Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Friday, December 15, 2006

I never promised you a rose garden

Some of you may remember the Lynn Anderson song. Others may recall the 1964 Joanne Greenberg novel, which is what I am talking about here.

I've had the book since childhood (yet another bearing my sadly neat childhood script on the inside cover), and read it greedily in adolescence. Over time I read many other Joanne Greenberg novels--With the Snow Queen, Of Such Small Differences, In this Sign.

I picked up Rose Garden again idly, looking for something to read between new books. The reread had all the ephemeral qualities of something remembered yet seen entirely differently through the lens of adulthood. I missed much about this book as a young woman--the literary references, Anti-Semitism in the wake of World War II, the toll protagonist Deborah Blau's mental illness takes on her family.

For those new to the book, a quick summary. I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is the story of sixteen-year-old Deborah Blau, a schizophrenic who, to her parents' dismay, is finally hospitalized after a suicide attempt. The story is set in postwar Chicago, where the Blau family has struggled to achieve a noblesse oblige amidst openly anti-semitic neighbors. Precocious, artistically talented Deborah is always different; after years of confusion and taunting, she withdraws into the secret world of Yr, a land populated by alternately mocking and loving gods, with places both ugly and beautiful. Yr has its own calendar, rules, and language; a Censor carefully monitors Deborah's every action in the shadowy place most of us call reality. Over time the good parts of Yr give way to pain, terror, and punishments. Deborah's weak attempts to survive in the real world collapse; upon hospitalization, Doctor Clara Fried, an eminent psychiatrist, agrees to take on her case. Three years of talk therapy rebuild Deborah into a coherent, functioning young woman.

The story is modeled directly on Greenberg's illness and hospitalization as a teenager; the created world is hers, the eminent psychiatrist real.

Apart from being well-written, the book's representation of mental illness and treatment is dated in all the wrong ways. Save for the wealthiest amongst us, few have access to the kind of care Deborah receives: three years in a hospital populated by skilled nurses, doctors, and attendants, many good at their work and pleased to be doing it. It is impossible to imagine such a scenario today, when dire nursing shortages make it necessary to seek workers offshore. When skilled attendants are nearly impossible to come by and so atrociously paid that few can afford to stay in the field. We cannot envision a poluation of mental patients sedated only at bedtime. In fact, the very words "mental illness" are now indelibly associated with a host of medications easier to get than tobacco products. Paxil, Effexor, Zoloft, Prozac, Lexapro.

Even talk therapy has become contested, a dinosaur in light of pharmaceutical therapy. Not to mention expensive and time-consuming. What HMO allows endless therapist visits, much less daily visits?

Equally amazing is Greenberg's Deborah, whose schooling is hopelessly fragmented by illness--no mainstreaming for this young woman--yet she remarks to Dr. Fried that the young nurse escorting her from the office back to the ward cannot understand them, because "Charon spoke in Greek." (25) When the doctors refuse to believe her regarding an abuse attendant, she asks "Is Pilate everybody's last name around here?" (125) Not only does desperately ill Deborah, cut off from books, newspapers, media, know these things, so too, is the reader expected to know them.

Deborah's emergence into wholeness is an examination of a world the sane take for granted: trees, food, seasons. Bodily sensation in response to stimuli. Expression. Comprehension of others. Friendship and love.

The book is a good one, well worth reconsideration as the goverment dithers over the efficacy of black box warnings on SSRI's and the chronically mentally ill, freed from hospitalization courtesy of Reagonomics, sleep in the streets.

Greenberg is in her seventies now; it would be interesting to know her thoughts on the turn psychotherapy has taken since it saved her life so many years ago.

Joanne Greenberg. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Signet Press: 1964.

N.B: This book sometimes appears with Greenberg's pseudonym, Hannah Green.


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