Variety is the spice of life, right?
Because this book is written in third-person omniscient point of view, the tone changes depending on whose head we're in at the moment. The two main tones come from Deborah and Dr. Fried.
Deborah's insights are introspective in tone. She's constantly questioning and evaluating herself, her motives, her senses, her identity. Even when Deborah speaks her thoughts out loud to others, there's always some deep thinking that has preceded her speech.
When Helene tries to get on her nerves and bully her, for example, we get an understanding of Deborah's introspection when she processes what's going on: "Deborah recognized the voice and knew the tremendous strength of violence in Helene, but now laughter came welling up naturally as if she had always had it as a friend. 'Do you think you could compete with smallest nightmare of its dullest day?'" (15.29-30).
Deborah tells Helene that nothing she could do could compete with Deborah's own sickness and darkest demons. That takes guts to say out loud, but we see how she got there.
When we're with Dr. Fried, the tone is always compassionate. The doctor feels for everyone in this story, and she can understand others' perspectives, even when the reader might want to judge them.
For example, Esther Blau is overprotective and delays getting her child help when she showed symptoms of mental illness for years, but Dr. Fried doesn't judge her for it, even privately to herself. She addresses the situation with kindness: "Dr. Fried looked at Esther and listened to the words of love and pain coming from the carefully composed mother of a girl sick to death with deception. The love was real enough and the pain also" (5.58).
It takes a well-adjusted person to be able to see so many different points of view. Dr. Fried's gentle tone prevents us from being judgmental; she gives us the opportunity to feel empathy for troubled characters we might not normally care much about.
Joanne Greenberg boarded the Reality Is King train long before it was fashionable.
The author has admitted publicly that the novel is totally based on her own life. She spent three years in a mental hospital in Maryland from 1948 to 1951. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, like Deborah, although that diagnosis was given more freely to a broader range of symptoms back then. She even based Dr. Fried on her own psychotherapist, whom she credits for her recovery.
The novel is also a family drama: Deborah's illness doesn't just affect her, it also affects her parents, her sister, and her extended family. We see Suzy, Deborah's younger sister, sulking because Deborah sucks all the energy out of her parents. Jacob and Esther Blau, who already have problems communicating with people and each other, struggle to articulate their emotional distress at watching their daughter lose touch with reality. Illness of any kind doesn't just affect the victim.
Deborah is sixteen when the novel begins, but the story is replete with flashbacks that shed light on the long eleven-year development of her disease. Over the course of the novel, we get to see Deborah grow up and let go of Yr, the imaginary world she started building when she was five. Saying goodbye to all those imaginary friends is even more emotional than the scene in Inside Out where Bing Bong fades away. But grow up Deborah must if she wants finally to come of age.
The title I Never Promised You a Rose Garden comes from a therapy session Deborah has with Dr. Fried. It's a powerful moment that comes at the halfway mark of the novel.
Deborah is struggling to decide if the real world would be worth giving up Yr, especially since there is so much injustice and evil in the real world. Remember, Deborah's story is happening not long after World War II. Her family is Jewish, and she's very aware of the Holocaust. She's just as much aware of the prejudice she faced in her own neighborhood growing up.
At the hospital, Deborah faces a new kind of prejudice from some of the staff and from people on the outside once they've learned she's been in a mental hospital; she learns just how much people mistrust and misunderstand the mentally ill. They mistreat them, too—like when Hobbs smacks Helene in the face when she's restrained in a cold-sheet pack.
Deborah feels compelled to bring that incident up in therapy to see if Dr. Fried can do something about it. She wonders aloud whether it's worth it to side with a world that is capable of such cruelty.
Dr. Fried admits that she can't promise justice: "'I never promised you a rose garden. I never promised you perfect justice…' (She remembered Tilda suddenly, breaking out of the hospital in Nuremburg, disappearing into the swastika-city, and coming back laughing that hard, rasping parody of laughter. 'Sholom Aleichem, Doctor, they are crazier than I am!')" (13.41).
Dr. Fried makes no promises. She remembers a patient she treated back in Germany who was released from the hospital there only to see the Nazi madness erupting all around her. Dr. Fried knows that Deborah is right, that the world can be cruel. She knows firsthand.
But Dr. Fried also knows the advantages that come with mental health, so she continues to encourage Deborah: "My help is so that you can be free to fight for all of these things. The only reality I offer is challenge, and being well is being free to accept it or not at whatever level you are capable. I never promise lies, and the rose garden world of perfection is a lie…and a bore, too!'" (13.41).
Dr. Fried never promised Deborah a rose garden, but she still wants her to try to plant the seeds of one—because she might just get better and learn how to be happy. Even if that happiness will include struggles.
We don't get a Hollywood ending, folks. Deborah isn't all better.
But Deborah is an admitted work in progress, so it's a good, honest ending.
Deborah has earned her GED and has decided to celebrate by looking at the high school kids in town doing their high school thing on the high school grounds. But when she sees them, and in particular a young couple holding hands and nuzzling each other, she gets upset. She thinks that no matter how hard she tries, the stigma she'll carry for fighting mental illness will prevent anyone from loving her like that.
This is also when we get the last showdown between Yr and Earth. The gods of Yr try to convince Deborah one last time to stay with them, because she'll never find friends like them or love like theirs on Earth. Deborah can feel the Pit coming, and she walks to the hospital, where she can have an epic panic attack in the safety of a cold-sheet pack and medical supervision.
And so she does.
When she regains consciousness, she decides to say goodbye to Yr at last. She sides with the world and decides to hang with it with her "full weight." This means she's going to give getting well everything she has. She's willing to try for what Dr. Fried promised her, which is the challenge to fight for what she wants and for the freedom to choose her way in the world.
We'll count this a happy ending in our book.
Fall is all about pumpkin carving, watching the leaves change colors, and taking a drive out to that mental hospital with bars on the windows, are we right?
