Biography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1114

Joanne Greenberg’s novels and short stories made her an important voice for those members of American society who have become alienated because of an illness, weakness, or obsession that makes it difficult for them to communicate with the mainstream culture. She was born Joanne Goldenberg to Julius Lester Goldenberg and Rosalie (Bernstein) Goldenberg. Although she came from a Jewish background and has drawn on that background and heritage in some of her writing, she received almost no formal religious training. She earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from American University, and in 1955 she married Albert Greenberg, whom she had met at the university.{$S[A]Green, Hannah;Greenberg, Joanne}

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During her teenage years, she had been treated for schizophrenia and eventually institutionalized. Her therapist was Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, an active proponent of the use of psychoanalysis for schizophrenia patients (in contradiction of Sigmund Freud, who, though he had originated the psychoanalytic method did not believe that it could be used for such patients). In the course of the therapy the two women formed a close relationship and planned to collaborate on a book about schizophrenia. When Fromm-Reichmann died in 1957, Greenberg decided to undertake the project herself by writing a fictionalized account of her illness in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. In the novel, the protagonist, Deborah Blau, who suffers from schizophrenia, creates a mythical kingdom called Yr to which she retreats when reality becomes too overwhelming. She attempts suicide, is hospitalized, and undergoes treatment with a Dr. Fried, who is patterned on Fromm-Reichmann. The book was widely praised by critics and psychoanalysts alike for its sensitive and illuminating portrayal of mental illness, but it did not sell well until it was published in paperback, when it attracted a large audience, especially among teenage girls. Millions of copies were sold in more than a dozen languages, and the novel was made into a film in 1977. The title was also used in a popular song, and the expression “I never promised you a rose garden” became a commonplace in American English.

Although she had published one novel, The King’s Persons, under her own name, Greenberg chose to publish I Never Promised You a Rose Garden under the pseudonym Hannah Green. Because it was commonly believed in the 1960’s that schizophrenia was incurable, Greenberg wanted to keep her own mental illness a secret to protect her two young sons. It was not until the 1970’s that she acknowledged her authorship.

Her career as a social worker and psychoanalyst brought Greenberg into contact with the subcultures of the handicapped and disadvantaged, whom she represented in several of her works. In her third novel, The Monday Voices, she deals with the frustrations of a social worker as he tries to find help for his clients. In the 1960’s, when Albert Greenberg was working with the deaf community around Denver, they both began to learn sign language. Greenberg’s fourth novel, In This Sign, follows Janice and Abel Ryder, a deaf couple, through nearly fifty years of marriage. Greenberg accurately depicts the communication between the couple: all the words and expressions they use can be said in the limited vocabulary of signing. Greenberg returned to writing about the deaf community in Of Such Small Differences, where she describes the particular difficulties of those who are both deaf and blind.

Another cluster of Greenberg’s works focuses on religious themes. Her first novel, The King’s Persons, is a historical account of anti-Semitism in twelfth century England. Founder’s Praise describes the founding of a new religious sect in a small American town, the depth of feeling of the new adherents, and their sense of betrayal as the sect begins to die. A Season of Delight shows a middle-class Jewish housewife trying to understand her children’s rejection of their religious heritage. (This novel also includes vivid descriptions of the workings of a small-town fire department and rescue team.) Through the protagonists of these novels Greenberg shows that feelings about religion can be just as uncontrollable and alienating as the handicapping conditions described in others of Greenberg’s works. Yet whatever struggles she believes adherence to religion may create, Greenberg treats religion seriously and with respect.

Greenberg’s later novels usually have contemporary settings and revolve around a central character. These characters face ethical and deep emotional issues in their efforts to survive. Eric Gordon, in The Far Side of Victory, drives drunk, killing several people in another car, and then falls in love with one of the survivors. Reconstructive surgeon Daniel Sanborn of Age of Consent is examined as he tries to repair lives after his displacement from Israel. Greenberg takes a broader look at family dynamics, social issues, and American life in Where the Road Goes, a well-crafted succession of letters between a traveling grandmother and her family in Colorado.

Greenberg’s short stories deal with many of the same themes as do her novels, and they present the same range of characters and settings. The stories in Summering, Rites of Passage, and High Crimes and Misdemeanors deal with good and evil, faith and doubt, and the need for communication. The characters include the deaf, the isolated, the insane, the aged, the self-destructive, and the questioning—in short, the kind of people who are usually ignored. As in the novels, not all the characters find happy endings. In her fourth collection, With the Snow Queen, Greenberg focuses on connections in her usual cast of characters—connections between people and others, and connections between people and themselves.

Although Greenberg’s characters often face frightening illness or handicapping conditions, she avoids the trap of excessive sentimentality or predictability. Her protagonists demonstrate the same capacity for selfishness and pride as everyone else, but they do have special needs that are not always being met by society, and Greenberg intends her work to be a plea in their behalf.

None of Greenberg’s later works was as popular as I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, but all have been greeted with respect and praise from the critics, and they have drawn a modest audience of faithful readers. This is partly a response to the fact that Greenberg has, throughout her writing career, involved herself in her Colorado community. She has been a teacher’s aide in a rural school teaching the history of the English language, a certified medical technician with the rescue team of her local fire department, and an adjunct professor of anthropology at the Colorado School of Mines. She has also served as an interpreter and guide at conventions for the deaf and blind and has delivered lectures on mental health care for the deaf.

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