Study Guide

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden Themes

  • Isolation

    Um, isolation is no fun, folks. We use it to punish kids as well as prisoners in, you know, prison, because it's scary. It makes you feel cut off from the world and utterly alone.

    In I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Deborah slips into the imaginary world of Yr and becomes isolated from her family, schoolmates, and everyone else around her. The resulting feeling of detachment is often devastating: when you live in isolation, you don't have people to talk to, freely bounce ideas off of, nurture you, and love you.

    Deborah learned this pattern of detachment partly from her parents, and partly as a defense mechanism against feeling further pain and disappointment. Now it's up to her to get past it—for the sake of her sanity.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. How does the iron portcullis represent isolation?
    2. In what ways does Yr both isolate and comfort Deborah? Can you understand her need for Yr? Why or why not?
    3. What inciting incidents led Deborah to feel isolated?
    4. How do different staff members treat the patients differently? How does this treatment help or worsen the patients' feelings of isolation?

    Chew on This

    The stigma surrounding mental illnesses has an isolating effect on people who suffer from them.

    Whether we are mentally stable or not, all of us experience emotional distance at times that can make us feel the pain of isolation.

  • Versions of Reality

    Do you ever wonder if the way you see blue is the way everyone else sees the same blue? Is there any way of really ever knowing this? We all might be seeing different versions of colors, the world in general, and ourselves. It's nearly impossible to know if others see us the way we see ourselves.

    For the mentally ill, this struggle is amplified.

    In I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Deborah sees a version of herself that is poisonous. She also sees a version of reality that exists only for her, in her own mind. What happens when you live in a reality that is entirely different from the "actual" reality other people experience?

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. Is there any way to know if you see reality in the same way as those around you?
    2. What causes Deborah to start to believe she's poisonous to others?
    3. How is Yr more appealing to Deborah than Earth? Why?
    4. How does the Collect operate in Deborah's mind?

    Chew on This

    Sometimes the world seems to reflect what we hate most about ourselves.

    Reality is subjective by nature; mental illness just adds another layer of subjectivity.

  • Family

    You can't choose your family members, but you do have to live with them—unless, like Deborah in I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, you get a three-year break from them to hang out a mental hospital and figure out what part they played in sending you there.

    Hey, for better or for worse (and in this case, it's kind of for worse), family relationships, especially between parents and their children, shape who we are.

    Questions About Family

    1. How does Deborah's relationship with her father contribute to her mental illness? What about with her relationship with her mother?
    2. How does Suzy suffer from Deborah's problems?
    3. Do you blame Esther and Jacob for their lack of communication with their daughter? What factors play into their inability to talk freely with her?
    4. Why is denial an attractive way to deal with problems? How do the Blaus show signs of denial?

    Chew on This

    Parents often place the weight of their own dreams on their children's shoulders.

    Children internalize their parents' guilt and fears.

  • Identity

    Chances are you've spent a lot of time thinking about who you are. Deborah in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden sure has—although her conclusion is pretty much that she's evil. As a result, her search for a self that works for her is often tied to Yr.

    Deborah wants to have privacy; she wants to escape a world that is sometimes boring, sometimes scary; she wants to have a special places where she can be in control and reinvent herself. Hey, that sounds kind of good—but, as Deborah finds, not when it gets to the point of actually living in that imaginary world.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does being Jewish impact Deborah's sense of who she is? How does it affect her mother? Her grandfather?
    2. How does Deborah use Yr to improve her self-esteem?
    3. How do Deborah's experiences at camp shape her sense of self?
    4. Does mental illness become an actual part of Deborah's identity?

    Chew on This

    Cultural ideas about race, religion, and gender help shape our sense of identity.

    Mental illness is sometimes the result of internalizing the negative messages we receive about who we are from outside sources like our families, our schools, and our culture at large.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    For Deborah and most of the other characters in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, life is something you lead behind bars. But issues of freedom and confinement go beyond just the obvious, like the fact that the book is set in a mental institution.

    In Deborah's mind, freedom initially means being free from pain and judgment. In Yr, she can escape and fly like a bird or run like a horse and spend the day hanging out with the cool gods of her imaginary world.

