pedophile.
But Mimi was not willing to separate the two issues. Lindsay, though she expected as much, was still deeply hurt. What made it so hard for her mother to sympathize with anyone other than her boys? It was as if she had used up all of her compassion on the sick children, even Jim, leaving nothing for anyone else.
But that day, Lindsay was ready. She told her mother she would never agree to be in the same room as her brother again.
Jim wasn’t supposed to be there. Her parents had assured her he would not be.
Lindsay was back on Hidden Valley Road, visiting for a Sunday dinner after a long absence—her first time back since that night outside the Griffiths’ house. Both of her parents were there. So was Joe, medicated and somber and, unlike his other sick brothers, acutely aware of his own sickness. A peaceful evening for the Galvins, until Jim walked in.
Her father asked him to leave at once. “Jim, you don’t belong here, please go home.”
“Why don’t I belong here?” Jim said.
Mimi did nothing.
Lindsay bit her lip. It didn’t help. She lost it. She stood up and started screaming.
“You fucking asshole! You sexually abused me!”
Jim was not in good shape. His wife and son had left him, he was heavily medicated—and, per one of the side effects of the medication, well on his way to becoming obese. But he was not conceding anything, and he was more than willing to retaliate. He picked up a guitar that was lying around and broke it in half. He called Lindsay a liar, and he started yelling and screaming.
“That’s not true! You’re imagining things!”
But Jim could read the room. He saw no one was listening to him. And then he saw his father, telling him to get out and that he never wanted to see him there again.
Jim left. Lindsay spent the rest of the evening in tears. Her parents left her alone, heading back to the kitchen to do the dishes. Joe comforted her. “You’re not lying,” he said, holding her. “I know you’re not lying.”
That was what Lindsay would think of most in the years that followed—how her brother Joe believed her, and how her father had, too.
By Robert Kolker. Doubleday.