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Robert Kolker

Award-winning journalist and instant #1 New York Times-bestselling author of Hidden Valley Road

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  • About Robert Kolker

    Robert Kolker is an award-winning journalist and the author of the New York Times bestseller, Hidden Valley Road. His acclaimed book tells the story of a family overcome with schizophrenia and the major advancements in our understanding of mental illness that were brought about by the family’s willingness to undergo research. The book has been on several Best Books of 2020 lists, including The New York Times, The Washington PostTIME, and Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2020. In stunning talks, Kolker tells the heartrending story of the family in Hidden Valley Road, teaches the importance of destigmatizing mental illness, and discusses the future of mental health treatment and research.

    In Hidden Valley Road, Kolker lays out the incredible story of the Galvins, a midcentury American family with twelve children—six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia. What took place inside the house on Hidden Valley Road was so extraordinary that the Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health, leading to several scientific breakthroughs that have transformed our understanding of mental illness. Samples of the family’s DNA informed decades of genetic research that continues today, offering paths to treatment, prediction, and even eradication of the disease for future generations. Kolker brings deep compassion and care to this remarkable story and reports with the kind of clarity and precision that make the Galvins’ story of suffering, love, and hope truly unforgettable.

    Before Hidden Valley Road, Kolker wrote the New York Times-bestselling book, Lost Girls, which is now a Netflix film starring Amy Ryan. Named one of the Best True Crime Books of All Time according to TIMELost Girls delves into the perplexing, unsolved murders of five sex workers at the hands of the Long Island Serial Killer. The book was named one of the New York Times‘s 100 Notable Books and one of Publishers Weekly‘s Top Ten Books of 2013.

    In his career as a journalist, Kolker’s reporting has stunned audiences with its profundity and impact. He is a National Magazine Award finalist and a recipient of the 2011 Harry Frank Guggenheim Award for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Kolker’s work has appeared in New York magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, O Magazine, and Men’s Journal. He lives in New York City.

  • Speaking Topics

    Hidden Valley Road: A Story of Family, Trauma, and Hope

    Robert Kolker has stunned audiences with his critically acclaimed book, Hidden Valley Road. In writing about the Galvins—a family of twelve children, six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia—Kolker brings great empathy and humanity to a story of deep struggle and trauma. In this moving talk, Kolker highlights the critical scientific discoveries made about schizophrenia and mental illness, thanks to the Galvins' willingness to participate in research on the once-misunderstood diagnosis. He investigates how people like the Galvins manage to rebuild their lives after the worst imaginable things happen to them. How do they do it—and what might they have to teach the rest of us? Kolker also shares how he researched and wrote about the Galvin family, and why he imbues his writing about mental health with such compassion.

    Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness

    The Oprah’s Book Club selection Hidden Valley Road—about one extraordinary family’s struggle with schizophrenia—engenders a larger conversation about how we frame mental illness in our society. In a talk that blends research with radical empathy, author and award-winning journalist Robert Kolker stresses the importance of destigmatizing mental illness and bringing awareness to the subject. He highlights how our notions surrounding severe mental illness have taken shape over the last hundred years, and how now finally might be the moment those preconceived ideas could crumble.

    The Future of Mental Health Treatment

    Thanks to the Galvins—the family at the heart of Hidden Valley Road—there have been numerous advancements in our understanding of schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses. In a talk aimed toward health care audiences, author and award-winning journalist Robert Kolker deconstructs the tangled history of mental health treatment in America, the advances that the Galvin family witnessed and contributed to, and the promise of future breakthroughs in treatment, prediction, and even prevention of schizophrenia.

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  • Praise for Robert Kolker

    Praise for Hidden Valley Road

    A feat of empathy and narrative journalism.

    Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

    Magisterial...A weave of gripping reportage and scientific detective story...Hidden Valley Road is destined to become a classic of narrative nonfiction.

