Genres: American Literature, Fiction, Illness
Original Publication Date: 1964
Find the Author: Website, Goodreads, Amazon
A modern classic, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden remains every bit as poignant, gripping, and relevant today as when it was first published. Enveloped in the dark inner kingdom of her schizophrenia, sixteen-year-old Deborah is haunted by private tormentors that isolate her from the outside world. With the reluctant and fearful consent of her parents, she enters a mental hospital where she will spend the next three years battling to regain her sanity with the help of a gifted psychiatrist. As Deborah struggles toward the possibility of the “normal” life she and her family hope for, the reader is inexorably drawn into her private suffering and deep determination to confront her demons.
I Never Promised You A Rose Garden Became A Sensation Upon Publication
This book is a semi-autobiographical novel about Joanne Greenberg’s time spent at a prominent psychiatric hospital when she was 16 years old.
It was just republished this month in a Penguin Classics edition.
The setting is in the late 1940s, after World War II, The Holocaust, and Hiroshima.
Deborah Blau is a girl who is deeply disturbed.
She cannot tolerate the “real” world, so she has invented an imaginary Kingdom. This Kingdom, called Yr, is a place of comfort for her. But lately, it is not comforting at all.
She has been committed to a private psychiatric hospital. Her parents are devastated. Mental illness had a terrible stigma in those days.
They were used to a certain bitter precocity in their child, but they could not see it now in the familiar face that they were trying to convince themselves they could estrange. The father kept thinking: How could strangers be right? She’s ours . . . all her life. They don’t know her. It’s a mistake –a mistake!
Back in those days, hospital stays for psychiatric treatments could last for years. They did not have the medications they have now.
Deborah is assigned to Dr. Fried, a brilliant psychiatrist with a worldwide reputation. They connect to each other from the beginning.
As Dr. Fried thinks just before she meets Deborah for the first time:
Sometimes, she thought ruefully, the world is much sicker than the inmates of its institutions. She remembered Tilda, in the hospital in Germany, at a time when Hitler was on the other side of its walls and not even she could say which side was sane.
Deborah dealt with anti-Semitism and the cruelty of other children.
When she was 5 years old she had two operations to remove a tumor in the urethra.
This was a devastating experience for young Deborah, as the doctors didn’t take her fears and pain seriously.
Deborah Escapes Into A Fantasy World Where She Can’t Feel Pain
After all this trauma, Deborah creates a fantasy world to escape the real world:
The Kingdom of Yr had a kind of neutral place, which was called the Fourth Level. It was achieved only by accident and could not be reached by formula or an act of will. At the Fourth Level there was no emotion to endure, no past or future to grind against. There was no memory or possession of any self, nothing except dead facts which came unbidden when she needed them and which had no feeling attached to them.
How Deborah deals with her mental illness and comes to a place of health is a compelling story.
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is a brilliant book.
You really get into the mind of the psychotic Deborah. After the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust, who could blame someone for thinking that the “real world” is an awful place?
Deborah’s battle for sanity makes for an engrossing novel, one that you will want to read until you find out what happens to her.
More About This Novel
This novel was first published in 1964. It was originally published under the pen name of “Hannah Green” but it wasn’t long before the true identity of the owner emerged.
Joanne Greenberg (Deborah) will turn 90 years old in September!
Neither she nor her publisher thought the book would be such a success. It has sold over 5 million copies.
A new Penguin Classics edition of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden was published in May 2022.
In this video Greenberg discusses the new edition:
The novel was based on Greenberg’s stay at the legendary Chestnut Lodge in Maryland:
Chestnut Lodge was not like other psychiatric hospitals at the time. They did not do electric shock treatments or lobotomies. They mostly used “intense psychotherapy” and cold packs.
Joanne Greenberg’s doctor was the eminent Frieda Fromm-Reichmann.
You can read more about her and Chestnut Lodge: Recalling Chestnut Lodge: Seeking the Human Behind the Psychosis and Frieda’s Cottage—The Story of a Trailblazing Woman Scientist and Rockville’s First National Historic Landmark.
The 1977 Film Adaptation
The book was made into an interesting 1977 film. The author of the novel was apparently unhappy that they removed the references to anti-Semitism (they changed Deborah’s last name to Blake) and didn’t like the way the mentally ill were presented.
However, I find the film I Never Promised You a Rose Garden engrossing because of the excellent performances by the entire cast, especially Kathleen Quinlan as Deborah:
If you like this post about science and medicine and mental illness, please review my reviews:
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker.
Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan.
Thank you for reading The Literary Lioness!