I Nev­er Promised You a Rose Garden

Joanne Green­berg

  • Review
By – June 14, 2022

Joanne Greenberg’s nov­el I Nev­er Promised You a Rose Gar­den, first pub­lished in 1964 under the pen name Han­nah Green, is a semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal account of a teen’s strug­gle with schiz­o­phre­nia. Green­berg (whose nov­el The King’s Person’s won the Jew­ish Book Council’s Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in 1964) was admit­ted to a men­tal health hos­pi­tal at six­teen years old; Rose Gar­den is a fic­tion­al­iza­tion of the years she spent as a patient there. Pen­guin Ran­dom House’s deci­sion to release a new edi­tion under the Pen­guin Clas­sics imprint, com­plete with a for­ward by author Esmé Wei­jun Wang (The Bor­der of Par­adise, The Col­lect­ed Schiz­o­phre­nias) and a new after­word by Green­berg her­self, pro­vides a frame­work for more com­plex under­stand­ings of the nov­el — espe­cial­ly when it comes to its por­tray­al of men­tal health issues and Jew­ish­ness — mak­ing this clas­sic nov­el avail­able to new gen­er­a­tions of readers.

Rose Gar­den begins with Esther and Jacob Blau mak­ing the dif­fi­cult deci­sion to insti­tu­tion­al­ize their teenage daugh­ter after a sui­cide attempt. Plagued for years with wors­en­ing psy­chot­ic episodes, Deb­o­rah sees an alter­nate real­i­ty called Yr as the place where she was most alive” and real­i­ty as the oth­er place, where ghosts and shad­ows lived.” While it is clear to those around her that Deb­o­rah needs seri­ous help, to her Yr is the real world, a place filled with liv­ing crea­tures who con­trol her every action — a place she goes to escape from the shad­ow world in which her fam­i­ly resides. The out­side world — with its many expec­ta­tions, pres­sures, and tor­ments — seems more ter­ri­fy­ing than her schiz­o­phre­nia-fueled visions. Green­berg deploys free indi­rect dis­course that puts read­ers into the minds of Deb­o­rah, her par­ents, sis­ter, and doc­tor. Mov­ing in and out of Deborah’s dif­fer­ent worlds, read­ers can expe­ri­ence her episodes as if going through them themselves.

Penguin’s new for­ward and after­word also rec­og­nize the novel’s Jew­ish­ness, which feels both inten­tion­al and time­ly. Most con­ver­sa­tions about Rose Gar­den focus, under­stand­ably, on its por­tray­al of men­tal ill­ness, but this edi­tion calls atten­tion to the severe anti­semitism that Deb­o­rah suf­fers before her sui­cide attempt. Deborah’s grand­fa­ther, a club-foot­ed Jew­ish immi­grant from Latvia, pos­sess­es a deep anger toward the way his inbred and ancient­ly rich” Illi­nois neigh­bors look down on him, which in turn caus­es him to push his chil­dren and grand­chil­dren to out-achieve their gen­tile neigh­bors. How­ev­er, grow­ing up in non-Jew­ish spaces dur­ing the Holo­caust is trau­ma­tiz­ing for Deb­o­rah, whose peers con­stant­ly berate her as their neighborhood’s dirty Jew.” The adults in her life are no kinder: at sum­mer camp a rid­ing instruc­tor men­tioned acid­ly that Hitler was doing one good thing at least, and that was get­ting rid of the garbage peo­ple.’” Penguin’s deci­sion to re-release Rose Gar­den in a time when anti­semitism in Amer­i­ca is on the rise facil­i­tates mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sion about the con­nec­tions between anti­semitism, gen­er­a­tional trau­ma, and men­tal health.

In addi­tion to its impor­tant place among Jew­ish, men­tal health, and trau­ma lit­er­a­tures, Rose Gar­den is, at its core, a mov­ing nov­el of per­se­ver­ance against life’s strug­gles. As Deborah’s psy­chother­a­pist Dr. Fried (who is based on Greenberg’s own psy­chi­a­trist Dr. Frie­da Fromm-Reich­mann) puts it: I nev­er promised you a rose gar­den. I nev­er promised you per­fect jus­tice … and I nev­er promised you peace or hap­pi­ness. My help is so that you can be free to fight for all of these things … I nev­er promise lies, and the rose-gar­den world of per­fec­tion is a lie … and a bore, too!” That is, there is no easy cure or lin­ear pro­gres­sion to a per­fect life wait­ing for Deb­o­rah out­side of the hos­pi­tal. Being well sim­ply means hav­ing a fight­ing chance at work­ing toward inner peace among life’s chaos. As Deb­o­rah puts it her­self, Alive is fight­ing.” Being alive” is not a des­ti­na­tion but a jour­ney that must be fought every day. This real­iza­tion is where the beau­ty of Rose Gar­den lies: the human expe­ri­ence encom­pass­es pain, joy, and every emo­tion in between. It is in con­fronting the bad, hard, ugly parts of life that Deb­o­rah — and all of us — can find peace.

Discussion Questions