Study Guide

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

By Joanne Greenberg (originally published under the pseudonym Hannah Green)

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden Introduction

As we're sure you're aware, being a teenager can be tough. Schoolwork, crushes, mean girls, college apps, helicopter parents, planning the rest of your life—you name it.

Now imagine adding "dealing with severe mental illness" to that list.

Makes your life sound a little less stressful, right?

Unfortunately for Deborah Blau, that's the reality she faces in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Published in 1964, the novel follows Deborah for three years as she seeks treatment for what they diagnosed back in the day as schizophrenia.

After a childhood spent battling worsening mental illness in Chicago and its suburbs during the 1930s and 40s, Deborah's parents admit her to a mental hospital out in the country in the hopes that they can make her "normal"—whatever that is.

And that's one of the book's main questions: what does it mean to be normal? What does it mean to be mentally ill? How does a person lose his or her handle on reality? Some of the answers are tough: the world can be a very hard place deal with, because the world's not always such a great place.

Our author, Joanne Greenberg, knows a thing or two about this struggle firsthand. The novel is a fictionalized account of Greenberg's own experience at the Chestnut Lodge Hospital in Rockville, Maryland from 1948 to 1951. She based the novel's Dr. Clara Fried on her own psychotherapist, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, whose method of compassionate long-term psychoanalysis helped Greenberg recover and eventually leave the hospital.

It's a great thing that Greenberg found Fromm-Reichmann, by the way, because at that time, treatments for schizophrenia and other mental disorders weren't what they are today. The use of medications for schizophrenia was still experimental, and some patients in mental hospitals in those days were subjected to electroshock therapy and extreme surgeries like lobotomies.

Lobotomies, in case you didn't know, were often performed by taking a glorified icepick, sticking it into the corner of the patient's eye, and cutting into the part of the brain responsible for personality.

Fromm-Reichmann, thankfully, was a different kind of doctor. She, like the novel's Dr. Fried, was known for her success with a personal psychotherapy that got at the root causes of a patients' illnesses and allowed them to face down their demons, with guidance from the therapist. Greenberg's novel is a glimpse of one girl's journey back to the real world after a descent into madness.

The way Greenberg portrays mental illness and the journey out of it is so nuanced and emotionally powerful, in fact, that the book was made into a movie in 1977 and a play in 2004.

If you really want to understand what it's like to cope with mental illness, a great resource is someone who's been there, done that, and has the T-shirt. Joanne Greenberg has gone "crazy" —her word—and come out the other side to share her story so others can understand mental illness and take away some of the fear and mystery that surrounds it.

What is I Never Promised You a Rose Garden About and Why Should I Care?

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden might be over 50 years old, but the topic of mental health is pretty current. Did you know that one in five Americans has a diagnosable mental disorder? That's a lot of people.

Joanne Greenberg's novel came out in the 1960s, when people were still afraid to admit that someone in their family had a mental illness, much less self-identify. Mental Health Awareness Month was still a new idea, and almost no one felt comfortable talking about it (source). People with serious mental health issues were often hidden away in institutions, and their families probably lied about what happened to them. We see Deborah Blau's family, and Deborah herself, struggle with this stigma in the novel.

This novel helps readers start a conversation about a difficult topic. It gives us the inside scoop from an author who knows firsthand what it's like to lose her mind and get it back. Stories like these make us more empathetic to sufferers of mental illness by giving us a glimpse of what it's like to be in their shoes.

If you think you might suffer from a form of mental illness, you're not alone. Celebrities are now sharing their own struggles with mental disorders to bring awareness to the issue and ease the shame and judgment patients endure. Demi Lovato? Bipolar. Jim Carrey? Depression. Megan Fox, Leonardo DiCaprio, and David Beckham? OCD. (Source.)

Joanne Greenberg herself was diagnosed with schizophrenia (though her illness might be defined differently today) and recovered. What better authority to guide us through the journey from madness to sanity?

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden Resources


The Sane Author's Website
Joanne Greenberg is now in her eighties and lives a quiet and non-crazy life out in Colorado.

Curing Crazy in the Twentieth Century
This site has a great timeline that shows treatments for mental illness throughout the ages.

A Dude in Treatment in the 1960s
Want a male perspective? Here's a first-person article about a man's experience in and out of mental hospitals in the 1960s. Spoiler: he endured heavy medication and forced labor.

The Play's the Thing
Here's the script for the play adaptation of the novel, which was first performed in 2004.

Movie or TV Productions

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977)
This 1977 adaptation stars Kathleen Quinlan, who was nominated for a Best Actress Golden Globe for her portrayal of Deborah Blau. It's totally 70s, which means it's awesome.


Joanne Greenberg on Mental Illness
In this interview, Greenberg talks about how metaphors operate in both regular life and in mental illness. She also discusses the treatment of mental illness back in the day.

Take These Broken Wings
This documentary about schizophrenia also includes interview clips with Joanne Greenberg, who talks about her experiences with mental illness.


Joanne Greenberg on Writing and Mental Illness
In this interview, Greenberg talks about why she's drawn to write about characters who have unusual perspectives, whether because they're deaf or mentally ill or something else. She also talks about the evolution of mental health treatments, and about how she conquered her own demons and ended up having a "normal" life.


Joanne Greenberg
Here's a recent photo of the author, who is now in her eighties.

Deborah Blau on Screen
The film adaptation of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden won recognition for its portrayal of mental illness.

Book Cover
Um, this isn't really how the author describes Deborah, but whatever.