Books of a Lifetime ~ I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

This is the second in my Books of a Lifetime series. 

There are three books that have been my favorites for a very long time.  Other books have touched me and have jockeyed for positions in my top 25, but these three books are special and finite in my heart.  In no particular order, I’m starting with I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg.

I’ll get to the other two.  I Promise 😊

As I’ve said before, I read a bit above my grade level.  I remember seeing this title on a rack in a five and dime (yes, that long ago…) and buying it with my allowance money.  The book pictured above is not the original book I bought, because this is the movie tie-in edition and the movie wasn’t made until 1977.  I’d guess I bought my original copy around 1968 and probably read it so many times that it eventually fell apart.

One thing my three favorite books have in common is how much I remember about them, even though I haven’t reread them in years.  Probably because I read them so many times after I first discovered them.  And also, because they’re favorites for a reason!

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is the story of Deborah Blau, a sixteen-year-old schizophrenic confined to an asylum.  Working with empathetic and highly regarded psychiatrist Dr. Fried, we get to experience the tormentors that inhabit Deborah’s world of Yr.  I vividly recall the imagery of the beings and the never-ending fall into the abyss she created to hide from her own perceived ugliness and cowardice.  Days of lying wrapped in cold sheets when the misery became too much to bear.  Hours with Dr. Fried, dismantling the world she’d built to survive herself.  And especially, one scene toward the end, when she and another patient impulsively “escape” – the joy of their shared adventure, after a book filled with isolation and terror, is one of my favorite scenes in any book ever.

I’m also a process person—I like police procedurals, cozy mysteries and true stories of medical breakthroughs – basically anything that shows how something was puzzled out.  Dr. Fried’s techniques for helping Deborah are patiently administered through the three years of her confinement and we see the gradual healing that enables her to rejoin the world.

The really cool thing about doing this series is what I’m finding out about the books I love.  I had no idea that this is a semi-autobiographical accounting of the author’s time spent at a sanitarium, working with world-renowned psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichman.  At the time the book was published, Greenberg used the pseudonym Hannah Green because she didn’t want to disclose the true nature of the story she was telling.

I just bought the ebook of To Redeem One Person is to Redeem the World by Gail A. Hornstein, a biography of Fromm-Reichman that covers Greenberg’s recovery.  Also, Greenberg took part in the 2004 Daniel Mackler documentary, Take These Broken Wings, about recovery from schizophrenia, which I plan to watch on Youtube.  Greenberg was a professor of anthropology and has continued to write into her late 80’s.

It may sound like a bummer of a book but the punishing realm she built in her mind is fascinating and served a purpose for her.  And the work Deborah does with Dr. Fried ultimately frees her from that suffering and allows her the life she might not have had otherwise.  It’s actually pretty life-affirming in the end and boy, howdy, don’t we need that right now?!

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