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Madness and Literature: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

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.