Er, maybe not that last one. But that's what fall is about in the opening of this novel.
It's 1948, and the Blaus are driving from Chicago to rural Illinois, where Deborah will live and be treated for schizophrenia at a mental hospital. During flashbacks that Deborah recounts in therapy sessions, we get a tour of Chicago and its suburbs, but most of the action takes place in the hospital itself, as well as in the landscape of the Yr, an imaginary world that only exists in Deborah's mind.
The Blaus are a Jewish family of immigrants who live in an anti-Semitic neighborhood and send their daughter to an anti-Semitic summer camp. It's no wonder that Deborah has identity issues stemming from her religious and ethnic identity. (For more on the Jewish experience in America at the time, check this out.)
The 1940s and 1950s were an era before the term "politically correct" even existed. Yeah, Deborah and her family had a hard time with prejudice. It was a fact of life at the time.
The mental hospital where Deborah lives is never named, nor is the small town where it's located. Sometimes authors like to omit these details because it makes the setting more universal. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is a slice of dysfunctional Americana that sheds light on the way mental illness was treated and thought about during the 1940s through the 1960s, when it was first published.
Joanne Greenberg, the novel's author, was admitted to a mental hospital herself, also from 1948 to 1951, but the real-life hospital was in Maryland. In the book, we travel to Illinois, but no specifics about the hospital's exact location are given. Do we need them? No. The experience Deborah and the patients have then becomes something internal and emotional, something that we don't tether to an exact place.
The Yr of Deborah's imagination has vast plains, huge deserts, great blue skies, storms, and a Pit full of nothing but darkness and voices. It's important to remember that Deborah came from a background that fluctuated between privilege and near-poverty; this instability made Deborah feel unstable, and it caused tensions in her parents' lives that spilled over into how they treated her.
Spending some time in the landscape of Deborah's mind also gives us a firsthand account of what it feels like to lose hold of reality: apparently, this experience is all at once exhilarating, disorienting, and frightening. To the outside world, Deborah is cold and unfeeling, but we feel more sympathetic to Deborah because we see what she sees. Her internal world, even when it's dark and scary, is still very much alive.
In Yr, there are gods, goddesses, and a whole hierarchy of fantastical beings that Deborah's created to keep her company since she was five. They all started out as protectors, but the more out of touch with her inner self Deborah becomes, the darker and more limiting the characters become.
The landscape of Yr actually loses color over time, too. Eventually, it all becomes gray. There are still great plains and the Pit. But there's no color.
Eventually, Deborah learns how to live on Earth full-time and says goodbye to the magical place that both comforted and caged her.
Deborah is a smart cookie, so she makes a lot of references to history and literature that might be hard to catch. Throughout the novel, she also plies us with a lot of unusual, abstract description. We're dealing with someone who's lost her grip on sanity, after all, so some of her thought processes can be hard to follow sometimes.
But they're worth following.
Think about some of your weirdest dreams or fears or thoughts. Try explaining them out loud. It's not an easy feat, right? Joanne Greenberg guides us through someone's mental breakdown and recovery. Some of it is strange indeed, but it's never boring.
Most of this novel is written from either the perspective of an incredibly intelligent teenage psychotic or the perspective of a highly educated, world-renowned psychotherapist. When the main characters in your book are serious brainiacs, your writing style is going to be chock full of SAT words.
Yeah, the language can get a little thick with description, historical and literary references, and Deborah's own Yri language. Not all of the sentences are long and winding, but you might need a dictionary here and there.
Many of the flowery descriptions in this novel are coupled with Deborah's Yri language. When Deborah makes friends at summer camp with a girl named Eugenia, for example, Deborah worries that her poisonous essence, which she terms "nganon" in Yri, might have infected Eugenia because Eugenia starts exhibiting some crazy behavior—like whipping herself with a leather belt and asking Deborah to do it to her, as well.
Deborah goes on: "Then it suddenly came to her that Eugenia's nganon might be more virulent than hers. Even so, to witness was to share; to share was to be responsible. Her nganon had called to Eugenia's…" (17.69). There's a kind of flowery poetic quality to the rhythm of a lot of the writing when we're in Deborah's point of view. She's a creative girl who's built the world of Yr for herself, so she sees the world in very poetic terms.
Symbols, gods, prophecies—Deborah is all about the flowery.
The flow of the writing in the novel often feels fragmented, since we hop between the settings of Earth and Yr often. We also hop around among different narrative perspectives, given the third-person omniscient point of view. To top everything off, we also hop around in time.
During Deborah's sessions with Dr. Fried, we shift between the present at the hospital and all the events of Deborah's childhood that landed her there. There are many physical breaks in the text that represent moments when Deborah leaves Earth for the Pit of Yr—and then comes back to Earth.
There's often lost time between this world-hopping. For example, at one point, Deborah feels the punishment from gods of Yr coming on. Her gods punish her for telling the secrets of the imaginary world. When Deborah retreats into Yr and is punished, there's an actual space on the page in the book. Then the next paragraph starts with her in a cold-sheet pack.
These meandering kinds of descriptions can be disorienting. But that's the point: those sections of the story are trying to show us what Deborah's going through.
Seasons are all about change and transition. You don't just go straight from having summer barbeques to building snowmen. Unless you're that Olaf guy from Frozen, we guess.
Anyway, when the novel starts, it's fall. You might be thinking of apple picking or pumpkin carving, but folks, this is a darker story. Start thinking about mental institutions.
That's right. This story opens with the Blau family driving to a mental hospital to drop off Deborah, who has recently tried to kill herself.
Fall is generally associated with the harvest. It's when everything is at its peak but also very close to death or cyclical change. Deborah has come very close to ending her own life because she's been losing her grip on her sanity. Her parents are also losing their grip on her. Everything seems to be slipping away, so, yeah, we think it's pretty appropriate that all of this is happening right in the middle of fall.
