Madness and Literature: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

Remember we asked on this blog for your thoughts on books showing insight into mental health issues? We’d still love to hear from you, on this blog or by email, but here is our friends secretary’s review of one autobiographical novel.

First published in 1964, I Never Promised you a Rose Garden is a fictionalised account of the experiences of the author, Joanne Greenberg, portrayed in the novel as the character Deborah Blau. Aged just sixteen, Greenberg was admitted to the Chestnut Lodge Sanitarium in Rockville, Maryland, where she was treated by the (at the time) renowned psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (the novel’s Dr Fried). The thoughtful insight into life at Chestnut Lodge, for patients and doctors, is one of the novel’s many qualities: indeed, the sympathetic treatment of those around Deborah (in stark contrast to, say, Sylvia Plath’s contemporaneous The Bell Jar) is perhaps one reason as to why the autobiographical nature of the book was for a long time debated (written under a pseudonym, it was not for several decades that Greenberg began to speak publicly about her work).

Of course, Greenberg’s positivity is understandable, given the conclusion of her story: discharged from Chestnut Lodge after three years as an in-patient in 1951, she continued a close friendship with Fromm-Reichman until the latter died in 1957. Indeed, the novel itself had originally been planned as a collaboration between Greenberg, her mother and doctor. What’s more, Greenberg has remained well since her discharge, leading to an incredible variety of re-interpretations of her illness following the novel’s publication. An increasing emphasis on psychotropic medication, and tendency to view schizophrenia as a purely biological disease, meant that many doctors denied Greenberg had ever had schizophrenia at all: for, they argued, she could not possibly have been cured of this disease with psychotherapy alone. On the other hand, the anti-psychiatry movement has obliterated in the minds of many the notions of “therapeutic community” that Chestnut Lodge claimed to represent: for many, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the paradigm for the post-war psychiatric hospital, with its suggestion that illness is reinforced, not cured, by in-patient treatment.

While this is not to say that the experiences of many (we should, in particular, note that Chestnut Lodge was a private hospital) may certainly have been more Cuckoo’s Nest than Rose Garden (indeed, many elements of Deborah’s treatment may appear more disconcerting to us than they seem to have done to Greenberg, who portrays seclusion and “packing” as less constricting than her illness itself), this is rather to miss the point of the book. The account is, after all, one of survival: thus Greenberg emphasises the purpose of many aspects of mental ill-health, as well as their possible cure (something psychotherapy can indicate in a way drugs never can). Beautifully detailing Deborah’s refuge in the incredibly intricate world of Yr as a means of survival in an aggressively anti-Semitic post-war world, the importance of Dr Fried’s promises become clear: she will not have to give up her refuge until she is ready and, when she does, there will be something there to take its place. Cure cannot simply be a demolition of all that is perceived as unhealthy, it is something has to be created: a trust – in the world? In a future? It is clearly significant that the words of a Jewish doctor, forced to flee Nazi Germany in the 1930s, form the title of the book. Anyone who struggles to reconcile themselves to the realities of the twenty-first century world will find much of import in the words of both Dr Fried, Deborah Blau, and Greenberg herself.


2 Responses to “Madness and Literature: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”

  1. 1 Jillian Kent March 21, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    A Beautiful Mind and Girl Interrupted are the books that immediately come to mind for me. I read, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden many years ago. I love this post and the Bethlem Blog. I’ve worked in the mental health field for years and am now focusing my efforts on storytelling and including a strong mental health thread in my first book, Secrets of the Heart, The Ravensmoore Chronicles, Book One, that is being released May 3rd, 2011.
    Although I think there has been accomplishments in the field of mental health we’ve a long way to go both in the US and Britain and the world before we see the advancements in mental health as we have with other diseases like cancer and diabetes.
    What I love about this blog is that it’s a great place for these kind of discussions to take place.

  2. 2 bethlemheritage March 23, 2011 at 11:48 am

    Thanks for the suggestions, Jillian. I’ve tried to get hold of ‘Girl Interrupted’ before, and there seems to be a severe lack of library copies in London, so I’ve sadly only seen the film. Discussion should always be open to anyone with any connection to mental health concerns, which, to be honest, I would think means everyone! I hope the blog continues to provide a forum for this.

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