    Hamilton Cain, Minneapolis Star Tribune

    The curse of the Galvin family is the stuff of Greek tragedy. Kolker tells their story with great compassion, burrowing inside the particular delusions and hospitalizations of each brother while chronicling the family’s increasingly desperate search for help. But Hidden Valley Road is more than a narrative of despair, and some of the most compelling chapters come from its other half, as a medical mystery.

    Sam Dolnick, The New York Times Book Review

    At once deeply compassionate and chilling.

    Karen Iris Tucker, Washington Post

    Hidden Valley Road vividly conveys not only the inner experience of schizophrenia but its effects on the families whose members are afflicted... With the skill of a great novelist, Mr. Kolker brings every member of the family to life.

    Richard J. McNally, Wall Street Journal

    True-crime fanatics, this one’s for you...mind-blowing.

    Cosmopolitan, Best Non-Fiction Books of 2020

    A marvel of reportage, research, and style, Hidden Valley Road raises the bar on what is possible in narrative nonfiction. Robert Kolker dives into the exceptional story of one family besieged by humanity’s most mysterious malady. Kolker writes about the Galvin family with elegance and insight while weaving together the decades long quest to understand the genetics of schizophrenia, somehow creating a story that is as haunting and intriguing as a great gothic novel. This book is a triumph, an unforgettable story that you should read right now.

    Susannah Cahalan, author of Brain on Fire and The Great Pretender

    Hidden Valley Road contains everything: scientific intrigue, meticulous reporting, startling revelations, and, most of all, a profound sense of humanity. It is that rare book that can be read again and again.

    David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon

    An extraordinary case study and tour de force of reporting.

    —Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind

    This broad-ranging, highly readable, and deeply unsettling book tells the story of a family beset with schizophrenia, and in doing so provides meaningful insights into the devastation caused by the disease. It is, equally, a study of the multiple ways in which familial denial can exacerbate the inherent pain of mental illness, and of the courage required both of those who are themselves diagnosed with it and of those who choose to help and support them.

    Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree

    This book tore my heart out. It is a revelation—about the history of mental health treatment, about trauma, foremost about family—and a more-than-worthy follow-up to Robert Kolker’s brilliant Lost Girls.

    —Megan Abbott, Edgar Award-winning author of Dare Me and Give Me Your Hand

    In a narrative that is at once gripping and humane, Kolker tells an ultimately hopeful story of one family’s small victories and the slow progress of research that may someday benefit millions.

    Marin Sardy, author of The Edge of Every Day

    A sweeping yet profoundly intimate story of one family’s breathtaking challenges with schizophrenia and humanity’s long history of misbegotten efforts to make sense of, and treat, the condition. Like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this masterfully researched and utterly engrossing book shines a light on individuals who were foundational to medical study—and subjected to questionable ethics. Your heart will break, your sympathies will swell, and the Galvins will stay with you forever.

    Rachel Simon, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister

    A stunning, riveting chronicle crackling with intelligence and empathy...Kolker tackles this extraordinarily complex story so brilliantly and effectively that readers will be swept away. An exceptional, unforgettable, and significant work that must not be missed.

    Booklist, starred review

    Riveting and disquieting....Kolker deftly follows the psychiatric, chemical, and biological theories proposed to explain schizophrenia and the various treatments foisted upon the brothers. Most poignantly, he portrays the impact on the unafflicted children of the brothers’ illness, an oppressive emotional atmosphere, and the family’s festering secrets . . . A family portrait of astounding depth and empathy.

    Kirkus Reviews, starred review

    A powerful look at schizophrenia and the quest to understand it....A taut and often heartbreaking narrative...A haunting and memorable look at the impact of mental illness on multiple generations.

    Publishers Weekly, starred review

    Praise for Lost Girls

    Lost Girls is a marvelous book, taking a complicated, trying story and making it compulsively readable. Kolker is an outstanding reporter and a sensitive narrator who does justice to a horrible tragedy by paying exactly the kind of attention that no one else did, or would.”

