I Never Promised You a Rose Garden



Classic story of teen schizophrenic still engages.

What parents need to know

Educational value

Shows readers what life was like in a mental institution in the 1950s. Discusses different kinds of mental illness. The author's end note addresses the controversy over treating schizophrenia with medication versus therapy.

Positive messages

Deborah and the other patients make cutting comments and harass hospital attendants. Children bully Deborah and call her a "dirty Jew." At camp, an instructor says Hitler was doing a good thing to get rid of the "garbage people." Deborah steals from other children at camp. She believes she's poisonous and will contaminate other people. Deborah and other former patients are ostracized by the community.


Deborah tries to commit suicide; a hospital attendant kills himself. The patients act violently, fighting with the staff and throwing beds or tables; one hits Deborah with a plate of food. The patients are tied into a "pack," bound tightly with sheets so they cannot move. Deborah jokes that her "potential for callousness" qualifies her for a career as a "professional assassin." Deborah burns herself with cigarettes, causing wounds that are difficult to treat.


Deborah's roommate believes she's the secret first wife of the King of England, who is being held in a House of Prostitution by his enemies. She tells Deborah she is "raped every night" and later calls Deborah a "little whore." She tells Deborah a doctor "violated" her while she was held immobile. There is a reference to patients "masturbating incontinently in public."


"Bitch," "damn."

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Deborah's therapist smokes, as do many patients and staff members. Deborah uses cigarettes to burn herself multiple times.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, first published in 1964, is a fictionalized memoir of a teen girl's experiences in a mental hospital in the early 1950s. It can be intense and disturbing as it describes her fantasy world, throwing the reader into her distorted version of reality. Patients can be violent, abusive, and full of self-loathing. The main character was bullied as a child for being Jewish; there are several harsh examples of anti-Semitism. Note, however, that unlike some recent memoirs, readers will not find graphic descriptions of a horrific childhood here.

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What's the story?

When Deborah's parents take the 16-year-old to a mental institution after she tries to commit suicide, they expect it will be for a short while. Instead, Deborah spends three years there, often on the violent "D" ward. Based on the author's true experience in the early 1950s, this fictionalized memoir introduces readers to the hospital's own unique culture and inhabitants. As she works with a therapist to manage schizophrenia, Deborah must release her fantasy world of Yr -- where she speaks a foreign language and follows imposed rules -- and decide to join the uncertain reality of real life.

Is it any good?


The power of I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN comes about halfway through, when readers are so engrossed in Deborah and the other patients' thinking that even diagnosed "craziness" starts to seem, if not logical, then at least reasonable. As with any contained society, the patients relate by unspoken rules and codes; it is an often fascinating and disturbing look at a mostly hidden culture.

Readers accustomed to the tell-all nature of talk shows and first-person memoirs may keep reading for that horrific twist, the forbidden secret as to why Deborah is mentally ill. They won't find it. This story is a testament to the slow, hard work of building trust and connection between patient and therapist, reality and fantasy. Deborah's gradual steps may sometimes frustrate an impatient reader, but they always seem true to life.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about mental illness and how former patients are treated by the outside community. How are the mentally ill generally portrayed by the media?

  • This fictionalized memoir is set in the early 1950s. How has treatment for mental illness changed since then?

  • What's the difference between a memoir and a fictionalized memoir? Is it just as true if it's fictionalized?

Book details

Author:Joanne Greenberg
Genre:Coming of Age
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Henry Holt & Company, Inc.
Publication date:January 28, 1964
Number of pages:291
Publisher's recommended age(s):15 - 17

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Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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