Spring is the opposite of fall, and it makes an appearance in the novel in the novel, too. Spring is all about rebirth. It's about plants coming back to life after being dead all winter. It's exciting and vibrant and happy—the opposite of what many patients in the mental hospital feel, unfortunately. In fact, when spring comes, its presence seems to be sticking its tongue out at the patients:
Although those in the mental hospital wondered how springtime could come in spite of their particular pain, it came and was triumphant. It made the patients on D ward angry that the world which had murdered them did not suffer for its sins, but, on the contrary seemed to be thriving. And when Doris Rivera tied up her hair, put on a suit and a shallow smile, and left again for the world, it seemed to many as if she were in league with the springtime against them. (18.15)
Doris Rivera has been reborn, in a way. She was a former patient at the hospital, she is readmitted for a lapse in mental health, and then she goes back into the world to start anew. She gets her springtime, so to speak, after that long winter.
The patients, on the other hand, feel like the world "murdered" them but didn't "suffer for its sins." That's a pretty heavy description. It plays around with the same kind of language usually reserved for talking about Jesus Christ dying for people's sins. Jesus's death and resurrection are celebrated by Christians in the springtime during Easter.
But the mental patients don't feel like they have anything to celebrate. They have no egg hunts, and most of them don't believe in religion.
But they believed in Doris.
Doris Rivera's case is like a reverse resurrection. The savior of the mental hospital went out into the world, but then she came back broken. There's no rebirth here—just a reminder of how harsh the world is.
Except that then Doris goes back out into the world again. The D ward patients think this is nuts; they feel like they're watching her get set up to fail again. But the lesson here is that there isn't one death and rebirth for these patients: life is a continual cycle of death and rebirth, just like the seasons are.
Now, some of the patients, like Deborah and Carla, will move on from their self-pity and embrace that cycle. It's fitting that when Deborah finally takes her GED and passes with flying colors, it's springtime. This time, though, Deborah isn't feeling sorry for herself. "She pursued her studies…followed the season of budding fruit trees…fell in love with poplar trees... At the end of the month the Regents of the State called her out of the springtime to open their letter" (29.76-77).
That letter delivers her results—and the results that are so good she can go to college if she wants. She can start her life over and be in the world and have choices. She finally gets to experience the joy of the seasons and not feel like they're mocking her. She's part of the world now, and part of its cycles of death and rebirth.
The thing about a volcano is that tons of pressure builds up, little by little, out of sight, until one day, boom, the whole thing just blows.
That makes the volcano a perfect symbol for someone who struggles with internal demons and hides them from everyone else until the pressure is so intense it just erupts. The analogy gives us insight into how the most extreme forms of mental illness feel to someone actually suffering through them.
For years, Deborah has carefully crafted an outward appearance to make herself look normal, but she's spent a lot of time in her secret private world of Yr. When these two worlds battle it out for her attention, the core of the "volcano" that hides her true inner self comes close to bursting through. She tells Dr. Fried: "The illness is the volcano: she will have to decorate the slopes herself" (10.39).
Things get a lot worse before they get better. But at least once Deborah is diagnosed, her volcano gets one step closer to being mapped out: "The fact of this mental illness was in the open now, but the disease itself had roots still as deeply hidden as the white core of a volcano whose slopes are camouflaged in wooded green. Somewhere under the volcano itself, was the buried seed of will and strength" (3.54).
Deep inside of Deborah is an identity she keeps hidden, for lots of reasons. She's afraid she won't be accepted for who she is, and she's afraid she'll be shunned because she's crazy. So she tries hard, and not always successfully, to keep her outer self—"the slopes"—looking "green" and normal, while the hot core of the volcano deep inside her waits for the chance to erupt one day.
Watch out. It will.
Things start to get worse after Deborah learns about Doris Rivera. Carla explains to Deborah that Doris makes the patients panic because she represents hope for their recovery, Deborah herself panics: "I am now what I was in the world—a motionless mountain whose inner part is a volcano" (9.83). Deborah still feels like she has a secretive molten center about to explode.
Then, when Dr. Fried is on vacation and Deborah is having therapy sessions with Dr. Royson, who annoys her with his cold logic and bland vanilla personality, Deborah starts to regresses severely. She made a lot of progress with Dr. Fried in almost two years of work, but she quickly backslides into Yr and its belief systems.
The meetings with Dr. Royson continue, but they don't go well, and Deborah gets worse and worse: "Slowly a volcano began to form beneath her still and mask-like face, and as more days dragged by, voices and counter-voices, hates, hungers, and long terrors began to seethe within its stony depths. The heat of them grew and mounted" (19.45).
Yep, this girl's on her way to exploding again. And can you blame her?
Heeding Idat's advice that fire can sometimes put out a fire, Deborah starts burning herself with cigarettes to control the burning volcano she feels erupting inside of her beneath the surface. We guess there's a certain logic to that, but of course it doesn't work: "The volcano only burned hotter behind the stone face and body" (19.53). She continues the futile burning of her arm with cigarettes for a while, but it's only effective at "easing the pressure of the stifled volcano inside her" (20.1).
Seriously, this sucker is referred to so often, we just know it's going to be significant when it finally erupts.
And erupt it does. And it's bad: "When the volcano erupted at last, there was no backfire in the matchbooks that was big enough to stave it off" (21.1).
Yeah, when Deborah's biggest meltdown comes, it truly is a volcanic eruption. Despite meds, therapy, and a hefty dose of solitude, she still snaps and bangs her head against the tiles of the bathroom floor until "[t]he black in her mind went red, swelling and growing out of her so far that before she knew it she was engulfed in the furious anger of eruption" (21.2).
Ouch, and double ouch.
But, you know, we're almost relieved when this happens. The release isn't pretty, and it sure sounds painful, but it's somehow necessary. That energy has to go somewhere; the pressure has been building inside Deborah for so long. Eruptions are violent, but hey, sometimes in nature, islands are created from all that volcanic ash.
