The Galvins, Don and Mimi and their twelve children, in the late 1960s. (Image courtesy of the Galvin family.)

If you’re feeling nostalgic, it’s easy to smile at the memory of the blinding promise of the Human Genome Project — that highly publicized effort in the 1990s to map out and understand the structure, organization, and function of every single human gene. This was like a moon shot for biology. If the project could successfully figure out the DNA blueprint for building a human, nothing about what we know about virtually any genetic disease would be the same. Soon, all you’d have to do is compare the genomes of a sampling of afflicted people with a control group, and…

Mimi Galvin and six of her 12 children. Image courtesy of the Galvin family.

When it comes to psychiatry and brain science, moms haven’t had it easy. Autism once was blamed on “refrigerator mothers.” Obsessive-compulsive disorder used to be blamed on mothers who got toilet training wrong. Even homosexuality, back when psychiatry considered it to be a sickness, was said to be caused by… guess who? Ever since Freud, it’s been hard to find any emotional or mental disorder that, in one way or another, therapists haven’t tried to plant right at the feet of your mom.

They were wrong, of course. But it took until a raft of population studies in the late…

Donald Galvin in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of The Galvin family

One night in the early 1960s, when he was about 17, a high school football star and all-state wrestler named Donald Galvin smashed 10 dishes to pieces — all at once, while standing in front of the kitchen sink.

His father wrote it off. So did his mother. Donald was a teenager, moody. It was the ’60s. Other kids were doing worse.

But Donald knew there was something wrong. He’d known for a while. He knew that being a star on the football field and having a friendship with another person were two very different things. Sometimes, he would say…

Photo from Roth and Roth LLP, via NY Daily News

Last March, a 41-year-old man named Daniel Prude traveled from his home in Chicago to visit his brother in Rochester. One night, he darted out of his brother’s place, wearing no shoes and no shirt. Someone called 911, saying they saw a man running in the street and shouting that he had the coronavirus.

When the police came, they saw what seemed by all accounts to be a delirious man, sitting in the middle of the street. They had no problem handcuffing him. But when he bristled at being confined, spitting and trying to stand up, the police training seemed…

“Schizophrenia is a disease of theories,” the psychiatric historian Edward Shorter once told me — and the twentieth century produced easily hundreds of them. To some, insanity is little more than a quirk of brain chemistry, a dial to be fiddled with pharmaceutically; to others, it’s a metaphor for something else — something bigger, more profound, about the way we all comprehend the world. But the nature of madness and how to grapple with it has stumped absolutely everyone, despite the endless procession of people who are convinced that they — they alone! — have cracked the case.

For a…

Photo illustration. Source photo courtesy of the author.

In early 2016, a friend introduced me to two sisters, Margaret Galvin Johnson and Lindsay Galvin Rauch, now both in their fifties, who were the youngest siblings and the only girls in a Colorado family of 12 children. Of their 10 older brothers, six of them had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The more I learned about the Galvin family, the more I couldn’t believe their story. It was horrifying. Their oldest brother, Donald, tried to kill his wife before being sent to a state mental hospital more than 20 times over two decades. The seventh son, Joseph, sent threatening letters…

Illustration by Anuj Shrestha

This story is part of “Tickpocalypse,” a multi-part special report.

Joseph Elone just felt tired at first, like he wasn’t sleeping well. A 17-year-old high-school student from upstate Poughkeepsie, New York, Joseph was a quiet but popular science whiz and electric-guitar lover who had just finished a summer environmental fellowship at Brown University. He’d spent two weeks studying on campus and hiking in the Rhode Island woods and was still riding high from the experience. It was late July, and life had a carefree feeling to it. “He was really happy that he had this chance to really open himself…

Robert Kolker

#1 New York Times best-selling author of “Hidden Valley Road” (an Oprah’s Book Club selection) and “Lost Girls”

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