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Literature / I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

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One of several covers.

Please, doctor, my difference is not my sickness.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is a 1964 novel written by Joanne Greenberg, using the pen name Hannah Green.

The story details the psychiatric treatment of sixteen-year-old Deborah Blau, a lonely girl who spends most of her time in a fantasy world of her own creation called Yr. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Fried (nicknamed "Furii" by Deborah and the Yrians), begins to draw her into the real world, but the godlike inhabitants of Yr won’t let her go without a fight.

The novel is semi-autobiographical, informed by Greenberg’s own three-year stay in Chestnut Lodge psychiatric institution, where she was treated by Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, who Greenberg claims has cured her of schizophrenia. While the actual illness Greenberg suffered in her youth has been hotly debated, the book itself was regarded as offering an important but often unheard perspective of psychiatry—that of a patient.

Adapted into a 1977 film produced by Roger Corman, directed by Anthony Page, and starring Kathleen Quinlan as Deborah and Bibi Andersson as Dr. Fried. It's also a 2004 stage play, which hews much closer to the novel.

Greenberg describes what her illness and recovery were really like in the film Take These Broken Wings along with several other people describing how their schizophrenia was relieved through psychotherapy with little or no medication.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: The film changes Deborah's surname from Blau to Blake. This was a Changing the Minority. Deborah's (and Greenberg's) Jewish ethnicity and heritage were a major part of her life and one of the reasons she was cruelly bullied. Greenberg says they made her a WASP in the film because they were "terrified". (She adds that this is just one of the reasons the film "stunk on ice." Yes, she really does talk like that.)
  • Conlang: The Yri language. Deborah also has a "cover language" influenced by Latin, apparently so that she can speak aloud without being understood, but without using the true speech. Yri was a secret language of great emotional import and to speak it aloud in every situation would be like "powering a firefly with lightning bolts". Greenberg's language was actually called Irian, and had its own writing system resembling Chinese ideographs. She created it at a very young age, to prevent her overly intrusive father from reading her poems. It's likely there's no actual Irian in the novel, but Greenberg says she remembers words of it.
  • Cuckoo Finger Twirl: Used early on by one of the B-Ward patients. Deborah observes that the lower-ward patients feel free to use language like "cuckoo" or "nuts", but only the Disturbed D-Ward call themselves "crazy" or "psychotic".
  • Facial Dialogue: Deborah and Carla communicate with facial expressions when they simultaneously decide to run from D-Ward in the book.
  • Room Full of Crazy: Deborah, during one of her psychotic episodes, writes Yri text on the ward's bathroom walls with her own blood, a smuggled pencil, and a broken button from her clothes. While the ward nurses take this as a sign of her further descent into delusion, Dr. Fried recognizes in it a cry for help and a sign of health, since she's letting the "volcano" of her true feelings erupt, instead of suppressing them.
  • You Won't Feel a Thing!: Contributing to Deborah's mental illness was her painful childhood cancer treatment, when she was told this lie numerous times. She ceased to trust adults in her life and had lasting psychosomatic pain. Greenberg had been born with four kidneys and four ureters (possibly a sign of an absorbed fetal twin) and had numerous cystoscopies and other excruciating treatments, then surgeries. She describes this early in Take These Broken Wings.

Alternative Title(s): I Never Promised You A Rose Garden