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.
Leah Grisham, PhD is a writer and educator whose upcoming book, Heroic Disobedience: The Forced Marriage Plot, 1748 – 1880 will be published by Vernon Press in 2022. She writes about Jewish life, literature, and feminism.