Hawaii is a beautiful place, right?
The volcano continues to erupt as Deborah discovers who she is.
Deborah's transition to spending more time in the real world is a messy one. There are times when the eruptions that occur from the Earth-Yr collisions are so intense that Deborah needs two cold-sheet packs a day just to calm down. Sometimes the eruptions send her running down hallways into doors.
But for all the violence of the eruptions, there is some amazing progress going on. Once Deborah's not holding back her true self anymore and not shoving it deep down into the core of her volcano, she starts being real with the world outside herself for the first time since she was five.
This is a huge breakthrough.
After these initial explosions, Deborah finds she doesn't need to work on decorating the outside slopes of her volcano anymore. Her facial expression is now real, and she is more authentically interacting with people. Dr. Fried points this out to her: "[W]hen this volcano of yours broke, something else broke, too: your stoniness of expression. One sees you now reacting and living by looking at your face" (22.10).
Deborah's not bottled up anymore. She can share her real feelings, and her outside finally matches her inside. Way to go, Krakatoa.
The iron what?
Okay, ever see pictures of cool old medieval castles? You know those enormous metal or wooden gates that slam down to protect the entrance?
That gate is called a portcullis.
Deborah sees a portcullis come slamming down sometimes. Now, as you've probably guessed, it's not really there. But for Deborah, it seems very real.
The portcullis is a symbol of the separation Deborah feels between herself and the regular human world. She doesn't feel she's a part of Earth; that's why she prefers hanging out in Yr most of the time. Even when Yr gets cruel and starts punishing her, she at least feels like she's where she should be.
On top of that, although it's only mentioned a couple of times in the book, the idea that there's some kind of separation between the mentally ill and the mentally healthy pervades the story on a symbolic level.
Actually, the novel likes to point out that we can't ever really get into the head of anyone else, at least not completely. That's an idea Deborah struggles with, because it makes her feel cut off from others. Sometimes, that separateness makes her feel special and grateful to have some solitude and her own space. But sometimes it makes her excruciatingly lonely.
Let's look closely at one of the few times the portcullis is mentioned.
During one of her first sessions with Dr. Fried, Deborah lets us know this gate has been an ongoing presence in her life. When Dr. Fried tells Deborah that her parents want to come visit, Deborah "sat on the other side of the heavy twelfth-century iron portcullis that Deborah occasionally found separating them. The portcullis had been raised this time, invisible, but when the doctor had mentioned parents and a visit, Deborah heard the sudden heavy rasp, and down it clanged between them" (4.21).
Notice how the gate appears when her parents are mentioned.
At the hospital, Deborah is enjoying some freedom from her parents and their constant worry about getting her to be "normal." Never before has she had the kind of distance necessary for her to get some perspective. Being left to sort through her thoughts and feelings is scary and liberating all at the same time.
So when she hears the word "parents," that door comes slamming down. It's one more layer Deborah can throw up to protect her secret self.
Seeing is believing, right?
But what if your ability to see clearly is messed up? Then what?
This is Deborah's reality. Her mental illness involves hallucinations that are so real Deborah prefers them to the real world.
Throughout the novel, what Deborah sees isn't always really there. Deborah's mental state impacts how she sees everything around her, so her vision is seriously distorted. Sometimes, for her, the world is coated in haze because she's halfway to Yr, or vice-versa.
Deborah's world is dark and shadowy, but there are also moments when light invades what Deborah would rather keep secret in those dark and shadowy hiding places.
In Chapter 1, as the Blaus drive toward a motel on their way to the mental hospital, they are "heading out farther into the country darkness," all the while talking about vacation details and trying to forget how heavy the present situation is—after all, their daughter has recently tried to kill herself (1.8).
This is what Deborah's parents often do: they ignore the darkness and pretend everything is okay. That same night, in fact, Deborah's parents lie in darkness, unable to reach out to one another or come to terms with their conflicted feelings about putting Deborah away (1.15).
For Deborah, at this point, the real world is populated by "ghosts and shadows" (1.21). She's not seeing anything clearly, least of all herself. She's detached from everyone around her and has lost touch with what it means to be a person and interact with other people.
When people describe someone as being "in the dark," they mean that person is unaware. Deborah is unaware of what being mentally healthy feels like; she only remembers feeling detached, hanging out with her imaginary friends in Yr, and being annoyed at having to flip between both worlds. Her mental state is, well, pretty dark.
In Chapter 3, Deborah describes light as something that will destroy not only her secrets but also the secret world she has built.
The figure in charge of these secrets in Yr is The Censor, and he's pretty much the worst, most annoying control freak you could imagine. His main job is to keep Yr a secret: "One whisper of a secret name, one sign written, one slip of light could break into the hidden place and destroy both her and both worlds forever" (3.3).
Deborah sees light as something that reveals secrets, and so she sees light as the element will take away the special thing that has come to define her. Without Yr, she thinks she won't belong anywhere. She'll be totally lost.
Basically, Deborah uses Yr to escape. When she's freaking out about Yri secrets getting out to Earth, or when she doesn't want to deal with emotionally difficult situations, or even when she's bored, she retreats to Yr.
Compared to Yr, the Earth starts to look pretty dull. When Deborah transitions to Yr, she describes Earth as losing light or turning gray. Eventually, everything on Earth just looks gray to her. It's boring. Seriously, Yr has flying creatures and gods and goddesses. Can Earth beat that? It cannot.
But then something sad starts to happen. Yr stops being colorful, too. It's like Deborah can't be truly happy anywhere anymore. The more she struggles with her own identity, the less color she's able to see. Everything is just gray.
Why does this happen?
