Joanne Greenberg said when questioned about the book, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, that she fictionalized it as a hedge. She explained that she didn’t want to go back to that time and place, so she gave the character, Deborah Blau, different parents and different symptoms, that were more organized than her own had been. Her own story included her time at the Chestnut Lodge Hospital in Rockville Maryland from 1948 to 1951. She did recover completely from her own struggle.
In this novel the young girl Deborah seemed to have withdrawn into a deep depression. It could have been schizophrenia, but in those days this was often just a vague diagnosis. She also had a traumatic experience in surgery she needed that involved a great deal of physical pain. She also felt a lot of abuse from anti-Semitic neighbors. She withdrew into an alternate world called ‘Yr”, which was a place of escape and comfort, but eventually those in charge of that world ruled over her every word and deed. The world had its own language and laws, woven from the laws of the real world.
After an attempt at suicide at 16 years old her parents take Deborah to an insane asylum hoping that they can make her normal. As her mother and father drive her to the hospital her father tells her, looking at her in the rear-view mirror, “I was a fool when I married- a damn young fool who didn’t know about bring up children.” She spends three years at the hospital as she seeks treatment for, what in those days, was diagnosed as schizophrenia. (Every mental hospital in America was filled with schizophrenics in the late 1940s) She finally worked herself up to the disturbed ward. One of the questions this story raises is what does it mean to be normal and what is it to be mentally ill?
Her doctor used psychotherapy to allow Deborah to face her own Gods as demons and be able to chose between them and the Gods of the real world. Learning that the “Yri” language words had roots in the English language and were not original helped her start to understand. When logic entered her thinking it helped her.
Her doctors made slow progress and their goal was to give Deborah the ability to choose between the reality of the real world over the fantasy of her “Yr” world. Earning her GED degree is a help in her struggle over her illness as it draws her back into the real world.
Deborah's progress is slow. The reader will likely get caught up with the other patients and their stories and interaction. Their craziness starts to make some sense as we learn more about them. Their lives have some logic and rules that they live by and reveal a hidden culture.
The step by step approach at building trust with Deborah helps her connect to reality and replace fantasy. Deborah’s personal resolution to have it work is the clearest indicator of the success that comes.