Joanne Greenberg’s semiautobiographical novel stands as a timeless and unforgettable portrayal of mental illness from multiple viewpoints. Enveloped in the dark inner kingdom of her schizophrenia, sixteen-year-old Deborah is haunted by private tormentors that isolate her from the outside world. With the reluctant and fearful consent of her parents, she enters a mental hospital where she will spend the next three years struggling to regain her sanity with the help of a gifted psychiatrist. As Deborah gradually envisions the possibility of the “normal” life she and her family hope for, the reader is inexorably drawn into her private suffering and deep determination to confront her demons.
[…] When they were sitting together in their room, Jacob and Esther Blau looked at each other from behind their faces, and wondered why the poses did not fall away, now that they were alone, so that they might breathe out, relax, and find some peace with each other. In the next room, a thin wall away, they could hear their daughter undressing for bed. They did not admit to each other, even with their eyes, that all night they would be guarding against a sound other than her breathing in sleep—a sound that might mean . . . danger. Only once, before they lay down for their dark watch, did Jacob break from behind his face and whisper hard in his wife’s ear, “Why are we sending her away?”
“The doctors say she has to go,” Esther whispered back, lying rigid and looking toward the silent wall.
“The doctors.” Jacob had never wanted to put them all through the experience, even from the beginning.
“It’s a good place,” she said, a little louder because she wanted to make it so.
“They call it a mental hospital, but it’s a place, Es, a place where they put people away. How can it be a good place for a girl—almost a child!”
“Oh, God, Jacob,” she said, “how much did it take out of us to make the decision? If we can’t trust the doctors, who can we ask or trust? Dr. Lister says that it’s the only help she can get now. We have to try it!” Stubbornly she turned her head again, toward the wall.
He was silent, conceding to her once more; she was so much quicker with words than he. They said good night; each pretended to sleep, and lay, breathing deeply to delude the other, eyes aching through the darkness, watching. […]
[…] It was Victorian, a little run-down, and surrounded by trees. Very good façade for a madhouse. When the car stopped in front of it, she was still stunned with the collision, and it was hard to get out of the car and walk properly up the steps and into the building, where the doctors would be.
There were bars on all the windows. Deborah smiled slightly. It was fitting. Good.
When Jacob Blau saw the bars, he paled. In the face of this, it was no longer possible to say to himself “rest home” or “convalescent care.” The truth was as bare and cold for him as the iron. Esther tried to reach him with her mind: We should have expected them. Why should we be so surprised?
They waited, Esther Blau trying still to be gay now and then. Except for the barred windows the room was like an ordinary waiting room and she joked about the age of the magazines there. From a distance down the hall they heard the grate of a large key in a lock and again Jacob stiffened, moaning softly, “Not for her—our little Debby. . . .” He did not see the sudden, ruthless look in his daughter’s face.
The doctor walked down the hall, and steeled himself a little before entering the room. He was a squared-off, blunt-bodied man and now he dived into the room, where their anguish seemed to hang palpably. It was an old building, a frightening place to come to, he knew. He would try to get the girl away soon and the parents comforted enough to leave her, feeling that they had done the right thing. […]
Jacob Blau was not a man who studied himself, or who looked back over his life to weigh and measure its shape. At times, he suspected his wife of being voracious, picking over her passions again and again with endless words and words. But part of this feeling was envy. He, too, loved his daughters, though he had never told them so; he, too, had wished confidences, but was never able to open his own heart; and, because of this, they had also been kept from venturing their secrets. His oldest daughter had just parted from him, almost eagerly, in that grim place of locks and bars, turning away from his kiss, stepping back. She had not seemed to want comfort from him, almost shrinking from touch. He was a man of tempers and now he needed a rage that was cleansing, simple, and direct. But the anger here was so laced with pity, fear, and love that he did not know how he could free himself of it. It lay writhing and stinking inside him, and he began to feel the old, slow-waking ache of his ulcer.
Creative Writing Assignment I
Esther and Jacob are tormented by the realization that they must send their daughter away.
Agonizing over their decision, they seek a therapist’s help.Describe the exchange between one of the parents and the therapist.
Between 400 and 800 words.
Creative Writing Assignment II
In this excerpt, Joanne Greenberg describes the parents’ feelings when they see the building
with the barred windows. Write a short essay imagining Deborah’s reaction to the building.
Between 500 and 800 words.
Creative Writing Assignment III
Deborah’s younger sister, Suzy, sends an email to a close friend of hers, trying to explain the situation, her embarrassment, and her frustration at having to arrange her life around Deborah’s illness.
Between 400 and 700 words.