Authors: Robert Kolker
This is the argument the Galvins were born into. By the time the Galvin boys came of age, the field was splitting open and dividing and subdividing almost like a cell. Some said the problem was biochemical, others neurological, others genetic, still others environmental or viral or bacterial. “
Schizophrenia is a disease of theories,” the Toronto-based psychiatric historian Edward Shorter has said—and the twentieth century produced easily hundreds of them. All the while, the truth about what schizophrenia was—what caused it, and what might alleviate it—has remained locked away, inside the people with the condition.
Researchers seeking a biological key to schizophrenia have never stopped searching for a subject or an experiment that might settle the nature-nurture question once and for all. But what if there was a whole family of Schrebers—a perfectly self-contained group with a shared genetic legacy? A sample set, with enough incidence of the disease that it seemed clear that something specific and identifiable must be happening inside some or even all of them?
A family like the dozen children of Don and Mimi Galvin?
In the early years of their marriage, Mimi liked to joke that her husband would come home just long enough to get her pregnant.
Their first boy, Donald Kenyon Galvin, was baptized in September 1945, within a few days of Japan’s surrender. His mother had endured his arrival in the world without incident; Donald’s birth would be the only time Mimi would accept anesthesia for the birth of any of her twelve children. The baby and his mother lived together in a little apartment in Forest Hills, Queens, a peaceful section of New York City near the famous tennis club. Between strolls with the baby, Mimi taught herself to cook. For six months, she was alone with little Donald, listening to news reports from the South Pacific, wondering when her son’s father would make it home.
Don returned just after Christmas, moved in with his family, and spent a few months on temporary duty as a security officer at a shipbuilding facility in Kearny, New Jersey. Then he was gone again, off to Washington for three months to finish his bachelor’s degree at Georgetown. And then, in the summer of 1947, to the Navy’s General Line School in Newport, Rhode Island—just weeks after Mimi gave birth to their second son, Jim. Don took Mimi and the kids with him that time, and again, a year later, to Norfolk, Virginia, where he served first on the USS
and then on the USS
shuttling between New York and Panama, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, and the rest of the Caribbean—all while Mimi stayed home alone with the boys for weeks at a time.
Mimi had been nursing an entirely different dream of their life after the war. She had envisioned her husband going to law school, like her two uncles and her paternal grandfather, Thomas Lindsey Blayney, whom she adored despite her father’s exile from the family. Mimi wanted to be in New York, where their families were, where their children would grow up with their cousins and aunts and uncles—a childhood like the one that had been ripped away from her when she was forced to move from Texas as a child.
Don had entertained that idea, or he seemed to. But he had dreams, too. He explained in his usual charming way that the Navy was a means to an end for him—that he thought he could get the Navy to sponsor his studies in the law or, better yet, his real passion, political science. This turned out to be a frustrating miscalculation. Despite glowing reviews and hearty recommendations from his commanding officers, he was turned down each time he applied for graduate-level course work. It always seemed that someone with connections, a congressman’s son or a senator’s nephew, got the appointment instead.
Alone in Norfolk, Mimi had to pinch pennies while Don was at sea. The small checks from the Navy, about thirty-five dollars a week, would get lost in the mail, and she would have to rely on her neighbors for groceries and meals. It was a different story when Don was in port. With his Georgetown education, his command of languages, and his interest in international relations, the handsome young lieutenant was making a good impression. Aboard the
Don wasn’t just the ship secretary; he was the resident chess master, taking on all comers. Between missions, Don was the captain’s regular tennis partner, and he and Mimi socialized with the brass at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, where Don became known for fixing Iron Curtains, a potent lowball made with vodka and Jägermeister. Don’s smooth, professorial air impressed a number of admirals and generals—as well as at least one of their wives, who happened to come along as a passenger on one of the
’s trips to Panama.
There aren’t many places to find privacy on a warship, but there are enough. Back on the mainland, however, secrets are not so easy to keep. The officer’s wife might not have known that one of her friends was acquainted with the wife of Don Galvin. When Mimi heard about that voyage of the
any last bit of allure of being the bride of a distinguished Navy lieutenant quickly faded. No one may have been more in thrall to Don than Mimi. But now, with two little boys to care for, she was all too aware that she needed him more than he needed her.
