I’ve always been fascinated with enigmas of the mind. Everytime something doesn’t work, when even the less meaningful point in our balance begins to vacillate, our whole essence loses its universally acknowledged “normality”. Nevertheless, this loss doesn’t happen without leaving some marks: in the deep end of a cold and irrational chaos, or, on the contrary, an excessively lucid one, “normal” people (or maybe «the race / of those who stay grounded», as Eugenio Montale would rather say) still feel the weak heat of harmony gone to ashes, misplaced, but not lost forever; thus, nothing is properly or only illness.
Depression is the pars destruens coming before the building of a new personality, more yielding, fluid and resistant towards struggles of life; hallucinations, an imagination resource which is to channel and conciliate with reality, in order to face situations which are bigger than us; nightmares, oracles of our inner darkness, mediators between the image we have of ourselves and some kind of consciousness we would never bargain with.
I often wondered what they feel, the ones who, in a particular moment of their life, didn’t succeed in taming those contradictions inherent to every human being, what persuaded them to give up or find themselves involved, out of the blue, in a desperate fight against the world and against themselves.
I told myself that maybe I would understand if I only had the chance to see the lingering effects of mental illness on someone. I was looking for those tears, cries and delusions that made the fortune of literature (especially in 20th century) and that I had never seen in some acquaitances, whose past was spent between doctors and drugs.
Thus, driven by my not truly scientific curiosity, I put my trust in Youtube, sure that I would find the most unmatchable and interesting results for the word “Schizophrenia”.
Now I believe that mental illness is a face of the Unknown which fascinates much more people than I thought. Unexpectedly, I found almost immediately “Take these broken wings”, a documentary made by filmmaker and former New York psychiatrist Daniel Mackler, which tells the story of two women, Catherine Penney and Joanne Greenberg, completely healed from schizophrenia without the use of drugs.
Watch “Take these broken wings” documentary:
Relying on these few details, it was easy for somebody like me, always been “normal”, to indulge in malicious and suspicious questions: how much sick had these two women really been, being certainly eccentric, but not worthy today a suspect about a deep experience of hospitals and psychotherapy sessions? How much could they be different from me, in their ordinary appereance, two people who yet had fought and won against such a pervasive illness as schizophrenia?
Two sentences in the documentary proved to be enlightening, two ajar doors that convinced me to deepen the knowledge of one of the two women.
The first is by Joanne Greenberg: «People often confuse creativity with insanity. There is no creativity in madness; madness is the opposite of creativity, although people may be creative in spite of being mentally ill».
The second is her psychotherapist’s, Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, who was married to psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm: «No mentally ill person is out of the reach of psychotherapy. The task of the therapist is to stimulate each patient’s reservoir of health, the power that lies beneath the disease.».
These two sentences were enough to change my curiosity towards mental disorders forever.
The culture of this last century taught us a dangerous, superficial and defeatist approach toward mental illness. There is an inveterate tendency to enhance the tragic, to contemplate with poetic and approving look the weakness to which a sick person is reduced. There is in short an attempt to reduce suffering to an artistic and subversive act, when, in fact, symptoms are signs of a real disease, which corrodes its victims from the inside.
It would be smarter to let the patients’ trapped force seduce us, a power unable to express itself coherently and in a peremptory way under the curtain of disease, but that keeps on screaming its need for help, salvation and reconciliation with the “normality”.
It is perhaps a counterintuitive argument: how you can be enchanted by the “normal,” when what attracts our interest is the disease, which is nothing but a form of breaking with everyday life?
It may be a paradox, but not unworthy to be considered sharable, once you will have read Joanne Greenberg’s semi-autobiographical novel “I never promised you a rose garden”.
Published in 1964 under the pseudonym of Hannah Green, this novel narrates the onset, treatment and healing of Deborah’s/Joanne’s schizophrenia during her stay in a psychiatric hospital in Maryland.
It isn’t surprising that, in its debut, this book received perplexed reviews: “Hard”, “A main charachter incapable of feelings”, “Nothing but pages and pages of self-pity”.
Few people had understood that Hannah Green and Deborah Blau were nothing but screens of the same person, a woman willing to turn the page from a past of sorrow and exhort readers to cherish their strength.
