I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

 I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is a semi-autobiographical novel by Joanne Greenberg, under the pseudonym Hannah Green. The book explores her experiences with mental illness after being committed to an insane asylum. 

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is a semi-autobiographical novel by Joanne Greenberg, under the pseudonym Hannah Green. The book explores her experiences with mental illness after being committed to an insane asylum. 

People enjoy what they relate to. Every piece of literature is born from at least one tiny truth, one kernel of reality. A story based entirely on imagination, with no human aspects or emotions, would never be enjoyed. People may want novelty, but they demand a basis in reality.

 Deborah’s imagined kingdom of Yr is reality spun into fantasy. She believes that Yr is it’s own reality, entirely different from the rest of the world. As she recovers, she slowly realizes that all the aspects of Yr that make it different from Earth were actually half-remembered pieces of reality.

Her experience with mental illness, and the strangeness of the hospital where she is treated, are alien to most readers. The sprinkling of passages from the doctor’s and Deborah’s family’s point of view give mentally sound patients something solid to relate to. As the story progresses, readers finds themselves sinking deeper and deeper into Deborah’s mind. Although her reactions may be unorthodox, the reasons for her condition are firmly human. At first, a reader may be repelled by the idea of empathizing with a clinically insane patient, just as the nurses and ward staff were. Readers may use the solid and firm reality of a book to separate themselves from D ward, just as staff members used their jingling keys to signify their otherness.

The stigma at the time, and Deborah’s own mantra, was that mental patients were different. Those locked in the ward were other, and foreign. The reader may find themselves chanting along with the gods of Yr, saying “you are not of them” to comfort their own quiet fears. The reader may feel the safety of isolation at the start, but is eventually forced to face the reality that the inhabitants of D ward are undeniably human.

The reader’s journey parallels Deborah’s. As she alternately works to both prove and disprove Yr’s existence, we work to prove and disprove our difference from the inhabitants of D ward. It is difficult for a reader to resist finding ways their minds differ from Deborah’s, in order to justify their own sanity. It is equally difficult for the reader to avoid seeing parallel’s between their own mind and Deborah’s, and wondering if readers belong on D ward as well.  

Deborah eventually decides to abandon Yr and the honest insanity of D ward for a complicated reality. She discovers a world of challenge and beauty and social stigma, a far cry from the perfect and calm rose garden that she was never promised. The reader discovers a world of open insanity that simultaneously denies and offers freedom. Those locked in D ward are denied the freedom to leave, but are allowed the freedom to be purely and entirely themselves, with no stigma or fear of judgment. The patients are allowed the freedom to be insane and open their imaginations, while those outside are forced to conform to the rules of reality.

This book has endured as a classic because people are drawn to the otherness but then relate to Deborah’s struggle, even if they resist it. Accept reality, or give in to insanity? Live in this hard world governed by society, or create your own kingdom and host of godly friends? Accept your own fragile insignificance, or believe that “you are not of them?” Dr. Fried never promised Deborah a rose garden in the real world. Perhaps because the rose garden was inside of Yr all along.