DON APPLIED TO
a law program in exchange for committing to stay in the Navy another six years. He was turned down. He requested transfers to Panama, Cuba, or the Atlantic Division—all places where the Navy offered law classes. He was turned down again.
There was another violently ill pregnancy, followed by another son: their third, John, born in Norfolk at the end of 1949. Don was away for this one, in the middle of a deployment in Glenview, Illinois, for four months of officer’s training. Mimi and the boys stayed in Norfolk as Don worked to be transferred somewhere, anywhere, else. Then Don received word that the
was moving its home shipyard to Puget Sound—across the country on the West Coast, one step closer to Korea, where war was brewing.
Mimi couldn’t contain herself any longer. It was time for Don to leave the Navy. On January 23, 1950, Don gave notice in a letter that laid the blame squarely on his home situation. “Deprivation of a wholesome family life is reason enough for my resignation,” Don wrote. “To remain in the Navy would deprive my wife and my three sons of a normal family life and a home.” Don also appeared to be stinging from his rejections—all the moments when the Navy had failed to recognize his potential. He’d had enough of being passed over for law school. “Motivation,” he wrote, “can only come when we want to do something, or someone instills in us a desire to do it. I have experienced no motivation in the Navy.”
Mimi was relieved. Finally, her long exile in strange, faraway towns would come to an end. They planned to move back to New York, where Don would enroll at Fordham Law School in the Bronx, and they would get started on the life she’d wanted all along. They shopped for a house in Levittown, Long Island’s new enclave of affordable mass-produced houses within driving distance of the city, and they set their sights on a place large enough for little Donald and Jim and John, plus whoever else might come along.
What Mimi did not know was that Don also had been talking with his brother Clarke, who had recently become an officer in the United States Air Force. Unlike the Navy, everything about the Air Force was still fresh and unformed. The pilots didn’t even have the blue uniforms yet, just the khaki “pinks and greens” left over from its wartime incarnation as the Army Air Corps. And they seemed to need people badly—so much so that Don learned that if he joined, they’d make him an officer instantly.
On November 27, 1950, ten months after he’d left the Navy, Don joined the Air Force as a first lieutenant. Mimi could not believe how blithely Don seemed to be reneging on every understanding she thought they had about how they wanted to live their lives. America was sending troops to Korea, and he wanted back in? Why was he always one half step out of sync with her—so remote, so absent?
Don was as persuasive with Mimi as ever. Clarke had taken him out one day to see Mitchel Field, the air base on Long Island that was serving as the military branch’s national headquarters. Did it really matter to Mimi, he asked, whether he was commuting to the Bronx to study law or Long Island to train? Either way, they could still live in Levittown. Besides, Don still had dreams. America was leading the world now, building the future. The air fleet that had just defeated fascism would be flying in and out of his and Mimi’s backyard. Did he want to push paper in some skyscraper and catch the 5:07 home every night? Or did he want to be a part of that—an expert in international affairs someday, with the ear of presidents?
Mimi and Don put together enough money for a deposit on a house. They had almost closed on the place when the Air Force announced, quite suddenly, that its new headquarters would be in the middle of the state of Colorado. This time, Don was as shocked as Mimi was. The relocation had been planned behind the scenes in Washington. No one they knew had known anything about it.
After a brief panic, they got their deposit back. Don reported to Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs on January 24, 1951. Mimi and the children joined him by Valentine’s Day.
THERE WAS ROCK
everywhere Mimi turned—miles of it, all different shades of red, tremendous open prairies pressed flat by glaciers and punctuated by violent outcroppings that towered over the flatlands like a stage set. There were the spas of Manitou Springs, spouting mineral water said to possess amazing healing powers. And the mountains where the previous century’s gold rush had first put this part of Colorado on the map. Beauty surrounded Mimi, even if she was in no mood to see it.
The town was not looking its best when they got there. Mimi and the boys had arrived in the middle of a drought. Water was being rationed. Even Mimi’s mother’s house in New York City had green grass and flowers; now everywhere Mimi looked, she saw brown. There was no ballet and no art or culture here—nothing close to the life that Mimi had dreamed of as a girl. The house Don found for them was located on what passed for a bustling boulevard in Colorado Springs, a silent street called Cache La Poudre. This was about as different from Levittown as a person could imagine: an old converted feed barn with a stairway with floorboards that were hopelessly bowed and crooked.
