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Columbia native Robert Kolker is having a moment, with an Oprah’s Book Club selection and HBO, Netflix movies based on his work

Columbia native Robert Kolker is having a moment, with an Oprah’s Book Club selection and HBO and Netflix movies based on his work.
Columbia native Robert Kolker is having a moment, with an Oprah’s Book Club selection and HBO and Netflix movies based on his work.

The author Robert Kolker, who grew up in Columbia, is fascinated by the shifting dynamics within families, the way pacts between parents and siblings develop, dissolve and reconfigure.

Kolker found a family like no other with the Galvins of Colorado: two parents, 12 offspring. Six children developed schizophrenia as young adults.

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This cover image released by Doubeday shows Robert Kolker's “Hidden Valley Road." The book, an in-depth and highly praised account of a 1950s family in which six children were diagnosed with schizophrenia, was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club.
This cover image released by Doubeday shows Robert Kolker's “Hidden Valley Road." The book, an in-depth and highly praised account of a 1950s family in which six children were diagnosed with schizophrenia, was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club. (AP)

In “Hidden Valley Road,” Kolker’s second book and an Oprah’s Book Club selection, the author describes the Galvins' family trauma of growing up in a chaotic environment. The family endured murder, suicide and sexual abuse. But the family’s affliction is providing researchers with a rare glimpse into the way schizophrenia takes shape in the brain.

“My wife read an early draft and said, ‘This is a book about sacrifice,’ ” Kolker, 51, said over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. " ‘This family is suffering, but they are doing what they can to add to the body of knowledge about this illness so that future generations will suffer less.’ ”

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Kolker has spent decades crafting long-form narratives, first for New York magazine and later for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek.

But in 2020, his work is suddenly everywhere. “Lost Girls,” a film based on Kolker’s first book, starring Amy Ryan and Gabriel Byrne, ran on Netflix in March. In April, HBO broadcast “Bad Education,” which was inspired by Kolker’s 2004 article “The Bad Superintendent.” In June, he appeared on Oprah’s Book Club.

On Oct. 14, he’ll discuss “Hidden Valley Road” as part of a virtual program sponsored by the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

He recently chatted about his Howard County childhood, the unexpected relevance “Hidden Valley Road” might have for life during the pandemic — and his childhood pal, The Incredible Hulk.

What was in Columbia’s drinking water while you were growing up? At least three big-time writers spent their childhoods there: Michael Chabon (Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist), Aaron McGruder (creator of “The Boondocks” comic strip and animated television series) — and now you. You’re all even roughly the same age.

I’m flattered to be lumped in with all those people.

I can say with pride that I grew up down the road from and as a child was very close friends with Edward Norton. We have remained loosely in touch over the years.

Can you talk more about your Howard County roots?

My mom was a counselor in the psychiatric unit at Howard County General Hospital and was an excellent listener. My father is a retired homebuilder who worked in some of Columbia’s early neighborhoods. Bryant Woods has a lot of his houses.

Robert Kolker's senior-year school ID photo from Wilde Lake High School
Robert Kolker's senior-year school ID photo from Wilde Lake High School (Wilde Lake High School)

I attended Wilde Lake High School and worked for the school paper. I have always loved writing and in particular writing for publication. I’ve never been one of those journalists who had a screenplay sitting in a drawer somewhere. I always found a way to put what I wrote out there so it would be seen.

What’s it like to be suddenly be a celebrity writer?

It’s wonderful. But because it’s all happening during a shutdown, it can’t help but be strange. One minute, I’m doing a video conference with Oprah Winfrey that’s being watched by tens of thousands of people.

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Then it clicks off and I go upstairs and wash a dish. It’s a very different experience from getting on a plane and hopping around and doing a tour.

But I can’t help but be relieved that the book has found an audience when there are so many authors who are struggling to get attention.

What role are the Galvins playing in the advances in schizophrenia research?

[Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor] Lynn DeLisi has thought for a long time that schizophrenia is inherited and not a result of bad parenting. In the 1990s, she began collecting and analyzing data from families in which there were multiple cases of schizophrenia.

In 2016 and with the help of other researchers, she isolated a genetic irregularity in the Galvin family, a mutation in a gene called Shank2 that is a messenger gene and vital to brain functioning.

Sometimes, one family’s particular genetic quirk is a smoking gun with implications for the rest of the population. Researchers now have a new spot on the genome where they can look.

There were already a bunch of studies under way into other variants, Shank1 and Shank3, that may have a relationship to autism and bipolar disorder.

That’s an exciting idea; it may be that schizophrenia exists on a spectrum of other mental disorders that are all caused by the same genetic irregularity.

Your book also discusses research into whether a prenatal nutrient might impede the development of schizophrenia in susceptible newborns.

Dr. Robert Freedman of Colorado [editor in chief of the American Journal of Psychiatry] was the head of the first team that in the 1990s found that variants of the gene CHNRA7 point the way towards a brain receptor problem that might be linked to schizophrenia.

He’s trying to fix the problem with medicine early in life before the brain is fully developed, by giving a vitamin called choline to pregnant women with genetic risk factors. Choline is widely available at any GNC or Vitamin Shoppe. Expectant mothers can take it now. The idea is that if the brain develops in a less problematic direction, the child might not become schizophrenic.

There’s a longitudinal study underway — the kids are doing great — but it’s going to be years before they have results.

If it works out, it’s a game-changer.

Why do scientists think schizophrenia typically doesn’t emerge until late adolescence or early adulthood?

Schizophrenia typically develops between ages 18 and 25. Dr. Freedman compares a baby’s brain to a computer’s operating system: You start out with a very simple operating system. Over the years you go through various upgrades, with each operating system installing the next, more sophisticated version. It isn’t until the brain is on its sixth or seventh operating system and is almost finished developing that you find out that something was amiss in stage one.

What do you hope people will take away from “Hidden Valley Road”?

I didn’t write the book with COVID-19 in mind, but it does contain tips for moving on with your life after the worst happens. The big lesson is to connect with others and not turn inwards. Recognize the humanity in everyone you know. Don’t be afraid to address the most difficult things in your life, because running from them means you’ll never be free.

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About the book: “Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family” was published April 7 by Doubleday. 400 pages, $29.95.

Author Robert Kolker will participate virtually in the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Writers LIVE series at 7 p.m. Oct. 14. He will discuss the findings in “Hidden Valley Road” with psychiatrist Karen L. Swartz, director of clinical and educational programs for the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center.

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