I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Joanne Greenberg in 1964. The book tells the story of the disease, treatment, and recovery of a sixteen-year-old girl. Through this girl’s story, Greenberg shows readers how the difficulties, abuse, and pain experienced by an individual throughout life can affect his or her psychological state. In the case of the main character of the novel, Deborah Blau, a continual feeling of shame and a perception of the world’s hostility results in the development of schizophrenia, as the girl is not able to cope with the severe challenges she faces every day; instead, she has created the imaginary reality of Yr, which shelters Deborah from life’s misfortunes. The girl’s disease is caused by many factors including her family relationships, an early and painful tumor surgery, and so on. However, the girl’s frequent exposure to anti-Semitic assaults from her peers and neighbors contribute the most to her development of schizophrenia. Therefore, this paper will analyze how this mistreatment and abuse influence the ways in which Deborah’s mental illness expresses itself.
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The novel starts at the point when Deborah’s parents take her to a mental hospital after she has attempted to commit suicide. Once the treatment commences, Deborah’s interior world starts to reveal itself slowly. She tells Dr. Fried about Yr and her private experiences. Yr is a world in the parallel reality that is inhabited by many gods and demons. In that world, Deborah goes by the name of Januce, which is inspired by the figure of two-faced Janus, because she feels like she has a face in each of the two worlds. There exist a specific hierarchy and order in Yr. Moreover, its inhabitants speak their own language and live according to the Secret Calendar. Deborah has been strictly forbidden to let anyone on Earth know about Yr’s existence. The responsibility for controlling her speech and actions has been given to a Censor whose power has grown over time and imposes greater constraints on Deborah. However, at first, Yr served as a shelter where Deborah could hide:
“The gods of Yr had been companions – secret, princely sharers of her loneliness. In camp, where she had been hated; in school, where strangeness set her apart more and more as the years went on, Yr had grown wider for her as the solitude deepened. Its gods were laughing, golden personages whom she would wander away to meet, like guardian spirits” (Greenberg 52).
In this way, the inhabitants of YR have been created in Deborah’s mind as a result of estrangement. They are meant to fulfill her needs for communication, emotional relationships, understanding, acceptance, and love. This interior reality can be regarded as an elaborated psychological coping mechanism. In Yr, Deborah can find all the answers to questions that cannot be answered in normal reality and, in this way, she can somehow rationalize her current position and circumstances.
Deborah has never known what real friendship is. It seems that the people around her are hostile to her most of the time. It all starts when the family moves to a higher-class neighborhood. The girl’s father, Jacob Blau, is an immigrant who tries to do everything to provide a better life for his wife and children. He works hard and attempts to merge into the unfamiliar American society. As Greenberg writes, “his neighbors had every manner he admired” (29). However, these same neighbors are highly intolerant of Jacob’s religion, style, and accent, and, in the same way, they despise all of his family members including Deborah.
In the 20th century, levels of anti-Semitism were lower in the United States than in Europe. However, there was still significant social segregation based on ethnicity and race. Negative stereotypical views and prejudices were widespread among members of the major ethnic group. Therefore, the lives of Jewish people were often much more challenging compared to the non-Jewish. As a child, Deborah is especially sensitive to this intolerance towards her family. Moreover, the adverse experiences of receiving anti-Semitic slurs occur during a time when her personal and social identities are still being formed. Thus, it is possible to presume that the negative emotions and events that Deborah has experienced have left a deep footprint on her character and significantly contribute to the development of her schizophrenia.
Early experiences of the world’s hostility are a decisive factor in the girl’s emotional isolation. Feeling that she is not accepted, Deborah starts to perceive herself as different from others, and as the estrangement grows, she begins to feel like an outsider. Deborah has never had someone with whom she can talk about her problems. Even her parents are not very close to her. Thus, turning to the inner world is the only option she has. After yet another adverse interaction with people who do not understand her, she hears a voice in her head saying: “You are not of them. You are of us…Fight their lies no longer” (Greenberg 59). This voice appears again and again, confirming her difference from others and strengthening her sense of solitude.