Well, it's partly because Yr is punishing Deborah for giving up her secrets. When she tells Dr. Fried just a little bit about her parents, for example, Deborah falls with Anterrabae into the Pit, where there is darkness and only the sound of moaning:
"She began to fall, going with Anterrabae through his fire-fragmented darkness into Yr. This time the fall was far. There was utter darkness for a long time and then a grayness, seen only in bands across the eye. The place was familiar; it was the Pit. In this place gods and Collect moaned and shouted" (4.30).
The grayness is now both in Yr and on Earth. Everything is losing vibrancy and color for Deborah. Even her imaginary world is getting less fun.
Why? Because that's how Deborah feels.
When nothing makes you happy, not even your own imaginary world…? That has to be a really lonely place to be.
So how did this whole gray thing happen for Deborah?
It's complicated, but she gives us some clues. The grayscale thing happens when she first meets Dr. Fried, for example. When Dr. Fried says she wants to help Deborah to learn how to manage her feelings better so that she will be able get along in the real world, Deborah feels like a rope is tightening around her neck. "Fear was flowing wildly in Deborah's head, turning her vision gray" (3.37).
What makes Deborah nervous here is the idea of getting better and learning how to be in the real world. You know…with real people. At this point, that is a terrifying thought for her. Giving up Yr would be a complete reversal of her reality.
Every time Deborah's defense mechanisms are challenged, and every time she's offered the choice to work toward mental health, she gets scared and freaks out a little. And then things start turning gray. Grayness is the outward sign of her fear.
When Dr. Fried reveals that she thinks Deborah is mentally ill, it scares Deborah, but it also frees her to have that out in the open. "As bald as that. Yet with the terror connected with the hedged-about word 'crazy,' the unspoken word that Deborah was thinking about now, there was a light coming from the doctor's spoken words, a kind of light shone back on many rooms of the past" (3.41).
Finally, we get a counterpart to all the darkness.
That light Dr. Fried's words offer lets Deborah see a kind of hope. She's been told by lots of other doctors and her parents that nothing was wrong with her, and that has only made her feel even worse. Now, here's a world-famous doctor telling her that yep, she's been right all along. Something's wrong with her.
But Dr. Fried doesn't just say Deborah's sick; she also says there's a chance to get better. This is a huge moment for Deborah: Dr. Fried gives Deborah validation for her feelings and gives her hope. Those are two things Deborah's never had.
But don't get too excited. It's not all unicorns and rainbows yet: Deborah still has a lot of work to do in therapy. And Yr isn't going to make that easy.
Ever had a crazy dream you just knew meant something?
We all dream according to our own personal symbolism, and Deborah is no exception. But she takes one particular dream very seriously.
Deborah has a tumor removed from her urethra when she is fine, but after the operation, she still doesn't believe it's gone. Why not? Because she can still feel pain. She's pretty mad about that, actually because the doctors lied to her and told her she would feel no pain. Five-year-olds don't like that kind of lie. Nobody likes that kind of lie.
Anyway, Deborah has a dream about a flowerpot "whose blossom seemed to be her own ruined strength" (6.6). A flower is often a symbol for a woman's private parts. (Ever see a Georgia O'Keeffe painting?) The tumor was in Deborah's urethra, which is an awful place to be operated on, especially as a little girl. It's her private place, and now she feels like it's ruined.
Long afterward, Deborah holds on to the idea that the tumor is still there, and she still feels phantom pain from it whenever she's upset. She never forgives this first horrible lie the world told her, and she feels that something is now broken inside of her in the very place that should make her a woman.
But that's not all. Deborah later recounts to Dr. Fried that before the operation, she had another flowerpot dream. In it, there was a white room with an open window through which she saw a blue sky and quickly moving clouds. Then everything went dark and stormy, and a stone came out of nowhere, smashed the flowerpot, and broke the geranium that grew in it.
The Yri god Lactamaeon tells Deborah this is a sign of hopelessness to come in the future (8.11).
Again, there's this idea that the flower is her female parts, and the world is breaking them and hurting and changing her forever.
Deborah brings up the dream one more time. Yr has told her that Dr. Fried is deceiving her in some way, and she once again feels like the flowerpot is being hit with the stone. She's bracing for betrayal (16.96). None of it is true, of course, but that's how she feels.
That's the ultimate significance of the flowerpot—that feeling of betrayal. At one point, she was a strong, intact little girl, and then the world broke her and lied to her. Ever since then, she's been struggling to face obstacles and lonely feelings as a shattered person.
Every time Deborah feels lied to or betrayed from this point on—especially by someone she starts to care about—well, it's broken flowerpot time again.
Worms get a bad rap. They do wonders for the soil, but because they help stuff decompose in the ground, they get associated with dead bodies.
Got it. But what do worms have to do with the story?
Let's set this up. A new patient named Lucia shows up at the hospital and tells the other patients how D ward isn't as bad as other hospitals she's been in. According to Lucia, living in D ward makes the patients scared, and that's because of what she calls "the little maybe" (13.53). The other patients understand this "little maybe"—it's the hope of maybe one day getting well and being part of the world.
Hope is tricky. Hope can keep you going, but if, like Deborah, you've been stuck between worlds for a long time and don't know how to interact like a normal person...well, then hope can be scary, because it means you have to give up all you know in order to change.
The thought of living outside the hospital and giving up the symptoms of her illness (like Yr and all its gods) makes Deborah start seeing a dark cloud settling above her, and worms start falling out of it.
Worms are traditional symbols of death they're the ones who show up to feast on our dead flesh and turn us into compost. Not pretty, but true.
Deborah thinks about worms when she thinks of getter better and leaving the hospital, because the very promise of sanity and normalcy will mean the death of Yr and therefore a death of part of herself. She's a teenager, and she's been living with Yr since she was five. It's very much a part of her that she's afraid to lose.
We'd be seeing worms, too, probably, if we had to give up everything we ever knew.
When Carla and Deborah walk out into the spring rain on a Sunday beyond the boundaries of where they're allowed to go, they both feel good and free and normal. Their experience is described as if it were a baptism.
