HerStory: What Do The Rose Garden, The Bell Jar, The Yellow Wallpaper Mean For Mental Health?

HerStory: What Do The Rose Garden, The Bell Jar, The Yellow Wallpaper Mean For Mental Health?

This is Mental Health Awareness Week, and time to recall Joanne Greenberg’s cult novel, 'I Never Promised You A Rose Garden', published 60 years ago

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Thursday, May 16, 2024, 09:46 PM IST
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A still from the film based on the novel 'I Never Promised You A Rose Garden' | File

Before political correctness cleaned up our vocabulary, “mad” was the catchall word for any kind of mental illness, from retardation to depression to schizophrenia. Nobody had heard of bipolar disorder or postpartum blues. Going to a psychiatrist or ‘shrink’ was considered shameful. If a person — more often than not, a woman — became somehow unmanageable, they were sent to mental asylums, or loony bins in slang. Women were termed hysterical, no matter what the symptoms, and the treatment was heavy medication, electric shocks and in extreme cases, hysterectomy.

This is Mental Health Awareness Week, and time to recall Joanne Greenberg’s cult novel, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (written under the pseudonym Hannah Green), published 60 years ago, just a year after another seminal novel exploring a woman’s depression, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, about debilitating depression. Teenagers down the ages have, and still would, relate to the story of a 16-year-old girl, who retreats from ugly reality into a fantasy world.

Greenberg said of the novel, “I wrote this novel, which is a fictionalised autobiography, to give a picture of what being schizophrenic feels like and what can be accomplished with a trusting relationship between a gifted therapist and a willing patient. It is not a case history or study. I like to think it is a hymn to reality.”

The book became a bestseller, was turned into a film in 1977 and a play in 2004, its impact and influence remaining strong as ever. Greenberg’s fictional alter ego was the mentally tormented Deborah Blau, whose imagination created alternative realties of The Kingdom of Yr, with a language of its own.

Her parents Esther and Jacob love their daughter but are affected by the stigma of Deborah’s mental illness, and her younger sister Suzy has to cope with all the attention her sister’s condition demands. An excerpt from the book conveys the terror and confusion of the parents.

“They decided to go into the diner, being very careful and obviously usual about their movements. When they had seated themselves in a booth by the windows, they could see her coming back around the corner of the building and moving toward them; they tried to look at her as if she were a stranger, someone else's daughter to whom they had only now been introduced, a Deborah not their own. They studied the graceless adolescent body and found it good, the face intelligent and alive, but the expression somehow too young for sixteen.

“They were used to a certain bitter precocity in their child, but they could not see it now in the familiar face that they were trying to convince themselves they could estrange. The father kept thinking: How could strangers be right? She's ours . . . all her life. They don't know her. It's a mistake-a mistake!

“The mother was watching herself watching her daughter. ‘On my surface . . . there must be no sign showing, no seam-a perfect surface.’ And she smiled.”

While the Blaus are tackling their own mixed emotions, Deborah goes into a different world. As Greenberg writes, “Into the vacuum of the Midworld where she stood between Yr and Now, the Collect was beginning to come to life. Soon they would be shouting curses and taunts at her, deafening her for both worlds. She was fighting against their coming the way a child, expecting punishment, anticipates it by striking out wildly. She began to tell the doctor the truth about some of the questions he was asking. Let them call her lazy and a liar now. The roar mounted a little and she could hear some of the words in it. The room offered no distraction. To escape engulfment there was only the Here, with its ice-cold doctor and his notebook, or Yr with its golden meadows and gods. But Yr also held its regions of horror and lostness, and she no longer knew to which kingdom in Yr there was passage. Doctors were supposed to help in this.”

It is with the help of a sympathetic therapist, Dr Clara Fried, that Deborah slowly recovers after a three-year battle and makes efforts to rejoin normal life. The novel has been criticised for misinterpreting the signs of schizophrenia, but Greenberg wrote of her own struggles in a society that either romanticised or feared mental illness, but seldom understood it. In the late 1960s, when Greenberg's novel was published, mental illness was even more baffling to the layperson, because of the ignorance surrounding it. That led to insensitive trolling of mentally unstable people and poor treatment procedures in institutions. Very few doctors or carers had the patience to deal with the mentally ill, or even the training to recognise and differentiate between the symptoms. Quacks and charlatans filled in the gaps of information with superstition and bizarre rituals of exorcism or branding.

Much before Greenberg’s and Plath’s novels were published, in 1892, a story called The Yellow Wall Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was published in The New England Magazine, in which, after childbirth, a woman is diagnosed by her physician husband with a “temporary nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency” and sent to an asylum. It is supposedly to rest, but she is actually imprisoned in the former nursery of an old colonial mansion, with barred windows, and peeling yellow wallpaper. Her isolation eventually drives the woman to despair and the frightening depths of madness.

Several books about mental illness — particularly those concerning women — are also about this kind of oppression that the woman is unable to escape from or find the tools to fight against. The word “gaslighting”, popular today in internet lingo, was originally used to denote the manipulation of a person into doubting their own perceptions, eventually leading to mental instability. (Gaslight was Patrick Hamilton's 1938 play in which a man tries to drive his wife to insanity to usurp her wealth, and has been adapted for the screen twice.)

Since I Never Promised You a Rose Garden was published, there have been major advances in the treatment of mental issue, and at least some of the stigma has reduced. Genetic as well as environmental factors are taken into account when, in many cases, a cause of the illness cannot be pinpointed; a combination of drugs, therapy and constant support is used to help patients. Celebrities coming out and talking about their struggles have encouraged others to cope with their problems too.

As the lyrics of Joe South’s 1967 song Rose Garden, sung by several performers, go:

'I never promised you a rose garden

Along with the sunshine

There's gotta be a little rain sometime

When you take you gotta give so live and let live or let go.'


Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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