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I Never Promised You A Rose Garden

January 24, 2011

I can’t believe I haven’t posted about this book before. It’s one of my favorites in the ‘mental hospital’ genre. While being direct, it also has the shimmer of mystery in it. Not in the sense of ‘we’re going to get down to the bottom of this mystery’ but more of a ‘there’s something beyond us here we will never fully comprehend.’ The imagery of the kingdom of Yr at it’s height and glory begins to tempt even the most grounded in reality.

When asked what the book is about, people often over simplify it to something like this: The main character, Deborah, has schizophrenia and is hospitalized. But that is not that simple. This novel has all the richness of another world that places it among some of the best fantasy novels. It is the sort of fantasy, the sort of fiction that is completely and utterly true. The names, places and time frame might have been changed, but for many of us it is our story, or pieces of it. It is a work of polished literature, yet is accessible to students of different levels when reading it for the first time. There is equally enough to learn the second through.

The characters speak to each other so profoundly, often metaphorically. One gets an inkling of how the patient’s nonsense could actually be communication. A recurring theme is the directness and stark crudity of the mental ward, everything laid bare, compared with the covering up, the shame and the lies common in the outside world. Dr. Fried, a therapist who escaped Nazi Germany, knows the power of telling the truth. Her directness is reference in the title, “I never promised you a rose garden,” and is one thing that sets her apart from the other doctors. It’s something that, in time, earns Deborah trust.

In addition to being a great work of literature in it’s own right, it references and incorporates everything from Dante’s Inferno and Hamlet to The Importance of Being Earnest. Many of the patient’s delusions prompt them to quote scripture ironically. Fiction and literature are central to this novel and is one of the things that makes it so timeless. Deborah is lost, but not without resources. She often cuts down to the real fear — and it’s inexplicably linked with hope. The little Maybe, she calls it. Hope of getting better. Fear you won’t, fear you will. I know this feeling well.

To me, it is the details that make it genuine. For instance, near the end, Deborah takes a long bus ride to where she studies to complete the high school equivalency — the author calls it a dangerous, mezmerizng ride. Deborah stares out the window and seems to lose herself there. When she arrives she must fight to get back into it so she can do her studies. I know those dangerous rides well, and I know what it is to get on the bus anyway. These are the details you cannot make up. You learn them through the long hard road of madness.

Shirley just jokingly said “It’s the best kind of autobiography; one you didn’t have to write yourself.” She’s right, I experienced the difficulty speaking and using English, though I was not fortunate to have a replacement like Yri. So much of the book, though it came to me well into my recovery, often is exactly like the earliest and sickest days. After I had so accepted so much pain before accepting I was human and therefore worth something, I followed Deborah on her journey in learning the same thing. 

I don’t recommend watching the movie. All the levels of metaphor, the richness of Yri’s world, and the depth of the characters are lost in the movie. Also they don’t show Deborah’s classical education that contributes so much to her mannerisms and the world of Yri. The movie aims to shock, where the book is simply direct out of necessity.

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One comment

  1. This sounds like a good book. 🙂



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