Baptism is a traditional ritual in the Christian tradition that reenacts the way John the Baptist dunked Jesus in the River Jordan. Christians carry on this tradition to this day in order to inaugurate someone into the religion. Sometimes a pastor or priest dunks you in water and blesses you with some prayers; sometimes you get just a sprinkle of water over the forehead. But it always involves water.
Not listening to the rules in the Garden of Eden, disobeying God, and being thrown out of paradise and doomed to die. So anything described in a work of literature that sounds like baptism in some way is a big deal. It's about being forgiven and going forward with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to being a good person.
Deborah and Carla dance around in what they call the "Sunday God's Rain" (26.22). They break the rules and have fun together as friends. After the incident, they both get the courage to leave the hospital and try for a life in the real world.
It's as if they got baptized and got some extra joy juice from the big guy upstairs, and it gives them the extra push they needed to believe in themselves, get healthier, and go check out the real world.
Okay, we know Dr. Fried is a doctor and not a gardener. But the way she talks about seeds all the time? Well, we're betting her garden at home is blossoming all year round.
When Dr. Fried discusses the possibility of Deborah getting better, she refers to the hidden strength in Deborah as "the buried seed of will and strength" (3.54). Dr. Fried refers to this seed of hidden strength repeatedly during their three years of intensive therapy together.
What's she really trying to say here?
A seed holds within it the possibility of life. It's literally a little pod full of potential, but it will only grow if nurtured and given the right conditions in which to grow. Deborah has the potential in her to be healthy, just as a seed has the potential to grow into a beautiful, full-grown, healthy, sturdy plant.
Luckily, Dr. Fried has the green thumb to help.
This fruit symbol is only brought up twice, so we'll make this short and sweet.
When Deborah first starts talking to Dr. Fried, Anterrabae tells her that she has "eaten down hope from the red to the rind" (28.86). Deborah thinks that means that she will have to watch the rind of the fruit that was once her life—as well as the little hope she has—shrivel up and get hard, and then get thrown away.
Anterrabae keeps bringing up this rind to Deborah. He keeps telling her just to spit it out and give up at last. But she admits to Dr. Fried that she can't stop chewing on that rind of hope now—it's all she has in the world, and it has to be enough to move forward.
It turns out that it's Dr. Fried who's right. By instilling Deborah with hope that she can actually get better, she helps Deborah create the necessary conditions for health. Deborah's got this: as long as she holds out hope, she's got a chance.
Want to read people's minds? Everyone's minds? Read a novel written in this point of view.
Not many novels are written in third person omniscient these days, because modern readers seem to like focusing exclusively on the protagonist's point of view. It's certainly easier, and you feel less jerked around. However, there's a lot to be said for third person omniscient. For starters, you don't have to guess how other characters are feeling or reacting.
This choice is especially important for a novel about mental illness. We get in Dr. Fried's head a lot, for example, which is helpful, because she muses about Deborah's case when she's alone.
If we were only in Deborah's head all the time, then it would be more difficult to determine what's real and what isn't. We'd have an unreliable narrator for everything. On the other hand, if we were only in Dr. Fried's mind, then everything would be skewed in the other direction, and we wouldn't be able to see, for example, how scared Deborah is.
Deborah's parents drop her off at a mental hospital because she's attempted suicide. Her emotional distance from the outside world is so extreme that her parents have finally sought help. Deborah is okay with being at the hospital, because she feels free finally to embrace her brand of crazy.
Since she was five, Deborah's been living part-time in an imaginary world called Yr, where she can hang out with gods and goddesses all day. At the hospital, Dr. Fried, a talented psychotherapist, helps Deborah commit to working on getting healthy—potentially giving up the Yr to embrace the possibilities of the real world.
Deborah soon discovers how hard deep psychotherapy can be. Dr. Fried helps her navigate the landmines of her past, which include a traumatic operation she had when she was five to remove a tumor from her urethra, a summer camp filled with prejudice against Jews like her, an anti-Semitic neighborhood, and a family with unrealistic expectations.
Deborah hates lies, and she's been lied to a lot. The gods in Yr feed this fear by punishing her for trusting people in the real world. Deborah wants to trust Dr. Fried, though; she can tell the doctor is honest and wants to help her.
Yr makes Deborah's ability to function in reality a challenge and a half. Every time Deborah makes a little progress and reveals past secrets, Yr throws her into the Pit for punishment and gives her terrible advice.
Deborah learns about other patients from the hospital who have ventured out into the world. Sometimes they come back to the hospital, but she learns it's at least possible to get out, and it's worth fighting for. She decides to fight even harder against her illness, but Yr fights back from inside of her.
The worlds collide, and Deborah has a terrible meltdown. She goes blind temporarily and has an epic freak-out that can only be tamed by restraints. She wonders if the real world is worth all this fighting and exhaustion.
Deborah decides to keep fighting to be successful in the outside world. She's kept in good spirits by Dr. Friend and Carla, a fellow patient who's also trying to get out of the hospital. Deborah works hard to get her GED, and she moves out into a rented room near the hospital so she can still attend therapy sessions with Dr. Fried.
Deborah passes her GED with flying colors and celebrates by walking the ground at a local high school. This only reminds her, however, of how different she still is from these "normal" kids, and Yr's voices shout in her head about how she'll never know normalcy or romantic love. Deborah walks to the hospital and gets there just in time, as Yr's Pit crashes in on her and tries to suck her away from the real world one last time.
Deborah wakes up from her last epic battle between Yr and Earth. She's still in the mental hospital, in restraints, but she makes a plan. She's going out into the world again. She'll continue to fight for her mental health, and she will live in the real world.
Sixteen-year-old Deborah gets dropped off at a mental hospital after a suicide attempt gets her parents to realize their girl needs serious help. Deborah's been socially awkward and deeply troubled since she was five and had a tumor removed from her urethra. The whole experience left her traumatized and unable to trust anyone except the imaginary folks who live in Yr, the world of make-believe she has created for herself.