Mimi cried for several nights and seethed for longer than that. The house was a dump, she said, the town a backwater. Where exactly had he dragged her now?
But Don was her husband. And she was a mother of three, with plans for more—Don was a Catholic, after all—and plenty to do no matter where she was. Mimi decided to try to make the most of it. The birds helped—the Oregon juncos and the gray-crowned rosy finches and the mountain chickadees. There was a big cottonwood tree in the yard, and when she stared a little closer at the brown dirt, she saw wildflowers. She decided that she would plant a garden there.
Mimi’s new neighbors on Cache La Poudre came to know her as a conspicuous reader of very thick books, a woman who could recite the names of every king and queen not just from Great Britain but from every country in Europe, from the Dark Ages until the present day. They soon learned all about Grandfather Kenyon and Pancho Villa and Howard Hughes and her years in New York. And on her husband’s modest income, Mimi searched for other ways to seem special. From her mother, Mimi knew everything there was to know about the best fabrics, so she would scope out a bit of cashmere that had found its way into the Goodwill and then crow about her catch. She found a local choir to sing in and volunteered as an organizer with an amateur opera group. They wouldn’t stage anything by her favorite, Mozart, at first—even
was too challenging for them, she’d scoff privately—but Mimi helped with the casting of performers for
all the old standards.
In time, she came to love the beauty around her. The plants and geology, all so foreign to Mimi, now made it seem as if everything she had once gazed at through glass in the Museum of Natural History on Central Park West was coming alive before her eyes. And together with Don, she discovered falconry. The cultivation of such feral birds managed to blend the intense intellectual might on which they’d built their relationship with something wild and undiscovered, like their new home.
Training a falcon, they both learned, was more than just trapping; it was also about the relentless imposing of one’s will—maintaining control until the bird develops a sort of Stockholm syndrome, agreeing to stick around and even preferring captivity to being out in the world. After two weeks carrying the blinded bird on a gloved fist, or gauntlet, they would tie a creance—a one-hundred-foot string the same weight as fishing line—to the bird to maintain control during training. With some meat in a leather pouch to lure him home, they encouraged the bird to fly farther and farther away—until finally, they swung the lure out of reach to teach the bird to make diving passes. Diving, as they were deeply thrilled to witness, at upward of two hundred miles per hour.
As tricky as it was, the method for domesticating a wild hawk or falcon was well articulated—and if followed correctly, she and Don learned, you ended up with a well-behaved, obedient, civilized bird. Mimi also applied this persistent, unyielding approach at home, where sometimes there were more allowances made for the birds than for the children. The garage shelves were filled with leather hoods for the birds, and eventually the garage itself became a mews. (When one neighbor called the board of health on them, Don, who kept a clean mews, fended them off easily.) Mimi had taken a cheap watercolor set and started painting renderings of falcons. And together they introduced their new obsession to their boys. When Donald, their oldest, was grade-school age, he took part in the trapping of his first bird, a female sparrow hawk. They found her in a hole in a tree while bird-watching in Austin Bluffs, a 6,600-foot summit that once was the home of a tuberculosis sanitarium and would one day be the site of a University of Colorado campus. Mimi named the hawk Killy-Killy, after the
cry she made. Donald trained her himself. Once she caught a grasshopper and flew up to the top of a door, and started nibbling at the grasshopper like an ice cream cone. Donald stood below the door, patiently calling out, “Come Killy-Killy! Come Killy-Killy!” Back in the house, he’d let Killy-Killy fly loose, and they learned to step out of the way whenever she tilted her tail a certain way to poop.
The oldest two boys, Donald and Jim, started school. While the third boy, John, was still a toddler, the fourth and fifth, Brian and Michael, were born in 1951 and 1953. As infants, all the boys were breast-fed, a less-than-popular choice among most of the mothers Mimi knew. From the start, she felt good showing everyone that she could do everything on her own—no nannies, no baby-sitters. Who needed anyone else, Mimi thought, when she obviously was the best person to teach the boys, as they grew older, about opera and art and the observation of exotic birds, the examination of strange insects, and the identification of wild mushrooms? How many other children in Colorado Springs knew that the red polka-dotted ones were