Joanne Greenberg was born in 1932 from a family of Jewish immigrants. When she was five years old, she underwent a surgical operation because of a tumour of the urethra; this was the first of a series of shocks that led to the collapse of her mental health.
She attended school at a time when Jews were despised and ghettoized and, still very young, she witnessed the murder of a schoolmate at the hands of some peers.
These events severely undermined her faith in mankind and sharpened her sense of isolation, that she had been going through for a long time, because of her early, cynical and harsh intelligence.
At the age of nine she began to hear voices that nobody else could hear. Ghosts created by her mind used to repeat: «You are not of them».
And as a matter of fact, what could be the advantage in belonging to such a fierce world, which hurt, excluded, tortured with impunity and insisted on keeping its halo of holiness and righteousness, at the price of coward lies and shameful silence?
At the age of sixteen, Joanne was by the time completely secluded in Iria, a world built by her own mind, and she spoke a language of her own, incomprehensible to the rest of the world.
But precisely because of the disease and the oddities that it entailed, the disappointments of the real world began to intrude in Iria, to turn themselves into the figures of tyrants and angry gods, that made Joanne’s shield inhospitable and began to destroy her, ordering her self-harm, to cut her arms with sharp pieces of tin or to burn them with cigarettes and matches.
Among the concerns and the hopes of her parents, Joanne became the youngest patient in the psychiatric hospital Chestnut Lodge, in Maryland.
Entrusting her voice to the charachter of Deborah, Joanne tells us about her four-years metamorphosis and the leaving of Iria (Yr in the book) in favor of the real world.
Deborah lives her first months in a state of full and indifferent acceptance of such a marginal condition: it doesn’t matter to be considered ill, it doesn’t matter to be in a psychiatric hospital; she is not «one of them».
She has some power and superiority that lower people will never understand.
In her short life she was Queen of Yr, when her kingdom was still a happy and reassuring territory; during the war, she was a Japanese soldier, when she was hated and isolated by everybody and therefore she had realized she belonged to the army of the enemy.
Anytime of her life she has anyhow kept the awareness of being made of a different nganon (a substance, in Yrian). Her body and her soul have always had a material consistency, a slimy and poisonous one, thar explained the impossibility of proximity to the rest of mankind.
Moreover, commonality with such a dull and deceitful kind is not desirable: what is the point, in trying to reassure a child of five years, and then invade and irreparably injure the most private parts of her body? And why at the birth of Suzy, the little sister, no one besides Deborah had the courage to declare that it was a disgusting being and that she deserved to die?
It doesn’t matter being considered sick. Better sick than a liar. And that’s why Deborah, starting from the very first days of her stay, cuts deep wounds on her arms, so that she can move at ward D, the one where lost causes stay, patients who don’t let themselves be fooled by false concerns. Indeed, here nobody tries to deceive patients; on the contrary, the sick ones perceive a sinister commonality with some of the doctors and try to urge it in every way. There is a sadistic pleasure in forcing the “sane” to admit that the border with insanity is dramatically blurred, so that no one is a stranger to loss of control. But this doesn’t allow the comfort of solidarity among patients yet.
Deborah begins to ask herself questions about her humanity after two episodes of rough sincerity towards her: once when Helene, a patient in the D ward like she is, crashes the lunch tray on her head, unearthing a forgotten energy that Deborah is unable to name –astonishment? anger? humiliation?; another time when McPherson, one of the doctors, tells her off and asks her not to deliberately scare a newly arrived colleague. «Do you think the sick people are all in hospitals?», he tells her, and after years of loneliness, Deborah discovers again respect and equality among human beings; we all swim in the same sea, we all have to fight against the demon of self-destruction, but not all of us have the luck to be helped and supported. There are those who have to make it on their own; a reason more why they deserve understanding and respect… «Every person you meet is fighting a battle you don’t know anything about. Be kind, always.» (Carlo Mazzacurati).
This admission of vulnerability on the part of the reality of Earth helps Deborah in opening the doors of Yr to her therapist, Dr. Fried (an eloquent reflection of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann). The doctors moves easily in her patient’s world. She doesn’t try to show its inconsistency, but accepts it and gets to inhabit it.
She studies its inhabitants: Anterrabae, the protector; Idat, a beautiful and sarcastic goddess; Lactamaeon, the fallen god; the Collect, a sneering and mockering choir which has Deborah for its target; the Censor, the tyrant who prescribes all the of Deborah’s actions and prohibits any communication between Yr and the Earth.
