Monday, 28 March 2016

Book of March: I Never Promised You A Rose Garden

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Book of the Month: March
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While I tend to prefer fiction books in my leisure time, and my usual fare tends to lean towards fantasy, I also have an affinity with memoirs. But not the autobiography or  celebrity kind - I mean the gritty ones, especially those that tackle issues of mental health. On paper, the general outline of them appears similar across the board: protagonist undergoes a significant psychiatric problem which often leads them to being institutionalised, and the story focuses on their experiences of coping with the new environment and their eventual road to recovery.

But that's a pigeonhole of this genre - after all, no two people, or their illnesses, are the same; a fact which is perhaps made more poignant here because these 'characters' are documenting their own very real pasts. Arguably the best example of an author veiling themselves by loosely fictionalising their story is Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. But there is another book which I want to call to attention: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg. This was a bestseller in its day, and has since been adapted into a film and stage play. But it's not as well known to many modern audiences, and unlike The Bell Jar, you're unlikely to find it in a high street bookstore. However, it's probably my favourite title of this type and I want to draw eyes to it in this post.

The story follows an artistically-talented young woman named Deborah, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to hospital under the care of psychiatrist Dr Fried. In order to protect herself from a confusing and frightening reality in which she has experienced bullying and surgical trauma, she has created the imaginary Kingdom of Yr. Alongside her experiences in Yr and interactions with its tyrannical gods, the novel follows her progress with Dr Fried, as well as the viewpoints of her parents and younger sister, who must alter their lives to accommodate Deborah's illness.

This story is such a strong one that it doesn't need to be compared to Plath's famous novel, but I'm going to do that for a moment. In the same way that the genre can be very easily generalised, it's easy to see how similar these two works are - especially since they were published within a year of each other. They also share many similarities to other books in the genre released before or since. But what sets them both apart is that the protagonists are not our clear-cut narrators; they are not intended to be read (at least explicitly) as the women who penned them in real life. And what sets them apart from each other is that in The Bell Jar, we see Esther's downward spiral and take the journey into hospital alongside her. In Rose Garden, when we meet Deborah, she is already at the bottom of that spiral, on her way to the hospital, and truly encased in her own world.

Originally, that idea of a girl living in a fantasy land is what drew me to this book. Adoring anything otherworldly, it appealed to me not just within the context of its story, but in general. How many of us have dreamt of a better place that we can escape to when things go wrong? Of a place where you can speak with beings more majestic than anything that could ever exist in reality? It's quite an entrancing concept. But this story illustrates how that simple fantasy can escalate into something so massive and utterly controlling of your own psyche, it can cut you off from everything else. However, it also shows how it is possible to come back from such a debilitating illness to a future of hope.

​I have to say that I prefer this book above The Bell Jar. For as beautifully written as Plath's work is, this one strikes a chord with me because of how vivid Deborah's world is, and how painful it is to release it. This is a story that acknowledges something many sufferers of mental illness face: that even if it hurts and restricts your quality of life, there is a resistance to letting it go for fear of being left with nothing at all. Such a concept has rarely been presented in such a great way: as a rich visual metaphor. But the world of Yr is not the only metaphor; that honour also rests with Deborah herself, who is to be more accurately named as author Joanne Greenberg.

Greenberg originally wrote this book under a pen-name to distance herself from the fact that she was institutionalised, experienced the same intense visions, and eventually fought her way through it with the help of a determined yet caring therapist. It is a book which walks the line between fantasy and reality, with both worlds holding the enchantment and grittiness which the entire genre requires to truly resonate with readers. After all, through the ages, there has tended to be a kind of romanticism attached to mental illnesses. So many people are fascinated by the notion of madness, yet also turn away from it in fear. This book manages to capture that, through the multiple viewpoints which show it is never just the patient who is affected by their condition. As noted, nobody can claim to "have a corner on suffering." Neither the real world or the mental one is a rose garden, but that's the beautiful point of it all.

Despite being fifty years old (and the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia now more strictly defined), it's a story as relevant and important today as it was back then. Even if you've never been inclined to read the mental health memoir genre, give this one a try and keep an open mind. You might be surprised what you discover about yourself, and your own inner strength, along the way.

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