Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Review: "I Never Promised You A Rose Garden" by Joanne Greenberg

Against their better judgment, a wealthy Jewish family delivers their schizophrenic sixteen-year-old daughter to a mental institution for treatment. Where the Blau family sees terror and depravity, Deborah herself sees a refuge--proof at last that she is as sick as she has always known herself to be, and the freedom to tell the truth.

Dr. Fried, Deborah's psychologist, is not scared by Deborah's caustic wit or the bizarre symptoms which frightened her family into committing her. She believes that Deborah has the strength to secure her own rescue from her illness.

But Deborah is fighting an enemy the doctors cannot see: the imaginary world of Yr, which used to be her refuge from cruel reality and is now her prison. The cruel gods of Yr are unwilling to let their captive go free, and every step Deborah takes toward health is countered by their punishments, erasing the real world she is not entirely convinced she wants to rejoin at all.

5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

You may have noticed, dear reader, that my reviews have become more polarized. I made an agreement with myself a little while ago to write reviews for the books I feel strongly about, rather than just the random crap I read at the speed of light. I've been alternating reviewing old favorites--for better or for worse--alongside newer releases and reader recommendations. (Speaking of which, thank you Leticia for the list of recs!)

On that note, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden has been one of my best-beloved books for many years. It is a story that reads like arms wrapping around me, despite its unsettling subject matter. I was extremely pleased to find that when I reread it with an eye toward quality rather than just personal satisfaction, it passed all of my tests.

It is a wish dear to my heart that this book could become a popular staple and set alongside other modern classics for teens and young adults. Deborah can stand on her own alongside the heroines beloved by my generation (Katniss Everdeen, Hermione Granger, Buffy Summers, Alanna of Treybond, Rory Gilmore, etc.) It only takes the leap of understanding that her antagonist is her own self, and the battlefield of the plot is her own mind.

The book is unflinchingly ugly at times. Institutionalized just a few years after World War II, Deborah is a would-be victim of the Holocaust twice over--once as a Jew, then again as a mental patient. Dr. Fried refers occasionally to past patients whom she lost to Nazi cruelty. But the institution where the story is more than able to supply its own share of cruelty, under the limited understanding of mental illness that was available at the time. Deborah's gruesome self-harming episodes, her self-loathing, and the descriptions of her medical care may be too upsetting for some readers.

But despite its dark premise and the grimness of psychiatric care as practiced in 1948, the story is one of remarkable health. Even when Deborah herself cannot grasp the idea that she could be (or rather, already is) strong, capable of fighting for her own survival, the narrative is one of the most life-affirming, health-affirming tales I have ever read--without ever diminishing or denying the awfulness when one's mind is an enemy.

Greenberg balances the (understandable) close-mindedness of weary nurses, harried doctors, and well-meaning parents who are afraid to acknowledge the severity of their child's condition with an equal number of fellow patients who care, through the dark woods of their own issues; of attendants with great compassion and tenderness for their charges; and of course Dr. Fried. I have underlined approximately eight million different passages throughout the book about the importance of truth, about not fixating on ugly symptoms and missing the deeper cause, about the "trappings" of mental illness being a desperate, if misguided, attempt at self-preservation; about the difficulty of self-care, about the courage it takes just to approach another person when you yourself are hurting.

Let me go ahead and except a whole passage for you: a conversation between Dr. Fried and Deborah's parents.
"Is it wrong to want a child like anyone else's?" Jacob asked. "I... I mean is there a cure, really, or will she stay here and have to be placated and comforted... always?" He heard how cold his words sounded. "It isn't a question of love--sick or well--it's only that we have to expect something, even to hope for something. Can you tell us what we may hope for?"

"If you want to hope for a college diploma and a box of dance invitations and pressed roses and a nice clean-cut young man from a fine family--I don't know. This is what most parents hope for. I don't know if Deborah will have these things someday or if she will even want them. Part of our work together is to find out what she really does want."

"May we see her?"

Dr. Fried had known that the question would come, and here it was. It was the one she didn't want to answer.  "Of course, if you decide to see her you may, but I would not advise it this time." She tried to make the answer very, very calm.

"Why not?" Jacob said, moving loudly against his fear.

"Because her feelingof reality is quite shaky now. The way she looks might alarm you a little, and she knows this and is afraid of you... and for herself also."

Jacob back dazedly, wondering why they had ever done this thing. The old Deborah as she was might have been sick. She had been unsure and wretched, but she had been theirs: unsure, to be guarded and olanned for; wretched, to be cheered and mothered. At least she had been familiar. Now, the picture this doctor made was of someone unrecognizable.

"Let me say that the symptoms are not the sickness," the doctor was saying. "These symptoms are defenses and shields. Believe it or not, her sickness is the only solid ground she has. She and I are hacking away at that ground on which she stands. That there will be another, firmer ground for her after this is destroyed, she can only take on faith. Imagine it for yourself for a moment and you can see why she doesn't pay attention to her grooming; why she gets so frightened and the symptoms proliferate."
Jacob's real, honest fears, his sense of being out of his depth and wishing they could simply go backwards in time; Dr. Fried's attempts to protect Deborah's right to express her sickness while simultaneously protecting her parents from too much pain; and Deborah's own struggle cast in such a sympathetic way--this is all through the book, this tremendous generosity of spirit and understanding. Even before I could articulate my own issues and identify what in this book resonated with me so strongly, I carried that sense of goodness and courage and gentleness away from these pages.

Naturally I identify strongly with Deborah, although our particular diagnoses are different. I identify equally with her younger sister, Suzy, and the distinct experience of being the "healthy" child in a family that revolves around the sickness of another. While the emotional weight of the book is necessarily carried on Deborah's shoulders, it is to the book's credit that the varied experiences surrounding mental illness--doctors, caretakers, peers, and family members--are given voice and granted compassion in their own time, without undermining or denying Deborah's own experience.

Even readers who have not struggled with mental illness of any stripe can, I believe, sympathize with Deborah's experience and be encouraged by her journey. The sense of betrayal and dishonesty by the world, the significant memories which haunt us which no one else seems to recall, the tally of wrongs against which we begin to doubt any good can be achieved--these are all common to our generation. If I cannot give all of my peers a Dr. Fried of their very own, to fight for their ability to believe in themselves, to choose for themselves the world they wish to live in, then at the least I can recommend this book to them.

The book is as beautifully told as it is meaningful. Greenberg's lyric skill and ability to suspend a narrative are as much to credit for the book's success as her personal experience in mental hospitals. Even minor characters are crafted with deliberation and care. Scenes hang like a cluster of wind chimes, ringing together in perfect harmony. The prose is capable and funny without being forced or cheap, and that's a rare gift.

I could spend three times this many words reviewing I Never Promised You A Rose Garden and still not be able to capture its importance for you, dear reader. I cannot tell you how much each scene, each unspooling gentleness, each victory--even those followed by what looks like a severe descent--will mean to you. All I can say is that you should read this book, and you will be glad for it.

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: self-harm, suicide attempt, medical abuse, anti-Semetism

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