Review: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg

This was a hard book for me to read. And yet parts of it were so beautiful and tragic I couldn’t stop reading even though I was terrified.

This is the fictionalised memoir of a young girl battling with schizophrenia in a mental hospital based on the author’s own experiences. The world she created is a haunting wonderful kingdom with it’s own language and gods that frequently turn on her and torments as it turns into a land of nightmares.

I do not and have never had schizophrenia but I found that several of Deborah’s issues were similar to my mental illness like the following excerpt.

She could not tell him. She could do no more than gesture feebly with her body and hand but he saw the panic she was in. “Hold on Deborah,” he said. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

She waited and her fear mounted as her other senses closed to her. She could only see in grey now and she could barely hear. Her sense of touch was also leaving, so that the reality of contact with her own flesh and clothing was faint.

I write this as a warning that it might cause the same reaction to someone with similar problems. I was so frightened that I put the book down and didn’t pick it up for weeks. I am very glad that I did.

The writing is steeped in black humour as it seems the only way to stay fighting to live in ward D where the worst patients are. The language is sharp, lyrical and coldly beautiful like a vast, dark sky pricked with glittering distant stars. Deborah is so intelligent that the world she creates is filled with riddles, poetry and people as clever as she that she must outwit.

The book also writes how this affects Deborah’s family and the awkwardness, love, anxiety, embarassment and well-intended lies are the most bleak parts in the book for me. Deborah’s sister is arguing with her mother in one of her rare visits home while she is in a drugged half-sleep.

Every letter,” Suzy cried, “Every visit that you make to her! I draw, too; I dance and I wrote two of the songs for the camp follies last year. They may not be as “profound” as Debby’s pictures, but you never stop Grandma or invite Aunt Natalie and Uncle Matt to hear the new song that I wrote or the smart thing I said.

“Don’t you see, you stupid girl,” Esther said almost savagely, “I don’t have to! Praising you is bragging. Praising Deborah is–excusing–.”

The difficulty that Deborah faces is not just fighting her own mind but figuring out if she wants to live in the drudgery she sees in the real world. I never promised you a rose garden Deborah’s doctor says to her about how life won’t neccessarily be better once she is able to escape the world she has built for herself but at least it will be the truth. Sometimes the path to getting better is more difficult than being right at the bottom of the pit.

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