Dr. Fried, a renowned psychotherapist, takes on Deborah's case because she sees the seeds of inner strength in the girl. Deborah's sick, but she's smart—and stubborn. The doctor's challenge is to get Deborah to trust her and see that living in the real world is a better alternative than being stuck in your head playing make-believe for the rest of your life.
The real world and Yr finally collide in an epic meltdown that leaves Deborah exhausted and feeling lost and in between worlds. It's as if a volcano has erupted inside of her. At this point, Deborah can't understand English and can only understand part of the Yri language she's been working on since she was five. Thankfully, Deborah was smart enough to embark on this battle between worlds while her favorite nurse was on shift and could calm her down and keep her safe.
After the epic showdown between Yr and Earth, Deborah decides to listen to Dr. Fried and choose to live in the real world after all. But how? She misses the cool gods and goddesses who talked to her all those years, though she doesn't miss the way they punished her and kept her a prisoner in her own head. On the other hand, Earthlings aren't all friendly, either. Deborah is nineteen and trying to figure out how to exist among people on a regular basis. It's a hard process.
Deborah gets her GED and has one last epic panic attack that lands her in the mental hospital again. There, she finally decides that she will say goodbye to the world of Yr and go out into the real world and give it her full loyalty and her "full weight" (29.125).
Deborah's parents admit her to a mental hospital in the countryside outside of Chicago; she'll be treated for severe mental illness that led to a suicide attempt.
When she was five, Deborah had a tumor removed from her urethra, an experience that traumatized her and left her unable to trust anyone in her life. She also went to a summer camp where her fellow campers and counselors were openly anti-Semitic. To cope, Deborah invents a magical world called Yr, but over the years, even Yr starts to stink. Dr. Fried, a famous psychotherapist who works at the hospital, treats Deborah and tries to convince her over to join everyone on Earth. Deborah promises to try to get healthy.
Deborah works hard in therapy and even makes friends with a couple of her fellow patients. When Yr and Earth collide, however, it's as if volcano inside of her has finally erupted. She tries to burn herself to get rid of the pressure she feels building inside of her all of the time. Finally, burning herself isn't enough, because she actually starts to feel the pain of it. Deborah is no longer disassociated from herself: she's starting to become an Earth person, and Yr is starting to slip away. Mental health is in sight.
Deborah decides to get her GED and prepare herself to move into the real world. She rents a room near the mental hospital and struggles with the transition. There is one last epic battle between Yr and Earth, after which Deborah says goodbye to her imaginary world and hello to Earth.
The ward members give the nickname Leviathan nickname to Ellis. It's a reference to Hobbs, the D ward attendant who lacked empathy for the patients and treated them with detachment and condescension because he feared his own inner crazy. It's also is a reference to the book Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes, published in 1651. It's a treatise on human nature and society.
Hobbes was a defender of materialism, which is the belief that only physical things truly exist. Hobbs, the staff member of D ward, probably wanted to believe this, too, because then he could ignore the demons in his own head, which probably drove him to commit suicide. Ellis seems a lot like Hobbs, so Deborah is clever to name Ellis after both Hobbs and Hobbes.
In Chapter 3, Deborah refers to the "gods and demons from Yr and the shades from Earth" (3.2). This is partly a reference to Dante's Inferno and the term given to spirits in the underworld there. When Carla moves back to B ward from D ward, Deborah is shocked to realize that she will miss Carla. Deborah realizes she is capable of having a friendship, and she's capable of feeling pain when she won't be around her friend anymore.
She tells Carla she'll miss her, not because it's the normal thing to express, but because it will deepen her own suffering. It becomes part of the ongoing pity party she likes to throw for herself. She even compares herself and some of the ward patients to the inhabitants of Dante's Third Circle of Hell, which is where the gluttons go. It's like she sees herself as a glutton for friendship, when really she's a glutton for punishment.
When Esther works up the nerve to tell Suzy how sick Deborah really is, she worries that Suzy will replace the image of Deborah she has with stereotypes of crazy women in attics, like the madwoman in Jane Eyre (16.1).
The madwoman in the attic is a stereotype embodied by Bertha Mason, an insane character who gets locked in an attic for ten years by her husband Rochester. Bertha acts like an animal and is presumed to be both unmanageable and a lost cause. Her husband didn't know insanity ran in her family, and he married her because she was beautiful and rich.
So why bring Bertha into this story? One of the points the author wants to make in this story is there are a lot of prejudices and misunderstandings that surround mental illness. Maybe if Bertha had someone like Dr. Fried, she could have lived outside the attic. And why portray Bertha as a rabid animal when she could be portrayed as a person? Deborah Blau is a chance for readers to see the face of a mentally ill person in a three-dimensional away.
Miss Coral offers to read The Importance of Being Earnest with Deborah, and soon other members of the ward are acting it out with them and reading different parts. It's significant that the play is about honesty and being true to oneself.
This is exactly what Deborah is trying to learn to do throughout the course of the novel. The patients act it out and know the attendants are laughing both with and at them, but they feel magically transported out of their usual craziness.
Deborah sees a high school couple holding hands and nuzzling and gets jealous, thinking she'll never have that with anyone. The gods of Yr tell her the same thing, and then they start to laugh at her. As Anterrabae flies past Deborah with his characteristic flames about him, Deborah sees another figure right next to him that she recognizes—it's an image of Satan she remembers from an illustrated edition of Paradise Lost her grandfather had (29.89).
She realizes, after all this time, that she borrowed the image of her most trusted and beloved god from a book she'd seen—and she modeled the god on Satan, no less. Anterrabae was like a fallen angel, after all, and he did deceive her—into thinking she wasn't human, into thinking she was poisonous, into thinking she should renounce the ways of Earth and live in Yr in secluded self-righteousness.