As mentioned previously, the world of Yr expands as the girl encounters greater and greater hostility. For example, she visits a summer camp where other children mistreat her because she is Jewish. She is also frequently shamed by the adults around her: teachers and the camp director. For instance, when she complains to the camp director that the other campers refuse to walk by her because she is a “stinking Jew,” and when one of the young insulters refuses to take the blame, the director gladly turns against Deborah without any further investigation (Greenberg 59). There certainly is a share of anti-Semitic motivation in the director’s behavior because she calls the girl “a liar… who uses her religion to get pity and involve innocent girls in trouble… who would stoop to any evil and dishonor” (Greenberg 59). Undoubtedly as a result of such experiences, Deborah continually feels that almost everyone is against her. At the same time, Deborah is a sensitive and a quiet girl who cannot properly up stand for herself. For a humble and calm person like her, the continuous mistreatment is beyond her strength. It is mentioned in the book that Deborah often fights against the “injustice of having been born as herself” (Greenberg 58). And since there is a lack of support in her life and nobody else can protect her from unfair treatment, the Yri gods – Anterrabae, Lactamaeon, and others – appear to fulfill this role.
As the psychological burden becomes heavier, changes in Yr occur as well. Indeed, Yr turns out to be evil, and its gods, tyrants:
“Slowly Deborah was forced to assuage and placate, to spin from a queen-ship of a bright and comforting Yr to prison in its darkest places…to endure the dizzying changes between worlds, to bear the world’s hatred voices in the chanting curses of the Collect, to be subject and slave to the Censor, who had been given the task of keeping the world of Yr from blowing its secret seeds to ground on Earth” (Greenberg 52).
The images of the Yri gods, and especially the main one – Anterrabae – are symbolic. They represent all the psychological problems and “mental garbage” that has tortured Deborah from within for many years (Greenberg 270). At first, she does feel secure in their presence as there is a sense of relatedness that is not available in reality, but once these personifications reveal their true faces, they are nothing more than reflections of her external turmoil and suppressed fears. Just like in real-life circumstances, the gods of Yr have absolute power over the girl.
Among all Yri inhabitants, the Censor has a special role as he functions on the periphery of the two realities. The Censor turns against Deborah when she is unable to keep Yr a secret any longer. At first, it seems that he is protecting the girl from the cruelty of Earth’s reality by having her hide in the make-believe world, but then it becomes clear that the Censor represents external order with all its norms, prejudices, condemnations, and imposed expectations as much as Yr itself. Deborah is not accepted as she is and has to mimic others, trying to adjust in order to survive. In this case, censorship can be regarded as the process of filtering the girl’s real intentions, thoughts, and emotions. It is meant to make Deborah appear to conform better with the common worldview and remove, or rather hide, the elements of her mind that prove her difference. In other words, the Censor is a symbol of Deborah’s fears nurtured by the feelings of unacceptance she has based on her ethnic and cultural identity, as well as her personal traits.
As the analysis of the novel makes it clear, Joanne Greenberg depicts schizophrenia as a multidimensional and multifactorial phenomenon. Anti-Semitism is certainly one of the causes of Deborah’s illness, but it affects her mental state indirectly, through peers’ mistreatment, regular ridiculing, a lack of support from adults, and an overall intolerance of her family’s cultural and religious background by the neighbors. By telling the story of a girl growing up in an unfavorable environment, Greenberg raises an important social issue that remains topical in the present day as well. She demonstrates how prejudices take over the minds of people and make some of them act heartlessly, while others suffer from the injustice. In the example of Deborah Blau, the author manages to illustrate the overall situation in an American society blighted by stereotypes and inequality. Deborah’s story reveals that the issue of social and ethnic discrimination affects not only adults but children as well and can have a significant impact on their well-being. At the same time, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden teaches readers that by providing support to those who need it, people can heal even the deepest wounds, which, at first glance, may appear incurable. Support and fair treatment are also essential to prevent the occurrence of severe psychological difficulties in individuals, and they simply may be regarded as a sign of good societal health. Therefore, people should accept diversity as an undeniable value.
Greenberg, Joanne. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. St. Martin’s Paperback, 2009.