I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg Review – Rock bottom in a “rest home” | fiction

Ahe beginning of Joanne Greenberg’s stunning 1964 autobiographical novel, now reissued by Penguin Modern Classics, is a journey in one direction. Deborah Blau, 16, is with her parents who are trying to normalize the trip: stopping at a diner, going to the cinema. But there’s no denying it — her parents consider her a “familiar face they were trying to convince themselves they might be estranged from.” Deborah has schizophrenia, with psychosis-like episodes that she can no longer handle, and they put her in a psychiatric hospital.

Deborah has retreated into an imaginary world she calls Yr and speaks a language no one else understands. When we uncover her past—a childhood cancer, experiences with anti-Semitism—it’s not surprising that she doesn’t think our world is a good fit. But we see the fear not just from Deborah, but from those around her: No one is guilty here; all suffer. When her parents return home, they are distressed by what they have been doing but admit the family is now having periods of “rest, even happiness” without them.

The hospital is happily sold as “some kind of convalescent home,” but there isn’t much rest. Deborah jokes with the staff – “Anyone going?” she asks. “I don’t know,” replies a nurse. “I haven’t been here that long” – while her world and the book itself are full of the attitude of the times towards mental illness. If Deborah cuts herself, she will be moved to “D station”: D for disturbed. A patient looking down at the others regards them “with the genteel horror of a countess visiting a slaughterhouse,” though most happily identify themselves as mad, bats, or lunatics.

It’s not pretty, but it’s certainly lively – until it’s not. As Deborah increasingly hides in Yr, the book follows her, but a little from ‘the plains of Tai’a’ and ‘Eugenia was a bearer of the poisoned nganon“ goes far. But if the intention was to relieve the reader of some of the tedium of institutional life, then the mission was accomplished.

Amid the sharp horror there is a recurring theme of gratitude that, as Orwell put it, “You’ve talked so many times about going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you’ve reached them, and you can.” stand it”. Deborah’s mother feels relieved about the cut on her wrist that landed her in the hospital: “Finally, a lingering suspicion that something was subtly and terribly wrong had found expression in a fact.” Deborah, who lives in District D hitting rock bottom, feels “the comfort of the finality of being there.” She spends three years in the hospital, oscillating between boredom and fear, and nothing changes until everything changes.

Greenberg writes in a new afterword that after she left the hospital in 1951, she didn’t want to talk about it: “Lying about my … disconnection from reality” was the only option. But a decade later, she was delivering the truth as only fiction can. She also speaks of the slow increase in understanding of serious mental health problems, the breaking down of prejudices. She’s too humble to admit it, but her own book is an important step in that journey for all of us.

I never promised you a rose garden by Joanne Greenberg is published by Penguin Modern Classics (£9.99). In support of Guardian and observer Order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply

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