Yes, that sounds like something Satan would do.
In Chapter 13, Deborah witnesses Ellis, a religious attendant who reminds her of Hobbs, smacking Helene in the face while she's restrained in a cold-sheet pack. She reports the incident to the ward doctor, who does nothing. She then reports the incident to Dr. Fried, who promises to mention the incident to her peers but reminds Deborah that she has no say in personnel or disciplinary matters that happen in the ward.
Deborah feels betrayed that Dr. Fried can't do more to bring justice to the situation, and she asks "Is Pilate everybody's last name around here?" (13.37). This is a reference to Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Roman Judea who presided over the trial of Jesus, which resulted in Christ's crucifixion.
It's fitting that right after she says this to Dr. Fried, she questions her faith in getting better and in siding with the world. Dr. Fried explains bluntly and honestly to Deborah that the world is not perfect, and neither are the people in it. But you have to have faith that participating in it is better than being locked in the prison of your own mind. She tells Deborah it isn't easy, and in her words, "I never promised you a rose garden. I never promised you perfect justice" (13.40).
After Deborah's mental break, when Yr and the real world finally collide full force, Dr. Fried asks Deborah if she feels she's getting sicker. Deborah feels exhausted and wants to give up fighting against the illness, but she also can't help feeling some hope. She tells Dr. Fried that she's not getting worse.
When she gives this answer, she compares herself to Noah sending out the dove after the flood to scout out land. It's as if her meltdown was a cathartic flood, and now, in the aftermath, there is the possibility of peace and health.
In Chapter 25, Deborah goes home for a five-day visit and spends time with round after round of family members. Suzy, who is charming, attractive, friendly, outgoing, and a talented artist in her own right, sees the lavish praise her parents and family heap on Deborah and realizes she is frustrated by all the attention Deborah has received over the years. She's ticked at the way her family's happiness and peace have depended on how Deborah has been doing at any given point.
Deborah feels her sister's resentment and compares it to the biblical story of the prodigal son who left home and abandoned his family but was welcomed with love and celebration when he returned—which made his brother jealous: "[I]t seemed to Deborah that Suzy had darkened over these two days, She had been free to go out and leave the prodigal elder sister to all the praises, but she had stayed" (25.33).
In chapter 3, Deborah describes being able to see "reality" from Yr as if looking through a gauze partition. When this happens, she names herself "Januce," after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. In ancient Roman architecture, there are many freestanding doorways dedicated to Janus, who was most often depicted with two faces. Deborah even describes herself as feeling like she has "a face on each world" (3.1) when she's between each world and can see both at the same time.
In Chapter 3, Deborah refers to the nurse who takes her to back to the mental ward after visiting Dr. Fried as Charon. Charon was the ferryman of the River Styx in Greek mythology. Charon's job was to bring the souls of the dead to their afterlife in the underworld. (3.52). Dr. Fried says allowed that she hopes that with time Deb can learn to see the world as something other than hell.
When Deborah goes home for a five-day visit after she's been in the hospital for over two years, she finds it exhausting to endure a family get-together that for most people wouldn't be such a big deal. She's on the verge of feeling healthy, but she's not quite there, and being home points that out to her. She feels like a burden to her family: they go out of their way to be nice to her when she doesn't have the means or the energy to reciprocate.
She calls her family Titans because their ability to manage the day-to-day stresses of social interaction so outmatches her own: "these Titans, who called themselves average and were unaware of their own tremendous strength in being able to live, only made her feel more lost, inept, and lonely than ever" (25.20).
According to Deborah, these people are like the larger-than-life creatures of myth who were strong and magical, while she's a weakling by comparison: a holiday dinner makes her feel as tired as if she had climbed Mount Everest (25.20).
Dr. Fried recalls incidents with her mental patients during World War II in Nuremburg, Germany. Right after Deborah questions her about finding justice for Helene, who was beaten by an attendant, Dr. Fried admits that she can't promise justice, and this prompts a powerful memory for her of Tilda, a patient she treated in Germany.
Once Deborah is near the end of her stint at the mental hospital and on her way to recovery, a new patient asks Deborah what religion she is, and she responds: "Newtonian" (26.1).
Newtonian philosophy took on various meanings in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the original concept comes from Sir Isaac Newton and his principles of looking at the physical world according to attractive forces and expanded models of atomic theory.
Newton was also fond of looking at the natural world with a sense of wonder. This is probably how Deborah is feeling as she falls in love with world all over again. She can see colors again for the first time in years, and she can interact with people without all the walls and defenses of Yr between them. She starts creating artwork like crazy.
In the end of the novel, Deborah says goodbye to Yr and its main god, Anterrabae, while she flips through her textbooks. She's recently earned her GED, and she's excited about the future. This victory came a huge price, though. She has one last meltdown as Earth and Yr collide, but she's smart enough to walk to the mental hospital while her mind is gearing up for the final showdown between Yr and Earth.
After the meltdown, Deborah calmly says goodbye to Yr while she reads about how "TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES AFFECTED WESTERN EXPANSION IN MANY SPECIFIC WAYS" (29.119). As she reads, various members of D ward scream out obscenities and cries for help.
The headings from her history book definitely apply to the situation at hand. Deborah herself is about to venture into the world without using her sickness and Yr as a crutch. This is very much like being an explorer and settling new territory and expanding.
The next heading she reads is also super appropriate: "THE INVENTION OF T.N.T MADE POSSIBLE THE JOINING OF THE COASTS BY RAILROAD" (29.121). It's a great parallel to what Deborah just went through: the explosion for her was the meltdown in her mind that happened every time Yr and Earth collided.
Those collisions had to happen in order for Deborah to break down the walls of Yr and connect with the real world. It was messy and explosive. But a new structure sometimes can't be built unless the demolition crew comes in first and blows some stuff up.