    But when that world limits her, it starts to feel just as confining as Earth is, and she longs to escape both worlds. The mental hospital offers safe space for her to start to get well, but the hospital too becomes something she wants to escape. Eventually, for Deborah, freedom comes to mean shaking the burden of mental illness and being free to decide who she is in the real world and make her own choices about her future.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. How does Deborah's relationship with Yr change over time, and how does that transformation relate to ideas of freedom and confinement?
    2. How do Deborah's parents view her stay at the mental hospital?
    3. How does Dr. Fried define mental health for Deborah, and how does this definition relate to the idea of freedom?
    4. What are some examples of the way Deborah's definition of freedom changes throughout the course of the book?

    Chew on This

    Deborah's definition of freedom evolves over the course of the novel. For her, freedom comes to mean self-determination rather than escape.

    The way we define mental health and mental illness contributes to the level of freedom and confinement experienced by people who suffer from mental illness.

  • Madness

    Spoiler: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden isn't set in a rose garden. It's set in a mental institution. Deborah, our heroine, has to make a choice between dealing with the limits of mental illness and being healthy and free to make a real life among real people in the real world. It's not easy. To this, she has to confront her fears—and all the defense mechanisms her psyche has set up to insulate her from these fears. In the process, she faces her demons—sometimes in a pretty literal way.

    Questions About Madness

    1. How does the novel shed light on the operations of mental illness?
    2. How do Deborah and Carla both experience prejudice against their mental illness? Why do you think this stigma exists?
    3. What is Dr. Fried's philosophy on the way the mentally ill should be treated? What does this tell us about her as a person?
    4. In what ways does the book demonstrate that "madness" is often a subjective label?

    Chew on This

    For years, Deborah prefers the refuge of Yr to the harsh realities of Earth, and she has some valid reasons for this choice.

    Prejudice against the mentally ill has a direct impact on the ability of those who suffer from it to seek treatment and then reintegrate into a mainstream life.

  • Lies and Deceit

    In I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, one thing that drives Deborah crazy—uh, somewhat literally—is the fact that everybody around her is lying all the time. It starts right in her own family. Yeah, they love each other, but they often lie to smooth over problems and avoid doing the hard work of changing dysfunctional habits. Deborah doesn't have much better luck with her doctors, who told her it wouldn't hurt when they cut her tumor out—a lie that gets four full Pinocchios.

    Long story short—Deborah has issues with lying. And who doesn't? Lies cover the truth and prevent us from developing honest relationships with ourselves and the world around us. As Deborah finds out, it's the truth that will set you free.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What are the core reasons why Deborah hates lies so much?
    2. Who has lied to Deborah? What relation to these people have to Deborah? Do those relationships have an impact on how Deborah reacts to the lies?
    3. How does Dr. Fried react to the lies Deborah has heard over the years, and how does her reaction influence the therapy sessions?
    4. What role do lies play in the development of Yr over the course of the novel?

    Chew on This

    Lying prevents us from knowing ourselves and our true places in the world. This is why Deborah hates lies so much.

    When the people you trust the most lie to you repeatedly, it's impossible to develop a healthy sense of who you are.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Deborah and the folks at the mental institution in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden are just like regular folks in a lot of ways. They've got the same hopes and dreams as any of us. The difference is that they've got a few extra obstacles on their way to achieving those dreams. Some feel like they don't even have the right to hope for a better, independent life outside the hospital walls. The word "maybe" becomes dangerous. Tales of other patients who've tried to make it and failed only make things more confusing.

    It's a hard knock life, and Deborah's going to be battling for her dreams right up to the novel's conclusion.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. How does hope both frighten and encourage Deborah and the other D ward patients?
    2. Explain how Deborah becomes like Doris Rivera. How is hope involved?
    3. How do Deborah's plans for her own future differ from her parents' plans for her? How does this change over the course of the book?
    4. How is "the little Maybe" an appropriate phrase to represent hope and the future?

    Chew on This

    The future can be a frightening and exciting thing to think about—even if you're in a mental institution.

    Parents often project their hopes and dreams onto their children, and that can be dangerous.