    Nick Reding, author of Methland

    Kolker indulges in zero preaching and very little sociology; his is the lens of a classic police reporter. And often in Lost Girls, the facts are eloquent in themselves.

    Newsday

    Kolker is a careful writer and researcher...[he paints] a far more nuanced picture of each young woman than any screaming headline could.

    Miami Herald

    Robert Kolker unflinchingly probes the 21st-century innovations that facilitated these crimes… ...An important examination of the socioeconomic and cultural forces that can shape a woman’s entry into prostitution.

    Kirkus Reviews

    The absence of the killer is the making of this book, a constraint that allows it to become extraordinary…humane and imaginative…[Kolker] shows the dented magnificence and universal sorrow within ordinary lives, and makes you realize how much more they are worth.

    Laura Miller, Salon

    Rich, tragic...monumental...true-crime reporting at its best.

    Washington Post

    So masterful.

    Megan Abbott, author of Dare Me, via Twitter

    Some true crime books are exploitative…others grasp at serious literature. Robert Kolker’s new book falls into the latter category.

    New York Observer

    Meticulously reported and beautifully written, Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls is a haunting and powerful crime story that gives voice to those who can no longer be heard. It is a story that you will not be able to forget.

    David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon

    Beautifully and provocatively written.... [Lost Girls] will make all but the hardest-hearted empathetic. Add a baffling whodunit that remains, as the subtitle indicates, unsolved, and you have a captivating true crime narrative that’s sure to win new converts and please longtime fans of the genre.

    Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    Engrossing...a car-crash of a book...By humanizing the women, Mr. Kolker has produced a subtle indictment of the sex trade.

    Nina Burleigh, New York Observer

    Through extensive interviews with the victims’ families and friends, Kolker creates compassionate portraits of the murdered young women, and uncovers the forces that drove them from their respective home towns into risky, but lucrative, careers as prostitutes in a digital age.

    New Yorker

    Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls is reportage at the highest level; it’s miss-your-bedtime storytelling… It’s a wonder.

    Darin Strauss, author of Half A Life

    Riveting and often heartbreaking...a lashing critique of how society, and the police, let these young women down.

    New York Times

    Terrific...vivid and moving...

    Entertainment Weekly

    Captivating.

    Boston Globe

    Kolker does not hold back in addressing the fact that there was dysfunction in these women’s lives. They were drug addicts and teenage mothers and petty criminals. They suffered. But he can also see that within those circumstances they had moments of strength and self-assurance.

    Barnes & Noble Review

    By learning the intimate details of the women’s lives, seeing them as humans rather than victims, we see our similarities…Lost Girls is possibly the realest, fullest picture of what is happening with sex work in the US right now.

    The Guardian

    A heart-chilling non-fiction tour-de-force...terrifying and intensely reported.

    Complex Magazine

    Immensely evocative...we are left with is a visceral understanding of the lives of the victims and why they should have mattered more.

    New York Daily News

    A rare gem of a book that not only tells a riveting story but illuminates something about a slice of America and gets into a lot of very deep issues. Its really great on every front.

    Slate, DoubleX

    A gothic whodunit for the Internet age…nearly unputdownable…[Lost Girls is] a horrific, cautionary tale that makes for a very different kind of beach read…Kolker expertly chronicles the sad cycle of poor, uneducated white women faced with lots of kids and few resources.

    Mimi Swartz, New York Times Book Review

    Readers expecting an SVU-style true-crime story will be disappointed. But through detailed profiles of the victims themselves, Kolker has written a more provocative book—a book that is as much about class and economic pressures as it is about sex work and murder.

    The Daily Beast

    Lost Girls is partly unsolved mystery...[partly]the intimate story of the five women… [and] a case study in the profound impact of the Internet, and particularly Craigslist, on the business of buying and selling sex.

    National Post
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