She learns its language: Yr secrets are protected with metaphors; the way of greeting is not “Hello”, but “Suffer”.
She sees its colours: Yr lost the golden shimmers of its birth forever; now Deborah moves in a gray and vague space, driven by storms and icy blizzards, that hit her everytime she tries to build a bridge between Yr and Earth.
Still, Deborah can’t and doesn’t want to leave Yr. However bleak and inhospitable, Yr is the only place in which she can get her bearings; fear and anger, the only emotions she knows, though she isn’t perfectly able to develop them.
Moreover, people of Yr prevent her from leaving their world, they lock her up within the sides of a volcano, which must be stimulated by cuts and burns to explode; things that Deborah can provoke without feeling pain, rather living them with a sense of expectation and deliverance.
But when in the end the volcano explodes, Deborah feels that the blast is near: Yr took part to the eruption, here comes an overwhelming collision with reality; her sight is no longer a single, faint stain of grey, but an explosion of red, the colour of blood which, metaphorically, announces the laceration of Deborah between the two worlds, which takes place before the recomposition of a new person in reality, the one of the “sane” and “normal.”
Dr. Fried, like Deborah, is allergic to comforting lies. She just can’t tell her patient not to be afraid: Deborah must be scared, she must feel anger and a sense of division of the self, because, once the terror is gone, she’ll have to make a choice, between the known, reassuring oppression in Yr or a titanic effort on Earth.
«I never promised you a rose garden», she recalls Deborah; the challenge to save oneself continues even in the reality, and, indeed, at the cost of greater labours, as the writer herself will recognised once healed: «If you must suffer, at least try to suffer in a smarter way, okay?».
Then what is the gain of a life outside of Yr? This one too, according to Dr. Fried, is a discovery that Deborah will make in time, after having learned to cry and scream her suffering rather than hide it. Tears and despair will erode till the last wall of Yr and leave an emptiness that Deborah will be able to fill with the same amount of love, forgiveness and joy.
Accepting that Yr is nothing more than an elaborate fantasy, born from Deborah’s mind, she who lost control because of the hypocrisy of human beings, is just the first step towards rebirth.
To come back to Earth means first of all to learn and emulate the habits of its inhabitants, the Titans; reality can only be populated by heroes, if everyday life expects them to be able to have conversations, study, fall in love, make sacrifices and understand the needs of the other, always bearing the risk of loss and the weight of failure without being crushed by the laws of a world so wonderful and terrible.
Deborah feels that all this is still too much fore one like her, unable to name emotions, afraid to recognize the blossoming of a friendship, unaccustomed even to see colours, which for years had been denied in the icy shelter of Yr.
But this tasting of freedom among human beings reveals the forgotten experience of memory. Suddenly one day Deborah sees herself as a child, sitting in the living room of her austere grandfather, reading an illustrated edition of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”.
In the face of Satan she recognizes Anterrabae.
The novel ends inside the hospital, with Deborah bidding farewell to Anterrabae, the only friend in the world of Yr that had remained loyal to Deborah in all these years. Deborah is ready to find others like him in reality; she doesn’t look for refuge anymore, because she is now free to plunge in the greatest madness of all: a new life on Earth, being helpless, caothic, but finally authentic and meaningful.
Joanne Greenberg graduated in Anthropology and English Literature at the American University in Washington, DC. In 1955 she married and later had two children. Her husband, Albert, encouraged her to write her first novel, “The person of the king”; Joanne still writes today and has thirteen novels and four collections of short stories under her belt. She also has an itinerant career as a public reader and teacher of Creative Writing.
The last manifestations of her illness are narrated in the novel “I never promised you a rose garden”.
Nowadays she’s a kind and creative Titan. She lives on Earth, which could have become her grave, but she preferred to bloom it. She could make the happiness of another Titan who, still sane, wanted us to be awake and grateful for our strength, like Joanne did: «The hell of the living ones is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the hell we have everyday, that we form being together. There are two ways not to suffer. The first is fatal for many: accepting the hell and becoming part of it to the point of no longer seeing it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and education: seeking and learning to recognize who and what, in the midst of hell, is not hell, and make it last and give it space.» (Italo Calvino).